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Balancing Art & Science: A conversation about coaching with Felipe Loureiro

It takes just a few minutes of talking with Felipe to understand his passion for coaching and training. You can tell it runs through his veins and that he truly loves his job. Working with athletes across the globe, Felipe is the founder and head coach of Breakaway Training. His beginnings in the sport of triathlon however are the perfect illustration of the need for coaching in endurance sports.

Making his first forays into Triathlon as a teenager in the early 1990s, and with very few training resources available in those days, Felipe did what seemed logical at the time: “I signed up for a Sprint race that was a 750m Swim, 20km Bike and 5km Run,” he explains, “so logically for me as a teenager that was what I had to train for. I used to train as hard as I could over those specific distances. One day I would sprint out the door for a 5km Run. No warmup, no cool down, nothing. Just a stopwatch timing how long it took. The next day I would do the same thing for the 20km Bike, and finally I would go to the swimming pool, pay my entry, swim 750m as fast as I could, and leave.”

Looking back on it now with 30 years of experience in the sport he can laugh at his own mistakes, but reflects on the importance of coaching for athletes at all levels: “I found out the hard way that this wasn’t the best way to train, I struggled with injuries for years. But once I got my first Swim coach I immediately realised how important it was to have someone helping you structure your training regardless of whether you are looking to win an Ironman or just do your first 5km fun run.”

When he first moved to San Diego, Felipe enjoyed the luxury of the public UCSD weekly training sessions (training at times alongside greats such as Mark Allen, Jurgen Zack, Greg Welch and Norman Stadler) organised by Roch Frei and Heather Furh. This is where he learnt a lot of the principles that he applies to his business today, “We used to pay 20 bucks to get access to 5 masters swims, 2 track sessions and 1 turbo session a week,” he explains, “and whilst the quality of the sessions was undeniable, it was this contact with the coaches that I really learnt a lot from. I see a lot of coaches these days who write great training programmes and e-mail them to their clients or put them in TrainingPeaks and never speak to them. In my opinion, whilst it’s important to get the type of training right and structure the sessions and recovery correctly, nothing compares to the regular contact you can get with your athletes through weekly group sessions. This is part of the art of coaching where a small conversation, or observation can teach you a lot about a person and help adjust their training plans going forward.”

“Now I know I have the luxury that most of my athletes are local to me, but this doesn’t stop me reaching out via Whatsapp or Facebook to my overseas athletes every week to check how they are doing. I like to use the analogy of marriage a lot for coaching, the responsibility is on both parties to communicate and be proactive, without this you can’t grow together and achieve your goals

Diving deeper into how he works with his athletes, you start to understand how Felipe applies the art of coaching to complement the science of training: “Sometimes I feel like I am chameleon,” he laughs, “if I have 40 athletes, then I need 40 different coaching styles. This doesn’t mean I don’t stick to the same training principles that I believe in, on the contrary, I apply the same principles pretty much across the board. However, the way these principles are translated into their training programmes is different for each person. You must adapt to the person’s objectives, their background, their lifestyle, their age and so on. This is something you develop through years of practice and years of exchanging with athletes.”

“The level of science that has informed training methods in endurance sports over the past decade has gone through the roof,” he adds, “and at times I found myself looking about and spying on fellow coaches to see what trends they were applying to see if I was missing out on anything. This ended up creating a lot of anxiety, and eventually I decided it was important I stick to my principles. I know what works, I see what works, and whilst I continue to educate myself on new things and include gradual changes over time, it’s not by following different trends every 6 months that my athletes are going to get the best results.”

The differences between the tangibles and intangibles of coaching are clear to understand from Felipe, whilst you can’t change the basics of what makes a successful athlete (hard work over time), you can adapt the way in which you interact with that athlete and structure their training. A one size fits all or copy pasted training programme and e-mail is never going to be the right solution.

It’s like you see on TV, you need to know when to be a good cop and when to be a bad cop,” he added, “sometimes an athlete needs a kick up the butt, and sometimes they just need to be left alone before they come back asking for more.”

As we concluded the conversation, Felipe reiterated the importance of listening to his athletes and being open to feedback: “Communication is the key, if I don’t listen to my athletes I’ll never get the best out of them. There’s no such thing as the perfect training programme, but if you’ve got the right training principles and you listen to your athletes then I think you can get pretty close!”

Want to get to know Felipe better? Go follow him on Instagram: @breakawaytraining

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