Philip Skiba: The Best Triathlon Coach You May Never Have Heard Of

Covers of Philip Skiba's books

Years and year ago, Coach Tom (one of my former coaches) recommended that I pick up a copy of  Philip Skiba’s Scientific Training for Triathletes.   Coach Tom described the book as, “the best book on triathlete training that I have ever read.”  Coach Tom is not one for hyperbole so I ordered the book immediately by express mail.

Scientific Training for Triathlete is bit like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  Both are tiny books stuffed with practical information.  Both are books that you want to pick up every year and read cover-to-cover.

About a year later, Coach Skiba published his second book, The Triathlete’s Guide to Training with Power.  Like its predecessor, it’s also stuffed with a lot of great information in a very tiny space.  It’s also a book you will want to read each year.  Coach Tom said he definitely preferred the first book while I liked the second book more.  I’m sure Coach Tom prefers vanilla while I’m a chocolate guy myself.  You can pick them up at Philip Skiba’s PhysFarm site.

Philip Skiba is a remarkably intelligent guy.  While most coaches are either former athletes or exercise physiologists, Philip Skiba is a medical doctor.  He specializes in sports medicine and has been coaching for the past 20 years.  While he’s been highly successful with a number of athletes, he is perhaps best-known an the coach of Joanna Zeiger.  Thus, his approach to coaching is slightly different from most coaches– I think he is a little more down-to-earth than exercise physiologists and a lot more scientific than most coaches.  It’s a great perspective to have.

Now that you’ve put both books on your reading list, what are some of key ideas that I use from Coach Skiba in my day-to-day training?

Understanding the Energy Systems

Philip Skiba does a remarkable job at describing the different energy systems.  His description is clearer, more succinct, and more useful than anyone else I have read.

  • Understanding Lactate Threshold.  In a nutshell, lactate threshold is the point at which your body starts to accumulate lactate faster than it can process it (yes, process it– your body actually uses lactic acid as a valuable fuel).  Once you hit this point, you’ve pretty much an hour at that effort level before you’ve got to slow down (because the lactate levels get too high).
  • Understanding maxVO2.  Apart from lactate threshold, you’ve also got maxVO2, which basically measures the maximal level of oxygen that your muscles can take in.  Really, it is a measure of your cardiac fitness and not how good of an athlete you are.  While maxVO2 is a fairly useless number, your performance (e.g. watts on a bike or running pace) while at maxVO2 is very relevant to your performance, but that’s for another post.
  • The Floor, the Ceiling, and the Roof.  Imagine that you are a living in the house.  You want to be the tallest guy on the block but your growth is limited by the house you live in.   The ceiling in your room is your lactate threshold.  The roof of your house is your maxVO2.  The floor is your aerobic fitness.  As you train near lactate threshold, you push your ceiling higher and higher– but it is limited by the ceiling.  Eventually, you need to raise your roof by doing maxVO2 workouts.  This pushes up your roof so you can then increase the height of your ceiling.  But you can’t be an enormous guy living in a huge house without a firm foundation, which is the point of all those aerobic miles you need to put in. I’ve blogged earlier about how I favor periodization programs that keep all of the energy system supported simultaneously and Skiba’s description gives a great visual for why it’s important to keep aerobic fitness, lactate threshold, and maxVO2 balanced at the same time.  Continuing the analogy, I suppose you can think of neuromuscular fitness (e.g. your all-out short-distance sprinting ability) as your local zoning ordinance’s building height restrictions.

Practical Approach to Plyometrics

There aren’t that many triathlon coaches talking yet about plyometrics, but Philip Skiba has been talking about it for years.  In the Triathlete’s Guide to Training with Power, he introduces a very simple progression of plyometrics starting with stair hopping and moving to much more advanced plyometrics like bounding and triple jumps.  I would caution the reader to have a great strength base before advancing to higher-impact plyometrics like some of Skiba’s more advanced exercises.  Being an older guy who coaches injury-prone athletes, I find that skips (for height or distance) and box jumps are a lot safer.  This is the subject of an upcoming post.

A Logical Model of Builds

Coach Skiba does a great job at creating a build that supports all of the important energy systems.  His model follows a non-linear periodization model, just like the ones I like to use, but divided into three logical phases.  Phase 1 is all about general fitness that builds up basic endurance, strength, and highly anaerobic power.  Phase 2 become more specific and builds out lactate threshold and the basics needed for a race.  Finally, phase 3 is highly specific to race needs.  Breaking the season up like this does make it a little tidier for my brain.  One point I don’t like is that much of Coach Skiba’s focus is on Ironman-distance racing. While he tries to give a fair balance for shorter distance athletes, his bias towards Ironman is pretty evident.

Coach Skiba does a great job at demonstrating the practical nuts and bolts of a build.  For instance, in the past I’ve had coaches who would assign me 2 x 20 minutes at FTP on the bike at the beginning of my bike lactate threshold training.  That’s just not practical.  Instead, there are two approaches to a lactate threshold build.  The first approach is to take a “top down” approach by riding 2 x 20min at lower than FTP power.  Then, over the course of several weeks, the athlete would increase power slowly until she is at 100+% FTP for the duration.  I find that this approach works best with “endurance monsters”– folks who can ride forever at the same power.  A second approach is to take a “bottom up” process by riding 2 x 10min at FTP and slowly build out the interval duration (12 min, 15 min, 18 min, and 20 min) to finally get to the goal.  I find that this latter approach works best for “speedsters” like me.  Oddly, it’s usually the approach advocated by Coach Skiba (“oddly” in the sense that so much of his book is geared towards endurance-hungry Ironman athletes).  Coach Skiba does a great job at demonstrating all kinds of builds for running and cycling and I use them all the time when designing my training.

RaceDay Apollo

If you really want to geek out at optimizing your training and racing, there are really only two products on the market that can take a ton of running, cycling, and swim data and figure out exactly whether your training is on target and when is the perfect day for you to race.  Those products are WKO+ by the folks at TrainingPeaks and RaceDay Apollo by PhysFarm (Philip Skiba’s company).  WKO+ is a bit more focused on cyclists and probably has a little more advanced science on the cycling end of things.  But RaceDay Apollo does a better job at processing running and swimming data.  Apollo is also a bit more configurable “under the hood.”  For instance, if your body recovers more quickly than normal to long runs but more slowly to speed work, then you can tweak the constants that determine your recovery time in Apollo’s performance modeling.

I don’t actually use Apollo nearly as much as I should.  I also own a copy of WKO+ but use it even less than Apollo.  Nevertheless, when I did use Apollo, I thought it was a great product. It’s something that I really need to get back to using more.



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