Ryan Bolton, Coach to Heather Jackson, Talks Training Principles, Periodization, and Loving your Sport
Ed. Note: Ryan Bolton may be the best coach you’ve never heard of. Start talking to him, and a list of accomplishments slowly unfurls, although it’s clear he’s loathe to go on about them, or to do much of any self-promotion. He represented the U.S.A. in the 2000 Olympics for triathlon following a successful collegiate running career. He’s coached Boston Marathon champions and elite runners of all distances. He’s the High Performance Technical Advisor to USA Triathlon (when I reached him on the phone, he was supposed to be on a plane to Abu Dhabi for the first ITU World Triathlon Series event of 2020, but it had been cancelled by the coronavirus pandemic). In long-distance racing, he has coached Ben Hoffman to two top-five finishes at Kona, and now coaches Wattie Ink. professionals Sam Long and Heather Jackson.
Ryan Bolton grew up in Gilette, Wyoming, which he describes as “oil and gas country, which is kind of a weird place for a triathlete to be from. I started swimming competitively at six because my older sister was a swimmer, and my mom would bring me to the pool, and I would run around the deck and get in trouble. I think my mom was thought 'Why don't we make this productive and get some energy out of this kid? I'm just going to throw him in the water.' So she threw me in the water.” He soon picked up running, competing in national-level events when his age still numbered in the single digits, ran in college, and then transferred to swim-bike-run when the USOC announced triathlon as a new sport in the Sydney games. Coached by Joe Friel, one of the pioneers of the coaching industry, he won Ironman Lake Placid, among other victories, but also set the foundation for a wildly successful coaching career. He runs The Harambee Project, an elite running program based in Santa Fe, New Mexico (home), and Bolton Endurance Sports Training.
“I think the biggest thing that is different thus far is the overall volume of training I've been doing the last two months compared to these early months the last couple of years,” says Heather Jackson. “It's been a pretty big start to 2020 so far, which I've loved every second of. We've been laying a pretty big base of solid work and I'm sure more race specific work is on its way. I think Ryan's got a great perspective on the sport, as he raced at the highest level across all distances, coached some of the best triathletes in the world like the Hoff, as well as some of the top runners in the world, which is the one area I'm really looking to find a breakthrough.
“We wanted a new perspective on the sport, which led us to Ryan,” HJ continues. “Wattie and I wanted to find someone that could take the pressure off the two of us managing it and we thought that Ryan was the perfect blend of all things we were looking for. He's super low key and down to earth and someone we completely vibed with. In terms of training, I've seen how he's made The Hoff into literally the fastest Ironman runner off of biking crazy hard, so there's that component as well as just having an overall fresh, fun, new approach.” We had a chance to ask Bolton an hour’s worth of questions, the first half of which we share with you today.
How do you assess what kind of athlete you have on your hands? What's your process for figuring out what is going to work for a particular athlete?
I think that's the art of coaching. See an athlete, throw workouts at them, track where they're excelling, and not excelling, and then come to understand what their needs are, both physiologically and psychologically. With some athletes it's a quick process—you can learn them quickly if they communicate well with you, or because you can see this low hanging fruit that you can pluck right away. With other athletes it can be more complicated, if they're not as good at communicating how they're feeling or what's going on for them. So I throw a lot of workouts at them to start getting a clear picture of what they need, and then strive to recognize what works and what doesn’t work.
Here’s an example. I can say, “Hey, you have two options for workouts today: you can do four 800s on the track, all out. So we're going to warm up for ten minutes, four 800s, all out, and then five minutes cool down. Or you can go for a 20 mile long run, easy.” And usually aerobically strong athletes will reply, “Oh, 20 miles. Easy. No problem.” And your more high intense, fast twitch, power-oriented athletes say, “I'm going to do those four 800s and be done without it in about 20 minutes and call it a day.” That's a simple, question test right there. Not scientific at all, but pretty effective.
Once you know an athlete’s type, do you work with their strengths or focus on where they’re weaker?
I would look at where their weakness is in a race, if that makes sense. Let's say they're an Ironman athlete, and they thrive off of longer aerobic training. I'm probably going to lean into that style of training more—especially if they're excelling well in doing that. In contrast to that, however, if they don't want to do a specific type of work and it's not in their genetics to do that type of work well, that's a critical piece of the race that they're missing in order to be their best. So we're going to have to face those demons and we're going to have to address those limiters. I would say our approach depends on how much the weakness impacts their racing.
A few minutes ago you said that you've got a core set of principles when working with an athlete. If you wouldn't mind talking about what those principles are, and articulating a few of them, I think that would be really valuable.
I think the first one, or an overlying theme is that there's nothing magic, and that's what I always tell people. And I feel like in today's day and age, people are always thinking that there's this magic pill: there's this one workout, there's this one product, there's this one bike, there's this one philosophy that is the key answer. And if I wanted to sell books or something like that, then I would say something like that. People gravitate towards that stuff, but I'm just always honest with people and say, ‘There is no magic bullet.’ So I would say that's one of the key principles of everything. Secondly, I'm a huge believer in periodization: planning cycles throughout the year, the week, and the month. Really allowing for extreme levels of stress, while following that up with down time that gives the body a chance to absorb the training. I don’t think you can maintain a really high level throughout the year. I really believe in up time, and I really believe in down time. I believe that to get to the next level, to get to a really, really high level, you have to do some extreme stuff, and you have to do more of it. And extreme is a relative term, that looks differently to you than it does to me or than it does to HJ. In HJ it probably looks higher than both of us, by the way. Third, I do believe in volume and aerobic volume. Aerobic work at the front end of cycles, which maybe a big Ironman athlete would have two of those cycles a year, I would say, like a Heather-type athlete. The more experienced an athlete is, and the longer they've been involved in the sport, the shorter that period can be. You don't have to put in as much time, as much volume, for as long of a period in an athlete whose been doing this for 20 years as an athlete that's been doing this for three years. For an athlete who is just coming into the sport I'll actually err on the side of a little bit more volume in aerobic work on the front end, because I'm not thinking this year, I'm not thinking next year, I'm thinking five years from now, when they really are going to be competitive. I don’t want any of my athletes, pro or amateur, peaking in their early 20s. HJ is 35, so she has a massive diesel engine, so we can work a bit more on aspects of her game away from just the aerobic volume.
But I believe in going through that base phase, then going through very specific strength phases of training. And then as you get closer to the race, adding more and more specificity to the program. And when I say specificity, specificity to what the actual race day requires. For Ironman, that's long, hard stuff. With an Ironman athlete I'm a big believer in getting volume up pretty high, and then being able to maintain that volume, while adding intensity. Early in the season you get that volume up to a level where the athlete is strong enough to add some intensity to the volume. The volume might not quite be as much as it was during a base phase, but still pretty high volume, because it has to be, for specificity for an Ironman, where you can inject some speed and the athlete actually gets stronger and doesn't break down. I guess, this is a Joe Friel type thing is I always feel like your peak is as high as your base is long. So if you graph that and you say your base is thing long, and then you flip that base vertically, that's your peak.
You just mentioned a “strength phase” a few minutes ago, something that comes after the base period—would you mind defining that phase?
I call it speed/strength. It's at a phase in the training where you do start injecting higher intensities, but you're really focusing on strength type work. On the bike, that's an over-gear phase: you're doing a lot of low cadence stuff, but you're starting to push that power into zones three and four. On the run, same thing: you're doing more hill repeats, you're doing more hilly runs. So it's kind of this natural progression into higher intensity, without actually hopping on a track and saying, "Okay, we're shooting for five minute miles today." You're doing long hill repeats, and even on those I say "I don't care what your pace is today—just hit a certain intensity.”
What period is HJ in right now? She has Oceanside 70.3 coming up, which is important, but then she has Kona later in the year, which is the ultimate goal. How do you manage the long competitive season in triathlon?
is Oceanside an important race? Yes. Is it HJ’s primary race of the year? Absolutely not. Is there a high level of competition there? Totally. If Oceanside were a peak race, she’d be doing a bit more intensity right now instead of base work. She’s more in a tempo/strength phase, and that's what she’ll take into the race—her bigger goals are down the line. Does she want to do incredibly well in Oceanside? Absolutely. So we're preparing to have a really good race there. Is she going to have their best race of her life? No, or at least that's not what we're planning for.
What’s the problem that you would most like to solve in the sport of triathlon?
I would say embrace the process, and enjoy the process. Because I feel like a lot of athletes, once again, they're looking for this magic secret and everything, and really the secret is embracing the process it takes to get there, whatever that “there” is, whether it's winning the world championships or finishing your local 5K. But more importantly, enjoying it. And I can say that with both pros and age groupers, I would say my most successful athletes are the ones who just live for this shit. If they quit racing—and I guess I would say I was the same way—tomorrow, they would still be on their bike for five hours. Not because they have to train anymore, but it's because they truly just enjoy it.
And I just love to see that from athletes. I like to see athletes who do this work for the same reasons that I do it: because I just like this shit. I just like going for runs. I just like going for bike rides. I just like swimming. The way it makes me feel. It's kind of the same process for professional success. Bill Gates didn't start his company thinking he was going to be one of the wealthiest guys in the world; he was just doing what he loved. And when you do that, and when you embrace that, success will come.