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2014 in Review: Obstacle Course Racing, Triathlon, CrossFit, Climbing and More

January 1st, 2015
CMC for blog

Sandbag carry, Civilian Military Combine (CMC) 2014

Some years are better than others and when it comes to fitness, 2014 was definitely a great year for me—one in which I achieved my goals I set out to do and had new adventures. Perhaps the most exhilarating was my deeper exploration of the sport of obstacle course racing (OCR). I first started with the sport in 2013, but took things up a notch in 2014. I completed seven OCR races in 2014, including qualifying for and competing in the OCR World Championship in Cincinnati, Ohio. Other highlight races of the year included the Civilian Military Combine and the Vermont Spartan Beast—a 16.5 mile event on the slopes of Mount Killington, VT that included 18,000 feet of elevation change (can you say shredded quads?).  I also completed the Spartan Boston Sprint and Spartan TriState New Jersey Super, earning the Spartan Trifecta along the way.

Obstacle course racing has been a natural extension of my triathlon and endurance sports background, allowing me to push new boundaries and further fuel my passion of integrating variety into training and competing. I’m a firm believer of true multi-sport training, focusing on different sports that will enable you to enjoy the outdoors, get fit and push your physical and mental development. OCR does this in a great way, mixing trail running and a variety of movements—climbing, crawling, throwing, etc.—all while forcing you to stay focused mentally.

spartan certBeyond competing as an athlete in the sport of OCR, I also decided to pursue my certification as a coach, specifically with the Spartan organization. The Spartan SGX coaching certification, which I achieved in the fall, complements my United States Triathlon (USAT) Level 1 coaching certificationCrossFit Level 1 trainer and CrossFit Endurance trainer credentials. The Spartan SGX coaching certification focuses on preparing athletes with the skills they will need to compete in the sport, including physical training, nutrition, mental preparation, and skill development specific to OCR.

My love for other sports and dedication to coaching athletes in other sports also continued in 2014, particularly with triathlon and endurance sports.  In addition to re-certifying as a USAT coach for my 12th year of triathlon coaching in 2014, I completed my 18th half Ironman race at the New England TriFest in Vermont, opened the season for the third straight year at the South Beach Triathlon in Miami and completed PR’d my half marathon time at the Earth Rock Run Half Marathon. I also continued to have swimming, biking and running, coupled with CrossFit, serve as the foundation of my training. The early morning swims at Walden Pond continued, including swimming deep into October—the latest in the season I’ve ever gone!

Gary Ice Climbing

Climbing a frozen waterfall, New Hampshire

Winter sports also remain at the center of my fitness training, with lots of ice climbing, skate skiing and alpine backcountry skiing being done last winter. I managed to get 15 days of skate skiing in at Great Brook State Park (which is laudable I have to admit given the short amount of time snow lasts these days in the Greater Boston area). I also had a goal of skiing down Tuckerman’s Ravine headwall (finally), but multiple attempts were foiled due to extreme weather. I did manage to climb in many of my favorite spots in New Hampshire, including Champney Falls, the Flume, Frankenstein cliffs, Arethusa Falls, as well as in Huntington Ravine. There’s still nothing more exhilarating than hanging off of a fat, frozen waterfall on a bluebird-sky day in the middle of the winter!

So, I look back at 2014 as perhaps one of the best years of my life for fitness. I plan on making 2015 even better with a slate of events and activities planned around obstacle course racing, triathlon, running, biking, swimming, CrossFit, ice climbing and mountaineering (Karakoram finally perhaps?).  I also look forward to continuing to evolve as a coach, working closely with my athletes to help them achieve their goals and improve performance.  Stay tuned!

5 Steps to Planning Out Next Year’s Triathlon Season

October 25th, 2009

488308180_9072dc3480The 2009 triathlon season is now in the history books. It’s time to start planning for next season.

Most triathletes enter the off season with no plan or just a semblance of a plan (“I’ll just work out every day– swim 2 times a week, bike 2 times and run 2 times. 2 weight workouts too.”). This type of plan is perhaps okay for someone whose never raced before and just getting off the couch (having a rough plan is better than no plan at all for these folks), but unfortunately, for most triathletes– beginner or professional, this type of plan won’t cut it. You need something that’s going to build on your current athletic capabilities.

Planning, however, doesn’t need to be all time-consuming. If you’re lucky (and smart) enough to be working with a coach, then you’re 10 steps ahead of everyone else. Your coach will make it simple for you and provide the expertise in mapping out next year’s season. If you’re a self-coached athlete, you have a lot more to think about. Even for non-coached athletes, it doesn’t have to be a super-complex and time-consuming exercise.

Get out a piece of paper, a calendar and pen, and do these five things to plan out next year’s season:

  1. Establish your training goals- Having clear, well-defined goals is the key for success in any triathlon season. Goals give you something to shoot for and if mapped out properly, will keep you motivated. Your goals will drive all other aspects of your training (objectives, races, volume, instensity, etc.), so spending the time thinking about them is absolutely essential. Your goals should be realistic and measurable. If you’re an experienced athlete, your goals will probably be a continuation of the goals you had mapped out as part of your macrocycle or multi-year plan. Most of the time, however, even these goals change– it’s difficult to predict 4-5 years in advance what you will be doing, so it’s important to spend the time re-stating the goals to your current situation. Be sure to factor in your assessment of your last season. For beginner athletes, you should spend the time thinking about your larger, multi-year goals, and then map them out progressively over a realisitic time period, which will determine next year’s goals. Typically, it’s good to have about 3-5 goals. They should be a good mix of physiological, nutritional and mental skills goals– in other words, well-balanced. Of course they don’t have to be, particular if you feel that you are strong in one area, such as nutrition. Some sample goals include: “To complete Ironman USA in less than 10 hours and in the top 10 of my age group.” or “To lose 15 lbs. by March 2010”. These goals are realistic (for the given athlete), clear and measurable. Write your goals down!
  2. Outline your training objectives- Once you’ve got your goals set, write down your objectives. Objectives are essentially milestones that will measure how you will achieve those goals. You should have clearly defined objectives that will measure your progress towards your goals throughout the season. For instance, if you state your goal is to “Finish in the top 5 of my age group in the Patriot Half Ironman and Timberman Half Ironman races”, then you’re going to want to have objectives that are going to allow you to measure progression towards this goal. You’ll need to start by understanding what times you will need to achieve to finish top 5 in each of bike legs of those races, then calculate the pace you will need to obtain. Let’s say that it is 24 mph over the course of the 56 miles. At that point, you’ll want to set objectives throughout the season to achieve that goal based upon the period you are in. For instance, in your Base period you’re not going to want to have an overly aggressive objective. Instead, you may have an objective such as “Hold 90 rpm at 350 watts for 15 minutes by January 15, 2010”. You could map that to a specific workout or do it in a race. I typically map out 1-3 objectives per goal for my athletes (all based on personalized and realistic measurements), which I think is fair and achievable. I also don’t map out the objectives until I get a clear understanding of how the athlete performs (typically after the first set of baseline tests I do with him or her), and I also make sure the objectives are fluid– meaning that I will change them based upon how the athlete is executing against his or her workouts. The objectives serve as nice motivators for a coach to motivate an athlete, as well as for a self-coach athlete to have their own motivation and understanding of how they are progressing towards their goals.
  3. Sign up for your races- Now that you have your goals and objectives outlined (and undoubtedly these are tied to specific races or events), you need to go sign up for these events. This seems obvious, but I can’t tell you how many athletes I’ve coached had to change their races (and their goals) for the season because their races filled up. They often think “I’ll do Ironman Canada next year”, but by the time they have thought of that, the race is filled. Triathlon is one of the fastest growing sports worldwide and every year it gets harder and harder to get into races. This is especially true for Ironman races, which you often need to register one year in advance. That’s why it’s important to have a macro plan for your training (or a multiyear plan), as well as a clear and adaptive approach to your next year’s plan. Go to the website for your event, and register online. If the event is filled, check out comparable events that would work for you that may be in the same time frame.
  4. Map out the different periods (or phases) of your year- Now we’re getting in to the “nuts and bolts” of your year. I’m a big believer in the concept of periodization, which provides athletes with not only a strong structure for training, but more importantly, a sound and proven methodology for performing optimally. So, get out a calendar and do the following: mark down your races on the calendar. Circle the “A” races, or the races that you’ll be going all out on (you shouldn’t have more than 1 of these per year if you’re a beginner triathlete and definitely no more than 2 if you are an advanced triathlete). Depending upon the distance of the race, countback 1-4 weeks (for Ironman races, it should be 3-4 weeks and for shorter races less than that)– that period of time is your “Peak” period. From the beginning of the Peak period, you’re going to want to count back in blocks of 4 weeks. Each block will represent a ‘period’ (or phase) of your training where you will vary your volume and intensity (which you will do in step 5 below). The earlier in the training, the less volume and intensity (“Base” periods) and the closer you are to the Peak period the greater the volume and intensity (“Build”, “Competition”, or “Excel” periods– will vary by name). Once you’ve marked out these periods, you’re ready to figure out volume and intensity you should achieve in those periods for the year.
  5. Assign weekly volume and intensity- Now you are ready to figure out volume (or how much or hours per week) and intensity (or how hard you will go, measured by heart rate instensity (and/or other measures, such as watts on the bike) per period. Volume and instensity are functions of many things– experience of the athlete, races or events planned, time the athlete has to train, and others– so both will vary greatly by athlete. The basic concept is to gradually build up enough volume and intensity over time with your training so that your body can adapt and grow stronger– otherwise known as progressive overload. I’m not going to spend a lot of time addressing progressive overload here, but it’s a critical and fundamental concept that you will need to be familiar with to plan out your training adquately. In general, the earlier in your training (“Base” periods), you will want less volume and intensity and the later in your training (“Build”, “Competition”, or “Excel” periods), the greater the volume and instensity. The “Peak” period should be a time of “tapering” or reduced volume and intensity to get you ready for your “A” race. Assign volume by number of hours per week, and intensity by percentage of total time spent in a given heart rate (you will need to determine your heart rate zones per sport to adquately be able to measure this). For instance, let’s say you are racing a Half Ironman race. In your first Base period, you will want to plan something like 10 hours per week, with an intensity of about 25% in heart rate zone 1, 60% in heart rate zone 2 and 15% in heart rate zone 3. You will want to gradually increase the number of hours (volume) as you progress into the next period (and the period after that), as well as change your heart rate zone percentage ratios. This not only will change from period to period, but may also change from week to week within a given period. You will want to plan every 4th week of each 4 week block as a “Rest and Recovery” or “R&R” week to give your body adquate time to recover and rest. In other words, the 4th week of your training in a given period should have about a 40-50% reduction in volume, and a slight shift in the intensity ratios towards lower heart rate zones. Once you have your volume and intensity efforts mapped out per period, you have successfully mapped out your season!

The above 5 steps will get you to your plan for the upcoming triathlon season. I’ve tried to simplify it down to make it easy for you to create your own plan. That being stated, there are definitely complexities involved that require you to have some level of understanding about training fundamentals. I’d highly recommend reading up on these topics or getting in touch with someone that could help you out. I’m definitely happy to answer any questions you may have or to work with you in creating a plan that works for you.

Five Keys to Improving Your Ice Climbing Skills

March 18th, 2009

The conditions continue to be great for climbing up in northern New England, so I’ve delayed my long weekend training for the upcoming triathlons to take advantage of some ice. We ended up back at the Flume, hoping to catch a climb at the Pool called Swain’s Pillar, a 4+ climb, but unfortunately it is exposed in the sun and got baked out (not to mention the riverbed was exposed). It would have been a great climb had it been in since you need to be lowered to it and climb up a nice ice pillar. As a result, we hiked around to the main crag at the Flume and climbed some grade 3 ice (which is normally grade 4, but given the warm temps and soft ice, it was more like a 3). We found an ice cave along the way (see videos below).

While climbing (and often times battling) up the climbs this weekend at the Flume, I got thinking about what it takes to improve your ice climbing skills. I think it boils down to five main things:

1. Natural ability– okay, this is something that is out of your control, but there’s no doubt if if you are a natural athlete and a natural climber, you will be a better climber. There are things you can do to fine tune your natural ability, which is where the next four come into play.

2. Practice, practice, practice– I firmly believe how you progress is a function of how often you go. The more you go, the better you become. This seems like a no-brainer, but climbing is one of those things that takes coordination and planning to do, so you need to be focused in terms of when you’re going to go. If you go once a week, don’t expect to see much improvement. Twice a week is much better, allowing the muscles a chance to adapt and you to work on your skills.

3. Rock climbing– You will only get better at ice climbing if you rock climb. With rock climbing, you cannot make your own holds, and you are forced to think about your moves and get your body into the right sequence. These skills are directly transferable to ice climbing, particularly on harder, more sustained and/or mixed routes.

4. Strength training– Climbing itself will allow you to become stronger, but you need to supplment it with a regular regiment of strength training. You don’t have to load on the weight, but rather work on more power movements that simulate climbing. It’s not about bulking up, but rather building explosive power.

5. Mental skills– Climbing more than any other sport perhaps, is a mental game. The reasons should be obvious– you’re dealing with a number of conditions that aren’t natural for humans all at once– being up high, ice in your face, getting balance and moving upward, often times extreme cold and wind, among other things. This requires you to tune your mind to deal with the adversity and remain focused.

Certainly there are other things that you can do to improve your ice climbing skills, but at an individual level, these are the main five.

The Case for Winter: Multisport at it’s Best

January 28th, 2009

gary-ice-climbingI’m a huge fan of the winter. It’s a great time to diversify your workout routine, get outside and explore. I have many friends and colleagues who don’t like winter, mainly because they choose to hibernate. (Hibernation is for bears). I also have many friends (and some clients), who continue to do the same activities they do in the summer, except they do it indoors on a machine. Don’t get me wrong– it’s important to continue to train your sport year round depending upon what your goals and objectives are (I myself spend lots of time on my bike trainer and in the pool during the winter), but at the same time, it’s important to supplement those workouts with other activities to challenge your body in new ways, vary up your normal activities thus making it more interesting, as well as take advantage of the conditions are around you. There’s no better opportunity to do so than the winter.

If you’re a triathlete, a runner, a cyclist, a swimmer or any other type of endurance athlete, here are some ideas for winter outdoor activities that you can do:

1. Nordic skiing– There’s possibly no better exercise in the winter for endurance athletes. Nordic skiing is a low-impact, full-body workout where it’s easy to manage the intensity levels. I prefer skate skiing since I like the motion and the speed, but classic cross-country skiing is also fantastic. In the winter, I substitute some of my runs with cross country skiing. I also continue to run in the winter, but find skate skiing a good way to break up the routine as well as give my body a break from the pounding of running.

Skate skiing- hight intensity and fun!

Skate skiing- hight intensity and fun!

2. Hiking/snowshoeing– Winter hiking is much more fun than the summer. Not only do you not have the black flies, but there are also fewer people around, not to mention that hiking in the winter is much easier on the body since the snow pack is soft (not hard, like the rocks you typically hike on in the summer). Winter hiking is an aerobic endurance workout, but also an anaerobic endurance workout, especially if you are carrying a pack going up steep terrain. I will often intentionally load up a heavy pack, find a steep mountain (typically in the White of New Hampshire) and feel my hear rate go up and my glutes burn up as I take steps up the peak. While you can choose to go hiking up a mountain, you don’t necessarily need to be gaining vertical height in order to go hiking in the winter. There is great hiking in many cities, mainly in parks. In fact, my wife (in the photo) and I went out for a snowshoe today in Great Brook State Park, which is right outside of Boston. We got a great workout on relatively flat terrain.

Leslie snowshoeing-- great winter workout for endurance atheletes
Leslie snowshoeing– great winter workout for endurance atheletes

3. Backcountry skiing– One of the best (and most fun) winter activities is backcountry skiing (skiing at a resort is okay if you conditions in the backcountry aren’t good). Backcountry skiing develops your aerobic endurance (since most of the time you need to skin up what you’re going to ski down), as well as your strength and balance on the run down (particularly in the backcountry where there are more obstacles you need to manuever around). Living in New England, it’s a bit tough to find great backcountry ski conditions, and when you do, it’s a limited window, so I don’t go as much as I’d like. However, when I do, it’s always a fantastic adventure, and one where I come back exhausted and exhilirated.

4. Ice climbing– “What?!”, you say, “ice climbing?!”. Yes, ice climbing. And, no, it’s not as dangerous as you think. Of course, you need to understand the basics of climbing and how to safely climb. Once you have mastered that, ice climbing is a fantastic aerobic endurance (yes, aerobic), as well as anaerobic endurance workout. Ice climbing develops core strength and balance, as well as forces you to sharpen your mental skills and stamina (many claim that ice climbing is 80% mental). In the winter, I try to ice climb once a week, not only because it’s a great workout, but also it gets you outdoors and to places you wouldn’t otherwise see (such as the ice-filled ravines of Mount Washington, NH).

Climbing at Echo Crag, NH- great aerobic (yes, aerobic) workout

Climbing at Echo Crag, NH- great aerobic (yes, aerobic) workout

I’ve listed just a few activities you can do in the winter– there are certainly many others. What winter outdoor activities do you like?

The Love of Coaching

December 30th, 2008

I am excited to launch my new website in support of Ascend Sports Conditioning (ASC), including a new logo (thanks to Brenda Riddell of Graphic Details!), as well as my new blog, Ascending Higher.The goal of this blog is to inspire.It’s really that simple. Personal coaching of any sort—whether it’s for athletic, nutritional and mental skills training (which is what we do at ASC), life coaching, professional development in the workplace, instruction in the classroom, or any other area, should always aim to inspire the person or people being coached (athletes, employees, students, customers, etc.).Coaching means leadership and leadership means inspiration. I’ll seek to use Ascending Higher as a way to inspire my athletes, but also those who are not my athletes or clients and who are seeking to learn something new about multisport.That something new could be a variety of things, such as new training techniques and workouts, nutritional program design, mental skills training, great areas to train and climb in New England or around the world, race reports, what I have found inspirational in my own daily life in training and events, or a whole number of other multisport adventure topics.Comments and feedback are whole-heartedly welcome, of course.I want this to be a conversation with YOU, so please comment away on any and all of the blog posts and let me know what you’re thinking!
With that stated, I thought a great place to start would to describe why I coach.I think this is a great place to start for two reasons:1) so that you can better understand Ascend Sports Conditioning and what we’re all about, and along the way, 2) help you focus on the key things you should be looking for when selecting a coach.Selecting a coach to work with is a big decision, with the most important factor being how much you can relate to and trust the coach. How you relate to and why you trust the coach is tied directly to what motivates that individual to be a coach.If you can identify with the motivations and reasons why someone coaches, chances are that person would be a good coach for you.
I’ve tried to keep it simple.There are four fundamental reasons why I coach:

Reason #1: A passion for teaching

People always ask me, “So, why do you do it? Why do you coach?”. I never hesitate in my answer, supplying my #1 reason: I love to teach. I love to work with others and help them achieve their goals and do things that they never thought possible.There is nothing more rewarding in life. The most important quality you can have as a coach is being a good teacher—everything else is secondary.I know great, world renowned athletes who are fantastic at their sport, but are not great teachers, and hence they would not make great coaches.Conversely, I know athletes who would consider themselves ‘average to below average’ at their sport, but are fantastic teachers, and hence would make great coaches.While it’s important to have the experience and knowledge of the discipline that you coach (in fact, you can’t coach without that knowledge!), it’s more important to have the skill to successfully communicate that knowledge in a simple, interesting and motivating manner.

Reason #2: Because You CAN do it

When I was growing up, I was not the most athletic person among my peers.In fact, I was often the kid picked last in gym class.Since then, however, I have accomplished many athletic feats, including Ironman triathlon events, scaling high peaks of the Andes, Himalaya and other mountain ranges, cycled countless century rides, and many other things I never thought possible. What drove me was a combination of many things, but mainly confidence in myself. I derived this confidence from self-discipline, but more importantly from interaction with others– from cycling, running and swimming friends, to climbing partners, to supportive friends and family. Through showing me proper technique, going out on long training workouts, urging me to sign up for a variety of events, and being supportive in every way possible, they taught me that I COULD do it. And if I could do it, then anyone could do it! This realization is one of the key things that led me to coaching and what drives me as a coach. With proper self-discipline, good health and an ability to remain injury-free, anyone can achieve any athletic goal they wish, whether it be to complete an Ironman triathlon, run a marathon, or climb to 20,000+ feet. My goal as a coach is to not only supply the physical, nutritional and mental tools for my clients, but also the motivation and reinforcement of self-confidence.

Reason #3: Community and the love of adventure & exploration

Being a multisport coach requires you to maintain a certain level of knowledge and a high level of interaction with athletes, other coaches, and experts in all area of the sport (doctors, physical therapists, nutritionists, etc.). I can leverage the collective intelligence of this community to help my coaching, and at the same time contribute back to this community, helping others along the way.

Being part of this community, however, also has additional important meaning. Simply put, the multisport community is a lot of fun. The folks who are part of this community have an unparalleled zest for life, which you will not find in any other walk of life. There’s an unending desire for adventure and exploration. It’s refreshing and inspirational. It makes you feel alive. There’s an instant, electric connection between people who love do adventure sports. Someone once described it to me: “Once I know someone loves to train hard and get dirty, I know we’ll get along just fine.” I feel the same way. Once I find out someone loves to run, ice climb, kayak, skate ski, or do any other similar adventure activity, I immediately know they share the same attitude and that we have a common bond. Being a coach allows me to not only establish these bonds, but also maintain them and be an integral part of the larger multisport community.

Reason #4: On-going learning

You never stop learning as a coach. This on-going learning is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a coach and one of the main reasons why I do it. I not only continually learn through the formal training and experience I have completed and continue to undertake every year (USA Triathlon, USA Cycling and other courses), but perhaps more importantly, the informal learning I receive from other coaches, experts, as well as my athletes. This on-going learning is critical in a discipline like multisport, where you need to have an understanding of the science and the art of the sport. It’s not only all about heart rate zones, lactate threshold, number of reps and amount of calories, but also the anecdotal lessons learned through experience—the experience of other coaches, experts and athletes. One of the major reasons why I coach is the learning received from these lessons, which enrich me as an individual, and also allow me to be a better, more inspirational coach.

There are lots of other reasons why I love to coach, but most of them would be supporting reasons to the main four outlined above. I am hoping these reasons resonate with you and you will elect to be part of the journey on Ascending Higher.