Lester Pardoe on life as a laser-focused youth, Olympic athlete & coach, and advice for longevity in sport
By Dana Willett
Whether you are a Olympic-level athlete, interested in analyzing data and able to churn out dozens of hours of volume each week, or you take a recreational approach, intent on enjoying the scenery and not too hell-bent on any one race result, Lester Pardoe can relate to you. Lester is a coaching specialist and biomechanist at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. He is a certified coach in multiple endurance sports, and has completed training by national sports organizations in soccer, triathlon, cycling, mountain biking, speed skating, short track and hockey. He works with many of Boulder’s elite endurance racers.
Lester has worked both ends of the "intensity" spectrum. In his youth, volume, regimen, and focus ruled. He was an elite youth athlete, an Olympic qualifier, and a coach to several Olympic and international teams. But these days, he gleans the greatest satisfaction from moderation, and teaching his athletes (many of them in the “masters” category) the same.
Lester has been training since he was about eight years old. He started like many youth, balancing track and soccer and other youth sports. What was different, however, was his early adoption of an athlete’s psyche: what some may admire as “discipline,” what others observe as bordering on obsessive. Many successful athletes began their careers as youths, under the tutelage of a coach, as part of a team, or on the heels of athletic parents, but his beginnings in sport were not organized, supported, or sponsored in a traditional way. From the beginning, Lester was purely self-driven.
As a youngster in Calgary, spurred on by genetic fortitude from his parents, who had survived war-torn London in the 1940’s, and goaded on by two older athletic brothers, Lester strove to apply himself to sport, and improve. Not in the sense that a kid on a middle school basketball team shoots some extra hoops outside of practice . . . in the sense of how a seasoned athlete might approach long-term goals and measured improvement, bordering on . . . well, intense.
For example, as a right-footed soccer player, he’d head outside first thing in the morning and practice 500 left-footed kicks before breakfast. He wouldn’t allow himself to cut it short. He wanted to swim, but his family couldn’t afford lessons or the local team. So Lester rode his single-speed bike 30 minutes to the pool, where he taught himself breaststroke, and then began a regimen of swimming a full mile – all breaststroke - every day, before pedaling back home. He was about ten years old. When he was about twelve, he added in more running and track work, including repeats of stair workouts in 118-step sets. He recalls, “They were brutal sessions. I wouldn’t make any of my athletes do that now.”
He did all his workouts solo. Every day. He wasn’t angry, or lonely, or troubled. In fact, he was pretty happy. He just loved pushing his body, setting goals, seeing improvement. His stint with team sports in the form of soccer left him unsatisfied; when the team lost, the other kids were never too upset, and Lester felt frustrated. “I always thought we could do better,” he recalls. From a young age, Lester held the philosophy that hard work led to results. “I always knew how to suffer,” he says. “I was not coordinated, I was not particularly flexible, I was not graceful. But I always put the work in.” Even today, Lester can “crush” the time trial on the Computrainer, because he knows how to “push through the pain.”
So to say he "gets" the mindset of some of the motivated, highly competitive athletes he coaches today is an understatement.
Lester’s family had a requirement that each child participate in one extracurricular activity, year-round. Soccer, cycling, running and swimming took care of much of the year, but at the age of ten Lester was at a loss for the winter months. Facing forced participation in the local scout troop, an unhappy prospect for him, he spotted a display at the mall showcasing speed skates for the 1980 Olympics. Intrigued by the skates, he told his mother that would be his winter activity of choice. He joined a small group of older Dutchmen and a handful of youths on the ice. He applied his laser focus to the sport, and skyrocketed.
Lester raced competitively through 1990's, and qualified for the Olympics three times (’92, ’94, ’98). Canada’s requirements for competing at the Olympics are much more stringent than for other countries, and though Lester qualified for the Olympic team as one of the top 32 speedskaters in the world, only the top 12 actually competed. He reflects, “It was tough to have qualified and not get to go, but I got over it. It was still a huge honor.”
He earned his BA in Physical Education with a focus on biomechanics. He attended the National Coaching Institute of Canada, a high performance coaching program that only accepts twelve students a year. He competed and coached concurrently through 1998, including coaching the New Zealand team for the ’98 Olympics. After that, he went to coaching full time and became the Chief of Competition for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
While in Salt Lake, Lester developed and implemented a pipeline program designed to provide high level coaching for junior athletes, and giving qualified youths initial exposure to national level competition. It was while he was running this speed skating camp for kids that some of the parents pulled him aside and asked if he might consider starting an adult program.
“It was amazing,” he says. “Parents signed up who didn’t even have kids. These were recreational adult skaters who were never going to be high level. I was so used to 14-year-old kids, complaining about workouts, and here were these adults, so enthusiastic about the sport and participating. They took me to dinner just so they could ask me questions about the sport – it was so refreshing. They were doing it because they loved it. They paid money, and gave up vacation time – this really impressed me.” At that point his career shifted, and he readjusted his coaching focus to include not only elite athletes, but recreational and master athletes as well.
In late 2004, Lester moved to Boulder and ended up at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, working as an exercise physiologist and launching the indoor cycling program (what many of us know as the “pain cave”).
“There is a huge crossover between speed skating and cycling,” he explains. “There are many cycling medalists with skating backgrounds, and vice versa. It’s common to ride in the summer and skate in the winter, recruiting similar muscle groups and positions.” Lester’s growing desire to connect with his athletes was one of the motivators for the indoor program. “It is important to me to be very hands on with my athletes. I don’t stand on the side – I do the workouts alongside. I am better able to give feedback this way. Coaching cycling is not as hands on as swimming and running. There are not so many technical changes, like swimming. I was writing programs and not seeing my athletes, and I missed seeing them. So I developed the indoor cycling program so I could see my clients.”
He continues, “Most athletes want that personal interaction. For the vast majority, they want some coaching, but they want a social side too. I care about the people I work with, and I have fun with them.” The indoor cycling program at BCSM started in 2005 with two people after hours in the evenings, on trainers set up in the lab. Today, BCSM has a dedicated facility with ten Computrainers, hosting 25 sessions a week under six coaches. Classes include professional cyclists, triathletes, mountain bike groups, junior teams, 60+ masters, and women’s groups. The classes are consistently sold out, week over week. “Some riders are training for the velodrome or an Ironman. Others are trying to get in shape to ride their first century. I’m equally happy working with all of them,” Lester comments.
This dedication to personal, face-to-face coaching has made Lester quite popular in the Boulder area. One client, Susan McNamee, is quick to praise his style, saying, “Oh I love Lester! He is patient and encouraging and knowledgeable. He helped me figure out power and the reasons to use and train with it. He always pushed me - nudged may be a better word - to keep working a bit harder and helped me see the big picture of why.” Another male client, who is now 65, says, “I’m faster now than I was at 60. I only wish I had met Lester earlier.” Lester’s coaching style is very individualized: “I try to take each individual athlete and learn his individual goals, individual lifestyle, and personality. Most triathletes want to be very structured, but not everyone is like that. I say, whatever floats your boat. I really, honestly care about each person. I want people to be happy and enjoy what they are doing. Some deal better with structure, some don’t – it depends on an athlete’s individual needs.”
This formula of hands-on, personalized training, resonates across the spectrum, from high level competitive triathletes and cyclists to masters and recreational athletes. Lester, while pleased, is surprised. “If you had asked me 20 years ago if I’d rather coach young elite athletes, or amateur master athletes, I would have thought you were nuts to even ask. But here I am, coaching older age groupers who are simply seeking good health and self-improvement. And I love it,” he says.
Finding the enjoyment in sport is the key to longevity, he says. "For masters athletes, the mental aspect becomes much more important. You got into this because you enjoy it. You have to remember that, and never lose that. If you enjoy the training, whether through the social aspect, or by easing off some of the intensity so it's not so much suffering, then you will have success."
Lester cites "finding balance" as his top advice for triathletes. "Triathletes can be a bit 'OCD' and compulsive by nature. It's necessary to a degree - you have three sports to juggle, along with nutrition, strength training, flexibility, transitions - not to mention work, kids, family. It's kind of a double-edged sword, because you have to be self-motivated and focused, but you are always bordering on being too rigid, structured, and one-track-minded." Finding balance, and being organized yet flexible in fitting everything into the week, is key.
Here are Lester's top tips for non-professional triathletes:
1. Structure & Goal Setting - defing HOW you are going to get to your goals by making a detailed plan.
2. Be Realistic - accurately estimate your time commitment for training and how it fits into your life, always seeking to maintain balance and avoid injury.
3. Enjoyment & Passion - don't make training your job.
4. Biomechanics - make sure on a physiological level you are biomechanically sound; get a good swim coach to assess your technique, a good bike fit to avoid injury, have your running gait analyzed, and include an overall strength program to stay muscularly balanced, especially as a master athlete.
5. Recovery - take time to recover; as we age we need more time to heal, and more rest days.
6. Respect Training Zones - most athletes train too much in the middle zone, and go too hard most of the time; you need to balance high intensity and endurance levels.
7. Mental Training - if you are not enjoying your training, you will burn out; if you enjoy what you are doing, you will stick with it. Find your happy place.
Lester puts special emphasis on the zone work: “Generally speaking athletes spend too much time going ‘kinda hard.’ That ‘huff n' puff but still talk’ range. There are huge benefits in polarizing your training. Finding the right balance of longer, easier intensity with selective planned and structured high intensity is what I most often discuss with athletes of all abilities.”
These days, Lester doesn’t compete anymore. “I did that all my life starting as a teenager. I guess I’m over it. I’m just not that competitive anymore. Plus, if I’m going to race, I’m going to do well, and I just don’t have the desire for the training like I used to,” he says. “My lifestyle now is more recreational. I’m healthy and happy, and enjoying sports more.”
Have a story idea or local triathlon news to report? Email Dana Willett.