Thursday, June 11, 2009

Friel's Bible

I had a glorious reading session last night, during which I devoured most of the new edition of Joe Friel's Triathlete's Training Bible (3rd edition; thanks to the excellent Dave Trendler at the also excellent Velo Press for sending me a copy for review). I have just polished the rest of it off, and am basking in the lovely afterglow of a demented triathlon-related reading binge...

I have a copy of the 2nd edition, and while I can't remember exactly when I bought and read it, I'm pretty sure it was before I ever did a triathlon, which is to say I read it as some people read cookbooks by four-star chefs - in a spirit of saucer-eyed aspirationality rather than anything approaching realistic emulation. I have a year of experience in triathlon now, and have certainly read a larger number of books about training and racing, so I think I'm better equipped to evaluate it.

It's a very strong book - if you like books of this sort (it is an important proviso, because I think some people buy 'em out of guilt but don't actually enjoy reading 'em - I utterly love anything along these lines, being bookish and triathlon-obsessed and also a professional educator with an onlooker's interest in what does and doesn't cross over to the science of coaching), you will want to own a copy and read it. The emphasis is very much on elite age-groupers, and the person whose training will most immediately benefit from Friel's suggestions is probably a man in his thirties or forties who cares about "podium" placement (this word makes me laugh, it is comically technical!) at his A-priority races (and I could not tell you whether the A-, B- and C- distinction is Friel's invention or just associated with him, but I have the impression that the first edition of this book was the great original popularizer of the practice of prioritizing races in this way, as well as explaining to an American multi-sport audience what a home-grown version of the former Eastern Bloc periodization strategy might look like - if you're a triathlete using terms like Prep, Base 1, Build as you contemplate your training, I would guess it's probably coming from Friel originally, even if you got it somewhere else - and focusing on directing training towards one's "limiters").

It is not, really, a fantastic book for novice triathletes, though I think the third edition is stronger in this respect than the second; it is geared towards the faster among us. It is also less oriented towards the full Ironman distance than I had initially expected, though this is also somewhat countered in the new edition (Going Long will probably be a more engaging read if you have the gleam of iron in your eye and are not unduly interested in accessible but relatively technical discussions of training issues).

I would rank it also slightly below what I still think of as the one truly indispensable training book for triathletes, which is to say Gale Bernhardt's Training Plans for Multisport Athletes. That is a wonderful book - it was put into my hands by Brent when a murmur first issued from my mouth, in January 2008, along the lines that it might be more enjoyable to participate in May 2008 Florida 70.3 than just to spectate, and the "13 Weeks to a Half-Ironman for Athletes with Limited Time" was a magical one-page confidence-builder! I have since bought several copies of Bernhardt's book for myself - I keep giving them away, and the chapter on nutrition for endurance athletes is perhaps the most sensible and useful thing I've read on those lines - it is really a great book.

Friel's book tries to do more than Bernhardt's, and yet it is not, I would say, a book in the august company of what I think of as the two best books I have ever read of this type, namely Jack Daniels' Daniels' Running Formula, which I think every athlete or coach should read regardless of whether or not he/she is a runner, and 'Doc' Counsilman's The Science of Swimming, which I would not recommend to everybody but which is truly one of my favorite books ever! But this, too, may be a matter of personal preference - Friel falls between Bernhardt's more strictly practical approach on the one hand and the more philosophical Daniels-Counsilman on the other, so that the ways in which the book falls slightly short are mostly a function of its breadth and ambition.

The chapter that may cause those who own the previous edition to feel the need to add this one to their library is chapter four, on intensity of training; it is certainly the most significant philosophical and practical difference I noticed from the recommendations of the previous edition. Friel here far more strongly emphasizes the limits of heart rate as a measure of intensity - obviously, he has been dealing with the consequences of the very widespread adoption of a tool (the heart rate monitor) that initially was viewed as for extremists and techies only! Here is Friel in the third edition: "The beating of the heart is merely one way to peek into the body to see what is happening. At best, heart rate is an indirect measure of intensity, and not a very sensitive one. There are others that should also be used whenever possible to quantify how intensely you are swimming, biking or running."

He reminds the reader that pace is actually extremely useful in this respect, and I am happy to report that he gives really wonderful pace and intensity charts for different swimming and running speeds - they go all the way to the slower ranges, unlike my memory of the previous edition, when even the slowest numbers for hundreds in the pool were faster than I could then swim!.

So that, for instance, I can find my spot on the swim chart at (I'm guessing, I haven't measured it recently) 18:49-19:26 for a 1000-yard time, and then learn that my Zone 1 pace would be 2:21+/100, Zone 2 2:13-2:20, Zone 3 2:04-2:12, Zone 4 1:57-2:03 and Zone 5 a, b and c as 1:53-1:56, 1:44-1:52 and 1:43-max.

Ditto for running: let's say that if I were in slightly better condition than I probably actually am right now, I could do a 52:00 10K (I have done faster than that on a hilly course on a cool day). Zone 1 pace is therefore 10:54+ minutes/mile, Zone 2 is 9:38-10:53, zone 3 is 8:57-9:37, Zone 4 as 8:27-8:56 and Zone 5 a, b and c 8:11-8:26, 7:35-8:10 and 7:34 max.

(NB header on p. 49 needs to be fixed in future reprintings! But the table of cycling and running HR zones is also invaluable - I like this very much...)

In both of these cases, the numbers he gives really fit right with my sense from using the pool pace clock and the Polar footpod for pace measurements in running - Daniels' numbers on training paces are excellent too, and provide a more detailed rationale, but this is a very good rule of thumb (especially for those of us reluctant to wear the HR monitor strap because of chafing issues!).

Friel goes on to observe "that heart rate-based training has become so pervasive that athletes too often believe that heart rate is the determining factor in how they train and race. Too many have become slaves to their heart rate monitors and do not use other tools for measuring intensity as much as they could." It is not relevant at my stage of development, but the case he makes for cycling with a power meter is pretty irrefutable - if I am still doing this serious long-course stuff in a couple years, that is what I would be inclined to adopt...

A few other thoughts:

The sentences that most made me laugh in self-recognition: "HP's mental skills, especially his motivation to excel, are excellent. Sometimes such enthusiasm can lead to obsessive training, but he has a good working knowledge of the science of training from years of reading, which serves as a moderating factor."

Best tip: the cadence meter I bought from Terry Laughlin for swimming can be used to work on run cadence drills also! If there is one improvement well within my immediate power to make, it concerns run cadence - I am definitely with too much of a lope, a long stride and what Friel (it is characteristic of his tone, it is not really a book with a sense of humor, that is part of its charm!) calls "excessive vertical oscillation" - a quicker stride rate will be just the ticket, and the device will be very helpful...

Most striking insight: on the basis of a table headed "Strategies to Address Limiters," I really did have one of those moments of self-revelation that does not come too often. I knew this already - BUT - Friel lists six or seven things (what he calls "'nontraining' suggestions) that one might do to address one's weaknesses in each of the three triathlon disciplines.

I have done all six of the things he suggests for running ("Run with a group occasionally"; "Have your running gait analyzed by a coach").

I have done all seven of the things he suggests for swimming, and in fact my relationship with swimming is an interesting thing to contemplate, because the only gift I brought to the table was the gift of intense enthusiasm and motivation - I really had to start from scratch, it was intensive and expensive and troublesome and frustrating. (If you are curious, here are the seven things: "Train with a masters swim team"; "Take swimming lessons"; "Focus on form, not fitness, in workouts"; "Attend a swimming camp" [well, not exactly, but lots of clinics]; "Swim shorter workouts more frequently"; "Videotape your swim stroke and analyze it"; "Videotape a proficient swimmer and study his or her mechanics".)

I have done pretty much none of the seven things he recommends for cycling! So I will henceforth stop describing myself as a TERRIBLE cyclist - I will redescribe as a NOVICE cyclist, or an IMPROVING cyclist - and I will embrace the prospect of being a beginner in a new sport, because that is where one sees the most striking improvements...

I am not the type to want to fill out the elaborate training schedules here, but I did get a kick out of answering some of the little self-diagnosis questionnaires and confirming what I knew already (strong on endurance and force, weak on speed, for instance). I especially enjoyed making a list of my season's three training goals, according to the principles he lays out (goals must be under your control, they must challenge you, they must be positive, etc.). So I'll just leave you with those...

Goal #1: 'middle of the pack' finish in the W35-39 division at the New York City triathlon (preferably 50th percentile, but I will take anything in the middle third!)

Goal #2: run the run (12:00 pace or better) in the late-season half-Ironman that I've pretty much decided to do this year (only way of making myself keep cycling all the way through the season!)

Goal #3: Sub-4:00 in my November marathon, or die trying!


Brent Buckner said...

I really think goal 3 should be more along the lines of "sub-4 without permanent injury".

As a slave to the HRM, I must put in a plug for the notion that it is an objective way of adjusting for heat, humidity, hills, wind, and some personal stress factors.

Sara Cox Landolt said...

I love-love-love my copy of The Triathlete's Training Bible. It's filled with notes & post-its & I often refer to it while answering questions within's triathlon community. Good stuff! I'm sure the newest version is also a great resource.

Danielle in Iowa said...

So I am curious what the suggestions for cycling are...