LANGUAGE WARNING: This interview contains occasional coarse language that some may find offensive and others may find hilarious.
Who is Chris Hanrahan?
A latte sipping, pale ale drinking lover of endurance sports. Did I mention gelato?
Where are you based?
The squad is based in the eastern suburbs of Sydney
How did you come to the sport?
About 16 – 17 years ago whilst managing an inner city gym, we thought it might be a great idea to run a triathlon for members. I was already a fairly active runner and run coach, but I have never belted myself as thoroughly as when we did that race and I was hooked from there.
How did you come to coaching?
A little by accident really. Coming from a running background I wasn’t the greatest swimmer so of course, I sought out the mighty Spot Anderson for swim squads. We became good mates and he knew that I was already doing some coaching, and because he had a thousand people turning up to stuff (still does I think), he got me to help him out. At first it was just a couple of times a week, but it got so crazy, that I finally made the stupidest decision of my life to leave a cushy job training over weight mid-level executives to run around the block; to spend my days coaching A type nutbags in triathlon.
What type of coaching do you do? Face to face/ internet/ squad based?
Majority of it is face to face and squad based. The only way I will coach someone online is if I know them well (I have coached them face to face previously). I prefer to have that close relationship whilst working with someone and just find I can get a better relationship with them this way.
Do you have a favourite distance to coach?
Nope. In fact I enjoy coaching people at all of them as it keeps me fresh. Each distance presents its own challenges, complexities and rewards.
Do you have a favourite discipline to coach?
Naturally I find running the easiest to coach and probably still enjoy those sessions the most. The weekend long run followed by a coffee with the group still gives me the most buzz. But the subtleties that go into improving across all three sports is where coaching is all about. I think any coach or online program will get you to improve, particularly if the person is weak and brings just a small amount of mongrel to their training. A good coach though can marry the three sports into one and have you improving across the board, but most importantly have you committed to the process.
What is the one thing that you think is unique about your coaching or squad?
This is the bit where I tell you that it is the work ethic or the training ethos or some other rubbish. Like most coaches I work my ring out as the patriarch of a wonderful family, and like every family you have squabbles, rifts, and multiple personalities (often with the same person) all trying to gel within a competitive environment. But you also have a wonderful environment where even at 5am on pool deck in the middle of Winter, people are frothing to get on with it because the camaraderie is there. I work hard to keep a balance of individual feedback which is essential to improvement but also providing an environment that allows each person to be able to do their best.
Do you think it is important for a coach to have competed in triathlon/ competed at a high level in triathlon/ competed at the distances they coach?
Nope, not at all. Some of the best coaches in the world could and have changed sports in their career and been highly successful in doing so, because it isn’t about the sport per se, but the animal that you are dealing with. A good coach knows what the person needs often before they need it. It is a fine combination of technical proficiencies, intuition, compassion and communication. You are a student of humans first and triathlon second and teaching people how to race is more about developing mental tenacity over skill proficiency.
How many people do you coach?
30 is great. 35 has me very busy. 40 has me hating life! Depending on goal races I sit somewhere along this line most of the year.
Qualifications? (Theoretical and/or real life experience)
Does a BA in Political Science count?? Hahahaha
Level 2 something or other that TA gives you. Fucked if I can get them to put on a Level 3 but I know there would be a few coaches who would be keen to do it that are qualified.
Plus working with Spot Anderson for 6 years and then Mark Newton for another 3 years should be like the equivalent of a Masters in Triathlon (or Psychology)
As a coach what are your goals?
Great question. It is a bit of a cliché but I always aim to be innovative with the way that I coach. It can be quite easy to trot out the same style of programs for people year in year out, especially as burnout can be a problem. I see this as the number ONE enemy of the full time coach. So I keenly protect my ability to stay fresh by dedicating time every day to read widely across the whole gamut of endurance sport. I find this does two things: firstly, often I will read things or concepts that I have forgotten or that are stated in a way that I hadn't thought of them and they reignite an interest in developing it back into someone’s program that I think might be useful. Secondly, new research or studies are constantly coming out that make me rethink the way I do things from a technical POV. I find this daily habit generally straight after the morning training session and before I start working on programs sets a great tone for the day and helps keep my programming and coaching current and relevant.
Outside of that, I think something that is sorely needed in the country is a yearly coaching conference. Once a year, for a weekend all nationally accredited coaches get together, network, swap ideas and thoughts and also listen to some key note speakers that are leaders in physiotherapy, bike fitters, physiology and so on and discuss some of the emerging concepts in the sport. There can only be an upside as I think a lot of coaches work often in isolation much to the detriment of the sport as a whole and the athletes that we work with. I put that as a goal as I would be more than happy if someone from TA was to contact me and say “ go for it – here are the list of coaches “ or maybe its shit and they can tell me to fuck off.
How would you describe your coaching style?
IT differs from coaching a group session where the session needs to be clear, laid out, and then coached. By necessity this style demands a no bullshit approach that takes into account time constraints. Once the session is underway though, I adapt my coaching to the person that I am coaching. People listen and receive information in different ways, so if for example you have a very autocratic style, then you aren’t going to get through to a lot of people. Much can be achieved by a quiet word in someone’s ear. The only key concept that must be there is honesty.
Do you follow a general philosophy or influence, e.g. Friel, Lydiard, etc.
No, not really. They all have their place and they all borrow and share the same principles to a greater or lesser degree. Again, it will always depend on the person but like all endurance sports consistency is King first and foremost. I find myself going back to Maffetone more often than not. True performance takes at the very least 18 months for a talented athlete, so really much longer for most AG athletes. I also used to very much enjoy Wayne Goldsmith’s thoughts on training and teamwork.
Mostly though, a lot of my programming will fall into meso’s and macro’s of HIGH/LOW moving through to SS work with key performance indicators along the way. If someone comes to me that is new to the sport, then it is all HIGH/LOW for a minimum of 6 months whilst we develop technique and proficiency across the 3 sports.
What method do you use to communicate with your clients (phone, email, face to face)? How often?
I use Training Peaks for all my athletes. It is an invaluable tool as far as the client / coach relationship is concerned. Outside of that, all of the above and as often as required.
How do you gauge performance improvements? (Races, training, tts, power analysis)
All of the above. We have regular benchmarking sessions that we then use to develop race plans and set accurate zones from. Racing analysis is still the best gauge though as racing is the best training.
Do you believe in/use gadgets? (Pace watch/PM/hr monitor)
100%. In an ideal world every athlete would have a finely tuned measure of perceived exertion, but unfortunately I work in the real world with people that have stressful lives and huge goals. The gadgets allow the specific session to be hit perfectly, giving us the performance benefit we are after or conversely the gadget will give us a warning sign that the person is tired, getting sick, etc. Key sessions with defined parameters that are hit well give a lot of confidence! B and C races are generally raced “off the leash” purely for the love of the taste of blood in the back of your throat.
How much feedback do you give your athletes on workouts? (Daily/weekly/as needed)
As needed. The majority of people see me at squad sessions and unfortunately for my significant other I am always available. I really should get around to setting up some parameters around that.
Do you use training peaks or something similar?
What's your experience working with people who work extreme hours and how do you adapt their programmes to that?
These sort of people are actually a great pleasure to train. Many of the fundamental principles to a successful life like effective time management are already in place. They are often focused, goal oriented, and give you clearly defined parameters around what they can do. They won’t waste your time as they have a great grasp on how precious it is. You can actually be incredibly fast on about 8 hours a week if you are focused on short course racing. Mark Newton and Scott Molina (??? I think if memory serves correctly) wrote an excellent book on some quality workouts that can be fit into busy lives.
How individually tailored are your programs?
It depends wholly on the person and their personal situation and limiting factors. Every single person has elements of individual programming every single week whether that be in distance, type of workout or intensity of the session. A weak swimmer may have 25km for that week for example but there are only 3 coached swims, so they are expected to get work done outside of the environment. But I will also always endeavour to envelop them within the squad, to have them exposed to the group mentality which is for the most part a healthy environment. All of them do some training by themselves and some training in the squad but never do all of one of those. I think a well-rounded and successful athlete takes what they need from both scenarios effectively.
Do you have a holistic approach?
A holistic approach is often not needed or warranted. For the most part, I coach successful people that already bring a wonderful skill set to the table. They don’t need me to make them a better person per se, I think to a certain extent this amazing sport we love does that! I think if I continue to provide a quality system of coaching in a quality training environment that is supportive then those people are getting what they signed up for. Outside of that environment, if you turn out to still be an axe murderer I won’t lose any sleep!
I will say this though, there is a definite correlation between successes in triathlon and in other facets of life. Whether triathlon is a mirror for the success that person enjoys or whether it is an enabler I don’t know but I see the pattern often. Will leave that to the philosophers out there.
Do you offer advice on diet, vitamins, supplements and alternative therapies (such as chiro, accu, yoga)
This is an incredibly fine line, especially with women! You ask anyone in my squad and one of the things I am incredibly passionate about is people being lean. I believe that year round you should be near your race weight, and that your race weight should also have you being healthy, vital and happy. Having said that, this sport is full of people that are FIT but not HEALTHY, so we strive for that balance.
I could ramble on ad nauseam regarding diet for endurance athletes but suffice to say that strategies differ depending on the athlete. Quite a few of my athletes are keen adapters of HFLC and have had great success in remaining lean, injury free and showing great signs of ongoing health whilst training through heavy phases.
I have a wonderful group of professionals that I have help the squad and me including a physio, S and C coach, sports nutritionist, and a yoga studio. These people are passionate and professional in their chosen fields and their advice is wonderful.
What attributes do you think make an athlete easier to coach to their desired results?
Far and away the most successful athletes have a clearly defined goal and are processed driven towards it. They prioritise well, are great with time management, and block out the noise. They know only as much as they need to know to do their best and trust me to take care of the rest. They bring a professionalism to their training that is indicative of other facets that are important in their life.
Do you specialise in or have a preference for novice athletes, seasoned athletes, etc, etc.
Not particularly. I have always ended up more with seasoned athletes only because I just never advertise or hold beginners sessions per se. That market if you like is saturated and I think it is also nice to leave that to the non-profit clubs in the sport so that when people do come in they are exposed to that wonderful camaraderie and fellowship that the sport is famous for. My experience of the coaching within the clubs is generally of incredibly giving and generous people and that is a great place for someone to start and get some racing under their belts. From a coaching POV, I really do like taking someone whom hypothetically has been in the sport for a number of years, has a grasp of the principles, and is looking for that extra 5 – 20% to get them under 10 hours, or off to Kona, or to a WC race for example. Finding the little technical things that haven’t been developed that give that person that extra bit is quite challenging, and I get a real kick out of seeing someone like that succeed.
Would you be honest with me in regards to my goals and aspirations?
Yes. You are too fat, and have never done the swim work necessary to be truly competitive! Although the fact that you wear an aero helmet 24/7 is a distinct advantage on others.
Have you ever sacked a client who didn't follow your advice?
Yes, but this should be prefaced by saying that this is often not a difficult conversation to have. More often than not, the person has bitten off more than they realised. It is very common in our sport now with the proliferation and popularity of long course racing, and people sign up to these races and are not ready physically and mentally for the workload. I will grab them before they become completely disengaged from the sport altogether and suggest that they pick the one sport of the 3 they love and go and do that with some mates for 3 months and then revisit it later.
Having said that I have booted a couple of dickheads as well………just fucken painful! I will often take the temperature of key people in the squad and if I get an 80% dickhead ruling on that person, then see ya!
Have you coached mature athletes? How do you treat them differently?
Again this is very general so I will give it a general response. I am going to work on the premise that our mature athlete is over 50 and has been in the sport for a number of years and has competed at all distances and is currently injury free.
I traditionally put them on a 3 day cycle that goes like this:
1 easy session (up to 90 minutes)
1 hard session (up to 45 minutes unless swimming. Although HARD is such a broad and generic term but for this conversation let’s call it threshold)
1 rest day
If they handle this and are developing well over a 4 – 6 month period then we add a 4th day so it looks like this:
1 longer aerobic session (60 – 180 minutes although this depends on race goal)
1 hard session (again following parameters above)
1 easy session (up to 90 minutes and this is the opposite of the aerobic session)
1 rest day
It is not dissimilar to beginners really and the dynamic of actually having mature athletes train with and mentor beginner athletes is a powerful combination that benefits all.
The only other thing that I would add with mature athletes is that I add in S&C work as a must because of natural aging of muscle and bone degeneration and work quite early on with some key mobility exercises to ensure great ROM for all disciplines.
Do you understand the recovery needs of older athletes?
Yes. I think I answered that above mostly.
What percentage of your athletes survive the training injury free?
Almost all. Injuring athletes is very bad for business!!
Do you practice what you preach?
I asked the squad this question and I got a resounding NO!
I like to get fit about twice a year, but mostly I just stay fit enough not to be completely embarrassing. As a benchmark for myself I always stay fit enough that at any time I can join the squad in any session that I will give and often will test that out. I honestly can’t do it any more than that and coach effectively. I am a one-man show so I just can’t afford to be knackered from training too often.
And I love beer!
How do you look at intensity vs volumes?
I could write 2000 words on this as a means of clarifying anything that I put below. Loosely though I do not use a typical periodization block of 3 weeks build / 1 week recovery. My phases are generally A LOT shorter, mostly 7 – 10 days and each of these phases will have key sessions depending on the athlete. I still have a macro and meso cycle, as a clearly defined end point is crucial in ongoing athlete development, and these will have high points built into them (4 in 24 weeks, 3 in 16 weeks, 2 in 12 weeks and race day in 8 weeks).
As mentioned above if I was to broadly define my approach to intensity and volume it would be through using a HIGH/LOW approach for newer athletes for anywhere from 6 months up to 2 years. You can get incredibly fast by following this style of training and in my experience the NO 1 FAULT of most AG’ers is not doing enough of this in their formative years in the sport. The only exception to this is swimming where I think that if you are not swimming at threshold often then you are wasting your time. Too much emphasis on drills for mine (but that is a whole topic on its own).
Leading into key races then SPECIFICITY trumps everything. This is where the SS work comes into play and if done well (keeping a close eye that competitiveness doesn’t creep in and ruin the desired effect – this being the NO 1 downfall of squad training), then this sort of work is highly repeatable and turn around can be quite quick. This is where we use the toys, over that crucial 8 – 10 weeks so that things are hit as close as possible to desired outcomes and the confidence builds – good quality repeatable processes!
Sorry to be so brief.
Everyone’s idea of success is different. Tell me a couple of your success stories both as a coach and with athletes you train.
I measure my success purely on results which means that I am either drinking in celebration or drinking in commiseration – both hurt the next day!
Chris Kemp is angry little shit but he has been a pleasure to work with and we have enjoyed some success together. Helping him achieve the 2013 Asia Pacific 70.3 championship against a truly competitive international field was very nice as was seeing him also crowned the Aussie LC Champion that year.
His 8:14 in Melbourne last year as his 2nd only Ironman was a terrific result again racing against some of the greats of our current era.
Monica Juhart continues to develop nicely. I haven’t been working with her long but we got her to Kona last year where she managed to get 5th in her AG (apparently that’s a podium these days)
Laura Brown and Matilda Raynolds both coming along nicely in that weird grey area that is your top AG/semi pro
Cost and what do I get for this?
$300 per month gets you the full box and dice which I dare say has been described above to such an extent that I now want to neck myself.
I really only have openings for a couple of juniors, and athletes from 19 – 35 in both genders. I am as full as a fat ladies sock with middle aged hacks talking a massive game.
Ed: Big thanks to Chris for fitting this into his tight schedule. He can be found at http://pb3.com.au/ or you may see him doing stand up at an open mic night in a venue near you.
If you would like to see some more of his handiwork then check out his motivational video with Chris (Kempy) Kemp from a while back.