As we look ahead to the new year, we should ask ourselves what sorts of thinking should be taking place when it comes to training for the next season’s triathlons.
Well, that depends in part on the length of the events you plan to engage. Sprint triathletes need to think about quality. Speed is the essence more than endurance. So is working on the ends of the spectrum. Work on the slowest link of your race, yes. For me that is swimming. The most recent theory is that hard, short swim intervals done in volume are best for long distance swimmers. An open water practice or two puts the finish on that type of fitness.
But you must keep in mind the need to work to maximize any advantage you might have in multisport events. Strong on the bike? Find time for speed training. Grabbing an extra mile per hour on that leg can gain minutes. My strength is running. It always pays to do some open races such as a 5K to hone that speed so you can rely on it when triathlon race day comes.
And for sprint triathletes, for God’s Sakes, get the transitions down.
Olympic folks need to think about spreading the effort more evenly. With a mile swim, 26 miles to ride and typically a 10K to run, building the base is important in the early part of the season. Don’t rush the early, slow stuff. Creating capillary support with long, even rides is important. It will likely be windy out there if you’re in the northern hemisphere battling March and April blustery weather. It makes no sense to try to crank it out at 20 mph when what you need is to build deep inner leg strength from miles of riding. Time in the Saddle. Just go do it.
Train for the 10K portion of the Olympic with running workouts designed as if that were the only part of the event you’re going to do. The combined effort of training long on the bike and doing increasing workouts on the run will push you in the right direction. It is the cumulative effort that represents the true “brick” of training. It’s not necessarily running right after a bike that’s so important. We all know what tired legs feel like by now. Yes, learning cadence and concentration is important through bricks, but you can also sacrifice the opportunity to actually get faster by doing all your run training on wobbly, post-ride legs.
So get to the track, and don’t mess around there. Run interval workouts 10-15% below the race pace of your open 10K. In other words, you’ll be running much faster in training than you might run when you come off the bike. But that’s the point. You want to adjust your actual perceived effort to fit what you could run if you were fresh. This also imitates the feeling of “brick” legs. This will train you for the moment when energy returns to your legs after the first half mile of recovery off the bike. You want to be aiming toward a gear that is faster than you might expect to run.
Half Ironman 70.2
Move up to the Half Ironman and the complexion of your training begins to radically change. Now you’re talking true endurance training rather than speed. That means volume can be important. But here’s a proviso. It can be just as effective to train for strength as for raw aerobic power. The half Ironman distance is about sustaining rates and pace. This can’t be done without the baseline strength earned from slow miles ridden and run in the early season. Don’t rush it. Avoid injury. Do strength work and yoga and plyometric work in the gym. Think of this work as the foundation for your triathlon training.
As the race approaches, about two months out it pays to find other riders and runners who can push you beyond your “critical mean” of daily race pace. Once a week on the ride and run, join up with other athletes that are faster. Keep up as long as you can. This does not mean you should be racing, or going 100% all out. So it helps to have a conversation before the ride or the run with better athletes. Blasting each other away proves nothing but how stupid you can be, or how alone. If a better rider agrees to work with you, perhaps they can do that on a day when they’re not personally going all out, but are willing to work with you at a given pace. Not to draft, but to pace and exchange leadership over the course of rides lasting 50-80 miles. You want to build confidence through success, not destroy it through false racing.
Train for the half marathon distance in the half Ironman (again) as if you were competing in an open race. Sure, an occasional brick will be helpful to train your brain and legs to the sensations of coming off the bike. But it is best to reserve your quality training for the track with long intervals of 800 meters to a mile at just below open race pace. Don’t pussyfoot with this aspect of your workouts. Don’t go easy on yourself. Be disciplined about the quality of this work above all else. You are better off sacrificing a bit of volume in order to do the speed/strength portion with total devotion. Greater gains will come from quality work than from junk miles done to overcome the fear of 13.1 miles.
Finally, training for the Ironman distance is like putting money in the bank. You have to start with pennies sometimes (base mileage) graduate to nickels (increased volume) slip in some dimes (pace and interval workouts) and finish with a load of quarters made up of long swims, rides and runs. It’s all about incremental change to your body over time. Actual Ironman fitness sits out there like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Most triathletes find long-course open swims to build upon or check their fitness. In our region, there is a 2.4 mile Madison Open Water Swim that many triathletes choose to use for practice. Then they go ride 80-100 miles in the hills of Wisconsin and finish with a long run along the lake. That makes for quite a day of training. Others ply the waters of Lake Michigan in mid-to-late summer, but the big lake can prove rough for those unaccustomed to chop and waves. Still, it’s good experience for all conditions.
Triathletes must spend time planning out the week’s training and if that seems like too much thinking, it’s indeed time to get a coach. There are great people out there to help you organize all the training you need to do. Many Ironman athletes elect to pay for that brand of advice. This is not a recommendation or a sales pitch, just a reality. It can take the burden off an athlete to have someone do the thinking for them.
Thinking triathlon thoughts is, after all, an exercise unto itself.