What makes for a great triathlon coach? An encyclopedic knowledge of exercise physiology? Experience as an elite competitor? Some otherworldly gift of vision? Time on the job? Or is it a mix of all of these things?
To whatever degree there’s a beaten path or not, let’s first consider that the man widely considered to be the greatest running coach in the last century is the late Arthur Lydiard, the New Zealander who coached several generations of great runners from around the world starting in the 1950s and 60s. What were Lydiard’s prerequisites to a coaching career? He was a shoe cobbler. He also was a milkman. Or how about another legendary running coach, Percy Cerutty? Cerutty was a middle-aged civil servant in Australia who was so sickly and weak, an early grave seemed imminent. Cerutty stopped eating crappy food and started running up and down sand dunes, then went on to coach the likes of Herb Elliott, one of the greatest middle-distance runners of all time.
In triathlon, Brett Sutton is largely considered the most successful coach in the sport’s brief history. As a kid, he wasn’t much of a swimmer himself, but by the time he was 15, he was a successful swim coach for his classmates. He boxed, he learned how to train race horses, and then he put it all together to start churning out world champions. Mark Allen has become one of the most successful coaches of age-group triathletes in history, having translated his intimate knowledge of the sport, gathered during his mythic career, into helping scores of clients qualify for the Hawaii Ironman. Before Allen got into triathlon, he was a lifeguard. Another former world champion who has developed into a tremendous triathlon coach is Siri Lindley, with Mirinda Carfrae and Leanda Cave being two notable athletes on her resume. In her early years as a pro—not-unlike Allen as a matter of fact—Lindley was known to crack mentally during big races like the Olympic trials. It was Sutton who virtually reached down into Lindley’s subconscious and reset the circuit breakers, rebuilding Lindley’s confidence into an unstoppable force. Now she’s the one resetting circuit breakers in her own athletes.
Another highly successful coach of both age-groupers and pros is Canadian Cliff English. On the elite level, English has worked with Sam McGlone, Peter Reid, Simon Whitfield, Heather Jackson and Tim O’Donnell. A fresh spotlight will be shining on English this year as Cave—after a 2013 rash with difficulties—has turned to him to help her flip to a new chapter after a year plagued by skin cancer and disastrous racing.
The 43-year-old’s journey toward becoming one of triathlon’s premier coaches offers yet another telling description of why there is no beaten path in the profession, and one piece of advice he has for the more experienced age-grouper who might be frustrated by staleness or plateaus.
English’s Seeds of Revenge
During high school, trying out for sports teams provided a succession of unpleasant experiences for English.
“I just kept getting cut,” he says.
The pattern held for sports that seemed relatively inclusive, like soccer and volleyball. When a coach approached English, it was usually to deliver the bad news. The final memory of being cut remains vivid for him. The coach approached English with a tilt of the head, cut him and then offered concerned advice.
“He looked at me and asked, ‘Why don’t you sign up for band?’”
This final rejection had such sweep and attitude packaged with it, the coach had unintentionally inspired a pivotal backlash: English went the way of cycling, furiously pouring out his anger and desire for revenge into the pedals.
Over time, it worked. English became a top-performing junior for Canada and learned a set of profound lessons on the subjects of patience and the power of a consistent work ethic. In 1989, he raced his first triathlon.
“I was hooked,” he says.
In the mid 1990s, English started working as a personal trainer, often with clients simply desperate to lose weight. “They’d be scared of going to the gym,” he says. Some had gone through several trainers, and during that experience, he began to find his true calling. He took on the clients’ problems as if they were his own, uncovering a knack for helping them combat internal demons.
A new course of his life grew organically for English as he began Masters swim coaching and triathlon coaching. His path would ultimately draw from a variety of sources: From the sheer year-in-year out experience of coaching to an intensive Level 4 coaching program at the University of Victoria, where he absorbed the hard science side of things but within a creative mindset. Cliff discovered that for him, the visuals of exercise science mathematics, like a Tudor Bompa intensity graph, were especially appealing. For English, the art of coaching has a literal basis.
In college, English had majored in art history, an education seemingly out of sorts with endurance athletics, but he explains that the non-linear world of art and artistic thinking has had a potent influence on his instincts. He says his convergence of art and sport went back to when he was an 18-year-old bike racer living in France. “My Mondays were active-recovery Mondays,” he says. “I’d spend all day at the Leuve, drawing, sketching and taking notes. Thinking back, I believe it was the artistic side of coaching that drew me into the profession.”
For example, when English starts working with a new athlete, he revels in creating a 52-week map, color-coded, the patterns taking shape like a painting on the wall, with time durations and obsessive attention to variety. In his various drafts of a long-term plan, he strives toward patterns that are devoid of ruts.
“Variety is a very valuable stimulus,” he says.
And herein is one of the most pressing pieces of advice English has for the age-group triathlete: Do what you can to keep the training fresh.
English recalls a time when he was working with Ironman star, Peter Reid. It was late in Reid’s career, with a decade of his trademark work ethic having left him nearly on empty.
“Peter’s work ethic was unreal,” English recalls. “He would put himself in hermit mode and just plow through his training. He would train in remote settings of isolation the way that Sutton conducts with his athletes … the difference being that Peter did it to himself.”
But in 2005, English could see that Reid was cooked. As a coach, he needed to rekindle the flame of an athlete near total burnout.
“He was just really super-unmotivated at the time,” English says. “I know it sounds bad, but I told him to get on his road bike and leave the helmet off. To get out there and just feel the air like he was a kid.” There was no Tudor Bompa research involved the idea. But it worked. English knows about how the pressures of performing well can combine poorly with the high-mileage requirements of triathlon, and sometimes the smartest thing for the triathlete to do is to leave the power meter and GPS at home and just go out for a run or ride to remember what you love about it all.
In helping Heather Jackson prepare for 70.3 Worlds, he started the buildup with an unorthodox assignment: To put a little space between her build up toward the half-Ironman championship from the training and racing build toward Alcatraz, English did a little out-of-the-box thinking.
“Heather’s a very skilled cyclist in Bend, Oregon,” he says. “I told her to hop on her mountain bike and to do a Happy Hour beer ride. Jackson happily obliged, sending photos from the various breweries she encountered on the pub crawl.
So what is English’s advice for the hard-training age-group triathlete who is cranking out his or her training around the 9-to-5 job, family, etc?
Don’t be afraid to change things up, he says. “Variety is an invaluable training stimulus,” he says. “Get that Garmin away from you and just go explore and have fun. Quantify the workout in terms of time duration.” Get a break from whatever routine you might currently be imprisoned in. Change terrains, times and even training partners. If you’ve been training with the same gang of five for the last four years, make an effort to find a different Masters swim program or training group to get in some hours with, at least for a short spell. Rekindle your childlike love for the swimming pool, the bicycle and romping around on a run. Don’t get overly caught up in marching through gradual progression and overload.
“I don’t think you can quantify the value of the mental freshness component, but it’s there,” he says. “We’re seeing such in influx of gadgets and hard data. From Garmins to SRMs to wind tunnels. But sometimes you have to back off. Age-groupers can be surprised at how much getting out of a rut can do for your racing.”