Whether you’re a newbie or a pro, training with the right squad can make all the difference to your goal race results. Here are some lessons from a triathlon squad making more than just waves at a swim start…
Whether you’re a pro or a noob, training with the right people can make all the difference. Take these lessons from a triathlon squad that’s making waves locally.
TTHE STELLENBOSCH TRIATHLON SQUAD could well be the funkiest triathlon training squad in the world. In the world, you say? Well, when you consider the number of top international triathletes who often train with the STS group, managed by former South African pro Vicky van der Merwe, it’s fair to say they’ve mixed it up with the very best. Stellenbosch itself has been called the home of world champions, given the number of endurance world champs who have lived in or visited this beautiful Boland town.
It’s no wonder then that Van der Merwe has grown the small training squad, including Ironman coach Cobus Fourie and swim coach Keith Jansen, into a sizeable group of 170 members, and regularly hosts stars such as world champion Flora Duffy and 2014 Ironman World Champion Sebastian Kienle.
“I was a professional triathlete for many years, but I never thought I would be coaching for a living,” admits Van der Merwe, a law graduate. “We get to live our passions every day; and to be honest, I even enjoy the business side to it all too.”
The team have coached a wide variety of athletes – from those who can barely swim a length in their first pool session, or lack even basic bike skills, to pros such as Duffy and Kienle – but they agree that
the satisfaction of seeing athletes complete their goal events makes the hard work and long hours worth it.
“We have a 100% record in getting our athletes to the finish line,” says Fourie, who runs the online coaching on the group’s website, triathlonsquad.co.za.
Although vastly experienced, the two have learnt many lessons through interacting with both the world’s best and those still on their way.
“I studied law, and was really interested in doing sports law,” says Van der Merwe. “So when I finished studying, I had to figure out what I was going to do. But the squad grew organically, and for now I get to do what I love.”
The idea to start the squad came through curious future triathletes contacting Van der Merwe to ask her advice during her pro career.
“I travelled a huge amount as a triathlete, and a lot of people followed me on social media. So when I decided to cut back on travelling and just focus on local events, I was encouraged to start a group.”
And so, in December 2014, Van der Merwe started off with a small run group of seven athletes. Within a month, that had doubled.
“Vicky was someone a lot of aspiring athletes looked up to, and she was the key driver to our success and growth,” Fourie admits. “We were just creating a structure for athletes to train and mix with likeminded people.”
Van der Merwe soon started a Facebook page, and suddenly a part-time hobby started to turn into a full-time business.
Nowadays the group numbers close to 200 athletes, and each week the team manage and coach 15 sessions of swimming, cycling, running and gym conditioning. These include five swims, three rides, four to five runs and two gym sessions.
“Yes, you need a lot of passion to run a squad like this. It’s not always easy to be standing in the rain on a cold day in winter,” the upbeat Van der Merwe admits.
Although Van der Merwe started with online coaching, it quickly became clear that the workload would be too heavy if she was going to keep her hands-on approach.
“We are very focused on lifestyle,” she says. “We don’t want our athletes to come and train for a month or three, and then leave. We want it be part of a consistent plan to improve.”
“It’s all about being consistent throughout the year.”
Here are some of the lessons they have learnt over the last four years.
Staring at a black line at the bottom of a pool can be boring, so Van der Merwe focuses on making pool time into fun time. “There’s a lot of banter – and the vibe in the pool is important, to keep everyone going,” she says. “We swim at lunch times because of everyone’s busy schedules.”
At the end of each swim session there’s also some competitive fun – relay sprints, or challenging everyone to do more than just the standard triathlon crawl. “We make up teams, and do mixed strokes. Then someone like me, who only swims crawl, suddenly has to do butterfly,” Fourie says. “It’s important to change things up in swimming.”
The squad caters for all levels of swimmer, from professional to newbie. “We have beginner lanes and clocks, and each level will do more or fewer sets and reps, depending on ability,” says Van der Merwe. “In some of the sets the pros will do 30 x 100m, for instance, while the beginners will do 10 x 100m. Just being in a squad can be very motivating.”
“My best advice is to parents: teach your kids to swim when they’re small, and they can more easily learn the techniques,” says Van der Merwe, who grew up swimming at provincial school level. “Kids are more teachable at a young age.”
The key to good swimming is body position. Keep a good, low head position; and effectively rotating the shoulder and hip makes the body more streamlined and efficient in the water.
During their lunch-time swims, Van der Merwe works on technique for only around 5% of the time; the rest of the session is spent on fitness. “It’s tough to focus on technique in a squad; we often advise our athletes to have a few one-on-one sessions to concentrate on technique.” Fourie focuses on the basics when it comes to newbie swimmers. “In the beginning, a newbie isn’t going to swim a lot – maybe 500m in an hour; but it’s important to entrench the right stroke,” says Fourie, who is a certified Ironman coach.
Van der Merwe’s favourite drill is the shark fin: while extending the left arm out ahead of you, drag your right hand alongside your body and up past your ear (the high elbow in this position looks like a shark’s fin). Then switch sides. The drill forces the head to track better in the water, and helps you get the hang of rotating your body effectively.
The biggest mistake beginner swimmers make is trying to force the stroke, by kicking too fast and turning the arms over too quickly. Van der Merwe focuses on slowing the stroke down and getting maximum distance per stroke. “We start with counting the strokes across the pool, and then trying to reduce the number. Initially we’ll take 20 strokes across the 25m pool, but the goal is to get it down to 18 or lower,” she says. “Swimming is all about efficiency.”
In triathlon, open-water swimming is one of the biggest challenges facing newbie swimmers. Fourie always encourages his swimmers to take part in the regular sea swims in nearby Gordon’s Bay, while the squad also swims in dams and puts on mini triathlons in the pool. “For 80% of the newbies, swimming is their biggest fear,” he says. “When we do mini tri’s in the pool, we try and recreate the swim start of a triathlon by using kick boards to create waves. It’s important to know what to do when you get a kick in the ribs or swallow water during the swim.”
If you do swallow a big gulp of water during an open water swim, Jansen advises his athletes not to turn over and do backstroke, but to resort to breaststroke until you’ve got your breath back. “Going into backstroke, you increase your chances of swallowing another mouthful of water.”
The most important equipment you need for swimming – other than your costume, goggles and cap – is a kick board and fins. They are key tools to working on your swimming efficiency.
If you’re new to the sport of triathlon – and swimming in particular – always start on the outside edge of the swim start, to ensure the clearest water. Fourie advises only his proficient swimmers to mix it up in the middle of the swim washing machine. “It may be longer in distance, but being out of the washing machine of arms makes things far easier when it comes to control and rhythm.”
For more advanced swimmers, swimming behind a faster swimmer – or even better, with your head next to their hip – reduces the effort needed to move forward. “It can be up to 30% easier swimming behind, or on the hip, of a faster swimmer,” Van der Merwe says. “But it’s something you have to practise.”
Looks can be deceiving when it comes to swimming. Technique trumps brute strength every time, and Van der Merwe is quick to acknowledge this: “We have a girl in our squad who swam for Maties, and she can cruise effortlessly at 1:10 per 100m pace. I always tell people, there’s hope in swimming… it’s not how big your muscles are.”
Safety is a key component of STS’s cycling philosophy. Van der Merwe admits that she was amazed at how many newbies simply couldn’t manage the basics of cycling. “But if someone hasn’t taught you how to ride properly and safely, then how are you supposed to know?” she says. “Girls, especially, are afraid on the bike when they start.”
Spending time on the bike is a key factor for both cycling fitness and confidence. STS do regular group rides, and focus on ensuring that everyone follows the rules of safe riding. “If you don’t follow the rules, then you get a warning,” she says. “It’s for everyone’s benefit.” Those rules include only passing other riders on the right, and alerting riders behind you if there’s a hazard – such as a dog or a pothole – up ahead.
Fourie likes to finish long rides with some power work. After a long ride, he’ll encourage his athletes to drop down a couple of gears and focus on more power, rather than just relying on cardio fitness. Riding a bigger gear at a lower cadence towards the end of a long ride helps train the body to be less fatigued at the end of the ride, gives the cardiovascular system a chance to recover, and can help make for a stronger run.
STS focuses on shorter rides and intervals during the week, and longer, slower outings on the weekends.
STS encourages their athletes to train with heart-rate monitors. Especially initially; as athletes get more experienced, they can run on feel, and understand what ‘easy’ really means.
“Every athlete is very different. Some guys can handle 180km a week, and others 80km a week,” says Van der Merwe. “It’s important to know that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to training.”
Flora Duffy’s biggest improvement in the run came when she started to work on her form. They always encourage their runners to run off-road and avoid hard surfaces such as tar. “It really helps to prevent injury, and makes the runner stronger,” says Fourie.
Van der Merwe believes in the 80-20 rule of training polarisation. In other words, 80% of your training needs to be below 70% of your maximum while the other 20% is ‘proper hard’.
Van der Merwe has learnt that you can’t always push, push, push! “You need a strong aerobic base, so that when you do the hard sessions you’re ready and rested,” she says. “Right now, I’m probably training half of what I was when I was a full-time pro; but because I’m training correctly, my run times are about the same. You have to learn to train easy so you can train hard.”
For many athletes, training slowly 80% of the time can be frustrating; but both Van der Merwe and Fourie love it when their athletes start to see the improvements, and realise that the training is working. “An athlete will be running at 7min/km at 70% of his heart rate, and then a month later be running 5:40 – at the same heart rate,” Van der Merwe says. “They start to see that it works.”
“Cobus’ favourite phrase is ‘slower, slower, slower’. So many athletes train in that ‘in between’ zone.”
STS’s favourite run intervals are 10 x 1km. They do that often in a park, where they can run loops. It’s safe from traffic, and controlled and structured.
Finding the right coach to suit you is key for many athletes, says Van der Merwe. “That’s why there are so many coaches out there – because everyone is different, and responds differently to training,” she says. “A key part of coaching is making sure that the athletes believe in what they’re doing; otherwise, you’re wasting your time.”
The 80-20 principle doesn’t necessarily work in swimming.
Consistency is key. Training throughout the year, month and week results in the biggest improvements. “Yes, we do training specifically for events, but training throughout the year is key. It must become a lifestyle,” says Van der Merwe. “When you look at an athlete like Flora (Duffy), you realise that her success comes from two years of consistent training.” “Training with like-minded individuals is great. It’s a community, and it’s a safe environment. We’re very lucky to have such a great group and facilities.”
“We always advise our younger athletes to stick to the shorter distances. You can do an Ironman or a half Ironman when you’re old and you’ve lost your speed. There’s plenty of time for that.”`
Transitions are a key focus for the STS squad. “I’m very strict on transitions. It’s the little things that make a difference. It seems crazy that you would work so hard on shaving a couple of minutes off your run, but then you sit in the transition zone for five minutes,” says Van der Merwe.
STS organises mini tri’s, where their squad gets the chance to race a short version starting in a pool or a dam. The mini events help sharpen the athletes and get them used to a competitive environment.
The difference between pro and amateur athletes is their dedication. Pro’s have an absolute focus on and discipline in the small things – which, at that level, makes the difference, says Van der Merwe. “They do their stretches, drills, core and recovery… all the stuff that amateur athletes find boring.”
left, below: BIKE HUMOUR For the Stellenbosch Triathlon Squad, training and racing is a lifestyle. They believe that consistency throughout the year is key, and always encourage their athletes to make their sport part of their everyday routine.
left: BIG REACHFor the STS, lunchtime swim sessions focus on technique and a lot of fitness training. The joking and banter help keep swimming sessions fun and interactive, no matter what the skill level.
left: TEAM TRI The STS started off with just seven athletes five years ago, but now has over 170 members, and regularly hosts some of the world’s top stars.
above: NOT SHABBY There can be few places in the world better than Stellenbosch to train for triathlon. The Boland town has been home to many endurance sport world champions over the years.