More on the Real Secret to Triathlon Fitness
My last blog post generated quite a few questions from athletes. So, I thought I’d share a few of the more common questions – and my answers to them – with you.
And maybe most important, to address a crucial issue that wasn’t asked at all!
The number one question I got was “how much intensity/speed work should I incorporate into my base aerobic training?”
While there’s no set amount that is perfect for everyone, the guideline I follow is three minutes per hour of training, or 5%, in the early months of base training after an appropriate adaptation period. Once you’ve been training for at least two to three weeks consistently you can consider incorporating short bursts in all three sports.
Five percent is not a lot, so keep the bursts to 10 to 20 seconds and focus on your form and frequency.
As you get closer to your first “A” race you’ll need to pick a day a week in each sport to increase the intensity duration and, perhaps, reduce the intensity on some other days to balance things out. That way when you transition into the build period you’ll be better prepared both physically and mentally to tackle the hard work to come.
What might that look like?
If you’re going to spend 12 weeks on aerobic base training, the process might go something like this. In the first six weeks (two three-week blocks) you can start by introducing short speed work into one or two sessions the first week and gradually spread the short speed work over most if not all of you training sessions.
When you reach the third three-week block reduce or eliminate the speed work one day a week and shift that effort (time) to the day of the week where you’ll focus your key intensity for that sport, e.g., Tuesday for your key run intensity session.
In the next three-week training block, you’ll make a similar adjustment. That way when the hard work begins you’ll be ready to tackle it. The key is to be consistent and methodical. If you try to jump from easy aerobic training straight into hard build phase training, you’ll likely end up frustrated at best and seriously injured at worst.
The second most common question was “how much aerobic base training should I do?”
Your current level of training and the distance of your “A” race(s) are the basis for determining how much base aerobic work you need. While there’s no set amount beyond having enough to get you to the finish line, as an experienced triathlete in the early season I like to give myself a minimum of 12-15 weeks where my focus is on easy aerobic base training (zone 2 heart rate training in a 5-heart rate zone system).
The benefits of zone 2 heart rate training come from your ability to deliver ever higher levels of oxygenated blood to your working muscles at the same or less effort and that happens as a result of easy aerobic training over an extended period of time.
Once this is accomplished then it’s time to shift your attention to at least 15-18 weeks of race specific preparation, which includes a 2-3-week peak/taper phase.
Triathlon is a complex sport. To get triathlon fit and have fun racing requires ample time to train, recover, and adapt in each phase of your training.
The third question was “do I still need to do strength training if I’m doing speed work and hills?”
The short answer is YES. Triathlon is about endurance and strength! Or as Paula Newby Frazier used to say, “triathlon requires enduring strength.”
Why do so many competitors find themselves walking during the run leg of the race? I believe (along with many coaches) that it’s less about lung capacity and more about lack of leg strength.
The key to building leg strength is to start small and build gradually. Doing too much too fast or piling strength training onto a rigorous triathlon training program will result in injury and exhaustion.
This can be particularly difficult for you if you have a sports background that focused more on strength and speed, such as American football, or you spent part of your year on activities that emphasis high intensity training like cross-fit. The shift to doing easy aerobic during your base building phase can be difficult because it will feel like your training will be just too easy to be of benefit. But stick with it.
The question no one asked – something that occurred to me after the first blog post – is “how do short, strength/speed skills sets impact my recovery?”
Adding short speed sets and more hill training into your routine will likely tighten your muscles. You’ll want to incorporate more stretching from the very start, especially your calf and hamstring muscles, to maintain and/or improve your range of motion.
If you don’t build the habit of stretching from the very start it becomes more difficult to incorporate later and, as is often the case, may never happen at all.
I personally build in a couple of 30-minute yoga sessions during the week. And if you spend a lot of your day sitting, be sure to take a few minutes throughout your day to get up out of the chair, move around, and stretch your muscles, too.
Intensity, even in small doses built into your easy aerobic training, stresses your body more than easy aerobic sessions alone. Don’t skimp on proper body care from the beginning.
Otherwise, trust me, you’ll pay for it later!
The Real Secret to Triathlon Fitness
Do you want to know the secret to getting more triathlon fit? Yeah, me too.
The fact is there’s no secret. It’s quite the opposite.
Unlike when I started in triathlon, today there’s an endless amount of information on how to train, what equipment you need, racing tips and advice, how to pick a coach, etc., and it’s growing every day. Most of this information is good and worth your time to study because triathlon is a complex sport and it’s a long road from novice to mastery.
So where do you begin? Well, that depends. It depends because you don’t have an average or normal life, you have your life and that’s where you start.
In the rest of this article, I share my strategies for getting triathlon fit. You’ll need to adjust the information based on what you want to do and why, your current training behaviors, your current level of fitness, and the time you have available.
Are You Tri-Fit Enough to Build?
Before you start your build phase for your key race(s) you need a solid foundation of triathlon specific base fitness. This could take you anywhere from six weeks to six months or more, depending on your current level of fitness…and more is better. But what does this mean?
Personally, I avoid clichés like “build a bigger engine” because I don’t find analogies to be terribly helpful. Instead, in the introduction to the free training plans on my website, I outline what I consider to be the minimum times you need to be able to comfortably swim, bike, and run before jumping into either of my long or short course plans. But the bare minimum is just that… and when it comes to triathlon base building that’s only the start.
What is a Triathlon Base?
Triathlon base building requires a combination of triathlon specific endurance, strength, and economy (speed skills). If your base-building strategy is about going out for progressively longer, slow swim, bike, and run sessions then you’re only building your endurance and your strength and speed skills are going to suffer. To prepare your mind and body for the demanding work in the build phase you need to focus on all three of these areas during your base training.
Integration Is the Key
You don’t need to add a bunch more time to your training to improve your strength and economy. Instead focus on integrating small amounts of strength and speed skills into many, if not all, of your current training sessions early and often. Here’s what I mean.
Swim Skills: Swimming is a highly technical sport so it’s important to incorporate drills into every swim, such as 2-4 x (50 drill/50 swim) in the warm up and cool down. Maybe even do one swim a week where the main set is focused on drills, e.g., 10 x (50 drill/50 swim).
If you’re struggling with what to do remember that swim drills fall into two broad categories: body position and stroke power. Body position drills are primarily variations of kick on side drills. These drills focus on improving your balance in the water and being streamlined.
Stroke power drills are all about building your power/velocity in the water. My personal favorites are fist drills, single arm drills, and catch-up drills. To get a better idea of what these drills look like you can go to Youtube.com and find endless amount of swim drill videos.
And don’t just go through the motions. Be sure to execute the drills as close to perfect as you can for maximum effect.
Swim Speed/Strength: Speed work improves economy and builds strength. You don’t have to do large volumes just do it often. In your warm up, the middle of the workout, or at the end build in four, six, or eight fast 25’s with 20 seconds rest in between.
Bike Skills: I group bike skills into 2 buckets: handling skills and pedaling skills. Handling skills are about dealing with the multitude of things that only show up when riding outside. If possible, log some group riding time. I’ve seen silly and deadly mistakes made by triathletes who aren’t used to riding surrounded by people. Yes, you can develop some handling skills, especially balance, by riding rollers inside… but I don’t know many triathletes who do that.
Pedaling drills are best done on a trainer for maximum results and safety. Common drills are single leg drills and spin up drills; both are good but their effect is limited because of their short duration, which is why I usually do them in my warm-up. To make real progress I like to build specific cadence sessions into my base trainer routines. These sessions are either mixed in with other sessions or done as a complete workout.
These sessions are always aerobic (no high intensity) so you get the double benefit of building your aerobic capacity and improving your pedaling skills.
A 10-minute base cadence block that I often use looks like this: after at least a five to ten minute warm up begin the session at 90 RPM’s in a moderate gear and increase two RPM’s every two minutes four times (eight minutes) then two minutes in an easier gear.
If you want to make a full trainer session using this workout then start each progressive 10-minute session two RPM’s higher: 2nd session starts at 92 RPM’s, 3rd session at 94 RPM’s. No need to go beyond 110 RPM’s.
Bike Strength: The bike is a great strength training tool. One approach is to do 5, 10, or 20 short speed bursts (about 10-20 seconds) whether on a trainer on the road where you have good visibility for safety reasons. Another is simply logging time in the hills to build your strength.
Whether on the road or in the hills you can occasionally shift into a slightly harder gear with the focus on building strength. The key is to do it only for a minute or two and only for a few repeats in any training session. Your goal is to gradually build bike specific strength over time, not max out your heart rate.
Run Skills: While running is the most natural of the three sports in triathlon, it’s also quite technical and requires enduring strength to go farther faster. On the technical side you have stride length and leg turnover. And on the strength side you have force, which refers to the power you generate when your foot contacts the ground.
An aerobic run regardless of duration will do little to improve your economy or strength. In fact, if you only do easy aerobic running you’re likely negatively impacting both. That’s because if you only run slow, then you’re training to run slow… when you can easily train to be faster without more time or much more effort.
To improve stride length and leg turnover build 4 to 10 repetitions of short 10 to 20 second bursts of fast running into each run. Your focus in these short speed sets is on really moving your feet quickly, which will increase leg turnover and progressively optimize your stride length.
In addition, it’s a good idea to incorporate kick-butt drills into every run. Each set includes ten reps for each leg and I usually do four sets in every run. You can do sets where you snap your heel up ten times on one leg then switch or you can snap your heel up on every third step. This will improve the strength and speed of your hamstrings and subtly improve your forward lean. And as Dr. Romanov the inventor of the Pose Method once said, “if you can’t lean, you can’t run fast.”
Run Strength: Just like on the bike, the short speed bursts and logging time in the hills will build your strength. Also, you can build-in a couple of sets of skipping drills during each run. Nothing hard, just a couple of sets of easy skipping to gradually build running specific leg strength.
It’s the Little Things
These activities are little things that will pay big dividends later in the year and can easily be built into your current training without adding any additional time… just effort. If you implement them gradually and conservatively, over time you will set yourself up for a better, faster race season because you took the time to build solid triathlon base fitness. And that’s the starting place to launch your build up to your key races.
Have fun and train safe!
Are Your Habits Helping or Hurting Your Training?
Get Triathlon-Fit First
Triathlon training is simple.
All you need is enough swim, bike, and run volume and you’re ready to race. That is, if your main goal is to cross the finish line.
But if your goal is to race fast, increasing your volume isn’t enough.
In fact, getting faster is less about training MORE, and more about incorporating 6 potent habits into your routine.
Why volume training only goes so far
Just for fun let’s say that this season one of your top goals is to get as triathlon-fit as possible. And due to your work/home/life demands adding another five or ten hours/week of training time isn’t realistic. So, what do you do?
Since increasing quantity isn’t an option, increasing the quality of your training is your path to fitness.
The following six habits are game changers. They will bring you closer to your goal of getting as triathlon-fit as possible, while still preserving time in your schedule for all the other things you have going on in your life.
Habit #1: Focus on Frequency First: Upping the frequency of your swim, bike, and run sessions is the fastest way for you to improve your basic triathlon fitness. The key at first is to focus more on frequency than duration, e.g., do two 30-minute runs and one 60-minute run instead of two 60-minute runs each week. As discussed in the training videos that accompany the free training plans at my website, a training rule of thumb is two sessions a week in one of the sports will keep your performance the same, three will improve your fitness, and four will really make a significant improvement.
While it’s true you will probably have to increase your distance at some point, especially if your focus is long course races, if you build the habit of frequency first then you’ll find that stepping up the duration once or twice a week to meet the needs of your key race(s) won’t be as challenging.
Habit #2: Better Technique = Free Speed: Energy management is one of the most important factors in any triathlon and the simple fact is that the better your technique the faster you’ll go at the same or less effort. That’s why elite athletes always build technique (skills) work into their training. And so should you.
The key is to build technique drills into your regular training. Here are some examples:
• During your swim warm up and cool down include kick on side drills to improve body position and catch-up and single arm drills to improve stroke power;
• During your easier rides shift to a lower gear two or three times for five minutes and spin at a higher cadence;
• During your easy runs incorporate four to ten sets of high knee and/or kick-butt drills.
Habit #3: Short Speed All the Time: Short speed work is one of the most effective ways to build your fitness and get faster. It also has the added benefits of improving your technique and, frankly, it’s just fun to go fast! The best way to do this is to incorporate it into your training regularly and keep it short…7 to 10 second bursts.
For example, during your ride you might do a ten second burst every two minutes and repeat it five, ten, or twenty times depending on the ride duration and your fitness level. A favorite of mine on the run is to do four to ten sets of kick-butt drills followed by a ten second burst every couple of minutes.
If you’re just starting your training then give yourself a couple of weeks before you build in this short speed work and increase slowly to avoid injury.
Habit #4: Eat to Train, Don’t Train to Eat: Proper fueling is important whether your reason for taking up triathlon is weight management or high performance. While there’s lots of information floating around about the right triathlon training diet, the most important thing to remember is that no single diet plan works for everyone. Each of us is bio-individually unique, with different genetics, cultures, metabolic rates, physical demands, and much more. If anyone tells you that there is just one perfect diet for all triathletes to follow, run away. Fast.
Instead, focus on fueling your training with whole foods first, like fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats (if you want to know what a healthy fat is, be sure to check out Miriam’s video here). Curtail your reliance on processed foods and wheat products like breads, cereals, pasta, and pizza, especially during your base aerobic building phase because it will help your body learn to burn fat more efficiently for fuel.
Remember triathlon training puts a lot of demands on your body both mentally and physically so feed yourself well and you’ll enjoy the journey more.
Habit #5: Consistency is King: Triathlons are very demanding and they get exponentially harder as the distance increases. It takes a lot of triathlon specific fitness to achieve your potential so be consistent in your training: Take your time, build a solid fitness foundation, establish good training habits, and step up the volume and intensity of your training slowly. Do this and you’ll have more fun and likely spend a lot less time sitting on the couch nursing frustrating injuries.
Habit #6: Give Yourself a Break: A common refrain overheard at the start of every race is, “I should have trained more!” Don’t let this be you.
Show yourself some compassion and learn to talk to yourself as if you were coaching someone else: Be positive and encouraging. Remind yourself that everyone from the pro’s on down the line harbor doubts about whether they should’ve done more to prepare. That’s just human, we all do it, and it’s okay.
Bonus Habit #7: Have FUN!
I’ve never met anyone who accidentally did a triathlon; participation is voluntary. You chose this sport because you wanted to get fit, love the variety and challenge of training, enjoy the community, or perhaps for something deeply personal and meaningful to you.
Regardless of your reason, enjoy the process and have fun.
Neglecting Your Nutrition is Risky Business
This infographic is based on hidden dangers of belly fat and ways to eat healthy in order to slim down and speed up. Let me know what you think and if you like it please share it. (click the graphic to view in full size)
How to Beat Race Day Stress
Over the years I’ve talked with and observed a countless number of athletes while they were milling around the transition area waiting for the race to start. Rarely has anyone said they feel fully prepared to tackle the day.
More often you’ll hear worry; that they should have logged more training so they’d feel confident when the gun goes off. The longer they talk the higher their stress levels go.
A couple of years ago while I was volunteering at a race I saw firsthand what fear induced stress can do. A woman who had entered the Tri-Rocks San Diego race became so frightened that she literally froze as she got close to the water. She was so terrified, she couldn’t move! A couple of volunteers had to assist her back to the medical tent and get her calmed down in case she passed out.
While some nervousness is to be expected and can have a positive impact, too much can ruin your big day. Seeing this athlete reminded me why it’s so important to have a strategy to manage your stress when your mental gremlins try to take over. After all, it’s race day. Your training is done, and the gun is about to go off… it’s time to focus on having the best day possible.
Below are some simple ways you can use your body and direct your self-talk to make a positive impact on your race performance. And, maybe more importantly, you can use these tactics to have more fun out there on the course, too.
Get in the Moment
Being fully present is one of the best ways to tame your nerves and conserve valuable energy.
To get in the moment take some deep breaths to get calm and focus on relaxing each part of your body. Be sure to remind yourself about all the work you put in to get ready for this day.
While this is one the most effective ways to calm yourself it can be a lot easier said than done, especially in our always connected, highly distracted world. It will take practice. Just 5 minutes a day in the final weeks leading up to the race can make a big difference.
Use Your Body to Change Your Thoughts
The easiest way to change the negative picture in your head is to smile.
I learned this in my first Ironman. Someone had written something funny on a sign and posted it near the end of the first lap of the bike course. It just made me laugh and for the rest of the day I couldn’t get that amusing sign out of my head. It actually made my whole race experience more fun… so much that I couldn’t wait to get out there and do it again.
Maybe you can stash a joke book in your transition bag to pick through to help get you in the right frame of mind. Or carry a photo of something you find funny or makes you feel happy. Amping up the giggle factor in your head can go a long way to calming the nerves and will help your performance too.
You can also strike what Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy calls the wonder woman pose for a couple of minutes before the race starts. Your goal is to mimic the identical “fist-on-the-hips” pose as the fictional TV superhero for 2 full minutes. This may sound a little strange but it’s a well-researched way to get your body to release testosterone into your system which can give you a nice little confidence boost prior to jumping in the water.
Another well-researched tactic is to combine physical triggers with race milestones to build personal positivity. It could be as simple as a little fist pump or thumbs-up as you pass each turnaround buoy and aid station. The purpose is to congratulate yourself, which will help keep you positive and moving forward. For best results add a short phrase like ‘well done’ or ‘good job’ with the physical trigger.
Tell Yourself What You Need to Hear
Most writing on self-talk focuses on how to either silence your internal critic or how you need to be more positive in the way you speak to yourself. While both are important the real key is to pick the type of self-talk that will directly benefit you at that moment in time.
Motivational self-talk helps to keep you focused and moving forward. Phrases like ‘you got this’, ‘you go girl’, or ‘I love this stuff’ fall into this category. There are no rules just whatever fires you up and gives you the lift you need to keep your feet moving or helps you increase your pace.
Self-talk can also be technique focused. Repeating phrases like’ high elbow’ during the swim or ‘quick feet’ during the run can be a very effective way to keep you in the moment and focused on your form instead burning valuable mental cycles on how much farther you still have to go. I find this tactic particularly useful coming out of T2 where thinking about how far you have to run can feel overwhelming.
Pick out one or two of these tactics and give them a try in your next race. I am confident that they’ll help you perform better and have a less anxiety-filled experience.
That’s it for this week. Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.
Seven Steps to Triumph at Your Next Triathlon
Do you want to shuffle to the finish line or finish strong at your next race?
If you’re like me then you want to kick butt and collect your finisher’s T-shirt and medal knowing you came prepared and gave it your all. This means you’ll have to do more than log the minimum swim, bike, and run training to ensure you make it to the finish line. You’ll need a plan that’s specifically designed to get the most out of the training time you have available. And then diligently execute it!
Doing this takes commitment, passion, and focus. But that’s true for anything meaningful you want to accomplish in life, isn’t it?
To get started, here are 7 crucial questions to answer:
Do You Know What You Want? What is the tangible outcome you want to achieve? This is about your dreams and not about SMART goals. Do you want to win your age group at your next race? Or maybe you were the homecoming queen in high school and you want to shed that extra padding clinging to your back side before next summer’s high school reunion. There are no rules other than to make sure that what you want is deeply meaningful to you!
Do You Know Why You Want It? This may sound the same as what you want but it’s not. Why you want what you want is the source of your intrinsic motivation. It’s that emotional fire in your belly that connects you to your deep desires so you get out of bed day after day ready to train. Maybe the reason you want to win your age group is to serve as a role model for your children. Or you want to make sure your old high school pals don’t whisper behind your back about how cute you used to be before you got so big. Whatever your reason, remember it’s about you and how you feel.
Where Are You Now? Now that you know where you want to go, it’s time to take a hard look at where you are right now. What are you willing to do, to give up, or to change in order to accomplish your dreams? Getting clarity on the gap between where you are and what you want to achieve is the starting place for taking small steps that progressively move you forward.
Tip: Build positive momentum by measuring backwards… focus on how much you’ve accomplished not how far you have to go!
Do You Have What You Need? Triathlon is a demanding sport so before you create your training plan get a handle on the list of resources that will support your success. If you’re new to triathlon and unsure what you need then ask someone who is in the sport some questions. Meantime, at a very minimum, consider the following:
♦ Do you have enough training time to achieve your goals? Your days are already full so that means you’ll have to stop doing some things in order to fit it in. Piling triathlon training onto an already busy schedule rarely works for long haul.
♦ Do you have the financial resources to effectively participate in the sport? The cumulative expense of equipment, race fees, travel, etc., can be significant so be prepared.
♦ Do you have access to training routes and facilities? Safe cycling and running routes and quality swimming facilities are key to your success so know what you have to work with.
♦ Are there experts available to help you quickly shore-up your weaknesses and improve your technique?
Do you know how to build your plan? Crafting a plan that’s customized to your life is more art than science. While all training plans have common features, such as key workouts and rest days, it’s essential to adapt it to your situation and personality in a way that gets you tri-fit and that’s fun for you. Here are a few important steps to help you get started.
♦ Always start with the end in mind; write the “A” races in your calendar first so you have your timeline sketched out from the start.
♦ Next, build in key workouts such as long run, bike, and swim days…this usually applies more to IM 70.3 & IM distance races.
♦ If you’re going to include lower priority races into your schedule, then jot them into the plan next.
♦ Now begin to detail what you intend to do each day. Personally I like to work with a three-week training cycle where I have one full day off each week and every third weekend focused on recovery.
Understand that no plan that covers weeks and months will survive the reality of your day-to-day life. Stay flexible because things will happen that impact your ability to train. Expect it, adjust to it, and move on.
Do you need to share your plan? It’s rare that your decision to take up triathlon only impacts your life. Before you commit all your free time to training be sure to review your plans with people whose support you’ll need in the weeks and months ahead. There are lots of great reason to do this early in your planning process. Here are a couple:
♦ Most of us get a much-needed reality check when we share our plans with family and friends. If they’re not buying what you’re selling, then you’ll need to resolve this before you go any further. Without their help and support things can get ugly fast.
♦ This is your chance to avoid or minimize any schedule conflicts and ultimately limit any drama that might pop up.
Are You Ready to Change? What you do every day determines your success in triathlon. If you haven’t already established solid training habits, then it’s time to start. The bottom line is that almost all change fails so it’s important to start small and build positive momentum if you want the change to stick!
Start by listing one or two activities you’re going to focus on each week and get to it. Here are a few questions to get you thinking:
♦ Do you have a morning routine that supports your goals? Something as simple as consistently logging a 20-minute run or spending 10 minutes stretching will get you moving in the right direction.
♦ Are you properly fueling your body to meet your training demands? You’re putting a lot of stress on your body so quality nutrition is a must…don’t use the training as a reason to eat a bigger piece of cake!
♦ Are you carving sleep time out of your schedule to make time for training? This is common and wrong…you need more rest not less so your body and mind can properly recover.
If you take the time to go through these seven steps, you can expect to finish strong and have more fun at your next race.