The 2018 Ironman race season was unquestionably SRM sponsored triathlete, Michi Weiss’ career best so far. A career which has included representing Austria at the 2004 Athens Olympics in mountain biking, winning the Xterra Triathlon World Championship in 2011, and, at current count, being a 7X Ironman and 4X IM 70.3 champion. Yet, 2018 marked the pinnacle thus far.
Michi’s Race Highlights in 2018
· 3X Ironman titles (Austria, Cozumel, Mar del Plata)
· 3X IM 70.3 titles (St. Polten, Zell am See, Cozumel)
· 9 Podiums out of 12 Ironman/IM 70.3 races.
· Top 10 in both Ironman & IM 70.3 World Championships
· 2ndfastest bike split ever at the Ironman World Championship
· First Austrian to win the Austrian Triple of Ironman races
· 6X Fastest bike splits
· 3X Fastest run splits
Sharing is Caring
Having been introduced to Michi by SRM founder and power guru, Uli Schoberer, I have worked with him since 2012 and from the very first day of this collaboration our stated goal was to be entirely open and transparent with Michi’s SRM power files from races, especially those in which he performed highly. Since then, SRM have published more than 30 of my articles on the power analysis of Michi’s performances. These can be found on my website here: www.garthfox.com/analysis. As well as on the SRM website here: www.srm.de/news/triathlon
Behind the Curtain
In this article I want to do something that is pretty unusual in the domain of elite sport in this day and age and that is to take you behind the curtain and give you an insight into the overall planning, training loads, key workouts and general thinking that underpinned the most consistent season-long Ironman triathlete performance of 2018.
"Amateurs practice until they get it right; Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong."
You will not read too many of these articles because coaches and elite athletes often tend to be rather guarded with training data, training plans, workout structures and so on, usually due to a fear that the competition will be able to glean an advantage or even simply copy what a more successful athlete is doing in order to better compete against them. It should also be stated that performance data, especially when it reveals significant inconsistencies between training and race performance by a given athlete, could certainly highlight the need for greater scrutiny by the various anti-doping bodies.
However, both my and Michi’s view on this is that not only do we have nothing to fear in the release and analysis of training and racing data, but what may have worked for one individual will not necessarily do the same for another such is the individual response to training stress. As for replicating Michi’s ability on the bike, well, 30 years of daily hours in the saddle counts for something and so my view there is if they could, they would!
Consistency is King
So before I drill down into the finer detail of Michi Weiss’ training structure this year lets just have a closer look at what we mean by a consistent season of high performance and why we make it a goal. You will notice in Fig.1 that there was no single peak in performance level but rather a consistently high level throughout each racing period with two smaller peaks evident at IM 70.3 St. George and the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. The former was incidental and was as much to do with the rolling nature of the bike course where the climbs make it easier to produce high power at low cadence, although he was certainly already in very good shape at that race as we will see from his season’s peak maximal power numbers in Fig.11 later on. The latter however, was most certainly intentional because it’s the Ironman World Championship. But overall you will notice that, like for like, the numbers do not vary a great deal. The ability to produce a good effort time after time, race after race, is very important if you are a professional in this sport and trying to make a living from it. Very few pros have the luxury of peaking for one or two key races. Podiums mean prize money and prize money keeps the lights on and this simple fact necessarily influences the planning, as we will discover.
"Podiums mean prize money and prize money keeps the lights on and this simple fact influences the training plan." Garth Fox
You will also notice that Michi’s body weight dropped from 81kg at the beginning of the season to a low of 77kg before returning to 79kg before Kona. This was due to having produced really good numbers at St. George, on both bike and run (he ran faster than both Sanders and Kienle) and feeling that the only immediate avenue open to him for even better performance would be to shed a kilo or so of body mass. This he duly did, but every athlete has an optimum race weight and it would seem that around 79kg for Michi is it. While his running performance continues to improve at lower body weights, his bike power does not and indeed declines. It was a worthwhile experiment but the lesson was learnt.
Training – How Much Is Enough?
I am often asked how much training does Michi do? My answer is always, ‘Enough to get to the level he needs to be at.’ Anymore than that and fatigue starts to hang around like a bad odour. The problem is that this odour can be tolerated for long periods over which time a strong performance feels harder and harder to deliver and before long the season is over and the athlete had an ‘inexplicably’ poor year – usually resulting in them or their coach deciding to work even harder going forward. We see this a lot in Ironman athletes, especially in the age group ranks, although we all know of pros who have fallen into that same trap. It is a real conundrum for both athlete and coach.
"Health first, then fitness and only then performance" Garth Fox
To know how much is enough we need to know what the athlete is capable of – his or her ultimate capacity. An analysis of any athlete’s training and racing history will reveal this very quickly and if not indicative of their ultimate capacity then at least the ballpark we are playing in. Michi is by far and away the most gifted athlete I have ever had the privilege to work with, both in terms of physiological attributes and mental toughness, which when allied to a remarkable constitution (he is rarely sick and does not need much sleep) a work ethic that would put a husky dog to shame and an ability to self-organize which I have only ever come across before in a soldier who was a captain in the Special Forces. Michi is a force of nature and that makes for one hell of an athlete. Yet, even then, getting the balance right between enough volume and the right dose of training intensity is always a challenge. A challenge, which I feel we got the better of, at least this year!
As we can see in Fig.2 Michi has trained for an average of 18 hours per week this in 2018 or close to 1000 hours total. The variation can be as high as 30 hours and as low as 8 hours per week depending on the phase of training. In terms of training frequency Michi will typically swim 5X, bike 4X, run 4X and do 2X S&C sessions per week.
"Training volume & consistency is the cake; intensity is icing on the top. Making a great cake is all about getting order & proportions right."
Professor Stephen Seiler, Sports scientist and the leading authority on training intensity distribution in endurance athletes.
Making the Cake
This is a term that is often used in Norwegian cross-country skiing circles (both Michi and I love XC skiing maybe even more than triathlon!) to describe a very important component of the training process. It is essentially the phase of training where the real work is done and the foundations for racing success are laid. We can call it making the base of a cake, the foundations of a house or the base of a triangle but whatever we choose to call it, it is essential to season long high performance and Fig.3 below highlights how we go about implementing the ‘cake’ into a season plan.
As is clear to see in both Fig.1 & Fig.3, we divided the season into three racing periods. Race period 1 was made up of predominantly IM 70.3 races with just one Ironman (Austria) at the end. Race period 2 consisted of three IM 70.3 races and culminated with the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. Race period 3 was simply about two full Ironman races. So already a pattern is clearly discernible – short and fast to long and slow. That was more or less how we approached the puzzle. Michi took two weeks off with almost no training right after his last race of the 2017 season (he actually had an operation to remove pins from a previous collar bone fracture), then took a further two weeks of low volume easy training to get back in the swing of things and then a 13 week period of real work began. The goal of this period was to get ready for IM 70.3 race speeds and power outputs. Developing Ironman endurance was not yet the goal. That could wait. Strength, both general and specific together with cardiovascular capacity were the priority from day 1 of this phase, indeed Michi raced a 5km run race on New Years day at 2000m elevation (he was based In Colorado Springs through until May) and as you can see from his numbers in Fig.4 the few weeks of total R&R had not hurt him too much! The lesson? Don’t be afraid to rest up at season end.
Over the next two months Michi included three more 5km races in his early training, sometimes off road and even on snow and ice. Intensity is a consistent feature of the cake-making phase at any time of the year for us but it is important to point out that Michi is very controlled in his execution of HIT or interval sessions whether swim, bike or run. In fact he really only ever gives a maximal effort in a race, the rest of the time it is all about control as I will expand on later.
Stimulate, don’t annihilate
Lee Haney, 8 time Mr. Olympia
However, most of the training volume in this period is low intensity aerobic in order to underpin a really efficient aerobic system. Fig.5 below shows just how much of Michi’s training over the three-month period from January to March fell into the bracket of ‘training and not straining’. This pattern of training intensity distribution as measured by heart rate response to the work was very similar in each of the other two ‘cake-make’ periods before and after race period 2 with the only significant difference being that in the second half of the year the time spent in easy aerobic training zones 1 and 2 was the result of more Ironman distance specific workouts such as 5 hour rides on the tri bike or 30km runs, rather than simply lots of shorter units of work over consecutive days, which more closely defined his early pre-season training phase.
The minutes accumulated in the higher intensity zones of 3-5 were also pretty similar in each cake-make period throughout the year but the interval design behind them very much depended on what Michi felt he needed to work on at this stage in the year, such as top-end aerobic power or muscle endurance, but often he wanted to do intervals designed around a specific point on the bike course of his next race where he knew he would need to put the hammer down to get a gap or make a decisive passing move on the group. When he executes these moves in a race they always appear very smooth and that is because they are often rehearsed beforehand. We will either know the course well from previous years and know where the real moves are going to take place or, if it is a new course to us, he will have studied every metre of the road surface, the winds speeds and direction, the technical sections and so on. Then it is quite simple to design an interval session that replicates the specific demands of that key point in the race (see Fig.6). It also makes the interval session interesting and motivating.
A Pre-Season Week in the Life
At this point I would like to show you a very typical week of training for Michi (Fig.7) in this pre-season phase of training. The general theme here is very much about getting outdoors into a natural environment, doing the work consistently, always leaving something on the table for the next session (we like to say in order ‘to pay the god of fatigue his due!’), staying healthy, accumulating training time and just getting the body ready to go to work when a harder or developmental session is planned.
If you look over the day-to-day detail of Michi’s training sessions in this period one thing that should be immediately obvious is that they are very varied both in terms of activity and intensity. An average week will include general strength work in the gym, (basic heavy compound exercises for low reps getting up to 120kg for 5 reps for a basic deadlift, for example), long trail runs at well below Ironman race pace just enjoying being in the great outdoors, short, fast running hill reps or track work with long recoveries, long easy bike rides, usually with coffee stops along the way and these may be on road, tri or mountain bike but averaging no more than 230W-240W at this stage which, to put that in perspective, is like an age group athlete who can average 200W in an Ironman race doing his long rides at less than 150W.
"No matter what anyone tells you to the contrary, Do.Not.Train.When.Sick.Not.Ever" Garth Fox
Also included during this period are hard bike sessions with long intervals of between 4-8 minutes at around his 20 minute mean maximal power which could be alternated with a session at closer to threshold intensity but with longer intervals again and with even lower cadence to develop bike specific strength (see Fig.8). I should add that one key component of pretty well all of Michi’s bike HIT sessions is that they are performed at lower than race day cadences such that when his strength is really developed he is fully capable of executing interval sessions of 3X8’ at 420W at an average cadence of 50rpm!
Strength work together with technique focus of course is also a key feature of swim sessions in this period, as is XC skiing, which forms a real backbone to Michi’s winter preparation these days. Michi is a very good skier in both the classic and skating disciplines and will usually practice both techniques on any given ski day. The benefits of this are numerous but suffice to say that the all round conditioning derived from this discipline is, I believe, central to Michi’s extremely low rate of injury.
Interval Quality Control
As I have touched upon already, we employ a whole variety of interval training (HIT) sessions in Michi’s training across all three disciplines and throughout the entire year, with the exception of a couple of total R&R weeks at the end of a season. These sessions vary from very short ‘micro’ intervals of 15-30 seconds through to 20-30 minutes depending on what kind of stimulus or ‘dose’ we are hoping to achieve. This really is not as exact a science as we might wish but what is certain is that interval, hard, developmental, HIT, or whatever you want to call these sessions, are an essential tool in the overall conditioning of any serious athlete.
Plan the work, work the plan. Be flexible. Lose the ego.
Most of us understand this but what is often overlooked is that the precision with which intervals are performed is a key component of their efficacy. Michi is a Grand Master at performing high quality intervals. You will never see him shouting and screaming during one of these sessions – that would be wasting precious energy. The best description I can give for his execution of these sessions would be ‘controlled’. Take the example below (Fig.9), this was a pre-season interval session targeting capacity and comprising of 3X8’ at 400-410W (around 20’ mean maximal power at this time in the year) and at a cadence of 70-80rpm.
Firstly, you will note the extensive warm-up procedure (>30’), which included steps of increasing intensity and then a series of mini intervals to ‘prime’ the body for the real work. Michi then performed two perfect intervals averaging 405W at a cadence of 76rpm and heart rate of 142bpm or approx. 88% of maximum heart rate. However, 6 minutes into the last interval he was no longer able to hold form and maintain the ‘control’ over the effort – note how the pink power trace is less smooth. At this point most of us would just keep slogging through to the end; it might get ugly over those last few minutes but what the hell, right? No pain, no gain? Not Michi. If the session quality deteriorates, the session gets shut down. It comes down to whether you are in the business of ticking off numbers or optimal stimulus and adaptation. Knowing your body, knowing what is required and when, and most importantly, knowing when the signal has been sent and received, that is what differentiates the best from the rest.
"Got to keep the body guessing to keep it progressing." Michi Weiss
Keeping It Real
Michi has been training more or less daily for around 30 years now. As such, lots of what might be called traditional or ‘plain vanilla’ type training really does not do a lot for him anymore, either physically or mentally. That includes regular ‘race pace’ training. This is not something that features heavily in Michi’s yearly training plan. That is not to say he never trains at race pace. He does on occasion; usually before one of the first few races of the season just to remind himself what it needs to feel like.
Fig.10 below is a ‘race pace’ bike session Michi performed the week before IM 70.3 Texas. You may notice that these race pace efforts were performed at around 10W above the actual average power Michi produced in that race and at exactly the same cadence of just over 80rpm. Also note that those efforts were performed after 2 hours of riding in a tight aero position on a turbo trainer and at a range of power outputs and cadences. This was to once again to ‘prime’ the body so that when Michi actually did those race pace efforts of 4X15 minutes at 360W/80rpm, then they really did feel pretty similar to how it would feel in the race when fatigue was making itself known and sitting very still in a tight aero tuck pushing hard on the pedals was getting old. This is how ‘quality’ should be brought to any session not just the hard stuff.
Swimming in open water, in a group of superior swimmers, with and without wetsuit and with constant pace change over distance, has been something, which Michi has done much more of this year and to very good effect. While Michi’s pool-based swim splits are no faster than they were 2 years ago, this increased commitment (and opportunity due to being based in Austria over the summer months this year) to open water swimming has paid dividends in his improved ability to hang on to key swim packs that form during the race before losing the draft. This has resulted in reduced gaps to the outright leaders (see Fig.1) when starting the bike leg.
For example, his gap to the leaders at the end of the swim in the 2017 Ironman Worlds was just over 10’ but this year was just 6.5’. This in turn, significantly improves his chances of catching the lead group on the bike much earlier and before they get themselves organized. Michi is rather hard on himself on occasion when he takes stock of his pool-based swim performances, but the reality is that time split improvements in the pool can be as much about the ability to turn beautifully or execute a perfect dive as anything else, but in an open water context, just getting more comfortable swimming on the limit in very close proximity to others can be the difference between finishing in the pack or being dropped and swimming solo for 3km. While pool-based swimming is an essential ingredient in all triathlete training plans, we still need to recognize that while similar, it is far from being the same thing. Specificity is king to open water swim improvement, as Michi has demonstrated to great effect this year.
So How Do We Know The Training Worked?
The straight answer to that question is that Michi won a lot of races. That is pretty powerful proof that whatever he was doing in training translated to race day performance. However, if I look back at his performances, the power outputs Michi is capable of today are within a few watts of what he was able to produce in races 5 years ago. Likewise with the run, he has been capable of sub 1h10m half marathons for many years now. What has improved, however, is his ability to deliver close to his best performance in all 3 disciplines more consistently. This is in part, simply due to becoming better at executing race day strategy, being aggressive when need be, patient at other times, more economical and quite simply, more professional. But it is also because we have refined the training process itself quite considerably over the years, especially the overall distribution and timing of load and intensity. The result is that the training now more readily allows him to reach the required performance level with less residual fatigue before races than used to be the case, allowing him to race closer to his potential more often.
In the table above (Fig.11) not only can we see that Michi’s peak power outputs this year on the part of the power-duration curve where IM 70.3 and Ironman races are played out (10’ to 3 hours), occurred in his most important races, but also that there was a marked shift this year versus last year in the shape of his power-duration curve. It became flatter. Developing anaerobic and aerobic power is always compromise; improving one tends to erode the other and tailoring the training so that it results in gains where we want them is always the goal but not always that easy to accomplish, especially in a very highly trained athlete with a ton of varied training behind him. But when it occurs the way we want it to, it is very satisfying!
In Michi’s own words:
“This ‘race more’ but ‘train less’ between races approach has worked really well for me this year because I now go into races much fresher. It is also great for my mojo and motivation plus I stay injury free. After a 70.3 race now I feel like I can resume low intensity training within 4-5 days. Basically after a really good pre-season ‘cake making’ block I can use 70.3 intensity racing as a key stimulus session. I need some longer sessions in the weeks before Ironman races to rebuild the necessary endurance but by then intensity work is done, the shape is in place and thereafter I only need a few short HIT sessions to remind my body not to lose capacity but at the same time I am not trying to increase it anymore as it is easily sufficient for the slower, longer races. In the past I would train much more before a race, be more tired in the race and then take longer to recover after the race as well as making less money and being less motivated. The key is knowing when to make the cake and when to eat it!”
I love the training process. I hope that comes across in this overview. The fact is, I have really only scratched the surface here on the inputs required to bring about high performance. I could have incorporated nutrition, biomechanics, equipment, environment and so on but I will do that in an all-encompassing manual when Michi wins the World Championship! But in the meantime, I will mention the essential role played by others such Michi’s mental coach, Wolfgang Seidl and Sports Science PhD student, Peter Leo, who provides me with constant training suggestions and is a frequent training partner for Michi as a national level U23 triathlete in his own right. Not even talking about the role that all Michi’s previous coaches and support staff have played in developing his potential from a very young age. And of course his nearest and dearest. Triathlon is a team sport at any level. The rest of the family supporting Mum, Dad or siblings in their passion for age group racing for example, its all about teamwork. No one does this sport for very long or very well without a support team. The better the athlete the more support is needed and Michi is always the first to point that out, so I will say it here on his behalf. Thank you Team!
As always, I would like to thank Michi for letting us behind the curtain and allowing others to see what he does and how he goes about it. His goal is to be at the vanguard of training, racing and data transparency in the sport he loves. There are other top pros starting to open up and show the rest of us how they do what they do, but it is by no means common practice just yet. Lets hope that changes soon. Here is to an ‘Access All Areas’ 2019!
May the Force X Velocity be with you,
Sports scientist & High Performance Endurance Coach