Why I train to heart rate, not power (or pace).

My first run on the Big Island, Hawaii prior to the Ironman World Championships last year taught me one thing: my race pace in 35 deg heat with high humidity and strong sun is different to my race pace in the much cooler Cape Town which I had left. How did my body tell me this? First my heart rate at race pace was 20 beats higher than it was in Cape Town and second, it told me this by wanting to shut down and seek shade!

Now image I had a training program which told me to run at a given pace – but didn’t take into account the conditions on the day. That session would have been much tougher in the conditions in Hawaii than in Cape Town and would have placed me in completely different training zones, working on different energy systems. It would have been a completely different workout. While doing a number of those sessions per week in Cape Town would have been fine, doing them in Hawaii would have lead me to exhaustion and over-training.

The same is true on a bike. Training to a given power can vary the intensity of the same session from a day to day basis – depending on a number of factors including how tired I am, the weather, if I am dehydrated or don’t fuel the session properly or may be even if I have an underlying infection and I am getting sick but don’t feel ill yet. What should be a relatively easy session can become much harder due to these factors.

To overcome these external factors I train to heart rate – when it’s hot that means my pace slows down and my power is lower – but I work the right systems and illicit the correct training response. When I am tired or sick or my nutrition is off the mark the same thing happens – I slow down but work at the right heart rate. I do use power and pace to measure progress: over time I can compare similar sessions to see what power (or pace) a given heart rate resulted in – which in my eyes, is the real measure of progress.

To go faster in a long distance race you don’t need to produce huge amounts of power, you have to produce that power efficiently, that is with less effort, and I use my heart rate as a proxy for effort. If I can produce the same power at a lower heart rate then, all other things being equal, I can hold that power for longer. So I train to improve my efficiency by making sure I am training the right systems as often as possible.

So in short, I train to heart rate and use power and pace to measure progress.

Train Well – The Magic Ingredients, Part 1: MAF Training

In my previous blog post I mentioned that one of my goals was to “train well”. There are a number of aspects to “training well” in my opinion so over the next few blog posts I am going to talk about what I consider to be “training well”. To begin with, I want to tell you three stories. The first involves little old me, the second, one of the greatest triathletes of all time and the third involved a current professional triathlete who had a breakthrough Kona last year (2015).

I have a history of issues with hamstring injury which makes it difficult / dangerous for me to do high intensity running, specifically track sessions. This injury has at times in the past stopped me from running altogether so I have to be very careful not to push too hard and make the injury flare up again. After Ironman South Africa 2015 I decided to stop doing high intensity running altogether and leading up to 70.3 Durban 2015 I only ran to heart rate – specifically MAF heart rate as defined by Dr. Phill Maffetone (more below), which is 142bpm in my case. All my long runs and my short runs were all done to this heart rate. Slowly, over time I noticed a progression in my pace running at 142bpm: I went from 5:30 per km at the beginning to 4:45 per km closer to the race. During the race in Durban I ran a PB for a half marathon of 1:38. This was not only a PB for a half marathon during a triathlon, but a PB for a half marathon, triathlon or not. Again, I did this while doing no hard running.

Mark Allen is considered one of the greatest triathletes of all time. He is most well known for winning 6 Ironman World Championships but he also dominated shorter (higher intensity) races during his day. The thing is, out of season his training mates used to think he was getting slow. He would frequently be dropped when riding with others and do a lot of his training by himself, at his own pace. Then when the season came around, suddenly things changed and he sped up dramatically, dropping everyone else (literally everyone!) and winning 6 x Kona and 10 x Nice International Championships (probably the equivalent of Kona back in the day but less important with the passage of time). Now the question is: what was he doing? Mark Allen was coached by Phil Maffetone – he would train to his MAF heart rate out of season, building a massive endurance engine and then when the season came around he would layer on power and speed and school everyone.

Timothy O’Donnell is one of the most successful triathletes of our time. Although he has not (yet) won Kona he won the 2009 ITU Long Distance championships and has won numerous Ironman races. Tim started working with Mark Allen in 2014. In a number of interviews since both Tim and Mark have referred to a “gap” in Tim’s previous training – although he is a professional triathlete and has years of endurance training behind him, his endurance base was letting him down. Mark and Tim then worked together to do a significant amount of training to address this imbalance, which seems to have worked. Tim disappeared off the front of the bike in Kona 2015 wondering why everyone else was going so slow and eventually managed to hold on for third, considered by many a breakthrough performance. What did Tim do to make a difference? He followed Marks guidance and worked at this magic MAF heart rate.

So how do you find out about this magic little ingredient? The best source, is the man himself, Dr. Phil Maffetone and you can read all about him and his magic 180 formula here. Simply put the ingredient is to train as much as possible at your MAF heart rate until you plateau and then shake things up. This explanation probably leads to more questions than answers for example:

  1. Should I train to this heart rate on the bike and run?
    Yes, yes you should. It will be hard to keep your heart rate down to this rate while running and hard to get your heart rate up to this level while on the bike but you still need to do it. Over time your body will adapt: your legs will become stronger and your running efficiency improve. This will make it easier to run / cycle at your MAF heart rate. Dr. Phil is quite adamant about this – there are no exceptions.
  2. How do I know if it is working?
    Do a MAF test. This is explained on Dr. Phil’s website and is the best way of measuring your progression.
  3. But I’m getting slower at my MAF heart rate!
    The Maffetone method is a holistic method. If you are getting slower (or not improving, or improving slowly) you need to look beyond your training. Are you sick? Are you eating well? Have you been more stressed than normal? Are you injured? Any of these problems could lead to a lack of improvement in performance or even a regression in performance.
  4. I’ve improved a lot but now I’m at a plateau. What now?
    There are a number of possible things to look at: is your diet helping you or hindering you? You could also have achieved your maximum current performance at your MAF and you may now need to shake it up by doing some more intensity or something else different.

The key take away from this story is that many of of can improve by working on our endurance base, with specific work done at MAF heart rate. It’s not as glamorous as smashing out a tough run session of dropping everyone in a group ride, but if your goal is to race as fast as possible, there is a good chance you can get faster but working at MAF heart rate.

Targeting Kona 2017

In 2015 I was lucky enough to race in Kona for the first time. It was a dream come true and in many ways the culmination of the past 7 years of work. While the experience (including the race experience) was beyond anything I could have hoped for the race itself left a lot of unfinished business, so many “what-if’s” that I feel a deep down urge to return to the big Island and see how fast I can go. This is not a normal hunger. This is primal.

So, how do I get back? Being the naturally logical person that I am I have deconstructed my race and my current abilities to identify what I need to improve, and I am now in the process of implementing a plan to get faster. This blog and subsequent entries will be going into some details about how I am approaching this journey, but I’ll give you a teaser now:


  1. Pick races well
    For most of us, qualifying for Kona is no walk in the park and it is only getting more difficult. Races which in 2015 had 50 slots now have 40 making it that much more difficult. I am still in the biggest and one of the fastest age groups so will need to be quick and pick races which suit my relative strengths. For example, flat windy courses would suit me more than hot hilly courses (because of my relative size and absolute power versus power to weight ratio). I am also not putting all my eggs in one basket. If I miss qualification at my first try, I would like to have a plan B and a plan C in place. Not because I plan to fail, but because I would like to avoid failing to plan. More on this in a coming blog entry.
  2. Train well
    This is obvious: I need to put in the work. But I also want to make sure that the work that I put in is the right work. I want to make the most of every training session and every drop of sweat. I know my weaknesses and I will be working on them until they are no longer weaknesses, then I will repeat. I will not miss out on qualifying because I did not train hard or intelligently enough.
  3. Maximize the return on my training investment
    Everyone aiming to qualify will be determined and training hard. But will they all be doing the little things outside of training that give them the extra few (legal) percent? I will be using my soon to be released platform (http://fitenso.com) to track my health, training / life load and habits. I will be using this platform to make sure that I am dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” – leaving no stone unturned etc. Here’s a sneak peak of my secret weapon:


Today I just wanted to get started on documenting my journey towards my 2017 goal. I hope you check back every so often to see how I am doing. I promise to try be as open, honest and candid as possible which should make for some good drama, so grab some popcorn, it’s going to be an awesome ride!


Durban 70.3 Race Report – Being Perfect

“Being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you, and your relationship to yourself and your family and your friends. Being perfect, is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down, because you told them the truth. And that truth is that you did everything that you could – there wasn’t one more thing that you could’ve done. Can you live in that moment? As best you can with clear eyes and love in your heart. With joy in your heart. If you can do that – you’re perfect!”

– Coach Gary Gaines (Friday Night Lights, 2004)

Brief Race Report
My goal for this race was to try to be perfect as explained in the quote above. I knew that the competition would be tough and I would have loved to be on the age group podium but given the number of my competitors who run a half marathon in under 1hr30 I knew that would be a stretch. In the end the stretch was too far and I was 7 minutes off the podium, but what I can say is that I did everything I could. I pushed on the swim, I hammered hard on the bike and I held on for the run. I was particularly proud of how I managed to run the second lap of the run as I held a consistent pace from the beginning of the run to the end and ended up setting a PB for a half marathon, either as part of a triathlon or standalone (1hr38). I also set a new PB for a 70.3 completing the 1.9km swim, 90km bike and 21.1km run in 4h38.
Long Race Report
This was the first race I have done where there was a wave start in which competitors are sent into the water 10 at a time. I found it to to quite effective and it definitely reduced the stress of a mass start so I think I am a fan of the approach going forward. The one draw back is that you don’t know where you are relative to your competition as you cannot tell who started when and therefore what anyone’s elapsed time is. Wave starts turn the race into more of a time trial.
The conditions were pretty tough with big waves and a strong back / side wash. I have the greatest respect for anyone who completed this triathlon as those conditions were pretty brutal. I felt like I was pushing pretty hard but my pace was for some reason well below what I can normally swim in a pool (and when not in a wetsuit). I was 14th in my age group after the swim.
This was pretty uneventful except for the fact that I couldn’t find my bike. It was exactly where I had left it but for some reason I ran straight past it. After wasting a bit of time I was relieved to eventually find it and be on my way.
Because of my slow swim (and the wave start) there were a lot of people ahead of me on the road. This made it quite fun to ride up behind each person then slingshot my way around them. I pushed pretty hard from the start – occasionally checking my (normalized) power to ensure that it was in about the right zone. I had checked before the race what I power I had pushed in Mont Tremblant last year (both normalized and average) and given my FTP test results before Mont Tremblant and before this race I knew I was in about the same bike shape, if not a little better so I was pretty comfortable pushing on. It felt like a long way to the turnaround point (35k) and I wondered if I would be able to hold my power but soon after the turnaround the same power just felt easier so I just kept pushing. I had no idea what speed I was doing and my heart rate monitor was reading incorrectly so I just kept going on feel and occasionally the motivation of chasing down people / groups ahead of me. In the end my bike power was spot on based on my testing and I completed the 90k on 2hr20 at an average speed of 38.5kph. I finished the bike in position 3 in my age group.
This was less dramatic than T1 as there was less for me to lose. I changed shoes, popped into the loo and was on my way.
The first part of a triathlon run is always the same for me. I run way faster than I should as I am used to the speed off the bike and then I wonder why running is such hard work. Once I realised that 4:15/km pace was unsustainable for me (after about 2km) I settled into a more comfortable pace (I ran the remainder of the run on feel as I didn’t want to limit what I could do by knowing my pace). My legs felt fine but my back and arms hurt quite a lot (I’ve had lots of back pain recently). I didn’t know anything about the run course before the race so for the first lap everything was a discovery. I loved the public interaction and managed to avoid the kids on scooters while drawing energy from the crowd and other participants. It had a good time chatting to people and high-5-ing random strangers while running past. I kept thinking through the first lap about how the race was about to begin – my challenge, my goal of being perfect was about to begin and I loved it.
I am eternally grateful to be able to push my limits, to be able to swim, bike and run and to be in a position where even though my body is screaming for me to stop my mind allows me to continue.
The second lap was tough. It was hard. It hurt. A lot. And I loved it! I managed to hold my pace to complete the half marathon in a PB time of 1hr38 at an average pace of 4:40. This was well faster than my wildest dreams! I don’t think I would have got close to that time had I known what pace I was running as it was so much better than any previous race I have done. If you had asked me on Saturday what pace I could hold for a 21k I would have said 4:50, at best. Another thing to note is that I made sure to slow down (and sometimes walk) at aid stations to take on cooling sponges, water, coke and anything else I felt like. I know this lost me some time at each aid station but the fact that I could get things under control and take on nutrition and cooling properly means I could run faster between the aid stations.
Congratulations for making it this far 🙂 While I didn’t make the podium (an outcome goal) I gave it my all (an input goal) and therefore I am very happy with the race. As I get older I’m getting faster so what else could I ask for?

Kona Prep – The long road continues

It’s been quite a while since my last past but to be honest, not much has been happening. I’ve been training pretty consistently save for the odd cold when I push too hard or, it seems to be, when I get too cold!

I have been doing some heat acclimation by putting a tumble dryer and heater in a small room and doing some of my easier bike sessions there. What seems strange is that my legs seem to work way better in this heat than they do in the cold outside. I take this as a good sign for Hawaii.

I have made good progress over the past couple of months: my bike power is almost back to it’s peak from January this year and I think my run and swim may be faster than ever. I have a real test in two weeks at Durban 70.3 where all the SA guys who beat me at either East London 70.3 or Ironman SA earlier this year will be racing (I’ve stalked them already :-)). I am really looking forward to the race as the course should suit me – it’s warm, fast and flat – and I have a specific goal in mind to surprise some of those guys.

My focus over this last period of training has been on the following:

  1. Train consistently
  2. Recover well
  3. Do test sets to measure performance

With this in mind that I have been working on an website to track my recovery and performance (Training Peaks tracks my training so nothing else is needed there). In due course I would like to release this website to the public but first I want to make it as effective as possible in order to maximise my performance in my race in Hawaii.

I have found that working on this website brings a balance to my life too – I need this balance as without it I would probably be impossible to live with. Having this physical / mental balance means my typical week day looks as follows:

7:00am Get out of bed
7:10am Eat breakfast while checking e-mails / social media / the internet
7:30am Begin to work on my website. I generally work until a) it gets warm enough outside to train or b) I get mentally tired (coding can be very mentally taxing)
10:30am  Begin first training session
12:30pm Recovery shake and lunch
1:30pm Continue to work on my app
4:00pm Snack then begin second training session
7:00pm Training done so it’s time for dinner and spend some time with Cindy

Each day is pretty repetitive but in my view quite balanced. I am finding this routine works really well for me as by the time I have had enough mentally I begin training the time I have had enough training I return to thinking.

Aloha 🙂

Kona Prep – Week 3

Last week I completed 20:36 out of a scheduled 21:30 hours of training. The difference came from riding faster than scheduled on my long ride and swim sessions where my Garmin only counted moving time not time in the water. It was a tough week.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to maximize my performance. Certain things are given like train properly, recover properly, eat properly and sleep properly – but what happens if I am leaving time on the course through things which are easy to correct? For example could my swim stroke be improved so that I can go faster without extra effort? Is my bike position optimized? What really got me thinking about this is a photo from 0995_019953IMSA 2015 (earlier this year) in which I look very aero and efficient – to most people – however each time I look at the photo all I see are the creases on my sleeves. I’m wearing an aero top to minimize drag but not making sure the top is smooth negates many of the benefits of this top. It’s all these little details which add up to make a difference on race day. It may only make a difference of seconds but those seconds can be the difference between reaching my goals and missing them. I have decided to go on a quest to get hold of whatever “free speed” I can get my hands on. This includes making sure my bike top sleeves are smooth among other things. Over the next little while I want to focus on the following:

  1. Make sure my bike position is optimized
  2. Tweak my swim stroke to get faster / more efficient
  3. Increase my running cadence to reduce the forces through my body on each stride

One final note which I will probably touch on again in future: whoever thought being a full time athlete was an easy life wasn’t referring to being a full time triathlete! It’s exhausting!

Kona Prep: Week 2

It’s not the individual sessions that make you tired but the consistency of load, session after session, week after week. My training is divided into blocks of 4 weeks, 3 of which get progressively more difficult and then there is a recovery week which is slightly easier (but not easy by any stretch of the imagination). I am in the middle of a build block at the moment having completed 18h34 training last week which I think was about an hour or so more that the previous week. This week I am scheduled to do around 22hrs training so you can see how things get serious, fast.

I think for many people on the outside looking in it is difficult to comprehend this level of training as they inevitably ask how many hours you spend training but what they don’t know to ask is how do you recover. And that is the key – you cannot train like this unless you take recovery as seriously as training. And eating, which I suppose for me is part of recovery. Recovery is at least as important as the load you put on your body as training breaks your body down but it is during recovery that you get fitter (the process is something called super compensation). The problem is that while training takes a few hours a day, recovery takes the balance of the day and is affected by everything else you do in life. Want to go out late? Sorry, I can’t as I need my sleep. Want to have a drink? Sorry I can’t as I won’t be able to train effectively in the morning.

I guess what I am saying is that when you are training at this level you are always training in one way or another – there is no off time, no off days. Yes I am the first to admit that I lapse often and frequently but every time I do there are consequences so to be the best I can be I have to minimise these lapses. And take sleep seriously.

Kona Prep: Week 1

Last week I moved from unstructured training (training without a set program) to structured training (with a set program). When doing unstructured training I was doing what I wanted, when I wanted, but now I am doing what my program says. This means that I have changed from probably one session per day to up to three sessions per day and from 7h37 training two weeks ago to 16h52 last week. It also means I am tired and sore.

I am still in a base building phase which means most of my sessions are designed to help me cover the distance efficiently not race faster. As I move closer to my first race of the new season (Durban 70.3) I will add in more strength / power sessions to make me faster but for the next while my focus is on low intensity efficiency.

The exceptions to this base building have been the test sessions which I have done. First was a swim test which involves a 400m then a 200m both done flat out. My times from both are then taken and loaded into a formula to arrive at a figure which is my CSS or critical swim threshold. This figure (1min19sec in my case) is then used as the basis for most of my swim sessions, so for example last night I did 8x150m at CSS for my main set in the session (after doing 20×25 butterfly so it was not easy!). Today there will be more CSS work and so on.

The other test that I did was a bike FTP (Funtional Threshold Power) test. This basically is a way of estimating the most amount of power you can put into the bike for a 1 hour effort. When I was in shape earlier this year this figure sat at around 335w whereas now it is more like 280w. I have a long way to go on bike strength but it will come.

The other thing that happened last week is I finally had a scan done on my hamstring which showed that I have a chronic hamstring tear. This is the root cause of the pain I have in my left leg every time I run more than about 9km and was a severe restrictor at Ironman SA earlier this year. The good thing is I finally have a diagnosis and the better thing is that I don’t have to stop training, instead I have been given a program of hamstring strengthening exercises to work through to try improve things. I then need to report back to the doctor in about 6 weeks to see how things are progressing.

As many people know I am no longer working. This is good for training in many ways but also requires extreme discipline to now just sit around all day and do nothing. The balance I am striving for is 4 hours study / work on my own project per day and then do whatever training I need to do around this. A lot of people think that if you have more time you can fit in more training but the reality is that if you have more time you can fit in more recovery – especially sleep. The major difference between many top age groupers and professionals is that the pro’s have more time to recover between sessions as they don’t have to run off to a job every day.

For me this means that I have to be very disciplined in getting enough sleep as well as putting the computer down and taking care of myself generally. Joe Friel just published a blog article on this which can be found here. One of the challenges I have put to myself during this time is to do everything I can to optimise performance which is more than training, it’s living a life of balance and aiming at holistic performance. More on that to come.

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