Thinking about getting in involved in triathlon or training for an event? We caught up with triathlon coach Michael Bieber to find out how he got into triathlon & what tips he has for race day success.
1) How long have you been taking part in triathlons & what inspired you to start?
I did my first triathlon in 2004, so it’s been 13 years I’ve been at it. It was in a small city about 15 minutes from where I grew up. I had seen the race going on in previous years and it kind of intrigued me.
Being 20 at the time, I figured I could do anything (with or without training), so I signed up. I had never swam competitively and had a very basic understanding of the freestyle stroke, which led me to believe I’d be fine. That was the longest 400 yards of my life! I pushed so hard that I was dizzy in transition. In the last mile of the bike ride, I ended up throwing up.
I finished with a stronger run than I would have expected. However, I was still way back in the pack, both overall and in my age group. It was the mediocre finish that motivated me to keep at it. With some more structured training and actually learning to swim correctly, I’ve made steady progress over the years. I am now able to consistently compete at a much higher level than I started at.
Now my drive comes from a desire to stay as fast as I can for as long as I can while staying healthy!
2) What is your favourite race distance and event?
My favourite race distance is the International or Olympic distance. It mixes overall power with strong endurance.
That being said, the event that I have enjoy the most is IRONMAN Wisconsin.
The 140.6 distance is a completely different animal, but the way the race is put on, you feel like a rock star the whole way!
3) What is your pre-race routine?
My routine depends on how local the race is. I’ll typically travel 1-2 hours to get to a race. I prefer sleeping in my own bed as opposed to a hotel room, so that means the alarm is going off early.
My breakfast is something simple, like a couple waffles with some peanut butter and glass of water. I pack all my stuff the night before, so I just go through one last time and make sure I have everything I’ll need, plus a couple of extra items depending on weather.
Once I get to the course, I check in and set up my transition area. I like to be there just about as early as possible. This gives me time to scope things out, and make sure I know where to locate bike in/out and run in/out. I am also able to get in an extended warm up.
This is important to me because I’ll have been up potentially 5 hours before the race starts and have spent a decent amount of time sitting in a vehicle to get to the venue.
About 30 minutes before the start of the race I put my wetsuit on. At this point, I head down toward the water to start prepping my mental state for the race.
I sip on water pretty much all the time leading up to the start and also nibble on a snack. I don’t like feeling full when I start, but I don’t want to feel hungry either.
4) Do you have any tips for race day nutrition?
Practice it before you race. The adage ‘nothing new on race day’ has served many a triathlete well over the years. If you aren’t used to taking a particular food or supplement in training, it stands to reason that it may not go great for you if you try it out under heavy exercise stresses.
I’m a believer that you have to find what works for you. There are coaches that swear by a certain product or routine for everybody, but I don’t think that’s necessarily correct.
While I have product preferences, I can’t say that those products are going to work the same for another person. If one thing worked for everybody, there would only be one brand needed. Last I checked, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of options out there!
It really boils down to experimenting in training to find what nutrition and hydration plan works best for you as an athlete. You need to take into consideration any specific needs you have as an individual. Once you’ve found what works, stick with it!
5) What advice would you give to triathletes that are not confident with open-water swimming?
Practice, practice, practice! You won’t get better, or have the opportunity to overcome that discomfort, if you don’t develop a plan to address it. Even the most confident open-water swimmer has their moments of ‘Oh my god what just touched my leg?!’
The key is to not let that overwhelm you and let the moment pass, then continue on with the workout.
I’ve had success with getting athletes in the open water by bringing them out in small groups and starting with shorter swims close to shore. It’s comforting to know that if you panic you can just put your feet down in those initial sessions.
As you gain confidence and comfort, we transition to longer swims that take us further from shore. It is essentially the mentality of taking small steps toward the larger goal.
I’ve also seen where a triathlon coach will have an athlete sight the back of a kayak, with directions to follow no more than a few strokes behind. Because they are focused on staying near the kayak and that is their reference point, they can be led further from shore, and then be shown their progress. They also have the confidence of the safety boat in case they panic and need an out from the situation.
The best solution is the one that gets the athlete confident with being in the open water. There isn’t a single method that is perfect, but addressing the root issue is key. Whether it is fear of the dreaded lake monster, deep water, or just discomfort in general, making sure that the athlete feels safe in the approach to conquer it, is imperative!
6) What is your top tip for getting out of a wetsuit quickly?
Once again, practice! My favourite method for a full sleeve suit is basically turning it inside out. As I’m running out of the water, I unzip and start pulling the suit off from my left shoulder first. I then take off the right side in the same manner. The top half of the suit is usually off before entering transition.
I always have a transition mat down to step on. Once I get to my spot I roll the suit to my ankles and then use my right foot to hold the left side of the suit down while I extract my left foot. Then I do the same for the right side. The end result is a suit that is inside out and came off quickly.
I also use a wetsuit lube (Profile Design Suit Juice) when I’m putting my suit on that helps cuffs come off a little bit easier.
7) What is the best way to find your gear in a crowded transition area?
This is part of why I get to races early. I will actually do a mock run-through of transition. This helps me establish how and where I want to move through the transition area.
I set up my spot, then go to the individual swim, bike, run in/out areas and decide where the best path back to my transition is.
In very large transition areas, I try to pick a landmark that I can focus on when I’m coming through transition to help guide me as well.
8) How is a tri-specific bike different from a road bike & do you need one?
There are significant differences, and if you are serious about triathlon, you should definitely have one!
A TT/Tri bike puts the rider in a more forward position relative to the bottom bracket. This in turn allows for a more open hip angle and a larger drop from the saddle to the cockpit. All of this adds up to a more aerodynamic position without sacrificing overall comfort for the long haul.
At shorter triathlon races, you will see all types of bikes. Athletes who are just getting into Tri or are there as part of a team often do not have an official TT/Tri bike. At the shorter distances, it is OK to do this. However, the disadvantage of a bike not designed for Tri grows as the distances get longer.
9) How long does it take to train for a triathlon?
If a person has no experience and has not been active, I tell them that they can complete a sprint distance within 6-8 weeks. Their plan would primarily be to focus on preparing their body to complete the necessary distances in each discipline.
If you look at an IRONMAN distance race, then the timeline changes significantly. An athlete who has no experience with Tri or who has not been active would require 9-12 months of overall training before they would be adequately prepared.
For an athlete who has experience with the longer distances and has been training consistently, 4-6 months is an appropriate amount of time to prepare.
I always recommend having a triathlon coach, especially when preparing for the longer distances. They can monitor your progress and it’s helpful to have a second set of eyes on your training. Plus, they push you to do things beyond what you’re comfortable with and help to develop your full athletic potential!
10) How do I get started in triathlon?
Sign up for one! There are a ton of races, especially during the summer season. All you really need to start is a bike, running shoes, and swim goggles. As you progress into the sport you can get more official equipment and gear, but all you really need is the basics.
If doing the whole Tri right away scares you, find one or two other people and do a team Tri to get your foot in the door. It’s a very inviting and friendly community on the whole, and there is never a shortage of advice!
11) What are the benefits of having a triathlon coach?
There are 2 primary benefits of having a triathlon coach: Accountability and safety. Having a qualified and experienced coach to design, guide, and monitor your training is the best way to work toward the result you desire.
Talking to your friend who has done a Tri or two isn’t sufficient, especially as you go up to the longer distances. They may be knowledgeable in one or two areas, but a quality triathlon coach will understand swim, bike, and run in a manner that allows for maximal training development.
Accountability & Safety
A coach will keep an athlete accountable to the training, but will also be able to adapt training based on the feedback from various workouts and program designs. This is where the safety piece comes in, as a triathlon coach will also have the athlete’s overall health as their primary concern. As coaches, we all want to make our athletes faster, but it can’t be at the expense of their everyday well being.
Ideally, you need to find a triathlon coach that has a personality that will mesh with yours, and one that is accessible. Whether it is in person, Skype, email, or phone, you want a coach that you can get in touch with when you need to.
Depending on the type of arrangement you have with your triathlon coach, you can expect regular feedback and scheduled coach interaction to monitor progress. If these are things that a coach isn’t willing to do in some manner, I would recommend continuing your search.
The last thing that a triathlon coach brings is experience. They have done the training, raced the races, and seen the ups and downs of all of it. They have handled success and defeat. A triathlon coach understands the rules of different races. They have the knowledge to help an athlete improve. And most of all, they know what it takes to get you to your goal!
About Michael Bieber
Michael Bieber is based in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, and has experience working with athletes ranging from high school freshmen to elite age group athletes.
He is an IRONMAN Certified Coach, F.I.S.T. Certified Bike Fitter, Licensed Physical Education and Health Teacher, and has been coaching for over a decade.
Main areas of coaching expertise include triathlon, distance running, strength training, cross training, and injury prevention/maintenance. He is also qualified to perform bike fitting, form/gait analysis, and swim analysis.
Michael’s philosophy is that everybody has room to improve. He believes that adding the accountability of a coach is a great way to aid in an athlete’s development.
Michael loves to work with anybody who is willing to commit to the process of improvement and he gets a great sense of satisfaction from helping people work toward their goals.
To find out more about Michael Bieber and his coaching services, head over to his website Treis Athlos Coaching
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