David Tilbury-Davis has been a coach for almost 25 years and has worked with a large number of professionals and age groupers during that time. In this interview, the Brit explains his training principles, how he wants to turn Lionel Sanders into a better athlete and why his mandate is to train people and not just their physiology.
TEXT AND INTERVIEW: SIMON MÜLLER (originally released in German in the print edition of the German magazine „triathlon“, No. 182, August 2020; more details at https://tri-mag.de, all photos are ©Talbot Cox, used with permission.)
David Tilbury-Davis went to Loughborough University, today one of the major hubs of triathlon in Great Britain. But at that time the university near Leicester did not have the triathlon focus of today, so it is quite a surprise that the 48-year-old became a professional triathlon coach.
Until he graduated in mechanical engineering in 1991, David Tilbury-Davis was active in rugby, hockey, basketball and also a member of the national team in American Football, but he had almost nothing to do with endurance sports. Ultimately, it was an injury that pushed him towards other forms of training and turned him into a triathlete in 1995. The Brit began coaching in 1996, which slowly built over the years until it became his main occupation in 2009. Over the years, Tilbury-Davis has coached well-known professionals such as Matt Hanson, Cody Beals, Lesley Smith, Jocelyn McCauley, Corinne Abraham, Kaisa Sali, Kimberly Morrison, Rasmus Svenningsson and Lionel Sanders.
He had been a triathlon coach for more than 20 years when he received international attention in 2017 with the Hawaii result of Lionel Sanders. Tilbury-Davis started to mentor him after a frustrating Kona result from the year before and successfully helped to prepare him with five middle-distance victories leading up to the race on the Big Island in October. With a second place, Sanders achieved the best result of his career so far, just 2:38 minutes short of a Hawaii victory. Then something happened that is hard to understand after such a great, even if bittersweet success: The cooperation came to an end after the race, Sanders wanted to take his training into his own hands again. Tilbury-Davis recalls and he and Sanders agree that in retrospect, post-race egos clashed somewhat and communication broke down.
Almost exactly two years later everything is (almost) the same again: After two extremely sobering Hawaii races for Lionel Sanders, Tilbury-Davis again joins the Canadian to mentor him after Lionel got in touch with him after finishing 22nd in Kona last year, wanting to re-establish the coach-athlete relationship. Since then, Tilbury-Davis is working to create the best possible version of Lionel Sanders – with clear goals, evidence-led approaches, data analysis and individualized solutions, which for David Tilbury-Davis are the cornerstones of his coaching philosophy.
Q: David Tilbury-Davis, you have been a triathlon coach for almost 25 years. Before you started coaching, you grew up playing various team sports as a child. What was the reason for switching to triathlon and what did you expect when you first tried coaching in 1996?
A: When I was at University, I played American football for Great Britain at a relatively high level. Due to an injury, I came to triathlon through my interest in cycling and was immediately hooked. After only one year there was the opportunity to help coaching the university’s triathlon team, and this idea appealed to me, even though I had never thought about coaching before. The University of Loughborough is known for sports and sports science, which I wasn’t directly involved with my mechanical engineering degree, but I had an indirect connection through biomechanics where I later did some post-graduate research. At the time, it wasn’t a goal or foreseeable that my coaching would develop in this way. I also started a regular corporate job after finishing up my research.
Q: How did coaching become your main job in 2009?
A: In 2009 I worked for one of the largest banks in Great Britain and took the chance during the financial crisis at the time to make my side job of coaching into my main job. At that time I was coaching with a triathlon club and also looked after five individual athletes. A short time after that, I moved to Spain to help a friend organize training camps. Everything developed from there and has grown over the years. In retrospect, I would consider all of this extremely organic, I never pushed myself onto athletes or did a lot of marketing. Almost everything came about through recommendations from other athletes or coaches. Even if a lot has changed in the years as a coach, the basis is still the same today as it was then: I always want to learn and always stay up to date in the areas that are relevant to my athletes’ performance.
Q: Because of your own experience but also with new scientific knowledge and technology, you are in a continuous learning process as a coach, and you have to decide what to do with this new information. How would you describe the principles of your training philosophy today?
A: My motto is “Success is rooted in knowledge”. Two of my most important principles are that I always train people, not just their physiology, and that I make evidence-led decisions, not coaching them by feeling or instinct. I deliberately do not call my training method scientific, but rather evidence-led. For me it is important that there is space to question or criticize new scientific findings or studies. I believe a coach’s most powerful tool is critical thinking. Because not everything is simply transferable to everyone, individuality is the top priority in coaching and there is more to an athlete than just his performance. I therefore reflect on the principles in important sub-areas such as physiology, psychology, neurology and biomechanics and take this knowledge as the starting point for the specific planning for each of the athletes. Another important aspect for me is to collect informative data. But I don’t use it to see how much the athlete has improved. We have tests or competitions for that. But the data should help me understand why they improved or failed to improve. For me, this data includes not only numbers but also written and verbal feedback from the athletes. By combining all of these I can then draw the appropriate conclusions for adapting the training plan. This is a very central aspect for me: The athletes should evaluate their coach based on their development and hold their coach accountable for the process, not just for the results.
Q: You now live in Finland with your family. Even though you remotely coach most of your athletes, as is the case with most professionals these days, you have often emphasized how important personal interaction is to you. What added value do you get if you can see someone personally for several days in training and everyday life, and what factors can’t be fully expressed by data and figures using today’s technology?
A: That is not that easy to answer because the benefits of direct coaching vary from athlete to athlete. I don’t believe that videos or video calls can be an equivalent substitute for personal training support, but these options definitely help with communication, evaluation and planning these days. To be there personally and to experience the athletes before, during and after training gives you completely different insights. But because that is only possible to a very limited extent, I do nor place limits on my reachability for my athletes, aside from the obvious implications of time zone differences. As a trainer, you have to be a good listener and ask a lot of questions at the same time. My goal is to have an open coach-athlete relationship with my athletes right from the start. It becomes problematic when someone is not honest which can lead to mistakes being made in the evaluation or planning. Sooner or later various data will sooner or later lead to the same conclusion, but fortunately athletes understand that it would only be a disadvantage for them.
Q: The maximum number of athletes that you supervise at the same time is 15. At the moment these are all triathletes, but in the past you have also coached athletes in the individual disciplines. What is the greatest challenge in triathlon training for you, also in contrast to individual sports?
A: To manage regeneration correctly and to react flexibly in the planning. This certainly affects age groupers more often than professionals because there is often a clear separation between training, work, family and other duties and you can neglect the overall burden. For professionals, however, it is extremely important, because the optimal ratio of stress and recovery in triathlon is like the search for the holy grail. I therefore generally structure my training plan only as a framework that can be adjusted later due to various influences. Therefore, I consider it completely wrong for athletes to stick to their plan obsessively and to fulfill it under all circumstances. As a coach, I see myself responsible for making adjustments and changes on a daily basis, although of course I plan much longer beforehand. In addition to the pure training results and the subjective feedback, I have all athletes measure their heart rate variability (HRV) every day and state the number of hours slept per night. For example, some wear the “Oura Ring” for measurements, others use an app on their smartphone. I use this data to help make the appropriate adjustments.
Q: Collecting and interpreting data is not only important for you in terms of recovery. Which other tools do you use for data acquisition and analysis?
A: Of course the sports watch for recording time, pace, individual splits and heart rate with an external sensor. Then there are the options already mentioned for recording HRV for recovery. In addition, there is power measurement in all disciplines: when cycling with a conventional power meter, when running with a Stryd sensor and when swimming with a Trainesense sensor. For some sessions and tests I also use lactate measurement, oxygen saturation in the muscles and oxygen uptake using mobile devices. Some athletes also have devices on their bikes that measure the CdA value in real-time. The feedback and feeling of an athlete is also a very important tool for me to have a reference to the data. You don’t always have to feel great to achieve strong performance and you don’t have to end a session straight away if you think you are tired or weak. It is therefore very important that you have several parameters from which you can get a holistic picture before making such a decision to change plans. The only important thing to me is that I only record data that I can use later.
Q: The corona pandemic has presented new challenges in recent months to you as a coach. How do you handle the situation?
A: As a rule, athletes should first stay healthy and not take any risks. For me, especially in the beginning, it was about maintaining motivation and emotional connection to the sport. If the long-term goal and perspectives are missing because there are no races, it has different consequences for each individual. You have to try to understand the athletes with their goals and wishes, open up new perspectives for them and see how you can use the situation for your coaching. Maybe by working on weaknesses, by taking a mental break, a different training focus, virtual races or somewhat crazy adventure experiences. Here, too, individuality is the keyword: Some of my athletes from Australia were able to swim in open water the whole time without any problems, while many others had to get along without training in the water and different again my athlete Rasmus Svenningsson from Sweden again had no restrictions.
Q: You have been working with Lionel Sanders again since November 2019 after a two-year break. Why did the collaboration end in 2017 shortly after the successful Hawaii race with second place after just one season?
A: I followed Lionel’s career for several years before and contacted him after Ironman Hawaii 2016 (29th place, after 14th place in 2015) because I saw how much potential he had wasted and what he should actually be able to do. After we talked for a long time on the phone and I gave him my point of view and approaches, we started to work together. 2017 was probably the best year of his career so far and I was disappointed that the collaboration ended after Hawaii. I felt that we were on the right track and that we could have achieved even more as a team. But after the Hawaii result, both of our egos got a little too big and our relationship suffered from this mutual stubbornness, we laugh about it now of course. I told Lionel at the time that I would always be willing to work with him again if he wanted to. It ended up taking two years and I’m glad we have this chance now.
Q: You say you saw a lot of potential for improvement back then. When you first started to work together, what were the main training aspects that you changed? I remember the advice from Sebastian Kienle who told Lionel during this period to stop doing an Ironman in training every day. Was there anything to it?
A: There were definitely times when Lionel exercised too much and periods when the combination of volume and intensity at the same time was too high. But with Lionel, the greatest challenge and my main task are that all the pieces of the puzzle stay together and that he doesn’t get lost anywhere.
Q: Are you referring that he really wanted to lose weight after Hawaii 2017 to run as fast as Patrick Lange, or that he tried a vegan diet several times because he hoped it would boost his performance?
A: Exactly. After Hawaii 2017, there were a few very simple adjustments I wanted to make so that Lionel would be an even better version of himself a year later. The greatest danger I saw at the time was trying to completely reinvent the wheel. And that is exactly what happened afterwards unfortunately. The search for the last optimization often harbors the risk of neglecting or negatively influencing the most important basic principles. It’s a fine line. It was my job in 2017, and it is now, to keep an eye on the big picture and to prevent Lionel from making such mistakes. Instead of immediately hoping to follow a trend or recipe for success from others, Lionel now has the confidence to let me check and advise whether it is worthwhile to try different things with him or not.
Q: Two goals that Lionel has set himself for several years are to reach the first group in swimming and to improve his running performance over the long distance. While he already ran 1:09:20 hours in the middle distance and had the fastest time at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships 2016, for example, he has had problems showing this potential for years in the long-distance marathon. What approaches are you pursuing to achieve these two goals in the future?
A: That’s what he says, I see things slightly different. Lionel will never come out of the water with the lead group in Hawaii, and setting this goal would be the first step to failure. But I still see some potential in the water, which we can realize over time through various training methods and technical improvements. What that will be good for in the end, however, is decided by the dynamics on race day. With regards to running, I can state very clearly: We won’t do everything we can to change his running technique. Lionel will never run like Patrick Lange or Craig Alexander, but always like Lionel. This also has to do with physical restrictions. He’s been running fast with this technique since he was a teenager. We are still trying to find out how much of the movement is due to his anatomy and which patterns can be changed naturally and in a biomechanically meaningful way. Simply changing something just to match someone else would surely be the first step towards an injury. But for me other aspects are even more important because they are not limited by speed and basic requirements. These include running economy, the change in running economy and running posture when you are tired and already under stress, as well as race nutrition, which has often limited him running in long-distance races. For that we went to Hawaii for a week in February to measure his sweat rate, electrolyte loss and the absorption of carbohydrates under race conditions. With a large amount of data we were able to gain important insights into training, pacing and nutrition.
Q: What do you think is possible for Lionel in the future and what are your long-term goals going into the next year with possibly two Hawaii races?
[Note: At the time of the interview the were still Kona races planned, one for February – the postponed 2020 race which has been canceled by now – and a second one in October, at the normal point in the season.]
A: In the long term, I want to turn Lionel into a more efficient athlete and get the best version of himself. We did not max out in 2017. I would be very disappointed in myself as a coach if, in the end, I overlook obvious things that are preventing Lionel from improving, especially in Hawaii. My goal is for Lionel to improve in all disciplines compared to the Hawaii race in 2017 and to be able to say at the finish that he got everything out of his abilities. It is of course a coincidence that the Ironman Hawaii was postponed to the beginning of February 2021, of all places, and the irony of the time of our stay there this year. If the race should really take place, but maybe it was simply a coincidence that is going to benefit us.