Skip to Content


Brett Sutton Interview: Part 3

Written by: Jay Prasuhn
Date: Sun Aug 17 2008

Slowtwitch: Brett, weíve had a very strong response to your articles and wanted to clarify some of the interpretations for the readers with a third and final installment.

Sutton: I was asked to help shed some light on some fantastic issues happening in the sport at the moment and give readers an experts eye on the developments, and of course what
we do differently in preparing a team of top-class athletes all at the forefront of the sport.
Thereís a standing joke throughout out my group, it dates back to prehistoric times. Itís my strangling of the English languageóit has a name among usóthey call it Suttolishóso I will clarify some of the stuff that was maybe seen out of context.
But after reading your e-mail on the posts, it would seem very clear to me that again many readers canít see the forest for the trees, others want to turn it into a tech debate of what I know and donít. What I do know isóand itís seen as arrogant by some, but itís just standard truth to meóthat I have the confidence that I know what I am doing, that I know about real performance and how to achieve it. My results prove it.
For those that are serious and trying to honestly plot their way through the mountain of bullshit out there I will do the last installment for you. So long as I get to print a rebuttal
for my very wounded warrior. Not Belinda Granger, but Justin.

Slowtwitch: I reckon that can be arranged. Letís first address the tech questions.

Sutton: No, the first thing, is, like in coaching, you put things in perspective for the individual you are dealing with: me and the readers. A first distortion or assumption that is wrong then leads others to misinterpretations, that Iím looking for shock value or something.
The reason I have such a strong bond with the group is because they know I donít say anything I donít mean. And sometimes when I want to say some thing, I donít. Because a wise old coach once told me, the difference between the good coach and the great ones is good ones want to tell you how much knowledge they have, but the great ones know what to say, but know when not to say it. That has served me well.
With no disrespect, I have zero reasons to want to do any impressing, here or any forum. I work for the respect of who walks thru my training door. And my biggest weapon is that they know I tell them the truth.
The second is to be a great coach, you have an opinion. Thatís what they come to you for; theyíre looking for someone with more expertise than they already have. They donít want to hear ďwell, maybe this will work for you,Ē or ďit could be this or could be that thatís causing the problem.Ē They want clear answers. They want a leader when they are under extreme pressure.
That pressure comes in not just races, but with injuries, down times, dealing with their own personality, of who they are. And they want a rock, someone that can and does make decisions.
Iíve had success for a long time now. I was not out to say ďlook at me.Ē The difference here was I went into a new sport (Ironman-ed), with athletes of differing levels, and turned it on its head. People want to know why and how.
Those that listen I tell there is no secrets, and average Joes can make good gains too with out going full-time or getting a divorce.
Now, regarding tech, itís a crutch. And the first thing I do with my athletes is kick the crutches out. I already said that if there is a piece of technology out there that I think will improve Chrissie one second, I will use it. Itís there, somewhere. But, nobody picks up on that, because I didnít put it out of context.
But really, itís a small part of the performance debate, a very minor part. Rebecca Preston won her first three Ironman races on training wheels. Chrissie won her first one on them. Sorry, people, but thatís the truth. Some people pick up on that inference, and I am happy for that.

Slowtwitch: You canít be that indifferent about the technology. To wit, you have the team on Cervelos. I understand they reside at the top of a short list of bikes youíd even consider to sponsor the team, and that if you had them on the top of the list of three bikes youíd ever consider, and heard that if you couldnít get one of the three, youíd simply not have a bike sponsor?
Sutton: I take every advantage I can get. I do measure things, but if itís something that can improve you two minutes, but the down side is that it costs you 10 minutes, I say donít go there.
That said, we have the number one bike available off the rack. And are glad we do. Cervelo is a step ahead, full stop. And while the P2 has served Chrissie, she will move to the P3 Carbon after this season. Sheíll have more skill by then. The fastest tool is at our disposal, and sheís ready for it.

Slowtwitch: What are the other two brands youíd consider?

Sutton: Well, Iíll tell you number two, as he has helped an number of my old athletesóand I always appreciated thatóand of course love his design in the sport. And thatís Felt.

Slowtwitch: So what about the rest of equipment? I spoke with some helmet manufacturers about your thoughts of whether an aero helmet could provide as much cooling as a vented oneówhether itís even possible.

Sutton: Yeah, I said already that itís a nice piece of equipment but thereís just no ventilationóyet. Bella wears one that is getting there, from her sunglass people, Rudy Project. Overall, though the head just doesnít lose the heat it needs to.

Slowtwitch: Can you elaborate on your resistance to your female athletes using disc wheels?

Sutton: Easy. Girls canít get the bike over 40 kilometers an hour over 180 kilometers. The negative to them is it takes a lot of power to keep discs going. Discs arenít allowed in Hawaii, so why donít we ride with them outside of Hawaii? We train as we race.
Back in 1993 a very smart guy, a boyfriend to one of my athletes, did a fantastic disc cover on spokes. I was told they did something like that is the states. One of the greatest of all timeóKaren Smyersórode one. Itís a great innovation, but the market has killed it.
For most age grouper guys, itís similar. But for those front of pack guys that ride it, the micro jarring is amazing. Thatís why if we have a stress fracture, we donít ride to get it better like the doctors and physios say. They donít know. An athlete has a much quicker downtime if you get off the road, for the same reason: the vibrations are being sent up the leg. Softride took some of that out. Which was ironic, because Cannondale at the time tried to bring shock into race bikes. But Softride was a very good innovation that died.

Slowtwitch: Ill paint a broad brush stroke: aerobars, and again regarding your advice for many of the women on the team to run road drops with clip-ons instead of pursuit bars with bar-end shifters. Iíd be curious for a detailed reason for that view.

Sutton: Tri girls have the worst handling skill you have ever seen. They brake too soon, and when you have those aerobars and no drops, guess what: they break another five meters earlier than even that. Then they try to fire up out of the corners. It pitiful. And sorry, but most age group men are not much better.
So yes, in a wind tunnel itís all very impressive, but on the road in a 90-degree turn, are you kidding? Changing gear up a hill, again, you gotta be kidding. Just take a look at the footage at a race. Sometimes you donít see it that much, because they are off the bike trying to put their chains back on.

Slowtwitch: But isnít that something that can be trained as a skill?

Sutton: Well, yes and no, depending again on the athlete. But I see many coaches out there trying to go technical with skills, but come race day with a descent, well, it ainít technique, its fear. And if youíve ever tried training an animal with fear in their eye, the good trainer tells you the best response is keep them away from the fear until itís absolutely critical to face it. Then over time they will get some confidence. But go at the fear day in and day out and you get
Neurosis. Iím a coach, not a research scientist.

Slowtwitch: Footwear choice is always a big question, particularly run form in concert with it. Whatís your take on shoe design advancement, and whether it helps or hinders an athlete doing long-course racing.

Sutton: The most important thing running in Ironman itís that itís more efficient to land with mid-foot strike. Not on the ball of the foot. So, I like the shoes to be low in the heel, not built up and with stability plate. Thatís injury city. But donít worry, no one listens to my thoughts there.

Slowtwitch: Granted, there are some companies that are creating shoes in that vein. But it goes against a large majority of the running shoe market, with beefed-up heels, lots of cushioning, so could be seen as an against-the-grain look.

Sutton: Well, itís my study of near 20 years watching all types of runners, and another 15 dealing with animal movement. Itís just a statement of fact. As I said, I donít think in terms of right and wrong; I think in terms of what works. And from what I see, mid-foot stroke is the safest, injury-preventative, economical running form, I spend half my running time with new people, getting their toes.

Slowtwitch: Letís continue with the coaching.

Sutton: About time.

Slowtwitch: You say you donít look at the bike, that itís merely a tool. Do you train your athletes and give it only as much attention as you think it deserves, and not a minute more?

Sutton: Triathlon is triathlon. Itís not swimming, biking and running to me. I just donít look at it like that. Itís what it takes to get to the end first with what you got. The bike, to me in my mind, is a two-wheeled apparatus to deliver us to the run.
But people think I mean it the cloud, that I donít care about it. I care about the bike in far more detail than anybody here. Because itís triathlon, itís the link in the chain. If your swim is dead, your bike will be terrible. If your bike is weak, I donít care how fast you run, you wonít go well after a 180-kilometer bike.

Slowtwitch: I understand you do the fit of the athletes in the team, but have many in less aggressive positions. Would optimizing them with a more aerodynamics position help toward optimizing the bike as it relates to the rest of the race?

Sutton: Absolute rubbish. With the exception of Bjorn Andersson, my guys are set up more extreme than anyone in the sport, and have been from day one. Iíve seen Dan Empfield take heat for his ďextremeĒ position. I make him look like a lounge chair cyclist.
Look at any of my guys. The ITU brought a rule in against my guys, because they were so far forward. Thatís why the third bike among my favorites was Quintana Roo. They had it right a long time ago. Those who think I am bullshitting, look at what Jackie Gallagher first rode when I had heróand that was like in í93.
Youíve got to get forward. Now the degrees, that depends on the athlete. But the bike fit of Dan is closer to us than any other.

Slowtwitch: Looking at your run training, you seem to go toward volume.

Sutton: That is always something that can often be taken out of context, and might require a little insight into TeamTBB. The general rule for the Ironchicks is run only every second day.

Slowtwitch: Whatís the reasoning?

Sutton: Since I started this, we have hadótouch woodóno stress fracture from the girls. Thatís a fact.

Slowtwitch: From what I have seenóand without giving too much of your training specifics awayóyour swim training isnít insanely massive, despite popular legend saying youíre an advocate of high volume.

Sutton: I know swimming, and when I came into the sport of triathlon, I swam their asses off and made a lot of swimmers that couldnít be good, better. But in hindsight, I slowed their bike and run. So again, I measured my science; a one-minute improvement on an athleteís swim is great for a coachís ego. Then they rode three minute slower. So did I improve them or slow them down?
Now, I also know how hard swimming is, and how bad most swimmers in triathlon are. So I see no value in taking a technically challenged swimmer and practicing bad habits over and over so they get tired and worse.
We donít count meters, we count good strokes. And sometimes in a 2,500-meter session, there are more good strokes than 6 kilometers of bad habits.

Slowtwitch: Most would subscribe to the understanding that consistency is the key to progression, there must be some key workout that can help the athletes break through, particularly in the swim. Are there any sets that are meant to shock the system, and at the same time give the athletes confidence that they can churn it out? (That 10k swim set, Hills B-dayóafter she ran a broken 26 miles the day beforeócomes to mind). Band and paddles seem to be a key part of your workouts as well.

Sutton: This is where it gets in to expertise and experience. Iím disappointed that in this sport, every man and his dog call themselves coaches, and have got reams of printouts to prove it. But the big bullet workouts? Well the birthday present to Hillary, improves nothing physically. Just like the 60 km run she did improves nothing physically and doesnít help with technique. But itís a workout for a specific problem with a specific athlete.
I have succumbed to people wanting the workoutsóthatís what we have done with ironguides. They will be allowed to monitor all our workouts and produce them for people to buy and use. There will be no tricks, wonít be any ďno, donít give this one away.Ē It will be what is witnessed day-in, day-out in all three disciplines.
We decided to work with ironguides because you need some expertise, in implementing it as a program, to benefit the user to help him improve. And thatís the name of my game. I am not interested in making athletes feel better, but to improve race times. Training is the only for that. I donít take a stopwatch to most workouts, so there doesnít need to be a lot of specific times. You can interview every athlete: thereís no time trials for swim, bike or run in the program at all. And that is magic bullet. Itís an aerobic sport, and we train that way.
We have the magic saying and do most of our workouts with this in mind: moderate, medium and mad. That is, we always do training moderate and medium.
Each athlete is taught to understand their body when they get there. Then it comes to decision time for them. If they feel very tired and worse than when they started the call is moderate. If they feel ok but not frisky the call is medium. If they feel good, happy in their mind, then they go mad.
Itís possibly too simple for the triathlon fraternity. They ask, ďthere must be something more, right?Ē But thatís it. There isnít. Thatís the magic bullet.

Slowtwitch: You talk about the importance in the workoutsónot in and of themselves, but of putting them in the right place within the cycle for any given athlete. And you have as many as, what, eight cycles? Can there possibly be that many? How many times can an athlete ebb and flow?

Sutton: There are possibly more cycles. But letís make it simple: youíve got men and women. Within each, you have some athletes whose strength is the swim. You have others with the bike, and yet another strongest on the run. If you want to make them a good triathlete, thatís eight different plans, because we try to maintain the strength while working on the weaknesses.
Now if we take each discipline, then you have to figure in what system you train the athlete in that discipline that day. But to do that, you must know what system your going to train in the other two disciplines.
So if you have a short rest near tolerance, then you better bike slow at low heart rate for two or three days. Or getting that mixture wrong means your athlete is going to be crawling. Itís no good doing long aerobic work in the pool, then running two hours of the same. Youíre killing the athlete, pure and simple.
Put 10 people on the one program, and I see it everywhere; maybe two will be on fire, and eight are going down the tubes.
The magic bullet is how you get more bang for you energy buck. And for me, that depends on the individual I am doing the training plan for .

Slowtwitch: How do you respond to those who say you donít have the science to back what many would call just training theory?

Sutton: I adapt and evolve to what I learn through trial and error, not by what someone writes on a computer program. I am very suspicious of people that study what already is working and asks for the reason why it works. Printouts are for accountants, not coaches.
And thatís why, I am in front. I am content in just knowing it works, and getting on with the job. I am too ignorant to want to know why. It just does. And thatís good enough for me. hope this explains a little better.

  

Articles related to this one
Outgrowing the team
The Slowtwitch forum and the triathlon world as a whole was occupied on Friday with the news that Chrissie Wellington, Belinda Granger and Hillary Biscay were leaving team TBB and coach Brett Sutton. We dug a bit deeper. 10.27.08
The enigmatic Lothar Leder talks
Lothar Leder virtually disappeared from the triathlon scene after being involved in a blood value controversy prior to Ironman Germany in June of 2007. He spoke to slowtwitch about the incident and his plan to return to racing. 4.11.09
Anatomy of Olympic gold - Part 1
In the greatest duel in Olympic triathlon, gold and silver was settled over 2 hours - and the difference was just 2 inches; but the journey for Nicola Spirig and her coach Brett Sutton started 6 years earlier. 9.12.12
Brett Sutton Interview: Part 1
In the first of our two-part installment, we chat with the enigmatic coach of TeamTBB, a remarkably dynamic squad with 17-members in camp, each harboring as many goals 7.30.08
Brett Sutton Interview: Part 2
In Part 2, we talk with TeamTBB coach Brett Sutton about training on his team, general training philosophy, technology and managing egos in the strongest team in triathlon. 8.04.08