American pro triathlete and Olympian Andy Potts stakes his claim at the IRONMAN World Championship every year when he exits the water well ahead of the rest of the pack. The former University of Michigan All-American swimmer and 2007 70.3 world champion will toe the line of his seventh IRONMAN World Championship this year, but with two top-five Kona finishes, seven IRONMAN titles (and 27 IRONMAN 70.3 titles) to his name, Potts is always in the Big Island running.
We spoke with Potts during his final build for the 2017 IRONMAN World Championship to find out about his new cycling strategy, his longtime success with his coach, how he uses TrainingPeaks to dial-in his training, and the four things he believes any age-group athlete needs to focus on to succeed in triathlon.
When do you begin your Kona build each year and has that changed in any way heading into the 2017 race?
It really has been been different each year, as my race schedule has changed and I have dealt with injuries leading up to Kona a few years as well.
With that, I typically start in early/mid-August with a solid eight to 10-week block of training. I have tried a variety of things, from training up in the Colorado Rockies at high altitude to staying in Hawaii.
This year, I opted to stay home and put in solid training while also keeping my family life as balanced as possible.
Last year you made some changes to your run training, and this year you are riding outdoors, which is a huge change for you. What was the reasoning behind this and what have the results been?
I am always changing something and experimenting with both small and big changes to find improvements. I like to say that I am an “experiment of one” and this year, after talking with my coach and team, we decided that going outside was the right move.
It was as much mental as it was physical as it gave me something new to look forward to and new challenges. It really helped that I had a great training partner and friend, Daniel Brienza, who turned himself inside out each week to help me along while also keeping me entertained.
We started off our outdoor training by climbing everything we could find in an effort to build strength. Pikes Peak became a ritual, and I have seen my cycling and comfort improve dramatically as the year progressed.
How do you use TrainingPeaks to work with your coach? Do you mainly use it for communication or are you an athlete who pays attention to their CTL, training load, weight, sleep, HRV, etc. as well?
I am very fortunate that I see my coach, Mike Doane, everyday. He is truly the athlete whisperer as he can just look at me and know how I am doing and what needs to get done.
He likes to look at my eyes to see if I’m lying to him or not. If I say, “Coach, I’m good. Let’s keep pushing,” he will read between the lines and know how hard to push me or pull me back from the edge.
We use TrainingPeaks in conjunction with my Polar heart rate monitor to look at patterns over time. For the athletes we coach with AP Racing, we rely on TrainingPeaks for communication, analysis and planning.
We are constantly looking at a variety of different metrics to optimize their training. With that, we don’t coach or train strictly “by the numbers” as there is definitely a human element and understanding of each individual that you must take into consideration beyond what the numbers tell you.
You have been a long-time TrainingPeaks user. How has it helped you dial-in your “A” race preparations and what is your favorite feature?
My favorite part of TrainingPeaks is to be able to look back over many years of training and spot trends, to understand what has/has not worked and to also give myself confidence to look at the work we have done.
Heading into Kona, what numbers and stats are you paying particular attention to?
We look at a variety of things in training/racing constantly but the three key variables that we are always monitoring and adjusting to elicit different responses are: Pace or Power, Heart Rate (HR) and recovery time.
One area we spend a lot of time focusing on is HR drop or recovery time. We monitor how long it takes for my HR to drop 15 beats/minute at a given pace.
As time progresses, we like to see the recovery time drop while the pace or power increases as well. This tells me that I am able to go faster or produce more power and my body can handle it better because I am recovering faster.
It is a rudimentary way to measure efficiency. As you progress through the year, you can alter any of these three variables to get different responses and see how your body is adapting.
How long have you worked with your coach and how has your relationship evolved over time when it comes to your race planning?
Mike Doane has been my only coach in my triathlon career. Like any good relationship it has evolved over time and is a true partnership. Race planning for a professional should be a function of what races I want to do and which ones excite me, what races do I have to do for sponsor obligations or because they are important to the sport, and what races can I use to help me get better or feed my family.
Mike and I sit down and look at my fitness at various times throughout the year to assess where we are, where we are going and how we can check any of those three boxes and have a great day on the race course.
Every athlete, professional or not, deals with unexpected hiccups throughout a given race calendar—what have been some of your surprises this season and how have you dealt with them?
It took a while for my body to come around this year because I raced an IRONMAN in December. I had hoped to be ready to rock by March, but sometimes you just have to be patient.
Patience is something that not many athletes have the luxury to afford. I kept giving myself a chance to improve as the training and racing progressed. I’m finally coming around and it couldn’t be at a better time. Sometimes things work out for a reason.
How has your Kona strategy changed from now as opposed to, say, five years ago? I’m sure you learn something new every year, so what did you learn last year that has proved helpful for this year’s preparation?
I’ve changed my strategy for Kona as the years have gone by because the race required it and because I’ve had different goals. At the end of the day there aren’t many places to hide in the lava fields, so you have to be prepared for a mental and physical challenge.
I didn’t do a good job with my nutrition last year and I paid the price. So, I’ve got a strategy in place where if I drop a bottle or miss special needs (what happened in 2016)—I’m covered.
Plus another big change for me going into Kona 2017 is that I’ve had some really long rides (7+ hours). I hope that it will pay off either on my ride or run (or both!).
You started the AP Racing Team and now have almost 300 athletes. What lessons about time management and training strategies do you find yourself imparting upon them most frequently?
It’s funny—I get questions all the time about my training and I always have to ask: “Do you want to hear about me or do you want to hear about what I think might work for you?”
I am very fortunate to be a professional triathlete and my training day is typically six to eight-plus hours long, every day. So, what works for me, doesn’t work for someone who has a job, commute, kids, wife, or pretty much anything at all going on in their life.
With that, there are a few key things most age group athletes can incorporate into their training:
- Brick workouts. You should always be doubling up your workouts. It is way faster and a lot more efficient. I prefer the bike/run combo but a swim/run or swim/bike works great too.
- Long runs during the week. It takes longer to do bike training and most folks do not have enough time during the week to get in enough time to ride. So, why not use both days on the weekend to bike/run or heck, swim, bike and run. It is a lot easier to sneak in a longer run early in the morning or later in the evening with a headlamp if necessary.
- Sleep. No matter what, sleep is the #1 factor for a triathletes success. It helps establish a routine, it allows us to recover and grow stronger and it helps your body prepare for your training sessions. If you can be good at one thing, don’t be good at sleep, be great!
- Big days do not equal big results. So many of our athletes come to us and want to have these monster training days. While that is great, it is consistency and repeatability that matter most when it comes to making gains in triathlon.
Are there any favorite Kona build workouts that you do or are planning to do that you would want to share?
As I mentioned earlier, we do a lot of 15 beat drop workouts and are on the track every Tuesday. Those are hard but really great for dialing in very specific work.
I have also really enjoyed the time I have been riding outside this year. We have had a lot of solid training sessions where we are riding hard and putting ourselves in a tough spot early on in the rides and then riding the back half even harder.
It’s been a great year of training, and I’m excited to race.
Got Big Island fever? We’ve got the cure. Check out our pre-race predictions, course tips, race-week interviews and post-race analysis from the 2017 IRONMAN World Championship right here.