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Meet TrainingPeaks Ambassador Christine Schirtzinger

BY Lydia Tanner

Triathlon Coach Christine Schirtzinger works to take the intimidation factor out of endurance sports, and encourages athletes to see outside their bubble.

Christine Schirtzinger brings 21 years of competitive triathlon, running, swimming and cycling experience to her coaching practice. She is the founder of Girls Gone Tri, an organization dedicated to empowering women through the sport of triathlon. Based in the Fox Valley near Chicago, Christine is an integral part of her local endurance sports community.

TrainingPeaks: How did you get started in Triathlon? 

Christine Schirtzinger: I always loved running and biking. I was raised on a farm, so I didn’t play any sports in high school or college. In my early 20’s I moved to Hawaii. I didn’t have a car so I rode my bike everywhere and found that traveling by bike was an amazing way to view the world. I started touring for months at a time through Europe and Australia, and when I wasn’t touring, I would race marathons. Triathlon was the next logical thing to do! 

My first ever triathlon was a full IRONMAN in 2000. I mostly learned that I had a lot to learn! Twenty plus years later, I still learn something new each race, and I love that I get to share my experiences as an athlete and as a coach with my athletes.

How do you integrate your experience as an athlete into your coaching?

As an athlete and coach, I love that our sport is up to you. It can be whatever you need it to be for that season or chapter of your life, and it will always be there for you! Each season is unique. I know what it takes to win your age group and race on a world stage—and I also know what it is like to come back after pregnancy and to race with a different body and different goals.

I love testing out different workouts, training models, and tech gadgets, so when I suggest something, I can tell athletes not only the science or the why but how it feels through my experience. 

What’s your favorite part of coaching?

Meeting different athletes and understanding their potential. I think there’s so much that people don’t know they’re capable of, and to help them understand that is amazing. 

I’ve also been so fortunate to coach athletes from all over the world; from Russia to Australia. Each athlete has a different background, different goals and a different path to success. Navigating that individual journey with them is just such a privilege. 

I also love the opportunity to learn from the best in the world and to bring that knowledge to the athletes I work with. Sheila Taormina changed the way I coach masters and “see” swim stroke. Paraic McQuinn emphasized the importance of aerodynamics and how to troubleshoot a bike fit. Phil Maffetone taught me so much about coaching and the value of diet in training. Then of course being able to attend TrainingPeaks Endurance Coaching Summit each year helps me stay ahead of the curve on cutting-edge science. Networking with other top endurance coaches is key!

You’re also a nurse. Does that change how you coach?

As a pediatric ICU/ER nurse, I have a deep understanding of what’s happening for an athlete physiologically. Physical stress or training stress both have the same effect on your body. When I was working as a nurse, I was always curious about how I could take my knowledge from my professional career and apply it to my sport. 

How do you use tools like WKO, BestBikeSplit and TrainingPeaks in your coaching?

I start most seasons by planning with BestBikeSplit. For an athlete looking for a world championship slot, we can use predicted bike split times to see how they’ll finish on a given course—and select the best course to play to that athlete’s strengths. Many athletes have a goal of finishing an IRONMAN within the cut-off time, so understanding their predicted time splits and how they will fit into the course is critical. 

Beyond just being a valuable scheduling tool, TrainingPeaks gives us a language to describe our sport and what’s happening within our bodies.

Twelve to sixteen weeks before a race, we get into race-specific planning, and we’ll trial our BBS plans out on the road. Over the next training cycles, we’ll dial in the plan and execution to perfection. I love when, the week before a race, we have nothing major to talk about because we’ve planned everything already. 

WKO5 completes the circle, it enables us to individualize targets for each athlete’s physiology. On a macro level, we can measure a period of training success; on a micro level, we can measure the success of each workout or interval within it. Each step of the way we learn more about how that athlete responds to stimuli, and how to improve their workload to maximize adaptations for that athlete’s specific goals. 

I also love that as a coach and athlete, I can build WKO5 around the metrics I use most. Power to HR ratio is critical in my coaching so I have my charts and workflow built around that. Other coaches work purely with power, so their charts will look different. WKO5 is great because it’s agnostic; it’s built to work around each coach’s belief systems. 

And then of course there’s TrainingPeaks, the environment where we execute these plans and gather data to measure their success. Beyond just being a valuable scheduling tool, TrainingPeaks gives us a language to describe our sport and what’s happening within our bodies. Through TrainingPeaks metrics, we can understand the stress that is applied daily, through a cycle of training, or year-over-year.

If you had to nail down your coaching philosophy, what would it be?

That’s a tough one! I utilize my knowledge of physiology, then individualize my response to stimuli to obtain an athlete’s best results. Something in that mold. I work with your body to gain true adaptations and improvements. 

I feel so strongly about HR training, and power is so important because it controls HR, it’s a way of quantifying that. I was introduced to Phil Maffetone’s work in the ’90s, and it really informed the way I coach. Every week there is a new and sexy interval or HIIT workout coming out, but I feel like they miss the foundation. Real fitness isn’t just following one type of workout; it’s an ongoing adaptation that happens over a period of months and years.

Although it’s not trendy, when you’re working in zone 2 for the majority of your workouts, you’re physiologically changing how your body utilizes energy. Intensity is just the cherry on top for endurance success. Dr. Stephen Seiler’s work has given these concepts validation and gives us fantastic guidelines on how to apply the intensity.  

Right from the start we made Girls Gone Tri kid-friendly, because that’s how you get women there. You want women? Give them a place for their kids to come to.

As a nurse and a mother of four, what advice would you offer athletes trying to balance training with life?

Well first, I am a retired nurse. I balance my time between coaching individual athletes, leading teams, being a mom and supporting nonprofits within our community.  

Organization in every aspect of life is key, as is understanding my priorities and boundaries, and prioritizing sleep. Those are the foundations of balance for me. I don’t always achieve it, but always try. 

Also, I just have really flippin’ cool kids. They do a lot of activities and they are athletes themselves. Right from the start, we made Girls Gone Tri kid-friendly because that’s how you get women there. You want women? Give them a place for their kids to come to. My kids live at the training center I ran when they were younger; they love being part of it. 

Can you tell us more about Girls Gone Tri?

Women empowering women is what Girls Gone Tri is all about. It’s a club open to all women of all abilities and ages. It is non-judgemental, and there’s no drama, really! It allows women who never saw themselves as athletes to race all sorts of triathlons from sprints to IRONMAN, and they inspire others to do so, give back to their community, and become ride leaders themselves in the process. 

Does they all use TrainingPeaks?

That’s the cool thing about it. We start with two meetings to just learn TrainingPeaks metrics, and I swear, these ladies know more about TrainingPeaks and TSS than a lot of the guys on the pro teams.

To say recreational athletes don’t need a tool like TrainingPeaks is 100% wrong—I would even say that data is more important for them. Data can help people really understand how their fitness is growing; these tools are important for everyone. 

The power of the sport is that gives us all confidence to see ourselves as athletes. Sport gives us control over our happiness, and the knowledge that we are a positive force in the world.

Girls Gone Tri also does some charity work, right?

GGT focuses on a charity every year. Last year we did team dues and every penny went to team Rwanda’s women’s program. They’re empowering 14-16-year-old women through cycling to try to keep them on the right path; they give them bikes and they have a race team. 

Last year we supported Mutual Ground, a center to support survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. We ended up having 180 people at an event where we raised nearly $20,000. This year our event is going to be around Hesed House, our homeless shelter. 

The group got involved with Hesed when a GGT leader set up a time for our team to volunteer. We were in this massive warehouse, and our job was to sort out the nice brand-name clothes so other volunteers could go to the flea market and sell them for money to keep the shelter running. I couldn’t believe it. Like as a society this is how we view homelessness? There were something like 200 people sleeping there every night, and here I am, worried about getting a certain time while running around in spandex. It definitely helps you keep perspective.

It sounds like your coaching has a mission behind it. 

The power of the sport is that gives us all confidence to see ourselves as athletes. Sport gives us control over our happiness and the knowledge that we are a positive force in the world. If you can help others feel that, you can be a part of something bigger. 

When you’re on a team and you have a kit, you show up at a race everyone knows you’re part of that team. When you know your team is doing good things, there’s something special about that feeling. 

Being able to see outside our bubble is a sort of mission for our group, just understanding on an individual level that not everyone has this background. We try to give back and empower others the way we’ve empowered ourselves.

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About Lydia Tanner

Lydia Tanner is the athlete content editor at TrainingPeaks. She was formerly an editor at Bicycling Magazine and contributor to Bike Magazine, Mountain Flyer, and RedBull. She is a two-time collegiate national champion in XC MTB, and raced the World Championships as a U23. She is perpetually curious about physiology and human performance.

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