RUNNING >> Juniors and Frances >> The Famous Five

The Famous Five

Ben Higginbottom

"Talent is only the starting point" Irving Berlin

There are five critical factors that will determine each individual's chance of reaching their full potential. Whilst this article deals specifically with how those factors influence the junior triathletes development, the concepts are transferable to any endurance athlete of any age.

This article summarises these factors, which I have labeled the Famous Five. I have relied heavily on my conversations with Tony Benson (and his wife Raylene) and other experienced athletes and coaches in writing this article. I developed the Famous Five as a formulation of researching results, listening too and observing what factors have brought success and happiness to the lives of athletes of all levels.


1. SPEED: An athlete's basic speed over a 100m swim, 1km cycle and 400m run time trial will determine their potential over all further distances.

2. STAMINA: An athlete has to have the ability to sustain as high a percentage of that speed as possible over a specific race distance.

3. BALANCE: The program structure must be in a state of equilibrium so that all the competing needs of the athlete – physiological development; short, medium and long-term competition goals; education; essential life pursuits and personal relationships – are in harmony.

4. WILL: "The Will to Win is Useless Without the Will To Train" (Tony Benson). An athlete who is unwilling to train consistently at the correct intensities does not really have the ‘will’ to win. They are merely people who would ‘like’ to win if doesn’t mean too much commitment.

5. INTELLIGENCE: An athlete who cannot find a good coach, who cannot separate those who ‘know’ from those who are ‘guessing’ can never hope to achieve their potential.

It is important to understand that it is the combination of the Famous Five that produce performance. Each factor effects the other, as nothing works in isolation. Individual potential will never be reached unless all factors are harmoniously combined and utilised to the full degree. Some factors will be more dominant in some athletes. As triathlon is a relatively young sport it has been possible for athletes to succeed in the past with one or two factors lacking. The junior of today however has to prepare for the future. What should rest in any competitive athletes mind is the fact that their competitors have just as much, if not more basic speed, and are working long and hard at developing their stamina. It will be balance, will and intelligence that separate them as the cross the finish line.

There are a number of reasons why junior athletes participate in sport, and why some have chosen triathlon. Family, fun, friendship and fitness are important elements to a balanced approach to what can often be seen as a super serious sport. The junior athlete will not realise their full potential in triathlon until at least they’re mid to late twenties - even on the highest level of programs. They will not make it that far if passion and enjoyment are missing.

The passion for the sport has to come from the athlete. It cannot be passed on from the parent(s)/guardian(s), friend(s), or the coach. The junior with passion has a lot to gain from their involvement in sport and triathlon. This passion may be expressed in a variety of ways. Some athletes like the training, while others only like to compete. Some athletes are focussed on goals and long-term development, others on short-term successes. A great deal simply enjoy staying fit and healthy, both physically and socially. All these factors need to be understood by the coach and parent/guardian. It is what motivates the athlete as to what directs the program. A good coach can guide an athlete to reach their full potential but a great coach will also strive to see the athlete stays involved in sport and/or maintains lifelong physical fitness and develops as a whole person.

Before I explore these factors I would like to highlight some important considerations regarding junior athlete development.


¨ Give the athlete freedom to train as they wish - provided it is within safe guidelines - as determined by those who "know".

¨ Technique is the primary consideration and should be mastered at the earliest possible age, especially for running and swimming. The parent/guardian and/or athlete should seek appropriate instruction on technique. Regardless of the goals of the athlete, correct technique is essential in preventing injury.

¨ Aerobic conditioning should be the main component of the junior program. Provided technique is correct, high volumes of aerobic conditioning will protect the athlete against injury and stand them in good stead for senior training. We have yet to see a junior voluntarily complete too much training in any of these two disciplines - and that should be our number one guide. If the athlete is willing to undertake an amount of training they should be given the freedom to do so. So long as the structure of the program and balance is there. The exception is cycling. In triathlon cycling can be kept to a minimum until after maturity. We don't even consider it important that the junior owns a racing bike. A mountain bike is actually the preferred option for junior triathletes - even once they begin competitive racing.

¨ Speed needs to be developed. This will set the athletes future potential over all distances. Care must be taken when developing speed. Correct technique and precise structure of workouts is critical.


¨ Do not force the unwilling athlete to train and/or compete.

¨ Competitions need not even progress beyond the simple club race or 'training events'.

¨ Little emphasis should be placed on junior competition results. Junior competition is for fun and experience only. The results of junior competition are largely irrelevant when considering long-term potential. In fact when we are reviewing junior athletes' applications for our scholarship program we don't even consider their race or competition performances.

¨ Hard training of a nature that produces sustained high levels of blood lactate should be avoided. Without getting into the science of it all, the junior athlete has two primary considerations: developing a huge aerobic base; and developing their top-end speed. Interval style training in the range of 30seconds-2mins @ 90%+ effort or speed should be avoided. Although it often brings short-term improvements, it will definitely bring long-term damage and never results in sustained improvement. This interval training is often confused as speed work. It is not and does not contribute to speed development.

So lets look a little closely at the Famous Five. I place equal importance on the Famous Five though the order of presentation is deliberately set as is to enable you (the reader) to best comprehend the Famous Five.


"I told him to work on his raw speed and he will be amazed at what he can do." Mark Spitzs' (Won seven gold medals at the one Olympics - setting seven world records in the process) advice to Ian Thorpe during the 1999 Pan Pacific Swim Championships.

An athlete's speed over time-trial distances of 100m (push start) swim, 1km (Standing Start) cycle and 400m run is the most accurate and reliable method of determining their full potential in triathlon (and in the individual disciplines themselves). Whether they reach that potential is dependent on the other four factors. Developing and maintaining speed is therefore critical for the junior athlete. Speed is heavily dependent upon technique. It is of the utmost importance and as early as possible juniors must learn and master correct technique. We take it for granted that technique is practiced in all training sessions at all times. Specific drills can be covered in warm-up and cool down portions of workouts, we also have our triathletes and runners complete a run specific speed and technique session once per week.

The structure and timing of speed workouts is critical. Speed work needs to be done fresh so that fatigue does not hamper the correct execution of technique and/or limit ability to reach targeted speeds. To improve speed of the listed distances (100m, 1km, 400m) all speed from the very basic 3-second effort needs to be improved. It is essential that speed work be completed year round so as to enable the athlete to develop and maintain the fastest possible speeds and to reduce the risk of injury.

Generally speaking 95-100% efforts in the range of 3-8seconds with full recovery are required to really develop top end speed. For example, for running this involves 30-80m efforts with full recovery. Care must be taken to gradually increase intensity (particularly with the run). Depending on the level of athlete conditioning the speed should progress from 10km speed through to 400m speed or faster over time. The total volume of efforts should not comprise more than 1% of weekly volume for triathletes. More experienced athletes could go as high as 1.5 to 2%. So if you run say 40km per week - it gives you around 400m of speed work. An example may be 5 x 80m @ goal 400m pace. Developing cycle speed may entail 8 x 150m maximum effort sprints with 2-3km easy spinning recoveries. For swimming, 10-15m sprints with 40-75m easy swimming recovery, perhaps using another stroke.

Provided the structure of workouts is correct, developing speed will have no detrimental impact on endurance. All top-level endurance swimmers, cyclists and runners work on basic speed. If speed work is neglected for some ill-informed view that it is not required for a triathlete, all that is accomplished is a reduction in an athlete's potential and performance. The good news for age-group (and mature) athletes is that they too can improve their technique and speed, continuing to improve both performance and potential.


"I would like to impress upon all young triathletes that no-one gets to the top in a flash. You must look at your long-term development and ask yourself 'How will the training I'm doing now help me to prepare for next year's training? (Scott Molina: Hawaiian Ironman Champion, coach of Lori Bowden and Cameron Brown)

Speed is what sets the potential, however it is useless without stamina. An athlete has to have the ability to sustain as high a percentage of that speed as possible over a specific race distance. This is where the stamina factor enters. Every minute of aerobic conditioning training adds up, and literally changes the physical (not to mention mental) structure of the body. Appropriately reached and maintained high volumes of aerobic conditioning will strengthen the bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles, (guarding against injury), provide a vast vascular network to supply fuel to working muscles, and give the endurance necessary to maintain speed.

There is a minimum amount of accumulated volume (time) that must be achieved before an athlete will reach their potential over the longer distances (as set by their basic speed and the other factors). Age-group athletes take note. It is quite possible to improve into your late 40's or beyond if you have not already accumulated the necessary lifetime volume (which is very unlikely in most cases). Likewise once that volume is reached and all other factors being equal, speed will become the limitation. Juniors should be working towards accumulating volume as soon as they begin training. Of greatest importance at the junior level is swimming and running volume. Cycling can be limited until after maturity.

The majority of an endurance athlete's training volume should be comprised of aerobic conditioning. For junior's almost all of the training is in this range. Aerobic conditioning is somewhat easy and corresponds with 65-80% of Max Heart Rate and/or perceived effort. Lower intensity training (50-65%) is of use also. Time should be the goal for developing athletes. Easy long runs, rides and swim sets are supremely beneficial done once per week - with shorter conditioning training on other days. Our junior athletes complete 80% or more of their weekly volume in these ranges.

The weekly volumes of our junior athletes vary quite considerably depending on training history and other factors. It is essential however that junior athlete training builds a strong foundation and works towards what is required as a senior athlete. The shameful progression of junior triathletes to senior level in this country is primarily due to this very point being ignored. It is no good having an elite junior run say 3 hours per week and expect that they will be able to run 8 hours or more per week (the minimum required volumes for anyone attempting to be the best they can) all of a sudden without injury.


"The triathlon should enhance your lifestyle, not become it" (Scott Molina)

There are numerous ways in which balance effects performance. The Universal Law of Balance dictates that everything likes to find some sort of equilibrium. This is no different when it comes to training or living. The program structure and athletes lifestyle must be in a state of equilibrium so that all the competing needs of the athlete – physiological development; short, medium and long-term competition goals; education; essential life pursuits and personal relationships – are in harmony.

An optimum program, as designed by an optimum coach, will have the balance of training issue taken care of for the athlete. There is much too the art and science of training balance, and it cannot be summarised to great effect for this article. What the athlete (or parent/guardian/guardian) can do is ask themselves the following questions before every workout.

Ø Is this the right workout to be doing at this stage in my athletic development?
Ø Is this the right workout to be doing in this phase of the season?
Ø Is this the right workout to be doing at this time in the training week?
Ø Is this workout appropriate for my present state of being? (What I mean by this is, have you recovered from the last workout, or if doing a recovery workout have you trained hard enough prior to warrant a recovery workout, is your mind up to this workout etc.)
Ø Do I even know why I am doing this workout?

If the answers to the above are not 100% affirmative then it is not and optimum workout, and the reason for that must be sought.

Balancing triathlon with other life pursuits such as school, work, university study, friends, family, marriages etc is important not only for the sake of the other pursuits but for full potential to be reached. Individual circumstances will differ greatly in respect to the time and attention given to the additional demands beyond training. Other areas of life should not be neglected. Keep in mind that the accumulation of volume over many years of training is a critical factor in reaching full potential, so those who can not train as much each week and year will simply plan to reach their potential later in life. Choices made should sit comfortably with the athlete. A task or commitment taken on begrudgingly and without love will not lead to happiness. Contentment lies in doing the best that you can with the circumstances you are presented with and/or create.

"The Will to Win is Useless Without the Will To Train" (Tony Benson)

An athlete who is unwilling to train consistently at the correct intensities does not really have the ‘will’ to win. They are merely people who would ‘like’ to win if doesn’t mean too much commitment. Patience and perseverance are the two most common traits of people who achieve extraordinary accomplishments. Both require will. The willing athlete will hold visions of and achieve feats beyond the expectation of others, possibly even their coach. They will never doubt that they will reach their goals, and will never cease working towards that destiny until it is met.

Whilst externally the athlete aiming to reach their full potential may seem to have to sacrifice other things in life, the athlete themselves will not view the situation that way. They will merely strike a balance in their lives that sits well within their psyche, even though it may not be clear and understandable to those around them.

For the most part will is something that comes from within the individual. It cannot be taught or trained like other aspects. Whilst the athlete can draw motivation form external sources it is will that puts motivation into action. As Percy Cerutty (Coach of Herb Elliot) said,

"…I urge you to go on to your greatness if you believe it is in you. Think deeply and separate what you wish from what you are prepared to do."


"…every champion is a person who accepts responsibility totally for their own sporting destiny." (Herb Elliott)

What we mean by intelligence is the ability to assess all situations in your life and training in an accurate, logical and rational fashion. There are times in every athlete's lives where critical decisions are made. For the junior athlete the majority of decisions will be made with the parent(s)/guardian(s) involvement. Even for the mature athlete it is sensible to use parents/guardians, coaches, mentors, husband/wife etc in making important decisions.

There are many paths to endurance sports success. Each individual will follow a different path, but each path to success has the Famous Five as its foundation. Before commencing the journey, it is essential there be a clear plan that is adhered too. The intelligent athlete and parent/guardian will consult an optimum coach and others in establishing their plan. An athlete who cannot find a good coach, who cannot separate those who ‘know’ from those who are ‘guessing’ can never hope to achieve their potential. Likewise it is unlikely the athlete who repeatedly makes the wrong decisions with regards to other areas of their life, neglecting balance, will realise their potential.

That concludes the summary of the Famous Five. If you have any questions regarding the articles or other matters do not hesitate to contact me. Happy and safe training and racing.

Ben Higginbottom

© 2002. Produced by Ben Higginbottom for Endurance Performance Systems
Tony Benson's Endurance Performance Systems coach in excess of 150 athletes world wide of all ages and abilities. Ben Higginbottom is their NSW State Coordinator and coaches a squad based in the Hunter Region. Programs are available for all levels and abilities. The junior program entails a complete progression model from the very beginnings of training to senior level. For more information see

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