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Terry VanderWert

Book Review: “Atomic Habits” for Triathletes

Book Review: “Atomic Habits” for Triathletes

“Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” by James Clear is for those, including triathletes, who wish to create new, performance-enhancing habits. It is also for those who want to eliminate destructive habits.

In the Introduction to the book, Mr. Clear shares a powerful case study involving the British Cycling team. By applying the principles in this book, the team went from a perennial loser on the world stage during the 20th and early 21st centuries to the dominant competitor from 2007 to 2017.

During this ten-year period, British cyclists earned 178 world championships and sixty-six Olympic or Paralympic gold medals. They also won five Tour de France races.

This is the first example of many that highlights how so-called atomic habits have been used to improve fitness training, running, and personal and professional development efforts.

Following are my takeaways from the book, from the perspective of a triathlete.

What are ‘Atomic Habits’?

Atomic habits are regular activities or routines that, while small (hence the word ‘atomic’) and easy to do, provide significant impact (also related to ‘atomic’) on a process. Repeating these over time (as a habit) leads to a compounding effect.

According to James Clear, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.”1

Developing the habit of consistent, regular and structured training is an example of an atomic habit related to triathlon.

How to Develop Positive ‘Atomic Habits’

“Atomic Habits” summarizes the approach to developing new, performance-enhancing habits in a two-step process:

  • Determine the person you want to be and how you want to be defined.
  • Take small actions that prove that you are this person. Repeat these actions.

Related post: Book Review: The New Psycho-Cybernetics

Rather than focusing on the action you want to achieve (such as to complete an Olympic-distance triathlon), the approach described in “Atomic Habits” starts with defining yourself in terms of the person who will achieve the goal.

In the triathlon example, the person makes the subtle but important change to define him/herself as an Olympic triathlete. From here, the triathlete develops a training plan, eating habits, sleep behaviors, and so on (the process) consistent with an Olympic-distance triathlete.

The new habits develop through a four-step process detailed in the book and described in the first column of the table below.

StepMakes object of a good habitMakes object of a bad habit
CueObviousInvisible
CravingAttractiveUnattractive
ResponseEasyDifficult
RewardSatisfyingUnsatisfying

James Clear also describes ways to make sure the new habit sticks. These include habit stacking (combining an existing positive habit with the desired new habit), changing the environment, and reframing a habit (from “I have to go for a run” to “I get to go out into the fresh air and improve my heart health”).

You will also learn about the Diderot Effect and the Goldilocks Rule and how these can support building new habits.

Be Patient, New Habits Require Time

It often takes time to make new habits part of our new-normal routine. Mr. Clear cautions us to be wary in how we interpret the results as we work to develop new habits.

The tendency is to expect linear results. For example, in my training, I expect to see consistent (linear) reductions in my 5k time as I restart running after a break. However, this is not the way results typically come.

The graph of Results vs. Time below shows Mr. Clear’s representation of our expectations and experience as we build new habits.

Figure 1: Plateau of Latent Potential from page 22 of “Atomic Habits” by James Clear.

While we expect linear results, results are non-linear. The gap between the expected and actual results creates what Clear calls a “Valley of Disappointment”.

Seeing this graph for the first time created an ‘Aha-moment’. My experiences in run training definitely follow this, one reason that patience is so important. When impatience wins, I will try to speed up the results by training harder or longer. The result is usually injury and longer recovery time.

Summary

Our beliefs and the views of ourself can be engaged to drive processes that help us achieve our goals. Focusing on becoming the person we want to be can lead to greater performance than had we focused on the goal. Atomic habits help us become who we want to be and perform at a higher level.

For More Information About “Atomic Habits”

“Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” is available in print and audio versions at Amazon.com by clicking the link or picture below.

You can also see the text for free by clicking here.

Throughout the book, James Clear refers to resources on his website for creating atomic habits. Please checkout the website at https://jamesclear.com/.

Follow the links below to purchase “Atomic Habits” on Amazon.com.

  1. Clear, James, “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones”, Avery, 1st edition (October 16, 2018), p. 17.)
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Why Should Seniors Use A Triathlon Coach?

Why Should Seniors Use A Triathlon Coach?
The Tri Doc, Dr. Jeff Sankoff, triathlete and triathlon coach. Picture courtesy of The Tri Doc.

Why would a senior triathlete hire a coach for triathlon training? Triathlon coach, Dr. Jeff Sankoff, also known as The Tri Doc, shares his thoughts.

Meet the Tri Doc

I became acquainted with senior triathlete Dr. Jeff Sankoff during the January 23, 2020 episode of the Tri Swim Coach podcast. In that conversation, Jeff shared five common myths of triathlon, including the myth that we must get slower as we get older.

Since then, I have also listened to several episodes of the Tri Doc podcast which Jeff produces. Jeff is an Ironman University certified triathlon coach and finisher of over 50 triathlons of various distances. He is also a husband, father, and emergency physician living in Denver, Colorado.

Jeff possesses a unique ability to communicate information from his medical training in a manner that I can easily understand.

After listening to Jeff, I asked him to make a case for triathletes age 50 and over to hire a coach for their triathlon training. I came away from our conversation with a new perspective which I have organized into three reasons for seniors to hire a triathlon coach.

Before Starting Triathlon Training

Jeff recommends that anyone with risk factors for heart disease should be cleared for training by a medical doctor before beginning training. You may have heard of deaths that have occurred during triathlons, rare as they are. Check out the Tri Doc podcast from July 22, 2019 for more on this subject.

The Tri Doc’s Three Reasons for Hiring A Triathlon Coach for Seniors

Many older athletes are intimidated by the thought of doing a triathlon, often because of its three sports, one which may be especially challenging to an individual. For many this is swimming. This was also the case for Jeff.

Triathlon is an underappreciated sport for older athletes.

Dr. Jeff Sankoff, The Tri Doc

The reality, according to Jeff, is that triathlon is excellent for older athletes precisely because it does involve three sports. Training for the three sports of triathlon leads to a broader range of fitness and reduces the risk of overuse injuries common in older athletes.

So, now that you are convinced of the merits of triathlon, consider the reasons you should hire a coach to guide your training.

Reason#1: Realistic Goal Setting

Goals are useful for new and experienced triathletes alike. They provide clarity for defining and for evaluating the results of a training plan. For this reason, goal setting is one of the first benefits of hiring a coach.

For the beginner triathlete, one who ‘doesn’t know what he doesn’t know’, this can be especially valuable. The triathlon coach will work with the athlete to identify his/her goals. The coach can also provide a ‘sanity-check’ on the individual’s goals, helping the triathlete set achievable ones and prioritize triathlon gear purchases.

To illustrate, let me share how a triathlon coach would have helped me with my first triathlon.

To be clear, I did not have a coach. However, before my first triathlon, I read almost everything on triathlon that I could find and trained diligently in swimming, biking, and running. My daughter and I held a mock triathlon, including the transitions, a week before the race. I felt prepared.

However, days before the race, my thoughts ranged from ‘just finishing’ to ‘winning my age group’. I really had no clue of what the race would be like.

On race day, I saw my first tri-bikes, initially in the transition area and then as they sped past my hybrid bike and me as if I was leisurely riding in the park with my youngest grandchild.

I finished with relative ease but also learned that there are some very fit ‘old people’. There were many other lessons from that day, all learned while I fell in love with the sport.

In hindsight, a coach would have helped me set realistic goals beyond finishing the race.

Reason #2: Smarter Triathlon Training

Are you looking to compete in a longer distance triathlon? Or do you have your heart set on standing on the podium at the awards ceremony of a major triathlon? If you and your coach agree that your goals are realistic, the coach will provide a roadmap for realizing them.

A coach typically begins with an assessment of the athlete’s current fitness and capability in the three sports. Jeff usually requests videos of the athlete swimming, biking, and running. He studies these videos to identify changes to the swim stroke, bike fit, and running form that will improve performance and reduce the possibility for injury.

With focused goals for the training, the coach will develop a customized training plan for the triathlete. The customized plan often includes advice for recovery and nutrition and a strategy for race day.

Through periodic communication, the coach and triathlete will review progress against the plan and make any adjustments, keeping in mind the athlete-specific goals and the reality that our bodies are less forgiving of training errors as we age.

Reason #3: Minimizing Injury

As we age, we become more prone to overuse injuries. For this reason, all Tri Doc training plans incorporate strength training.

Most people misunderstand strength training as part of triathlon training. For example, many of us have visions of bulging biceps and broad shoulders when we think of strength training. However, bulk is not the aim in triathlon training.

Example of a strength training plan by Jeff Sankoff Tri Doc, triathlon coach for seniors
Strength training is an essential part of triathlon training according to Tri Doc, Dr. Jeff Sankoff. Pictured is an example of a personalized plan. Picture courtesy of The Tri Doc.

Instead, the goal of strength training is to maintain the muscle that we have and strengthen muscles around joints to prevent injury. Strength training is especially important for older athletes since muscle loss occurs at an increasing rate as we age.

Should injuries occur, the triathlon coach will ‘tweak’ the training schedule so the athlete continues to increase their fitness and endurance while the injury heals.

Related post: Six Principles of Triathlon Training for Seniors

Not everyone needs a coach but everyone can find a reason to hire a coach.

Dr. Jeff Sankoff, The Tri Doc

One More Benefit of a Triathlon Coach for Seniors

Most triathletes in their 50s, 60s, and 70s are highly motivated and competitive. However, as we become less energetic or suffer injury, the motivation to train can wane. A coach will encourage the older athlete to continue training and racing, helping him/her recover from injury and even reach new levels of performance.

Related post: 5 Ideas for Staying Motivated with Age Young – A Conversation with Tony Schiller

What Does It Cost to Hire a Triathlon Training Coach?

Jeff described two approaches for amateur triathletes to involve a triathlon coach in their training:

  • Purchase a ‘canned’ training plan – For somewhere around $30/month, one can purchase a training plan based on a specified triathlon distance (e.g. sprint, Olympic, Half-Ironman, Ironman). Most plans are not age-specific, a major concern to this audience.
  • Personalized coaching – This approach provides the triathlete regular access, usually by phone, text message, and email, to a triathlon coach. The goal setting, video analysis, and personalized training plans referred to above are included. The cost, which typically ranges from $150/month to up to $600/month for elite athletes, depends mostly on the frequency of interaction between the athlete and coach. Jeff’s average monthly fee is around $200.

One caveat. Many, but not all, triathlon coaches are certified by organizations such as USA Triathlon or Ironman University. Some experienced triathletes are also coaches, even though they have not taken time to become certified. Do the research, putting your relevant life skills to work.

For More Information

Email Dr. Jeff Sankoff, The Tri Doc, at tri_doc@icloud.com with questions and for more information about his coaching services.

Leave Your Questions and Comments Below

What has been your experience with triathlon coaches?

How have they helped you with training and racing?

Please share your comments below.

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Triathlon Across the USA: State #21 – Michigan

Triathlon Across the USA: State #21 – Michigan
Ski resort near Ironwood, Michigan during the summer.

Iron Mountain, Michigan, June 29, 2014 – Northern Lights YMCA UP Northwoods Triathlon, Lake Antoine County Park

Thanks to an 1835-36 dispute over a narrow strip of land in what is now northern Ohio, our trip to the Michigan triathlon was much shorter than it could have been.

Before you leave, let me explain.

The dispute, known as the Toledo War, led to the eventual granting of the Upper Peninsula, or UP, to Michigan instead of Wisconsin. The result? We could race on the western side of Lake Michigan while still being in the state of Michigan, most of which is on the eastern side.

Getting to the Michigan Triathlon

Since we were traveling to northern Michigan for the triathlon, we decided to visit Joy’s cousin, Linda and her husband, Tom outside Ironwood, Michigan. We arrived late Friday afternoon following a leisurely drive along the southern end of Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin.

After breakfast in Ironwood the next morning, Tom and Linda took us to some of their favorites sites. This included the Copper Peak ski flying jump and Black River Harbor where we were chased by swarms of black flies just as had been predicted.

Later that morning, we made the journey to Iron Mountain, continuing to soak in the laid back feeling of the area. After a late lunch and a drive through this town of a little over 7,000 residents, we checked into our hotel. Before picking up the race packet at Lake Antoine Park later in the afternoon, we drove the bike course, one of our typical pre-race rituals.

4th Annual UP Northwoods Triathlon

About 70 triathletes gathered at Lake Antoine Park for the Northern Lights YMCA UP Northwoods Sprint Triathlon.

Distances for the individual legs of this sprint triathlon were:

  • Swim: 0.31 mile (500 m)
  • Bike: 17 mile (27 km)
  • Run: 3.1 mile (5 km)
Ready for the swim with wetsuit in the cool waters of Lake Antoine at the Michigan triathlon.
After a short swim to check out the bottom of Lake Antoine and warm to the chilly water, I was ready for the triathlon to begin. The light mist before the race brought out umbrellas by some spectators.

Swim

The 500 meter swim for this triathlon occurred in Lake Antoine, a clean, shallow lake with silty bottom perfect for the park, campground, and cabins that surround it. The water was also cool enough to make me glad to be wearing a wetsuit.

I was assigned to the first wave of ten swimmers. With a great start, I found myself alone and apparently leading the wave.

The previous months of swim training were paying off. I was entering a whole new level in my triathlon racing and could even see myself first out of the water.

About that time, I was awaken from my dream. A young lady on a stand-up paddleboard yelled down to inform me that I was off-course. Instead of keeping ‘the buoys on my left’, I was swimming on the left side of the buoys. Now back in the real world, I re-joined the wave realizing that I was not in the lead. 

One good thing about triathlon is that it keeps one humble.

Bike

Fortunately, the light rain had stopped by the time I came out of the water. The roads were essentially dry as we headed onto the bike course.

We exited the park to the left following Lake Antoine along its southern edge, eventually merging onto Lake Antoine Road.

At the split, where Lake Antoine Road turns into the park, we continued straight, onto Upper Pine Creek Drive and the first hills of the course.

An example of the rolling hills on the bike course at the Northern Lights YMCA UP Northwoods Triathlon, our Michigan triathlon.
The bike course at the Northern Lights YMCA UP Northwoods Triathlon was full of rolling hills lined by trees and the occasional deer. Picture courtesy of Northwoods YMCA.

Somewhere within the next 2-3 miles, I experienced another ‘Race First’ – braking for a couple of deer crossing the road in front of me. I was never close enough to collide with the curious, young animals. However, that could have changed had they been spooked and decided to return to their original side of the road. Better safe than sorry.

After another mile or two, this road made a right angle turn. We were now on an even more hilly portion (see the picture above). We turned onto US Highway 2, traveling on its shoulder for 1-2 miles before exiting onto Lake Antoine Road. From here, we headed back to the transition area.

Run

A portion of the ‘out-and-back’ run course included roads within the campground of Lake Antoine Park. Several campers enjoyed their morning coffee while cheering on the triathletes.

The run eventually exited the park to the south following the same road around Lake Antoine we had biked earlier. At the midpoint of the 5 km run, we turned around and returned to the finish line along the same path.

After the Michigan Triathlon

We had plans for dinner at our Minnesota home with family that evening so left almost immediately after the race. Following a shower at the hotel, we set out on our six-hour trip home.

Race First’s

  • First race during which I braked for deer crossing the road.
  • This was the first race during which I wore my race number belt under the wetsuit. This saved me a few seconds in transition since I did not need to put the race number belt on before climbing onto the bike.

Leave Your Questions and Comments Below

What has been a lesson for triathlon training or racing that you recently learned?

Have you encountered any animals (like deer in this story) during a triathlon?

Please share your comments below.

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Which Triathlon Has Been Your Favorite?

Which Triathlon Has Been Your Favorite?

You have probably been asked about your favorite triathlon, especially if you have completed even a few of them.

First, a little background. I did my first triathlon on my doctor’s advice to lose weight and become more fit. However, as I have done more triathlons, spending time with family and friends through these and experiencing the USA from the perspective of triathlon have grown in importance.

Nevertheless, after my first triathlon, there have been a few races that have been particularly memorable. Following are my top five.

Favorite Triathlons for Family Connections

#1 First Triathlon with Our Daughter and Youngest Son

Our youngest son, Ben, and his wife Lindsey along with our daughter, Liza, and her husband Scott joined me in completing the 2014 Maple Grove Triathlon.

picture of family members who competed with me in the 2014 Maple Grove Triathlon
Completing a triathlon with family members makes for a memorable day!

#2 Colorado Triathlon

The Colorado triathlon was fraught with challenges. Nevertheless, it was the one opportunity I had to participate in a triathlon in front of my parents.

Terry with parents at IHOP
Enjoying ice cream and memories with my parents. Photo courtesy of Joy.

#3 Wyoming Triathlon

The Wyoming triathlon was memorable for two reasons. First, it was the last time we would see Joy’s aunt Evelyn. She passed away shortly thereafter.

It also provided my ’15 minutes of fame’ as a local newspaper writer interviewed me and published a story about our Triathlon Across the USA quest (see below).

Gillette-News-Record-article-about-Razor-City-Splash-and-Dash-Triathlon
Gillette News Record article about the Razor City Splash & Dash Triathlon

Most Memorable Races

#4 First Crash

During the Rhode Island triathlon, a slow leak in my front tire led to a crash that left my right arm and leg bleeding. Thankfully, a bike maintenance aid arrived shortly after I had started to replace the tube. He completed the repair and I finished the race.

#5 First Podium Finish

In my first triathlon, I learned about the importance of having the right bike to race competitively. Before my second triathlon two months later, I purchased a triathlon specific bike.

Thanks to a competitive bike split in this race, I finished third in my age group in this second triathlon.

Ranking to Find Your Favorite Triathlon

Early in my discussions with Laurent Labbe, I asked about his favorite races. Being a technical guy, he answered with a spreadsheet for rating the long course triathlons he had completed.

The table below illustrates Laurent’s approach for ranking triathlons.

spreadsheet showing Laurent Labbe's approach to ranking triathlons he has completed.
Laurent Labbe’s approach to evaluating and ranking triathlons.

Laurent’s approach is quite detailed. His quantifies the quality, difficulty, and aesthetics of the course for each of the three legs. He also rates the overall management and race location.

Ranking Factors

  • Management (‘Mgmt’) – The following factors all lead to higher rankings in the various Management categories:
    • easy check-in and packet pickup
    • orderly swim start
    • clear marking of the bike and run courses
    • bike and run courses that are completely closed to traffic; even partly closed courses are better than those on which motor vehicles are near racers.
    • plenty of volunteer support
    • high quality food and drink on the course and after the race
    • prompt communication with racers before, during, and after the triathlon
  • Ease – This ranking relates to the race course. A low score in this category comes from high waves on the swim course and high wind or steep hills on the bike and run courses.
  • Layout – A single lap course is much preferred to one with two or more laps. The greater the number of laps in each of the legs, the lower the ranking in this category.
  • Overall Location – This relates to the cost and ease of getting to and from the race, the ease of arranging lodging, and the quality and diversity of food.
  • Ambiance – This scores factors such as the natural beauty of the race venue and friendliness of the people.
  • Overall Ranking – This number is derived from the product of the other rankings.

Knowing that family is important to Laurent, I imagine that any race involving his sons or daughter will have higher rankings.

Laurent Labbe and his oldest son on the beach in front of the swim course at the Strongman All Japan Triathlon.
Laurent Labbe and his oldest son on the beach in front of the swim course at the Strongman All Japan Triathlon. Picture courtesy of Laurent Labbe.

What Has Been Your Favorite Triathlon?

Tell us about your favorite races leaving a comment below. If for any reason you have difficulty leaving a comment, please email us at seniortriathletes@gmail.com.

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