Zen of the coaching Master
by Jeff Henderson
published by Inside Triathlon

We were perched on the edge of a dangerous-looking hill somewhere in the middle of the Golden Gate Recreation Area, just north of San Francisco. It was Thanksgiving day of 2002, I was on the first mountain bike ride of my hitherto injury-free young life, and Michael McCormack, my coach and hitherto friend, was suggesting something altogether unappetizing.

I looked down the sorry excuse of a path Michael was proposing we descend. Small boulders flanked the loose rock and scree, foot-deep channels rutted the hard ground. Michael pitched himself downward and glanced back at me as images of eating turkey through a tube flickered through my mind.

"Now don't kill yourself here," were his soothing words of fatherly advice as he fell away down the ramp of death. I felt better that he was at least concerned for my well-being, if not taking an active role in protecting it.

"But don't be a wuss, either," he concluded right before launching out of earshot.

Michael is my chosen mentor for an attempt at Ironman New Zealand in March, and his training philosophies echo that pivotal moment on Eagle Mountain: You don't need to kill yourself, but you do need to place yourself outside your comfort zone. Have faith in what I tell you, and not only will you make it to the end, you'll have lived a little in the process.

Michael made me hours late for Thanksgiving dinner that day, but he also helpfully pointed out that being late is better than being dead. Michael is a rare individual, possessing both the raw analytical knowledge of the body's energy systems and the ability to effortlessly invoke the enthusiasm of a child just discovering cycling for the first time. His scatterbrain and quirky mannerisms make him immediately likeable; his experiential knowledge and calculating methods earn him respect.

Michael calls himself The Master, as in jedi or buddha. I have no idea whether he gave himself the name or someone else did, but it somehow works. He refers to himself in the third person, almost as if his life is an experiment he is conducting and, if something doesn't work out, he can toss it out and try something new.

Slight of build and with hair of gray, Michael looks the part of Master. His email messages read like telegraph dispatches: "Solid week of training. Reference drills of CT [CompuTrainer] on road. Let the workout come to you. Wax on. Wax off." Each word is selected for purpose and brevity, much like his trademark workouts.

His own experiments - and there are always a couple simmering on the backburner - have borne fruit. In 1991 and 1995 he won Ironman Canada, each time on the heels of scintillating bike splits. In 1997 he came oh-so-close to a third win at Ironman Japan, leading the race for all but one minute - the minute that matters most. In the final stretch one of the finest runners in the history of Ironman, Peter Kropko of Hungary, passed Michael and took with him the victory. In my opinion, though, the greatest testament to Michael's abilities is the 12th place he secured at last year's Ironman Canada - at the advanced age of 45.

The formative years, in triathlon terms, of this wizened and wide-eyed wunderkind were spent in the gentle country of Spain. Michael made his home in Madrid for eight years, during which time he infiltrated the country's Olympic Training Center and found himself on group rides with some of Iberia's finest professional cyclists. After spending the winter and spring being unceremoniously popped off the back of inhospitable pelotons from Vitoria to Valencia, Michael bought himself an indoor wind trainer and vowed to isolate and eliminate his weaknesses. Those who knew him considered it craziness - bring the bike inside during the most glorious months of the year?

In time he emerged from those self-inflicted sessions with a powerful stroke, liquidity in his cadence, and a new appreciation for taking the guesswork out of human endurance. It is not surprising that a staple of his bike training methodologies now revolves around the CompuTrainer, an advanced, computerized transformation of his first indoor trainer.

A Master-prescribed CompuTrainer session typically lasts no longer than one hour. Sets are focused, rigorous, and intentioned, and there is little need for a television to engage a distracted rider. There is scant time for boredom amidst a constant monitoring of the instruments, much like a pilot scans the flight deck: check pulse to ensure it is within mandated zones; maintain consistent and precise cadence; observe SpinScan to verify pedaling efficiency; monitor time to end of current interval. The hour flies by and the unsuspecting athlete weaves and wobbles from the room as if he has taken a ride in a whirling wash machine rather than on a stationary bicycle.

Michael's mannerisms were also shaped by years of a Mediterranean lifestyle, brought back stateside over a decade ago. He encourages well-balanced moderation in all things - diet, work, training. He has a propensity to email workouts at 3 am and a severe distaste for the early morning (which can include anything up to 11 am). Rides with Michael do not start before late - late - morning, and if you force him to go earlier he will stall (let's get coffee... I need to get Jimmy some diapers at the store here... my bike needs a thorough cleaning... ).

The first hour of the ride is the most enjoyable for his guests, as Michael is typically in agony in all parts of the body but the mouth, which he employs energetically to tell you all about the killer strength workout he completed majestically on the CompuTrainer the night before. Beyond an hour or two, as the pace quickens and the legs numb, Michael comes into his own. This is the proof of the pudding, testament to his own training methods - hour five is his best one yet, and he's not overly concerned that you're suffering mightily.

"Reference smooth pedaling drills from indoor sessions," he will calmly remind you while passing through your wavering slipstream.

In 2001 I entered a cycling team time trial with Michael and two others just outside Lake Tahoe. Michael planned to drive up from the Bay Area the night before, but late that night he called to say he wouldn't make it and would instead meet us at the race. I glanced at my teammates knowingly - Michael is always late, and often preposterously so. In the morning we traveled to the venue and began to warm up.

Our start time approached with no Michael. Ten minutes before we were to be off, his Subaru careened into the roadside parking area and he jumped out, muttering about traffic and distance. As we helped him put the bike together, he instructed us to head for the start line while he took a quick warm up.

The starter counted off the final ten seconds with Michael somewhere in the countryside getting loose. We would be allowed to finish with three riders, but the other teams found it curious that we also elected to start with three riders. Five miles into the race I glanced back and saw a speck on the horizon churning vigorously to bridge the gap. Once regained, Michael wisely chose to hang onto the back while oxygen re-acquainted itself with his blood cells.

The first half of the route surged on tailwinds, while the second half reversed and charged headlong into those same gusts. It was good Michael had fought back; fully recovered he pulled our weary train home to the finish. In the tale's retelling Michael normally omits the first half.

Now a husband and father of two, Michael has distilled his years of experimentation and observation into remarkably effective coaching for a group of diverse individuals in San Francisco and around the globe. He does not mince words with regards to his coaching services: "There is an absolute correlation between the improvement that an athlete realizes and his/her adherence to the training program. Athletes that perform the workouts in the manner described (i.e. respecting easy days, using proper cadences, respecting heart rate zones, performing running drills, etc.) always improve the most."

Point blank, the tools will be provided but the athlete must use them. I like that. I like knowing that the same progression I am following has been used successfully many times before, from first-time triathletes to Ironman champions. I like knowing that Michael welcomes feedback, trusts intuition. I like having a coach who provides encouragement when it is warranted ("nice training week") and honest, unwatered criticism when it is deserved ("garbage miles in that workout"). I don't want to be coddled and I don't want to be misled; I don't want to waste time.

His methods have proven popular. For the third year in a row, his coached spin sessions in downtown San Francisco have been voted "Best of the Bay." The winter session, comprising three classes, has been sold out for months - 160 riders opting to spend their evenings sweating to Michael's offbeat and entertaining social commentary and pithy precepts on heart rate zones. Track practices at Kezar Stadium find Michael surrounded by athletes hanging on every word.

Being a master typically means professing a certain dogma. Michael's dogma - and it's only become stronger over the years - stresses the optimization of training time over what he calls JFT - Just Fuckin Train. JFT is the mindless, soulless practice of slogging through mile upon ceaseless mile of slow training, akin to the practices of Christian flagellants who believed in mortification of the flesh through ritual floggings. This is not to say that Michael's methods work for everyone; indeed, a strong counter-philosophy exists (for instance, Gordo Byrn and the Epic Camp model of large volume).

His core training ideas revolve around quality versus amorphous quantity, strong before long, and constant variety in training. In Michael's real-world perspective, the average age-grouper is heavily constrained by time but should improve almost continually; "Months of training with no improvement," he suggests, "is clear evidence of ineffective training and should not be explained by 'things just take time.'"

The metered dosages and structured quality do leave room for what Michael likes to call "epic outings." These he describes as "extreme either in terms of duration or the difficulty of terrain," which serve to make the ironman distance seem relatively short and easy. When I blundered my way into an epic outing some weeks ago, Michael commented, "Nice work, and not a problem at all to occasionally stuff one. Fun, adventure, venturing into the unknown. Idea is to have these be stimulating mentally, in which case you will also be on a good physical track."

It is amusing to me that, while Michael espouses 1-3 epic rides before an iron-distance race, many of his own rides typically wander into this territory due to an utter lack of regard for any timekeeping on his part. Do as I say, not as I do: for all the discipline in the world, Michael can still get lost in the moment.

Some favorite aphorisms:

  • Within a week you can/should have days that are semi-hard/easy, but nothing should blow you out such that two days later you cannot again move the ball forward.
  • Per classic movie Stripes, we want you to be a Lean Mean Fighting Machine. Believe it was John Candy who kept saying this.
  • Remember that you don't have to squeeze every bit out of each track workout. Let your body invite you - a little coaxing okay sometimes, but do not force-feed.
  • For the record, Faris does not want to mess with M2. (in response to a question I posed about al-Sultan's bike)
  • Just as the 2nd hot dog never tastes as good as the first one, so too does the 2nd same workout produce a less satisfying result.
  • Observe HR, but don't be afraid to overrule, especially in training, if RPE [relative perceived effort] and senses indicated otherwise.
  • Your optimal training course is not how much you can punish yourself, but how much focused training your body will invite you to do. You should enjoy the challenge versus "time to make the donuts again" type frame of mind.
  • Finish so that you could do another, but are happy that you don't have to.