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Continuing in Multisport: The Next Step After College

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Dan McIntosh was a collegiate triathlete for the University of Colorado from 2005-2008. Today, Dan is a professional triathlete, USA Triathlon certified coach and an Education Specialist at TrainingPeaks. Based on his own experiences as an athlete and coach, Dan advises collegiate triathletes who have aspiration to go pro on how to get to “the next level.” 

With the Elite Triathlon Academy in Colorado Springs about to celebrate the end of its second year, the NCAA considering triathlon as an emerging sport for women and the recent USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships last month, now is a good time to discuss the collegiate triathlete.

Many people (myself included) began triathlon while in college. Most athletes fall into triathlon through a friend or literally fall into it after an injury. Similar to other endurance sports, there is an attraction to the lifestyle triathlon offers, and unlike intramural sports, many will find ways to fit in training and racing around their careers after college. However, for a few athletes, post-collegiate triathlon may represent an actual career path. 

USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships
The podium spots at the USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships usually include athletes who have already earned their elite licenses but still need to raise their level before they can challenge the top professionals. For instance, University of Arizona athlete Ben Kanute, the 2013 USAT Collegiate National Champion, has been competing in draft-legal races since 2008. His swim background allowed him to be competitive in shorter draft-legal races at the junior level, and his bike is also improving, as evident by the file below from his ride from Collegiate Nationals.

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View Ben’s full power data at http://www.trainingpeaks.com/av/2NTKQMCMFTJDUB7SQHTQEXC55I

At 4.7 watts/kg over the 40-kilometer bike, Ben can also be competitive in non-drafting Olympic-distance races. However, he will need to continue improving his run to be competitive at the ITU Continental, World Cup and eventually World Triathlon Series level. To reach his goal of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, he will need to target a sub-30 minute 10k run time, a standard many runners are unable to meet after four years in a collegiate running program.

For athletes without a strong swim background, the non-drafting or longer distance events offer opportunity to earn their place among the best in the sport. For these athletes, the swim is still important but they will likely need to focus on improving their bike and run.

Tom Alters, a University of Colorado triathlete, has competed in several longer distance races, including Silverman at the age of 16. His swim, bike and run times allow him to place near the top of his age group, especially over longer distances. Looking at his ride from the Collegiate National Championships, Tom averaged 256 watts and 3.71 watts/kg over 24 miles, then ran 6.2 miles in 39:11, averaging a 6:19 min/mile. (See Tom’s Powertap data in TrainingPeaks: http://tpks.ws/oCpK). But, if Tom plans on taking down Ironman World Champion Pete Jacobs someday, he will need to average 4.07 watts/kg over 112 miles and hold his 6:19 min/mile 10k pace over the marathon.

How to Get to the Next Level
Finding a balance between studying, working and socializing can be a challenging part of the college experience and making time to exercise is not always a priority. Collegiate triathletes who want to be successful make time to exercise, rest, sleep and eat healthy in between classes and work. Most triathletes will train 10-12 hours per week during the school year.

For athletes with their sights on elite competition, training bumps up to 18-24 hours a week in addition to classes and work. This increase in training volume also requires additional rest and meals. Training all three sports requires finding time to fit in an hour swim, 2-hour ride and an hour run along with everything else. Time management is one of the greatest skills of an elite collegiate triathlete. Kanute attributes his success with time management to advice from his parents who always taught him to “get work done first.” He also credits his coach, Adam Zucco, from Training Bible Coaching. A coach who understands the demands on a college athlete can assist greatly with time management, in addition to setting up the right type of training.

Collegiate athletes who want to go pro should also be prepared for the additional training volume that will be required. Using my own data as an illustration, the two charts below represent total training duration over a 3-month block from February to May. The chart on the left was taken from my senior year in college when I was preparing for Oceanside 70.3 and the Talent ID draft legal sprint as an age-grouper. The chart on the right is from my most recent 3 months at Team TBB training camp in Cozumel. The swim volume has remained relatively the same but the extra time to train and recover has allowed for more 4-5 hour rides and longer run sessions during the week. In total, my training volume for this 3-month period has nearly doubled from my last year in college, going from approximately 15 hours per week to 28 hours per week on average this year. 

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Another key factor to success is having expert guidance and the best tools at your disposal. By using a coach and training log such as TrainingPeaks, an athlete can properly plan around training. Such planning will improve the quality of the sessions and the recovery periods post workout. Establishing a sustainable routine allows the athlete and coach to grow fitness without having to constantly react to changes in schedule and instead focus on making gradual changes. Knowing when to make these changes can be facilitated with advances in technology, including power meters, heart rate monitors and GPS watches. Using these tools, athletes and coaches can track, analyze and plan training and racing to maximize the time they have. 

There is still a lot of work and time required to make the step from competitive collegiate athlete to top professional but for those with the right guidance, motivation and training tools, it’s not impossible.

Are you a collegiate triathlete looking to get to the next level? TrainingPeaks can help you find a coach suitable to your budget, level of experience and other preferences — try our free Coach Matching Service. Or, sign up for a TrainingPeaks account to track, analyze and plan your training. USA Triathlon members receive discounts on Premium accounts. Learn more here.

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