SummaryIn this conversation, Coach Mike Ricci interviews Brad Sang, a former professional triathlete and coach. They discuss Brad's journey in triathlon, his coaching career, and the importance of nutrition and mental preparation in the sport. Brad shares his experiences coaching the CU Buffs and the lessons he learned from working with college athletes. The conversation also includes a humorous race story from Brad's early days as a pro triathlete.
00:00Introduction and Parenthood
01:08Early Athletic Background
02:18Transition to Triathlon
03:30Becoming a Pro Triathlete
09:35Coaching the CU Buffs
13:02Lessons Learned from Coaching
15:32Nutrition in Triathlon
18:14Importance of Consistency in Training
23:15Mental Preparation in Triathlon
26:42Humorous Race Story
Hey, Coach Mike Ricci here from D3 Multisport, and I'm with Brad Sang, the longtime D3 coach, former professional triathlete and former CU Buff Coach, long winning streak there of being a national champion. And most importantly, recently within the last year, Brad has become a dad, and I think that's the most important thing here. Brad, tell me how that's going before we get into everything else.
Yeah, thanks, Mike. Great to be here chatting with you today. And parenthood is unbelievable, as you know, being a parent. And people always tell you that, oh, you know, you can expect this, you can expect that or how amazing it is, which, you know, having 13 nieces and nephews, I always had an appreciation of. But until it's your own kid, your own child that you're with on a daily basis and seeing that growth and development. Yeah, it is. It's unbelievable. It's an amazing journey. Yeah.
Yeah, you bet. Athletics and sports, youth sports was always a big part of my life growing up. And most notably soccer. Started kind of as a knee-high to a grasshopper. Played some baseball, but never really was passionate about it or felt like it was drawing me in. Did some swimming growing up as well. So soccer and swimming were kind of my athletic thing. So soccer definitely had the priority. And played through high school and college and even in high school.
at the end of high school. I skipped my swimming my junior year just solely to focus on soccer. Went back to it my senior year thinking, well, it's a great way to maintain some cross training in the aerobic capacity. So continued swimming, but soccer was always my jam. And as a kid had dreams of being a professional soccer player and going off to play in the MLS someday and being drafted or making a team or that sort of thing. But
Had a great time playing at a division three school in Michigan called Albion College. And post college made it as far as to the competitive men's beer league with a bunch of high school buddies kicking around the soccer ball and playing in a men's league, which was a lot of fun. Yeah. So late, I did my first troth on in 2000, the year I turned 30. So definitely had a little bit of a later start in the sport. After...
But you had swimming as a background, right? So that helped a little bit.
Yeah, I mean, the years of chasing a soccer ball just really lent itself to developing that aerobic foundation and that aerobic capacity that we need as endurance athletes. I mean, interestingly, like all the years I played soccer, even in college, I really didn't enjoy running. Like we'd have to go out for training runs and in college at the beginning of the year when we come back in the fall for training camp, there was always this, you know, two mile test, running test.
looming over my head. And so I would spend some time at the end of the summer trying to cram train and then just, you know, totally gut myself on this two mile test to try to break 12 minutes, which at that time was a big accomplishment for me.
I bet. So how long into the triathlon did you realize, like I'm pretty good at this, I can maybe go pro or, you know, take it to the next level.
Yep. So, you know, I've raced three years as a competitive age grouper and, uh, went to like USA T age group national championships and never outright won my age group or won a race at a big level, but went to, uh, St. Anthony's trial triathlon in Tampa or St. Petersburg was another kind of bigger race that I traveled to when I was kind of feeling this all out and felt like, you know, with my running background or with the soccer background, I'm running definitely showed improved.
proved to be my strength early on especially. And I was like, that's allowing me to have some modest success. And I really liked the personal challenge. It's very different from a team sport, the dynamics of triathlon. And so I felt like, you know what? I'll see if I can try and earn my pro card. And one thing looking back on it, I think I did it too soon. I probably, in hindsight, we maybe would have waited another year or two.
gone to some bigger races and had some serious breakout success at some of those bigger races. As an age grouper, I raced in two triathlon ITU at the time world championships, short course in Edmonton one year and then long course in Nice. Those were just amazing experiences for me as an athlete and as I was still developing. That planted more motivation as I was able to see the elite fields.
race at both those venues and those two world championships. And that kind of was a motivation to me, as well as trathlon becoming an Olympic sport in 2000. And I was involved, I was still living in Michigan at the time. And I was swimming with the master swim group and our coach was Sheila Termina, who was on that initial Olympic team. And she's just an amazing person and incredible athlete in her own right across many different sports.
No way. Yeah.
two different Olympics and two different teams.
So it was, you know, that was part of the whole motivation and behind me wanting to try and pursue racing at the next level, so to speak.
That's awesome. So how long did you in a Brace and Pro?
So I ended up racing 12 years, which focusing mainly on long course events. Being an older athlete, I certainly didn't have the swim speed and capability to be really competitive, especially at short course races. I had a swim background thankfully, which helped me, but I was never first out of the water. I was never like even front pack swimmer when I was racing.
Right. Yeah. But you had a pretty good, your PR, your PR on the Iron Man was nine or sub.
It was sub nine, 855, you know, I was always chasing that 845 to be, you know, try, we're always trying to like, you know, snip at it here and there. And, you know, once I turned 45, I, my body started, I could feel my body aging. And it mentally, when I got to that point and I was working through some, some injuries and just, it just was not as fun as when I first started. And that's when I realized that, you know what, I think it's time to, to look, to go.
Wow, that's incredible. Yeah.
to see where Triathlon can take me in a different direction, which ultimately now is coaching, which has been a fantastic transition.
Yeah, so I would imagine, you know, trying to, I mean, obviously trying to race at a high level is hard. And then do it at an advanced stage, advanced stage, you know, being over 35, even 38, 40 is hard, but 45, I mean, that's impressive. And I'm sure you learned a lot about the ins and outs of injuries and things now that you can advise your athletes on, like, you don't need to do that much or don't do that work. Don't do, you know, 50 plyo jumps or whatever the number is. You don't need an extra speed workout because that half a percent you're going to gain is.
Who knows what will happen, right? The tweaky calf or whatever.
Well, exactly. It's like the whole adage less is more. And I really came to appreciate that as an athlete. And certainly now as a coach is something I encourage my athletes to try and embrace, especially as they're getting ready for key races in the last few weeks. You know, it's easy to get involved in the comparison game. And with social media now, like when I sort of started racing, there was very little social media. Instagram wasn't even a thing.
Now it's just like, there's just 24 seven, you can see what other athletes are doing, but it can be very unhealthy to get sucked into the kind of the comparison. And what I view as the unhealthy, maybe negative aspects of social media.
Yeah, no question. No question. I think that's all right. And I think a lot of us fall into that trap of comparing, someone ran 10 miles, I only ran eight on a Sunday. And did I go out and do those two, whatever, right? Especially with your competition. That's awesome. So tell me a little bit about coaching. So I think you coached a little bit in the past before triathlon, you coached soccer for a bit?
Yeah, I mean, I've been like almost a lifelong coach. I mean, once I got into high school and college, like I've been coaching it's in some capacity in some form. You know, initially it was all about soccer and swimming and coached high school varsity soccer, both girls and boys for a number of years. And even did as part of my earning my master's in sports administration was a was a grad assistant with a men's team at University of Michigan, which at the time was a club team.
but they just, right after the year I was there, they transitioned to a varsity program. But that was a great experience. So coaching has always been kind of in my blood, in my DNA, in some form and capacity. And even when I was racing triathlon starting out, I was still kind of, I was coaching on the side, not to the extent that I am now, but a few athletes, two or three athletes.
just trying to, and I learned a lot along the way from those experiences and more recently, coaching the CU team really helped foster and develop, I think, my coaching capabilities.
Well, that's a great segue, because that was my next question. So you coached the CU Buffs for 10 years? Was that right? Nine and a half years. OK, awesome. I think you won a few. That's right. So you won a few times there, right? Three or four times. And then, what's your biggest takeaway with? Let me tell you, I'm just going to input this a little bit. My first time I had a workout with the team.
Yeah, nine and a half years following in, you know, the legacy that you built. Uh, so we had a strong D3 connection for, for quite some time there.
Yep, that's right.
I had like 30 kids show up for a run. And I was like, and you know, I coached swimming before, you know, 60 kids in the pool, but they're in a contained area, right? Like it's not a big deal. And I got 30 kids on a run and I'm like, what do I do with all these kids? I mean, it was kind of crazy. So went and did hill repeats at Scott Carpenter Park and had them running up and down until they were tired, which took a while. And then I ran them back, you know, but it was pretty fun, you know, for me getting back into that.
Right. Exactly. Yeah.
Yeah, right. Yeah.
in-person coaching after a long time and not doing it. What was your experience like, you know, coming on and obviously you've done some coaching, but here you are going live again, right? With, you know, a different sport, three different sports actually. You're not there for every session every week, but how did you feel in terms of, you know, like what was your goal the first year in terms of just trying to put the team, you know, in some respect, put the team together and then do what you wanted to do with it?
Right, really just learning like, what is collegiate club triathlon? What's the culture? What's the environment? What are the dynamics? You know, every team is different obviously, and CU has a strong legacy of exceptional, of being champions and collegiate club champions for many years and being at the pointy end of the collegiate club racing scene. And I honestly didn't really know much about collegiate club triathlon when I took over the job. You know, I knew a little bit living here in Boulder.
Obviously you're aware of the CU Triathlon team, but I was really surprised by like the wide range of experience and ability. And as a coach, like working with the team back in person, because it had been a while since I'd coached a team, you know, it's very different from coaching individual athletes. And you've got, to your point, 30 kids showing up at a run session, 40 to 50 kids at a swim, you know, same amount at a bike session of all different experiences and ability levels.
That was a big eye-opener and one of the early hurdles and challenges was finding a way to what you did to successfully create a team dynamic and a plan that's going to cater to the wide range of experience and abilities and the needs of these athletes. From those doing their first triathlon, learning how to swim, showing up on a rusty cruiser beat-up mountain bike to one of the first team rides, to those who are already coming in with triathlon experience, racing at an elite level.
with aspirations to go off and race professionally, perhaps. And then a lot in between. So it was, initially it was just trying to build a framework in a foundation where it was, everyone's gonna feel like they belong to something within this team culture.
Yeah, that's great. That's great. So 10 years of coaching. What did you learn from the kids? Because I always felt I'd walk away each week with something like, wow, I, you know, like a kid would say something to you, honestly, and you, I would take that home and think about it and be like, well, that's, that's pretty intuitive for a 20 year old or an 18 year old first time away from home.
Right. Yeah. Yeah, no, no doubt. I mean, there was always lessons learned along the way. And as I mentioned a few moments ago, that team and that experience really helped me become a better coach for a variety of reasons. It helped me become more intuitive to be able to see like the body language of these student athletes and what they're dealing with. Not just about, it's not just about the X's and O's of triathlon. That's probably the easiest part of coaching a team.
You know, it's all the stuff that's going on behind the scenes with relationships, the academic stresses, just the other outside pressures that these young, you know, uh, student athletes and college age kids are under. I mean, there's tremendous pressure, uh, that they have to, to navigate. And so just dealing with some of that stuff outside of the, you know, the team planning and the X's and O's and facilitating workouts.
Um, the other thing I found challenging because CU is such a unique program because of its, its success and you get these high level performing athletes. It goes back to striking that, that healthy balance of you want to, uh, the team to be competitive every year, you know, trying to on a national stage, maybe earn a national title. Um, but you also have to remember that this is a club sport. So it's not like you can force these members to be at every single practice and.
you know, take attendance and that sort of thing. You know, it's very different than say an NCAA sport where they're, you know, they have much higher, a much higher level of obligation perhaps. And so I think we managed that kind of somewhere in between. We weren't an NCAA sport. We weren't like a free for all club team. We had a lot more structure and, you know, things built in and incentives built in if someone wanted to race at nationals for us, you know, they had to earn that spot. It wasn't just a guarantee. So,
That was an interesting process. And, but to your point, constantly learning, you know, from these kids about their experiences and what they're just studying. Like listening to them talk about their academics and the different majors that they have. Like I always thought, like when I was in college, I don't remember hearing these kinds of conversations as much. I don't remember this high level of majors and academics that, you know, my peer group was involved in when I was playing soccer.
I agree. I agree. I remember when I ran cross country in college, I remember, you know, that was my peer group that I hung out with. And we would have conversations about the latest REN album or something, you know, it wasn't about what happened in stats class because no one really wanted to talk about it. You know, it's interesting. You know, so that's, that's a good, that's a lot of good information there. And I think that you're coaching, you know, Olympic level athletes, that's the longest distance they did as a club competitively, right?
So then you're also coaching obviously for D3 and you've got your own athletes that are, you know, long course 70.3 in Ironman. So nutrition wise, how would you, you know, I know you knew a lot about nutrition. How would you talk to somebody about, you know, calorie intake on, you know, an Olympic distance versus 70.3 versus an Ironman?
Sure. Yeah. I mean, obviously as the race distance grows and gets longer, that having a dialed in fueling and hydration plan becomes exponentially more important. I don't think you can fake an Olympic distance race. I mean, we, you know, coaching the CU team, this is one other thing I learned is that we had some kids who had raced, you know, junior elite level or junior program doing sprint and draft legal events. They go off to do their first Olympic distance race.
and really underestimate the importance of hydration and getting in some calories on the bike in particular, which just totally set them up for a hard lesson to learn on that 10K run. So even at the Olympic distance level, I think there's still an emphasis and should be an emphasis on fueling and hydration. Sprint distance, you can maybe fake it or get away with it by just having a bottle of water or a electrolyte drink in your bottle.
but up to Olympic distance and then certainly a 70.3 in Ironman, that's where you have to start thinking about what, not just having it on board, but like how many calories per hour and what's the makeup with those calories per hour? How many grams of carbohydrate per hour and salt supplementation, sodium supplementation, which for sprint and even Olympic distance, you may get away with not having a separate sodium supplement in addition to your electrolyte drink.
salt supplement, but in 70.3 and Ironman racing, I think for a lot of athletes, that's another aspect to the whole feeling in hydration process.
Yeah, I mean, it's a big puzzle, right? It's always a big puzzle. And would you, uh, so, you know, it's see you, I would say the same thing. I've seen plenty of kids crash and burn, uh, due to poor nutrition or, you know, hijinks the night before or whatever, but sometimes, uh, it was just lack of knowledge, right? Like they didn't know that they need to take an obviously have a breakfast. Cause some of them would just show up and do a race, you know, if you're at Lake Havasu or something, um, national is a little more, a little more serious, but you know, get up and do the race. And then.
What did you have? You know, your run was, you know, they're just a minute per mile off on their pace and you're at, you're asking them what's going on. Well, I had, you know, I had a bottle of water on the bike and like, what did you have on the run? I think I had a gel like, okay, but you know, you just burned 1500 calories over that hour and 45 that you were biking and running. And you took in a hundred calories. You just burned 2000 calories. Like your tank is empty. You know, I don't care how much pizza you ate last night. Like you are empty, you know.
Yeah, for sure. Right. Yeah, I mean, there's only so much you can, you know, being young and healthy, you can get away with a certain amount, but in racing, but yeah, that nutrition and fueling is always a big piece to it.
Right. And so, and then, you know, if you're working with an athlete, do you typically have them write out a nutrition plan before an Ironman or a 70.3, just so you can kind of have an idea.
Yeah, I mean, that's part of the whole training process with those long rides and runs is like, you know, all right, dial in this, this fueling and hydration plan, just like you plan to execute on race day, what is it going to be? Where do you get, what products are going to use? Can you stomach Gatorade endurance, which is, which is a predominant right now product as far as electrolyte drink goes on the courses with, you know, the gels have changed over years right now. Martin's a big, a big one, but you know, when I was racing, it was, it was all sorts of different things.
Right. Power gel, goo.
So, you know, being able to test out, yeah, exactly. Being able to test out if your stomach can tolerate what's gonna be on the course. And if not, then you have to figure out a way to facilitate that for yourself on your bike and then what you're gonna carry on the run. So I think it's really those, you know, how I like to emphasize it with my D3 athletes who are racing 70.3 and Ironman, these long course events, it has to happen in the long training sessions where you're meeting the demands with, you know, with intervals, tempo.
race-specific intervals that you're trying to mimic the work rate you're going to have on race day. You can't necessarily mimic the specific weather conditions, but just getting it dialed in and seeing, finding out what products and then the quantities, how many grams of carbohydrate per hour. That's a big, big metric that in the last few years I've really been working with athletes on who have struggled a bit with their feeling and hydration.
is really trying to figure out, can you take 60 grams or 65? Can we keep inching that up? I mean, I have some athletes, one athlete who can take, tolerate up to 110, 120 grams of carbohydrate per hour on the bike. That's a lot. That's a huge amount. Yeah, that's a huge amount. Now most people can't, but the athletes have really honed this in.
Wow, that's a lot. Yeah, so it's 500 calories an hour, right? Yeah. Right, right.
their performances are reflections of that because of how good they feel in the, you know, midway through the run and at the end of the run in particular in these long course events.
Yeah, I think you're right. And, you know, I kind of think about what you just said and I think about, okay, so these people have their nutrition dialed in and that equals a great race, or are they super organized and super diligent with their training? They get the training in, they've dialed the nutrition in and they've done everything right to set themselves up for success. So typically it's those diligent people that'll have success. And I remember one year I went through all my logs of my athletes and I actually sent them all an email and I didn't tell them who was, you know, who was who in the email, but.
I said, I had two athletes that did 99% of their workouts. And one was like an all American something and another one was like an all world something. And I'm like, it's not by accident, right? Like they did all their workouts like they're supposed to. They didn't overdo it. You know, it just kept things, you know, the way it's easy days are easy, hard days are hard. And you know, that's another topic for another time.
Yeah, right. It's not, you know, what we do as coaches really isn't rocket science, right? I mean, you have to have a, you know, we're all professional, have an understanding of periodization and, you know, trying to find specific nuances that work really well to help one athlete grow, whereas you need another set of, you know, stimuli, perhaps for another athlete, different set of stimuli. But at the end of the day, to your point, it's about, you know, hard days are hard, easy days
and then being consistent with frequency over time. It's not about massive volume in short little segments here or there. It's that consistency over time that I think really bolsters the durability.
Yeah, I agree. I agree. So Brad, you're, you're well renowned for getting your athletes dialed in terms of not only nutrition, not only the physical, but the bigger piece of it, right? It's the mental side. I mean, you can do all the training you want, but you know, if you get to that start line and you think, Oh my God, I can't swim with 3000 people or I can't swim two miles or, uh, you know, it's not a down current swim. I'm not going to make it through this. I'm, you know, we've all encountered those athletes. Um, and I know
by talking with you and with your athletes that you've done a great job on the mental side of things. What are the key things that you talk to your athletes about and what can I learn from you in that respect?
Well, I think, you know, we go back to training again, and that's the battleground, so to speak, where they can gain confidence and learn to suffer and learn to be okay. You know, it's okay to you want them to be feel comfortable being uncomfortable. And so really trying to stretch them in training without like overdoing it and overextending them. So that's one component, you know, is they gain confidence and
and are able to practice their mental tools and techniques while they're in the midst of those more demanding sessions, whether it be a thing of quick imagery before going out for a key session or race, or positive self-talk, having some mantras. One thing that I've learned in working with D3 through our mental skills coach, Will Murray, and the information he has shared with me and our athletes over the years are some great tools and tips that our athletes can take advantage of. And
And I put that, like I have links to some of his, his Trothlin Minute videos that I put in my athletes plans leading up to a big race and say, race visualization, 10 to 15 minutes. Check out coach Will Murray's, you know, advice on this.
Yeah, that's great. That's great. I was just talking to him last week about redoing some of those videos and, um, yeah, there's some good information in there. Really, really good information.
And the mental side of it, even for me as an athlete, like I knew I wasn't the strongest cyclist, the fastest runner or swimmer, but no one can control my mind. I was in control of my mind and what type of attitude or grit that I wanted to have on race day. And that's one of the reasons I think I had some modest success in earning some top 10 finishes, wasn't necessarily because of my physical abilities, but it was like...
the mental framework I had in the moment. And I remember, I think it was 2008 in Kona, I ran a 249 marathon and on that day, it was fifth fastest of the day. Now I wish I had a swim and bike split that would have matched that, but I didn't. But I remember just like running through the field in Kona and just going by some of these guys that were literally just, you know, much, what I viewed as much more gifted physically, athletes had more impressive resumes than I and results than I had at that time.
and just, they were crumbled. Some of them were like on the ground lying in the fetal position, just in agony. And it was because of poor nutrition, who knows what. But for a lot of them, I mean, I always had the mindset that I'm not gonna DNF unless I physically have to. And so I just kept, never know what's happening up the road from you in an Ironman race in particular. And it's such a long day. And I just, my mental kind of fortitude.
and grit is what allowed me to have some success on race day. And I-
That's awesome. So what did a 249 get you for overall? What kind would plan a place?
I think that year was 32nd or 33rd, 34th. I should know, but over the years things start to fade. But I certainly didn't have that, I wasn't in that position off the bike. I was, yeah.
That's awesome. That's awesome. Yeah. That's awesome.
You didn't have a full 20 bike, right? Yeah, it's hard. It's hard. That's awesome. OK, a couple more questions for you.
So knowing that I've known you for a long time now, and I may know a story about something that happened at Oceanside one year, I think it was a pro race. Was it the first pro race? Yeah, why don't you tell us that story.
Yeah, it was one of my first pro races. Yeah. Yeah, early on, you know, when at that time, it was actually called Ralph's Half Ironman. It wasn't even the seventh, right? It wasn't even, it was, Ralph's was a grocery store chain out there that was the title sponsor of it. But never had, I raced Oceanside a few times and for whatever reason, never had great days out there. But one year in particular, oh man, it was a kicker at the start. Like, you know, as a, as a pro and a new professional,
I remember that, yep.
I was like, I got things dialed in. I know how to execute my pre-race routine. And my dad was with me at this race and he was like, don't you think we should kind of get moving, get over to the venue and let you get set up? And I was like, ah, no, you don't need to, I got this. You know, I just had kind of a pretty low key attitude about it. And sure enough, I did not allow myself enough time on race morning. I was rushed and got to the...
the swim start area and a volunteer was trying to frantically get my wetsuit up on the, the pro-field men were, you know, they were all warming up in the water, queuing themselves up at the start line and the zipper got stuck, it got jammed. And so this volunteer, you know, she was trying to help out and volunteers on Race Day are always, you know, super, super encouraging and helpful. And they just, the volunteer and another volunteer, they just couldn't get it undone.
giant open gap from the top of my wetsuit to the bottom that was wide open. The horn went. I was standing on the boat ramp right near the start line area. The horn goes and I'm like, oh my God, this is not how you want to start a race. So I was like, I got to go. So I just went for it. And of course that acted like a huge drag parasail, you know, behind me just pulling on all this water. And that was a miserable way to start a race and very, very humbling. It just, I just felt like.
I mean, it was so obvious, because I was just standing there, and the guys are going, swimming away. And I'm like, I'm going to be in no man's land this entire day.
Did you ever catch up to anybody on the swim?
I don't think so, no, not on the swim. And of course, at that time, the women's pro field was coming right after it. And I was just counting the number of women, the faster swimmers that were just blinds and by me thinking, oh, I can get on their feet. And it works for a few moments, but then they say, I was just carrying so much water in that wetsuit. Oh man, and so obviously to this day, for myself and my own races, I definitely allow enough time and I encourage, that's one thing I encourage my athletes.
That's so demoralizing.
You never want to feel rushed on race morning. So there's a lot you can do to prevent that. Some things, if you get a flat on your car, driving to a race or there's traffic, there's some things you can't control, but do what you can just to allow yourself more than enough time on race morning because you don't want to be stressed and rushed. And I guess in the moment of that, if you do find yourself stressed and rushed, have a mental framework, a mental mindset that you want to use.
to help get you through it so you don't panic, you don't have a minor freak out like I essentially did as I was trying to get this wetsuit zipped up, which probably led to it getting all jammed.
Love it. Yeah, and you got it off okay?
Yeah, some- yeah, I don't remember how we got it off. That was the other aspect to it. But yeah, I was able to get it off.
I mean, I've seen people with the whole back duct tape because the zipper broke and all kinds of, like how are they getting that wetsuit off when the swim's over, you know? Someone's gotta have a scissor or a box cutter to get it off, right? Just kind of funny. But you know, in the moment, you know, you're very thankful that that's not happening to you and your wetsuit works properly because you see that and you realize how much stress that person's going through. So I'm sorry to hear you went through that, but it makes a good story, so.
Right, for sure.
Yeah, you know, that's part of racing, you know, it's a humbling journey, but we learn from these experiences.
Totally, totally. All right, well, thanks for being on with us. We really appreciate the time and it's been great talking to you. We'll catch up again. All right.
Yeah, you bet. Thanks, Mike.