By Matt Fitzgerald
It is not easy to win the St. Anthony’s Triathlon, which is one of the most competitive non-drafting international-distance races on the professional circuit. It’s even harder to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team in triathlon. More difficult still is achieving both of these feats in a period of 12 days, but Sarah Haskins nearly did just that, winning St. Anthony’s on April 29 in course-record time and then coming within a hair’s breadth of qualifying for her second Olympics at the ITU World Triathlon San Diego on May 11, finishing as the second American and eighth overall when she needed to be the first American and among the top nine finishers. (Check out Sarah's power file from ITU San Diego here).
Although disappointed with the latter result, Haskins, 31, takes comfort in knowing that her preparation for the back-to-back races was perfect. The St. Louis native and current resident of Clermont, Fla., might be further gratified to know that her preparation for the unique “double” that she nearly pulled off provides an excellent model for age-group triathletes to follow in their own efforts to excel in more than one race within a short period of time.
It was only in January of this year that Haskins and her coach-husband Nate Kortuem learned the date of the final Olympic qualification event for U.S. athletes. Although it fell less than two weeks after St. Anthony’s, where Haskins was the defending champion, the thought of skipping the Florida race to focus on the more important San Diego event never crossed her mind. “I felt that it was possible to have peak form for both races,” Haskins explains. “I think it actually would have been harder if the races had been farther apart. But with only 12 days between them, I could use St. Anthony’s as one last ‘fitness race’ before the trials.”
Haskins also knew from nine years of triathlon experience that she was capable of bouncing back quickly from one race to perform well in a second race one or two weeks later. Nevertheless, she and Kortuem recognized that they would have to plan and execute her preparation just right to maximize her chances of achieving her goals for the two events. Here again they took advantage of knowledge acquired through past experience.
“We looked at what we did before London last year,” says Kortuem, referring to August’s ITU World Triathlon London, where Haskins finished a disappointing 34th. “I think we trained too hard and put her in a hole. Going into London after that she was just dead flat. Obviously, we cut back for recovery, but by then it was already too late.”
Sponsored by TrainingPeaks, Haskins uses their WKO+ desktop and TrainingPeaks.com Web software to quantify her fitness and fatigue throughout the year so that she can link cause (training) with effect (race performance) and make adjustments as necessary. After studying her Performance Management Chart for 2011—which included complete data sets for swimming, cycling, and running—Kortuem recommended a different approach for this year.
“We decided to have her rest earlier,” he said. “If you rest early, then you absorb all of the hard training you’ve done up to that point. Then you can build back into the race so that you’re actually gaining fitness when the race comes instead of struggling to catch up on recovery.”
Haskins and Kortuem agreed that the strategy would work best if Haskins kept her racing and travel to a minimum prior to St. Anthony’s. So between January and early April Haskins trained consistently at home in Clermont. Her routine was interrupted for just two events—the Clermont Draft Legal Challenge on March 3 and the Nautica South Beach Triathlon on April 1—both of which were within driving distance of home. Haskins “trained through” the first race and then tested her early-rest strategy for Miami, bringing her workload down two weeks ahead of the event instead of waiting until race week. The test went well (Haskins won the Miami event), so two weeks before St. Anthony’s Haskins backed off once more to catch up on recovery. In the first half of race week she did a few more hard workouts to make the “fitness” line on her Performance Management Chart begin to curve upward again. The last three days were treated as a short taper. Haskins went into the event feeling fit and ready. The results proved it: Haskins’ winning time of 1:56:55 shattered the course record by 50 seconds and gave her a massive 2:21 margin of victory.
That race itself served as a final sharpening workout for the Olympic trials in San Diego. Haskins did just enough work during the intervening week and a half to stay sharp but made rest her top priority. Although Haskins ultimately fell 45 seconds short of making her second Olympic team, she could not fault her training plan.
“I think we pretty much nailed the training,” she says.
See Haskins' Performance Management Chart below, showing her fitness building through training load, and her rest periods. Note her fitness (represented by the blue line) climbs steadily over time, and her form (represented by the yellow line, TSB), increases after periods of rest such as immediately prior to St. Anthony's.
Although many age-group triathletes choose to rely on ready-made training plans found in magazines, books, and websites to prepare for races, such plans necessarily focus on a single “peak” race, whereas in reality a lot of triathletes are in situations similar to that of the Haskins double, wishing to perform well in two or more races with a span of several weeks or a few months. Haskins believes that the approach she takes with the aid of TrainingPeaks software's analytics and tracking can work just as well for these age-groupers.
“I think it’s important to remember that races are your hardest workouts,” Haskins explains. “If you’re trying to do a number of races in a short period of time, you have to treat those races as workouts when it comes to planning your hard work and your recovery in a way that allows you get fit and stay fit without getting too tired. One of the great things about WKO+ or TrainingPeaks is that it treats everything the same. If you plug in the data from your workouts and your races it will combine them and tell you how much fitness and how much fatigue you have from everything lumped together.”
Haskins feels it’s possible to peak twice per season. If you have two races that fall within 14 days or so during the season, you can stretch a peak to cover both of them. But any attempt to stay in peak form longer than that is just a recipe for burnout. “After each peak I think it’s important to take a week easy,” Haskins says. “During the season you have to take those breaks or else you’re not going to have anything left for the end.”
No matter how often you race, the goal is consistency—to perform well in each competition. To do that it is essential that you balance hard work and recovery appropriately, which, as Sarah Haskins has shown, is made easier with tools such as TrainingPeaks and WKO+ that quantify fitness and fatigue so you don’t have to guess about these things.
Sarah used TrainingPeaks.com and WKO+ to track her training over time and be in peak form for both St. Anthony's and ITU San Diego. Learn more about TrainingPeaks Software for Athletes here. You can also check out Sarah's own race report from ITU San Diego here.