Squad Goals

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…

Runner's World South Africa - - CONTENTS - BY MIKE FINCH

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.

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