Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

USA Triathlon Level I Coaching Certification: Summary and Review, Part I

Last month I was fortunate to finally complete USA Triathlon’s Level I coaching certification held in Las Vegas.  I say fortunate, because by far the toughest thing about this certification is getting into the course.  Courses in or near heavily populated areas tend to fill within a matter of seconds.  A fast internet connection, credit card (and security code) committed to memory, and lightning fast typing speed are critical prerequisites.  After multiple unsuccessful attempts in previous years, I finally entered my digits fast enough to gain a spot in the Las Vegas course.

The USAT Coaching Certification has been around since the 90s (this information can be useful if you are taking the test…) and has evolved significantly over those years.  During this time we’ve seen everything from the masterful to the incompetent emerge from the world of USAT coaching.  It’s no secret that the USAT Level I curriculum has been the subject of criticism in recent years, due in part to its massive growth.   Barriers to entry are minimal, which seems to be the most pointed criticism.  Signing up only requires a valid USAT membership.   Nevertheless, I’ve been through other courses with stricter standards that are perfectly capable of certifying clueless dopes (just look at some college and grad school ex phys programs…).

After meeting some of the fellow attendees I can see the admissions dilemma for the federation.   A significant percentage of the attendees had absolutely zero intention of working with upper level athletes (which is perfectly fine).   Many were in charge of “learn-to-tri” types of programs and wanted some formal training on how to coach people…naturally you’d go to the course offered by the national governing body of the sport for information.  If USAT doesn’t certify these people, they’ll either run their programs with no certification or some other organization will fill this certification void.  An analogy to running is the coexistence of certifications from both USA Track and Field (the National Governing Body for running) and Road Runners Club of America (a private group which is of a recreational focus). 

Overall, my impression of the course was extremely favorable.  Although I can’t say I agreed with everything, it offered very sound information for a Level I course.  My biggest criticism was that some fo the best information remained in the manual.  Much like the Youth and Junior course that Katherine had been through in August, there were some informational pearls.  At times there was a tendency to pile on information without discrimination as to its importance (since there is admittedly a lot to cover), but lost in that information were some gems from within the manual.  This is a minor criticism though, as I recognize the difficulty in distilling some very large topics into 90 minute talks.  Also, the presenters weren’t necessarily the ones who wrote the chapter for the topic on which they lectured.  However, I do give the federation credit for making serious upgrades to the manual from when Katherine went through the same course several years ago. 

As a sidenote, one criticism of Vegas is that it has no good places to run.  On the night before the conference, I ended up staying at a Hampton Inn across from a park that allowed me to get in 90 minutes of running (park is named Sunset Park).  It is probably too far away by foot if you’re staying on The Strip but a good place to put in some miles if you are in the area.  I spent much of Thursday at the Callaway Golf Center, a nice driving range just off the strip.  Although I didn’t have any clubs with me, I was able to practice several hours for free by trying out some of their demo clubs.  Since I’m a little different than the ordinary hack that shows up, one of the staff club fitters was happy sit and talk shop with me for a while as I sampled the newest Callaway offerings (note, I'm a Titleist guy these days, but it is always fun to sample new equipment!). 

On to the course: The course was two and a half days covering topics of exercise physiology, nutrition, strength training, swimming, cycling, running, mental training, triathlon specific training, and developing an annual training plan.  Bob Seebohar was the first to present with the first of his three presentations, starting with exercise physiology.  I had known of Bob ever since Katherine’s many OTC camps as a Junior Elite, but had never met him in person.   The guy is without a doubt one of the premier endurance sports nutrition experts on the planet.  Before we get to the nutrition talk, let’s run through some key points in the exercise physiology talk.  I liked this talk because it was more about coaching wisdom and common sense, rather than straight Ex. Phys., which is way too large a topic to address in an hour.   

Exercise Physiology

Pull out weak points – De emphasize strengths

Gambetta – Coaching vs. training

Coaching = mechanics of how someone moves, repeatable, always learning

Training = just focused on the result; has all the answers

Coaches nowadays get too focused on data…and don’t know what to do with it!  Look beyond the numbers.  We have all these toys but don’t really know how to use them.

(My analogy: Plenty of crappy homebuilders have fancy tools, but there are master craftsmen such as the Amish who do phenomenal work with minimal technology.  Is someone to be impressed that a builder is certified to use a particular piece of machinery?  In triathlon we have a lot of pretty houses that leak (i.e. get injured), rather than the simplistic beauty and durability of an Amish constructed home.  The misuse of technology is a major concern in triathlon, and it was good to hear a veteran coach such as Bob take this position). 

#1 reason that people hire a coach?  To look better!  People want to look like the other person.  (I guessed the #1 reason is that people want someone to validate their own training beliefs…was feeling a bit cynical that morning, apparently!)

Two years is the MINIMUM that someone should stay with a coach.  (great advice!) 

VO2 max number doesn’t mean anything.  Classic example is Frank Shorter…very low VO2 max for elite runner, but was one of the greatest ever (We’ve always believed that commercially provided VO2 max is pretty useless.  At least university labs are more reliable with calibration, but the numbers still aren’t worth much in the field!)

Only value of VO2 testing is to gauge genetic potential.  Example: Susan Williams had only modest credentials prior to start of pro career but VO2 test indicated enormous upside.  She was going to be great if the coach just didn’t screw her up!  She’s the only US triathlete with an Olympic medal

LT testing in lab and field testing are far more useful that VO2

Heart rate monitor is a MONITOR not a heart rate PRESCRIBER (great line!)

Learn Rating of Perceived Exertion before relying on Heart Rate Monitor. 

Athletes can lose the ability to internalize effort – what if technology fails in race? (Again, good to hear the theme of more feel-based coaching rather than a blind obsession with power numbers)

Can use HRM in race just to catch data

Major theme – Monitoring athletes!!

Don’t program for more than one week at a time

We’ve lost track of the most important tools in coaching – Face to face contact and the phone!

You can break an athlete but you can’t make an athlete

Problem with selling stock programs – If person gets hurt or performs poorly, you are given a bad name.  Trend in the field is toward more personal plans.

Easy to break athletes because they want to do more.  They EXPECT their days to be full.

Recovery based training – First step of training plan is to identify recovery opportunities.  Protect sleep!

Satisfaction scale – how satisfied are you with the workout?  If satisfaction level is low, then you could be overpowering the system

Tactics are overlooked in age group coaching (where to start, what to do with equipment malfunction, how to react if you get passed on the bike, etc). 

 Overtraining vs. Overreaching. Latter is necessary for growth.  Get as close to the point without going beyond (this can be dangerous advice though…often wildly misinterpreted)

Training is like a bucket of water.  Fill bucket with as much water as you can, but small pin holes in bucket prevent water from overflowing.  The pin holes are analogous to your recovery

Identify symptoms of overtraining – (My take: gets too much into disease model, such as thinking about injuries in term of PF, IT Band, rather than movement dysfunctions that caused those conditions.  If someone is overtrained, then someone screwed up…not necessarily the coach though, since athletes don’t always follow instructions). 



(This talk was phenomenal, in my opinion.  I had gotten a preview of Bob’s material when Katherine attended the Youth and Junior course this summer and was quite impressed.  His main point is the concept of nutrition periodization, which essentially means coordinating your nutrition needs with training needs.  Sounds simple in theory, but most people eat too much during reduced training and are undernourished during periods of high training.)  

Refer out when appropriate – OK if you don’t want to get into nutrition.  There are legal issues since it is a recognized field

Have a professional team around you (not just sports performance…can include things like mortgage and insurance)

All sports dieticians are not created equally  - Filter by asking if they know nutrition periodization

Body has 2-3 hours of carbohydrate stores to fuel intense exercise.  Don’t need to fuel for short easy workouts, especially in reduced training blocks.  Athletes in base season end up eating like they are going on long and hard runs and rides…no wonder they can’t lose weight or have GI stress in competition! 

Most sports nutrition products are made to support higher levels of exertion

In general – People eat too much at start of year (holidays), then overcompensate after gaining weight (April is when people generally panic). They gained weight because their nutrition did not match workout demands.  Ate based on what they were habituated to at the end of previous season.

Nutrition periodization – Match intake to activity demands of that time of year

Nutrition is behavioral

Three types of supplements – Nutritional, sports, ergogenic

Each supplement has different applications based on time of year (periodization)

Natural vitamins/minerals more powerful in food than manufactured

Nutrition can promote reduction of “silent” inflammation (arterial wall inflammation).  Sneak in more omega-3s throughout the year.  Omega-3s have been part of cardiology treatment for over 30 years. 

Good sports dietician separates daily nutrition with training nutrition

Get blood work done not just when things are going bad, but when things are going well

Chewing rice = Sign of iron deficiency

Emotional connection to food.  Ask the question “Why?” to help athletes understand their bodies better.

Popular media is way off base in advising people to intentionally gain offseason weight.  Harder to lose weight than people realize and excess weight puts stress on joints. 

4-5 lb. daily fluctuation on scale is insignificant.  Water, bowel movements can have big effect on number

Think more about performance markers rather than weight

No single body type that predicts success in triathlon (can be anything from thicker former water polo player to skinny runner)

GI distress happens on the run when you buffet on the bike!!

Crossover concept – Body becomes more efficient at burning fats.  Can be trained in two weeks but can be lost in less than two weeks

Worthless to count calories.  Focus more on percentages

Improved metabolic efficiency = Balanced blood sugar

Take pictures for food log.  Compare to periodization plates. 

Periodization plates – Visual depictions on a plate of the breakdown of your relative food consumption.  Different times  of year have different plates.  Match actual plates to periodization plates.

Avoid sports nutrition during base phase

If you eat high carbs, it turns on carb burning response 

More sodium ok during competition, but less sodium during daily life

Use food to control blood sugar

Fewer carbs ingested before and during competition preserves more carbs for later.  Presented case studies of athletes he had worked with who lowered the caloric intake via periodization and efficiency, which eliminated GI distress.


Strength training 

(Overall, this was sound information with an emphasis on “movements over muscles” and “functional” training.  Personally, I think most people have moved on from the machine/bodybuilding emphasis and there is less need to zealously wave the flag for “functional” training to convert others, but I could be wrong if Bob has encountered resistance to these concepts on the speaking tour.  In my opinion, the most important part of this talk was emphasizing the importance of screening and assessment before training.  Bob implored students to team up with therapists and strength coaches knowledgeable in methods like the FMS.)

Can’t prevent stupidity in the gym!

Hard sell when you don’t address the “look good” muscles in gym

If you don’t assess, you can’t prescribe!

Think of core exercises as drills

Teach kids, fix adults (great line!)

Movement before sport (my take: very true…too much technique coaching happens before cleaning up underlying movement dysfunction)

Network with PT’s, strength coaches (Great that he said this, as we have encountered many in triathlon with minimal strength backgrounds who feel empowered to act as strength coaches for their athletes rather than referring out, though I can’t always blame them given most of the trash they probably see in the strength and personal training worlds).

Consider chronological versus biological age

Movement that makes sense = purposeful training

Add instability àgo barefoot

Neural gains occur before strength gains

Instead of 60 minute run, do 5 min neuromuscular activation, 5 min dynamic warmup, 45 minutes run -5 minutes drills.  (I think this is a useful strategy for beginning runners, but ultimately we’d like to wean people off assistive exercises.  Long term goal is for proper movement patterns to set automatically.  Correct underlying flaws and there’s less need to protect ourselves with a 10 minute warmup every time we go out the door to run)

Brain games are a useful transition to workouts after stressful workday

Work toward functional mastery – no set and rep prescriptions starting out

Based on all the injured people out there, if you want to switch careers, go into physical therapy (nice….) 



This covers the first series of talks. Next we'll move onto the talks by Ian Murray and Bobby McGee.  Look for Part II in the coming days!


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