Tag Archives: triathlon

Matt Fitzgerald’s “Iron War”

By Pete Williams

Matt Fitzgerald is perhaps the most prolific endurance sports writer in the business. Usually he’s providing terrific instructional advice on training and nutrition, but in his new book IRON WAR he tackles the narrative form, providing a richly-detailed account of the 1989 Ironman championship.

That year, Mark Allen finally overcame longtime rival Dave Scott to win triathlon’s coveted title in an epic showdown in Kona. Fitzgerald examines what drove the two most decorated triathletes in the sport to greatness. The result is a gripping page-turner, even though the reader knows who will win.

Fitzgerald recently joined us to talk about IRON WAR on The Fitness Buff Show. You can listen to that broadcast HERE.

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Filed under Fitness Buff Show Radio, Triathlon

Strength, Speed and Endurance

By Pete Williams

Eric Hall hammers on the bike at the Top Gun Triathlon at Fort DeSoto Park in July.

TAMPA – Spend a few mornings training here at the University of Tampa under Eric Hall and you get an idea why the school’s strength and conditioning coach is one of the top sprint triathletes in Florida.

Hall, 32, doesn’t look like your typical triathlete and not just because of an intricate tribal tattoo that covers his arms, back, and torso and makes him easy to spot in crowded transition areas. At 5-foot-10 and nearly 190 pounds, he’s technically a borderline Clydesdale, though he has the lean, muscular physique of a sprinter.

That’s because Hall, unlike most endurance athletes, has embraced strength training as a key component of his endurance sports arsenal. It’s why he can kick off his Monday mornings with a 90-minute workout with UT’s baseball or softball teams, two groups of anaerobic athletes undergoing offseason programs, and still derive a huge benefit for his triathlon training.

He’ll lead the teams through grueling sessions that can include deadlifts, lunges, RDLs, weighted pull-ups, resisted runs, and any of dozens of other movements that usually conclude with a series of incline sprints in one of UT’s parking garages. It’s never the same workout twice; Hall typically spends about an hour on the following day’s workout, mixing and matching movements before posting a photo of his handwritten assignment on his Facebook page for those who want added inspiration to get to bed early.

A Dade City native who spent four years in the Army before being spotted at local running races and recruited to run at UT, Hall graduated from the Division II downtown Tampa school and in 2005 became the Spartans strength and conditioning coach, one of few in the Sunshine State Conference. He’s trained four national championship teams – volleyball, women’s soccer, and baseball (twice) – and doesn’t just coach the athletes; he works out alongside them, albeit with far heavier weights.

One-arm lifts building stability are a key part of Hall's program

Such work capacity sessions might seem like overkill for endurance athletes already putting in long weekly hours, though a few of Hall’s triathlon colleagues jump in on Mondays, recognizing the benefits of increasing power output, maximizing movement efficiency, and enabling them to cut back on long, slow, distance training. Others show up on Wednesdays, when Hall leaves the weights untouched, preferring pre-hab work on the shoulders, ankles, and hips with resistance bands.

Endurance athletes are just as notorious for ignoring pre-hab as they are strength training, preferring to stay laser-focused on logging long hours and mileage. That’s counterproductive and likely to lead to injury, says Hall, who logs just 25 miles running each week and rarely swims at all outside of the 12 to 15 triathlons – nearly all sprints – he does each year. Still, he’s a contender in every race he enters, including 5Ks, where he’ll typically log a time under 16:30.

We caught up with Hall recently after one of his typical 90-minute Monday sessions.

Endurance Sports Florida: Why is it endurance athletes are the only athletes who gauge their success by the ability to go longer as opposed to faster?

Hall: It’s true, but I don’t think that way as an endurance athlete. When people tell me they’re going to do a marathon, I think, “I could do a marathon at your pace, but could you run a sub five-minute mile?” The reason I can do that kind of speed is because of my strength training. The faster you run, the more impact your body’s absorbing. There’s a reason sprinters look the way they do. I have coupled my strength training with endurance, which is extremely important. But it’s not like I just do weight lifting. I do them in correlation with each other. Over the years I’ve learned how to put them both together to where I’m not world caliber but I can still compete at a pretty high level.

ESF: Is that a tough sell to endurance athletes?

Hall: It can be. They automatically tune out because once I say “strength,” they think that’s going to make them slower. It takes a while for an athlete to buy in but I can justify it because I use it myself. I understand what power development and strength training is going to do for the endurance athlete. It makes them less injury prone, more structurally sound and makes their running economy more efficient. That’s why I don’t have to go out and log 60 miles a week (running) to have that aerobic capacity because I’m incorporating my strength training. I’m a huge believer in that.

Resisted runs prepare athletes for the end-of-race sprint.

ESF: What’s a typical running week like for you?

Hall: No more than 25 (miles) a week and I can get away with that because I have the running background. You’re also talking about a pace that’s threshold. There’s never a long, slow day for me. But I’m not training for a half marathon or marathon. My mileage would change but not my strength training. That’s what makes me structurally sound and more efficient to where I can handle more stress and endurance on the road. Running is constant impact. If I can make my body structurally sounder in my joints and ligaments that’s going to allow me to be more efficient for a longer period of time on that end run. I have no doubt I could run a half marathon or marathon right now and still compete at a high level with my minimal training.

ESF: We did some resisted runs this morning, running hard as a partner provided resistance with a band. How will that translate during a race?

Hall: The idea is to teach the body to turn over and have as many ground contacts as possible. You’re fooling your body for a  duration of 20-25 seconds over a 20-yard mat. It simulates the intensity of a 200-meter all-out sprint.  For that 15 yards you should be trashed as if it were that sprint. It teaches the body that duration, the oxygen debt. By the time you get three-quarters of the way done, you’re laboring and the speed diminishes. That’s where it’s most important and I look for the ability to maintain that speed.

Wrapping up the run at Fort DeSoto

Now think of how a race ends up – in a sprint. In triathlon, the run is a suffer fest. It’s not about who is the fastest runner. I beat the fastest runners out there all the time because I can be more efficient off the bike to recover, and run. I can get on a bike, which is a machine, and produce a lot of power, which leaves me more efficient for the run. When it comes to running, if your body is not exposed to that kind of stimulus, that kind of oxygen debt, and then you go out and try to run at race pace, what happens? It shuts down. Oxygen debt, you’re done.

I always want to train certain days of the week 15 percent faster than race pace. So I’ll run one mile – just one mile – off of my bike rides at 30 percent faster than race pace because I want my body exposed to that, even if it’s for one mile. Then I can carry that. It’s no longer foreign to my body when I get off the bike, so now I can go at my usual race pace and it’s not traumatic. The reason people suffer off the bike is that they never run faster than race pace. That’s why track workouts are so important. You’re running faster than race pace. I want to put myself in that position all the time so when it comes to a race, I’m already exposed to it. I can get off that bike and run at a good clip because I’m used to running at that faster pace.

ESF: So what’s a typical brick workout like for you?

Hall: Most of the time it’s 16 miles and no more than three miles off the bike. Last Saturday I ran just one mile off the bike but it was a 5:18. It’s only a mile, but now I know when I’m in a race situation that 5:30 won’t seem that bad because I’ve exposed my body to the stimulus. Everything I do, and what I encourage others to do, is to always think in terms of simulating race time situations.

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Filed under Running, Training, Triathlon

Triathlon Boom Continues

By Pete Williams

Three of 2.3 million triathletes in 2010

It’s no secret that triathlon not only has survived during the recession, it’s thrived.

Races seem to sell out faster than ever and it’s tough to keep track of all of the new events, whether it’s a sprint distance or another addition to the Ironman circuit. Here in Florida, we have more races than any other state in the country. New additions over the last year such as the Key West Triathlon in December and the upcoming HITS Triathlon Series event in January have made it possible to do a Florida race every month of the year.

This week, the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) and USA Triathlon put out some numbers that quantify the sport’s astounding growth.

An estimated 2.3 million individuals completed a triathlon in 2010, representing 55 percent growth in one year, according to the SGMA. In addition, USA Triathlon annual membership totals reached an all-time high in excess of 140,000 last year, with another 326,000-plus one-day license holders.

According to the SGMA, approximately 2,295,000 individuals completed at least one triathlon in 2010, up from 1,481,000 unique participants in 2009. Additionally, an estimated 1,978,000 individuals participated in an on-road triathlon in 2010, while 929,000 athletes competed in an off-road event last year.

The 1.9-million on-road competitors marked a 63.7 percent increase from 2009 (1.2 million participants) and a 147.9 percent increase since 2007 (798,000 participants). Additionally, the 929,000 off-road participants demonstrated 39.5 percent growth since 2009 (666,000 participants) and 92.3 percent growth since 2007 (483,000 participants).

Additionally, the SGMA estimated that there were 1.2 million core on-road triathletes and another 694,000 core off-road participants in 2010. The SGMA defines core participants as athletes that completed two or more events last year.

Further demonstrating the growth of multisport in the U.S. is the continued expansion of USA Triathlon’s annual membership base and the organization’s varied programs. In 2010, USA Triathlon reached a record total of 140,244 annual members.

By comparison, USA Triathlon had 21,341 annual members in 2000 and totaled 58,073 annual members in 2005. The high-water mark from 2010 of 140,244 annual members represents approximately 557 percent growth since 2000 and 141 percent growth since 2005. Additionally, the 140,244 annual members from August 2010 marked 9 percent growth since year end 2009 (128,653 annual members).

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Jessi Stensland Brings ‘Movement U’ to Florida June 25-26

By Pete Williams

Movement expert Jessi Stensland

Seven years ago, Jessi Stensland was on the verge of retiring from triathlon at the age of 27. Knees hurting, joints barking, she no longer could stand the constant pounding of endurance sports.

Then she met Mark Verstegen and his staff at Athletes’ Performance, who showed her not how to train better for swimming/biking/running but to train her body to move better.

Twelve weeks later, she had the race of her life. These days, she competes in endurance sports of all varieties – many off road – and teaches “Movement U,” one- and two-day seminars around the country geared toward showing athletes, as well as chiropractors, physical therapists, and massage therapists, how they can optimize movement for performance and injury prevention.

Stensland, whose Web sites are gojessi.com and movementu.com, will be holding a two-day seminar in Melbourne, Fla., on June 25-26. Based in Boulder, she wrote the foreword to Core Performance Endurance, one of the five Core Performance books I’ve had the honor of writing with Mark Verstegen.

We spoke with Jessi on The Fitness Buff Show today. You can listen to that interview HERE or read an edited transcript below:

Q: What was your a-ha moment with this?

A: When Mark Verstegen and the staff at Athletes’ Performance took me under their wing and made me understand that I can train my body to be injury resistant and more efficient by working on movement-based training. One movement I’ll never forget is when they had me do a one-leg, one-arm, dumbbell row. I’m on one leg in a T position, bent over at the waist, heel kicked back. They’re cueing me to keep my hip, knee and ankle in a straight line, hips parallel to ground, and keep straight lines before I moved my arm. It took all of my effort to keep everything in line before I could think about moving my arm. I thought, wow, I have to get this right and then I can transfer so much more power to my hands. Twelve weeks later I finished a race with tears coming down my face because it all came together.

Q: You blogged recently about the starting line at a cycling event and seeing everyone all curved over on their bikes.

A: It was a pre-ride for an Xterra triathlon and you saw people hanging on their tissues, slouching with rounded backs. It’s so easy to relate that to the squat position. If ever you get into that position while squatting, with a rounded back it never looks healthy. To get the most out of your legs, you want that strong flat back and then you can power through your legs – glutes, quads – and to relate that back to the bike it’s how you apply force and power to the pedal stroke. Take simple those same principles and why would you sit on the bike slouched hanging on your tissues instead of being strong with good posture? It’s common sense and that’s what I hear all the time from people at Movement U. “I’ve had this body for all these years, how did I not know that?”

Q: What’s a Movement U weekend like?

A: They are very much interactive and a bit of lecture. We arrive, meet and greet, and head right into a movement session. Before you listen to me talk I put you through a movement session, not a strength or swim/bike/run session, but you go into your body in an athletic way, similar to yoga, but we’ll be more dynamic and athletic. It’s more Movement Preparation, preparing your body to take on swim/bike/run demands and then we head into a lecture. The main thing we talk about is posture, glute activation, spinal stabilization, and if these aren’t common terms to you as an endurance athlete they should be. They’re simple and we apply every point we give you to swim/bike/run and that’s why I started Movement U. This bridges the gap between the information you know is out there and how to actually apply it to move our bodies most efficiently. Most people never realize, for instance, how poorly their bodies are rotating.

Q: Why is it endurance athletes can’t get past this mindset of training harder and longer for races of longer and longer distances and not step back and think of how they can train smarter and more efficiently to go faster – even at shorter distances?

A: It’s hard to get that message across. Recently I read a publication and a well-known coach said the way to run 26 miles faster is to run 29 miles. And people are slugging out four, five, and even seven-hour marathons and thinking they’re somehow getting faster. It takes more intensity and some level of pain threshold to want to do those shorter distances faster. I was doing 5x5s, five-second intervals five times. I was putting so much power into that treadmill and it’s so much more fun. People want challenges as endurance athletes and if I could challenge you in that way so many people would crave that to get faster but it’s not in our culture yet. The smarter you train, the better your movement patterns are and the fewer injuries you’ll have. What movement-based training will do for you is speed up the time, making you time efficient and getting the most out of your body. That way you can make the same changes in two weeks that you might otherwise take two months – and you’ll be injury resistant. So it’s about showing people how to be more efficient. What if you could make those changes faster than slugging though a couple months and risking injury?

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Filed under Running, Training, Triathlon

The Madeira Beach Tri-Paddle

By Pete Williams

Crossing the finish line at the GCSUPC

MADEIRA BEACH, Fla. – With apologies – sort of – to Hawaii, SoCal, and Boulder, Florida is now the capital of the endurance sports world.

Just consider this past weekend. A 1.25-mile stretch of Madeira Beach in Pinellas County was home to the 26th annual Madeira Beach triathlon and the second-annual Gulf Coast Stand-Up Paddle Board Championship.

The St. Pete Mad Dogs did their usual terrific job hosting a two-day party. A little more than a mile to the south, Brody Welte put on what already is being called the biggest stand-up paddle board event outside of the Battle of the Paddle on the West Coast.

More than 200 paddlers, including some of the nation’s best, competed in a variety of events during the two-day Gulf Coast Stand-Up Paddle Board Championship. The event definitely had a big-time, West Coast feel to it between the SUP sponsors set up on the beach, hula girls, and band.

In what has to be a first, it was possible to do a triathlon early in the morning on Saturday or Sunday and hustle down to the GCSUPC to do one of Welte’s events, which got underway after 10 a.m. My son Luke and I did a tagteam, with Luke competing in the Madeira Beach Mini Triathlon on Saturday morning. We hustled down to the Barefoot Beach Resort, where my board was waiting, and I jumped in the four-mile open race with 10 minutes to spare.

Where else in the country can you do that?

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Filed under Races, SUP, Triathlon

Talking Endurance Sports with Jerry Napp

By Pete Williams

Our guest on the video version of The Fitness Buff Show this week was Jerry Napp, whose background in the endurance sports world spans more than two decades. Jerry’s vast experience includes clinical exercise, corporate fitness, equipment sales and marketing across multiple channels, personal training and coaching. He’s also an accomplished age-group triathlete and runner

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The Amazing Rajesh Durbal


By Pete Williams

Triathlete Rajesh Durbal

He’s best known for triathlon, of course, navigating courses of up to Ironman distance despite not having legs or much of one arm.

But when Rajesh Durbal, a 33-year-old triple-amputee engineer for the city of Orlando, really wants to impress people he’ll sit them shotgun and let them watch him drive.

His Ford Focus is not specially equipped. He only drives stick shift. And he does not have a right hand, switching gears through a flurry of smooth movements involving his left arm.

“People ask, ‘Why not get an automatic? It’s so much easier,’” Durbal says. “I learned on stick. My dad never made anything easy for me and I’m glad he did it that way.”

Cops do double takes when they pull him over and see his arms on the wheel. They examine his license, which has no restrictions. They ask questions, especially if he’s wearing shorts.

How do you work the clutch with prosthetic legs?

“It’s all about feeling the vibrations through the legs,” says Durbal, who was born with a congenital deformity in three limbs, had his legs amputated below the knees and has only a nub of a right hand. “Once you realize where the clutch catches it’s like riding a bike.”

That is, riding a bike with one limb for up to 112 miles, as Durbal did during the legendary Hawaii Ironman in Kona in October, finishing the race in 14 hours, 19 minutes, a time for which most triathletes with four limbs would, well, give their right arm.

Go ahead. Make all of the bad jokes and puns. Durbal has heard them all, actually much worse as a kid growing up in New York City.

He spent most of his first six years in and out of hospitals. When it came to sports, he spent most of his time on the bench. Teachers pointed him toward card games or table tennis. This was in the 1980s and early ‘90s, long before the Challenged Athlete Foundation, advanced prosthetics, and the mainstreaming of people with physical challenges.

His Trinadad-born parents, Raj and Anne Durbal, battled the public school system and resisted suggestions to send him to special schooling.

Raj wanted his son to have a normal childhood, which is to say a daredevil one. So he took him hiking, skiing and snowboarding. During a family trip to Niagara Falls, tourists snapped photos and video as Raj and Rajesh ventured out under the falls for a too-close-for-comfort look. It wasn’t because Rajesh looked different.

“They were waiting for us to fall in,” Raj says.

Raj and Rajesh Durbal at the 2011 St. Anthony's Triathlon

Raj challenged neighborhood kids to come over and do underwater laps against Rajesh in their 30-foot-long pool. Nobody could outlast him, which still is the case whenever he and his training group do the drill under the direction of Consuela “Sway” Lively, his Orlando-based triathlon coach.

“He goes at least sixty yards,” says Lively. “I haven’t come across anyone with more mental toughness.”

As for driving, that started at the age of 12 in Antigua. Raj pulled over right before a steep hill and told his son to get behind the wheel of a manual transmission. At least the steering column was on the right side, making it slightly easier.

“He didn’t flinch,” Raj says. “He never backs down from anything, no matter how seemingly dangerous.”

Rajesh eventually discovered the Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged and excelled in track events. That helped him fit in to a degree, but everyday life continued to be a struggle. He smoked cigarettes and followed a diet of junk food, became depressed and even considered suicide.

Religion made a difference, and Durbal frequently cites his faith. But what really turned things around was a decision early in 2009 to enter triathlon, of all things.

The sport has a long history with physically challenged athletes, but most have two or three functional limbs.

Wouldn’t other sports have been easier?

Why not drive automatic?

Durbal threw himself into triathlon, sometimes quite literally, like when two handlers place him into the water for the swim start. That and getting help out of the water and into the first transition are the only accommodations he accepts.

For everything else he’s on his own. There are the three sets of legs he brings to the race (bike, run, and walking-around legs). There’s the bike, which is operated from the left side with aerobar pads that ride up on the right side to fit his right stump. There are the running legs, which boost his height from 5-foot-4 to 6-foot-3, which is what doctors project his height would have been.

Triathletes arrive at events with a ton of gear, but Durbal takes it to a new level, which draws a few sideways glances – at least until he takes off his legs, one of six pairs in his closet.

Then there’s the water. Like most swimmers, Durbal breathes every three or four strokes. But he often trains by breathing every seven to nine. The increased lung capacity of the former smoker allows him to stay relaxed and use muscles to compensate for not getting propulsion in the kick.

He spends hours in the pool fine-tuning his stroke and working on directional training so he stays on course in the water and not drift out on his own, as he did during one of his first workouts with Lively in Orlando’s notorious Lucky’s Lake.

He’ll wear a wetsuit if everyone else does, but prefers to go without. “I don’t like the advantage it gives you in terms of extra buoyancy and streamline,” he says. “I’m a fighter. I like to make things as hard as possible.”

That’s why he loves the run. Actually, he hates the run but that’s what makes it his favorite of the three disciplines. Most observers see him gliding along on the run course and assume that’s preferable to one-handed swimming or biking.

They’ve never walked in his shoes, let alone run 26.2 miles in them. Running with prosthetics that rub against the bare skin of his stumps can be excruciating, requiring massive core strength, which Durbal has in abundance.

Durbal making new friends at St. Anthony's

Core strength, for all the talk of washboard abs, actually refers to the many stabilizer muscles of the shoulders, midsection, and hips. The limbs are just along for the ride.

Personal trainers sometimes make an analogy of the core as a mannequin with no limbs. Actually, Durbal is as chiseled as your average plastic model in a department store.

He’ll challenge his training partners to see how long they can stay in a plank position. Nobody can come close to Durbal, even though he’s holding the pose essentially on one arm.

After entering his first sprint-distance triathlon in June 2009, he finished the Hawaii Ironman just 16 months later, a speedy timetable for anyone, let alone someone with a demanding schedule as a systems network engineer for the city of Orlando. He takes a lead role in developing networks and infrastructure, supporting police, fire and virtually every other aspect of the city.

He’s launched a Web site encouraging others (live-free.net), has become a popular corporate speaker and talks frequently to schoolchildren, who like everyone else want to know the specifics of how he swims, bikes, and runs.

He’s heading back to Kona in October and has eyes on competing in the Paralympics in 2012. Sponsors have embraced his story and he’s a spokesman for 15 companies, including national brands Mix1, Gu Energy, and Zoot Sports.

Triathlon, with its long hours of preparation and choreographed race day rituals of laying out gear is perfect for a man who sets out his legs with his clothes before he goes to bed, always thinking three steps ahead.

“Triathlon fits in well with my approach to life,” Durbal says. “You can train and plan, but there’s always something that comes up and you have to adjust. Something breaks, your equipment fails, the weather’s bad, and how you deal with that is what makes it so rewarding. In the end, it’s just you against the elements.”

(Listen to our interview with Rajesh Durbal on The Fitness Buff Show HERE)


Filed under Enduring Athlete of the Month, Fitness Buff Show Radio, Triathlon