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.

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.

Use Play & Positivity to Perform

Do you have fun when you head out for a run?  When you think about going out for a three hour ride does it bring a smile to your face and make you feel good inside?  These are some of the first questions I ask athletes that I work with.  Here’s why.

It’s tough to get good at something that you don’t like.  And since participation in triathlon is strictly voluntary, if you don’t enjoy the training then you have to ask yourself why you would take on such a time consuming, complex sport?

Now by fun I don’t mean “laughing at a good joke” kind of fun.  What I’m referring to is the smile that creeps onto your face when you race to the nearest sign post.  Or the positive feelings you get when you think about spending the day chatting with your friends as you ride through the countryside.

Fun Drives Frequency:  Frequency Drives Fitness

Triathlon fitness isn’t something that just happens to you or that you’re born with.  It’s a result of consistent, focused training over time so you’ll likely need more than the promise of an external reward like a finisher’s shirt to keep you motivated.  You need that fire in the belly that drives you to get out and train day after day and keeps you in it for the long haul.  The joy you get from training and the satisfaction you get from tackling hard routines is the path to performance improvement.

This positive mindset toward triathlon training and racing isn’t something anyone can hand to you in a training plan.  It’s an attitude that only you can create and cultivate from the inside out by finding joy in the process.  The more ways you can make it fun for yourself the shorter and more satisfying your path to success in triathlon regardless of how you define it.

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”
Vincent van Gogh

Mr. van Gogh may not be the best person to quote when talking about building fun into your training but his words are profound.  Finding ways to build play into your training and then taking a moment to connect with your positive feelings are small things that can have a huge impact over time.  Here’s an example from my own training to give you an idea how this works.

When I was a kid I loved to play outside and much of that outside time was spent wandering and skipping through the woods surrounding my neighborhood.  For me skipping is play because it brings back enjoyable memories of carefree times.  And as luck would have it it’s also a very effective strength-building running plyometric exercise.

That’s why I regularly build skipping into many of my runs, except for very easy recovery runs.  Sometimes I skip for height and other times for distance.  It’s a simple, playful activity that’s easy to work into a run and the best part is it doesn’t take any additional time.  Little by little the skipping builds run specific strength, which translates into faster run splits as the season goes on.  But that’s just the play side of things. There’s a second step that was missing that I now have added.

When I get to the end of my run I stop and take a moment to positively connect to the run.   This is a very simple practice that takes literally no time (10-20 seconds) and, in my experience, can noticeably step-up your desire to get out and train more often.

Here’s how it works.  At the end of your workout before you dash off to your next task take a few moments to let yourself feel good about the session you just logged.  Simply take a few deeps breaths, genuinely congratulate yourself, smile, and let yourself feel the satisfaction of moving one step closer to your goals.  That’s all it takes.

The positive effect of this small activity on your motivation will not be immediate because that’s not the way positive emotions work.  Unlike negative emotions that have specific responses, such as flight, fight, or freeze, positive emotions are much broader in nature and slower to develop.  And as such it will take more time for them to work their magic and build the neural networks that will in time connect your training to a positive mindset that can transform your motivation to train into a solid habit.

So if you only do one new thing this season practice connecting to your positive feelings for a moment at the end of each work out.  If you want to push the envelope, find ways to build more play into your training, like doing a little skipping during your run, and you’ll find it easier to feel more positive about your training and, ultimately, you’ll just have more fun.

The cost is minimal and the benefits are better fitness, higher levels of intrinsic motivation, and best of all more joy in your day.  Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

How to Pedal Like a Pro… Almost

No matter how good a cyclist you are, most people are highly inefficient when it comes to turning calories into power and speed.  Cycling efficiency runs between 20%-25%, which means 75%-80% of the energy you burn while cycling is lost to radiated heat.  Unless your athletic background includes years as a pro cyclist then you’re likely closer to the bottom of the range.

The reason it’s important to improve your cycling efficiency, or economy, is because it’s a direct predictor of your overall race performance, especially in longer races.  And the key benefit is pretty straight forward:  You’re faster with less effort and can reserve more energy and leg strength for the run.

So how do you step up your cycling economy?  The single best way to get better at turning the pedals is to ride more, which is certainly why pro cyclists are the most economical.  But if adding high volume cycling to the long list of triathlon activities you need to work on isn’t a realistic option then you need to shift your focus to more time efficient methods.

Improve Your Pedal Stroke

Improving your pedal stroke is one of the easiest ways to get more out of your time on the bike.  When you smooth out your stroke you get more out of each revolution because you slightly extend the power phase… the area from 12-6 o’clock.  Considering that you turn the pedals 5,000 to 6,000 times per hour every little improvement can add up.

This is where cycling drills, such as single leg drills, fast spin sets, and spin-ups, usually come in.  All are very good and should be built into the warm and cool down of every bike trainer session to gradually improve your pedal stroke.  The challenge is that these drills are all short in duration and take a long time to make a measureable impact.

So how can you close the gap between your pedaling efficiency and the pros faster without adding lots of time to your training schedule? By simply building training sessions with a specific focus on pedal stroke regularly into your weekly training plan. Best of all?  Because this is strictly intended as an aerobic workout you can build it into your training regardless of where you are in your training season.  Here’s the drill.

1 Hour Cadence Training Session: 

  • Warm up for 10 minutes.  Include a couple of easy single leg drills and fast spins.
  • First Set:  Start with your cadence at 90RPMs in a moderate gear and increase it by 2RPMs every 2 minutes for 18 minutes then spin easy for 2 minutes.
  • Second Set:  Start with you cadence at 92RPMs in a moderate gear and increase by 2RPMs every 2 minute for 14 minutes and then 2 minutes easy spin.
  • Third Set:  Start with your cadence at 94RPMs in a moderate gear and increase 2 RPMs every 2 minutes for 12 minutes and finish the hour with 2 minutes easy spin.

For obvious reasons you’ll need a cadence meter and it should only be done on a trainer because it’s easier to control and safer than dodging traffic.  If you’re a bit time challenged then simply cut out a set or two but try to get in at least 30 minutes to achieve some benefit from this session.

This routine is one of my favorite aerobic workouts, especially during the base building phase and on active recovery days in between those hard sessions.  For extra credit be sure to set up your running gear so you can finish your workout with a short transition run.  For best results, focus on transferring your cadence work on the bike into a quick cadence on the run.

If you incorporate this workout once or twice a week on your easier days you’ll soon be pedaling like a pro.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

The Secret to Running Across the Finish Line

After participating in and watching hundreds of triathlons, I’ve seen athletes reduced to a slow, painful death march on the run leg. This isn’t an endurance issue; the culprit is lack of strength. In fact, this is the single biggest thing that prevents a powerful triathlon finish.

How Strength Training Powers Performance

  • The first and probably most important reason to strength train is to minimize the risk of injury.  A targeted strength training program not only builds muscle but also strengthens tendons and ligaments that you’re sure to stress as you step up your training.  Simply put, strength training gets you ready faster and reduces the chances of injury.
  • The second reason is to improve your performance.  Increased strength helps you become more economical in your movement patterns, especially for running and biking, so you can resist fatigue longer (versus slowing down toward the end of the race).  Maintaining the same or a faster pace while expending less energy sounds like a pretty good plan to me.
  • Third, it offsets the detrimental effect endurance training has on your strength. This is probably the most overlooked aspect of strength training for endurance athletes. And it’s the most often cited reason to avoid endurance exercise by the anti-endurance training crowd. The simple fact is that long, slow, distance training diminishes your muscle strength. Without strength training to offset this decline you risk what is termed “muscle wasting.”

Wait:  I have to train MORE?

With all the other activities you must do to physically and mentally prepare for triathlon, strength training can often seem one step too far.  Fact is you’re not a bodybuilder so the focus is to get what you need from strength training in the shortest amount of time without impacting the hours you’ve reserved for swimming, biking, and running.

The secret is to focus your strength training to gain strength, power, and athleticism with exercises that specifically complement your sport.

Triathlon-Specific Strength Routine

Your strength training should match the training phase you’re in to maximize your results. In other words it needs to be periodized just like your other training and nutrition.  To keep it simple we’ll organize strength training into three progressive, overlapping phases.

Note:  If you’ve never lifted or you haven’t lifted for a while then it’s a very good idea to meet with a certified strength trainer before you jump into strength training.  A strength trainer can help you evaluate any weak areas, review form and technique, and establish key training benchmarks, such as your one rep maximum, so you progress in a safe, effective manner.

Phase I – Preparation

First is the preparation (prep) phase, which is sometimes called the Anatomical Adaptation (AA) phase.  The main focus of this phase is to prepare your body to tackle more rigorous strength training in the next phase where you’ll make your real strength gains.

A typical prep strength phase consists of lifting two to three times a week for three to six weeks. Start with moderate weights and higher repetitions (1-3 sets x 20 reps) in order to get your muscles used to lifting weights.  Focus on multi-joint exercises (squats, single leg squats, leg presses, lat pull-downs, push-ups, seated rows) that specifically benefit triathlon training and racing.

You can also add some instability to improve your total body fitness and athleticism.  Single-leg body weight squats and lat pull-downs standing on a pillow or Bosu and push-ups with your hands on pillows or an inverted Bosu are just a couple of examples of how you can get more from your strength training without adding additional time.  Remember this is simply an adjustment period for your body! Progress gradually so you avoid injuring yourself.

Phase II – Strength and Power

Phase two is the maximum strength and power phase, which takes place during your early aerobic base building.  This is where you’ll make your biggest gains and it should last from six to twelve weeks.  The beginning of this phase is transitional because you need to progressively build toward lifting heavier weights.  It’s also important to understand that strength and power sessions are two different types of workouts; for best results you should do one of each during a normal week of training.

  • The goal of a strength workout, of course, is to increase your overall strength. In this session after a couple of warm-up sets you’ll push heavy weight (80%-85% of one rep max) for 2-3 sets x 5-6 reps; the speed of each repetition is slow to moderate.
  • A power workout differs in that it incorporates more speed into the lifting. After a couple of warm-up sets you’ll do 2-5 sets x 6-10 reps timed with a short rest.  The sets are performed at a lower weight (50%-60% of one Rep Max) and the speed of each rep is quick.

I suggest that you save the strength workout for the end of a day before your day off.  After such a rigorous strength session it’s tough to ride or run the next day. If you do it before your day off make sure your next non-strength training session is an active recovery day and don’t be afraid to reduce the duration in order to manage fatigue and minimize the risk of injury.

Note:  This phase should be incorporated into your training prior to your highest-volume base phase because it’s very difficult to maximize your strength gains in conjunction with high volume base training.

Phase III – Maintenance/Completion

Third is the maintenance/completion phase, which is focused on sustaining the strength gains you made in Phase II.  You’ll continue with this strength training until a week or two before your key race and ideally do one or two sessions a week.  Unlike the max strength phase you won’t be lifting to exhaustion because your focus is to translate your strength gains from the previous phase into higher power output in your swim, bike, and run.  A typical session will consist of 2-3 sets x 10 reps with the final set at 80% of your one rep max and the speed of each rep is moderate.

If you want to whiz by your peers and run across the finish line in your next triathlon, make strength training your new best buddy and get ready to make some real performance gains. You’ll be surprised and delighted by the results.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

Three Swim Drills I Do That Boost My Open Water Confidence

Making the move from pool to open water swimming can be a major challenge, especially when hundreds of your closest friends show up and join you. The key is to build specific activities into your training plan that will make the transition as seamless as possible.

Of course the best thing you can do is to swim as much as possible in the open water.  This allows you to practice using large landmarks like buildings or hilltops to swim straight.   And you get the additional physical and psychological benefits of swimming continuously without having to stop and turn at the wall.

Since most of us don’t have that option, though, there are some easy-to-implement drills you can do in the pool to be a better open water swimmer.  And best of all you can do them without adding any additional time!

(P.S. While there’s not much you can do to simulate bodies swimming all around (and over) you, get more comfortable swimming with groups by training with a water polo team, jump in a crowded lane at your local masters swim group, join a triathlon swim group, or get a couple of friends to regularly swim next to you in the lane while you do laps).

Three Simple Drills for Better Open Water Performance

1. Move Away From the Wall:  Deep water starts are pretty common in triathlon and even if it’s a beach start you may find yourself stopped during the swim and need a way to get quickly back into rhythm.  Practice deep water starts by moving away from the wall a few yards so you can’t use the wall to push off.  Allow your body to settle somewhere between vertical and horizontal just like you would right before the gun goes off. Take off quickly and get into your rhythm and swim at least a full lap before stopping.  Do anywhere from 6 to 10 repetitions at least once a week in the last 6 or 8 weeks before your key race.

2. Play with Some Speed:  Fartlek just means speed play and it’s an excellent way to mimic what really happens out there during the swim.  Whether you need to swim around a slower swimmer or pick up the pace to draft another person or group it’s easy to build this into your regular swim training without adding any time.  For example during your weekly long swim sessions, such as 2-4 x 500s, 800s, or 1,000’s, really crank-up the pace for short bursts anywhere from 25 to 100 yards and then settle back into your planned session pace. For best results be sure to start when you’re away from the wall in order to simulate being in the open water as much as possible.  It’s also a good idea to occasionally stop during one of these repeats just like might happen during your race swim so you can practice a deep water start and a little speed play at the same time.

3. Hold Your Head Up and Look:  Unlike using the lane lines under the water in a pool, in order to swim straight in the open water you have to use things above the water to get your bearings. An easy way to do this is to throw one or more water polo balls or volleyballs in the lane with you and every 5 or 10 strokes lift your head and find it. This teaches you the habit of quickly sighting an object, like a course buoy, floating on the water from water level.  If you practice this regularly you’ll get more proficient at quickly lifting your head, sighting, and getting back into swim rhythm.  For extra credit it’s a good idea when you swim up on the ball to take a few strokes pushing the ball down the pool like you would in water polo. This will require you to keep your head up for a few strokes just like you are likely to do in the open water when those waves make it difficult to see the buoys from the water line.

If you build these drills into your swim training 6-8 weeks before your next race you’ll arrive more confident for your open water start. Sometimes just knowing that you’ve trained for some of the “unknowns” you may face in the race can calm the mind and help you easily take on whatever the day delivers.

That’s it for this week until next time train safe, stay healthy, and I hope to see you at the races.

On Race Day It All Comes Down to a Run

The swim start may scare you but the run is where the real suffering happens if you’re not prepared.

Most people focus on what to do in training but knowing how to save your legs for the run during the race is critical.  I’ve seen both training-challenged and super prepared athletes reduced to a shuffle well before the finish line.

How does this happen?  And more importantly what can you do to avoid the dreaded death march on race day?

Bottom line is this:  Your ability to resist fatigue has to do with making smart moment to moment choices… specifically, choices that keep you moving forward at a sustainable pace without unnecessary spikes in effort.

Here are a few common mistakes that athletes make on race day that lead to failure on the run.

Going out too hard at the swim start:   Hammering it for the first 200 or so yards and then settling into your race pace is a common strategy.  That’s fine if you trained for it and actually do settle into a pace you can handle.  If you haven’t, you can easily put yourself into oxygen debt which will force you to slow down and recover.  This wastes valuable energy for no gain.

High kick rate in the swim:  A good, rhythmic kick is an important part of your stroke. Unless you have a particularly strong kick, however, increasing the rate won’t add much to your swim speed and can lead to early fatigue.

Ride above your pay grade on the bike:  When other competitors flash by you it’s easy to let your competitive nature drive you to push a higher pace.  But unless this is a training race and you’re purposely riding harder than you trained to test your fitness, you’re setting yourself up for an extra-long, frustrating day.  You can’t out race your training.

Try to make up for lost time:  Imagine this: You’re on track for a personal record with a Kona slot fully in sight.  Suddenly you get a flat and to make matters worse the tire change goes badly.  After 20 long minutes you’re back on course and you decide to pick up the pace in hopes of reducing the lost time only to find your legs shot when you head out on the run.  Oh yeah.  This happened to me.

Bolt out on the run like a pro:  Running too hard in the first half of the run can easily leave you hanging on for dear life when you turn for home on the second half.  Going too hard too quickly slows the normal adjustment your body must make to effectively transition to efficient running form.

Now that you know what NOT to do, here’s what you should do instead:

Focus on your breath:  Yes, I know you were planning on breathing throughout the day.  But this is about focusing on taking deep breathes when the gun goes off.  This will help you avoid spiking your heart rate, which is likely creeping up a bit from the excitement of the moment.   Deep breathing will also help you to stay in control and build into a solid swim pace at a comfortable effort.

Ride one gear easier than you can hold:  This tactic lets you build into your pace without over stressing your body during the transition from swimming to riding.  It works particularly well in long course races because physically and psychologically you’re building momentum and you can count on having more in the tank as the day goes on.  Combine this tactic with good pacing and you’re well on your way to a faster run split.

Spin more in the last few miles:  When that “horse to the barn” syndrome sets in its hard not to push big gears to finish the bike leg FAST.  Try instead to increase your cadence up to 90 RPMs or more in those last few miles to loosen your legs and prepare them for quicker turnover in the run.

Stretch before T2:  In those last few miles take a moment to stretch out your back and calf muscles.  Just stand up and lean your hips forward to loosen your back muscles and then drop each pedal one at  time to the 6 o’clock position and push your heel down to lengthen your calf muscles.  This will make it a little easier to jump off your bike, dash into T2, and transition to an upright running position.

Focus on fast leg turnover first:  If you want a faster run leg you need to start with a higher leg turnover.  The reason is simple because after the swim and bike your legs will be tired and your stride shorter.  Your best weapon at this point is a quick cadence that uses your cardio system more than your leg strength.  That way you have a better chance of holding your pace through the second half of the run.

Talk to yourself…Positively:  To help you get into a good run rhythm it’s a good idea to have something in your quiver that gets you focused.  You can count your breaths, repeat a word or phrase like “quick” or “smooth and strong” to yourself, repeatedly count from one to four, hum or sing a favorite song, and by all means smile!  Remember there’s no right or wrong; there’s only what works for you.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

How to Get an Edge Right Before the Gun Goes Off

Do you typically turn into a head-case at the start line?

If so, take heart:  you are not alone!  Race morning is stressful. You shuffle with all your swag into the transition area along with hundreds of athletes all at the same time.  Everyone is hunting down a little personal space to set up their gear among the overburdened bike racks, trying to locate body markers and port-a-potties while praying for short lines all the way around.

Then as you finally make your way to the start line, the head games begin:  it seems like ALL the other athletes (especially those in your age group) look fitter and more confident than you.  Before you know it, full-scale fretting begins, the doubts start to mount and anxiety levels rise.

So how can you turn this thing around quickly and go out and enjoy your big day?  The key is to take three breaths to make the shift.

What’s the Secret to Three Breaths?

Thomas Crum describes the stress reducing effectiveness of using three breaths in his appropriately-titled book “Three Deep Breaths”.   These breaths do several things in order to get calm, present, and help you dial down your relentless inner critic.  Secondly, by appreciating all the work you’ve done and affirming that you’re here by choice you can set yourself up to have a much more positive experience.

Shift from Jittery to Poised in Three Breaths

On race morning, you need to shut down that negative mental rant in your head and shift your thoughts into a positive, self-supportive direction.  The reason for this is pretty simple:  negative thoughts create negative emotions, which narrow your actions down to a fight, flight, or freeze response.  Positive thoughts on the other hand create positive emotions.  These feelings allow you to be present and optimistic, both of which precede success no matter how you define it.

And let’s face it:  being positive is just more fun for you and everyone around you!

I’ve created a variation of Crum’s scientifically-based breathing technique for triathletes below:

Breath 1:  Take a deep, relaxing breath and put a big smile on your face while you do it.  Not one of those fake super model grins but a genuine Duchenne, a full-on smile that pushes your face up and causes crinkles around your eyes.  This deep breath is the place all high performers operate from, because it will calm you and bring you into the present moment, too.  This smile will also drive out those unproductive, nasty hormone-releasing negative thoughts.

Breath 2:  To the best of my knowledge no one has ever accidentally done a triathlon!  Now take your second deep, relaxing breath and remind yourself that you chose to be here.  Your participation in triathlon is strictly voluntary and you have control over how you’ll tackle the race.  Acknowledging this simple fact sets you up to have the best day possible because it really is one of the few times in life when you CAN, in fact, own everything you choose to do for the next several hours.  Delight in the control.

Breath 3:  Take a third deep, relaxing breath and show yourself some compassion.  Shift your thoughts away from what you didn’t accomplish during training and prime your performance by reminding yourself of all the hard work you DID put in to get to the start line.  Focus on how much you’ve grown and what it means to be among the select few in the universe that, like you, did the hard work necessary to be here this morning.

So before the gun goes off breathe (thrice) deeply, get your mind right, and go out and enjoy the day!

That’s it for this week. Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and I hope to see you at the races.



The Biggest Challenge in Getting Swim Fit (Hint: It’s NOT what you think)

When it comes to swimming, I have found that the greatest hurdle for me isn’t that I don’t have a strong background in it (which I don’t), but it’s finding the time to fit it into my already time-challenged life.

You know the drill… drive to the pool, walk from the parking lot into the locker room, change into your swim suit, warm-up (optional but advised), actually do the swim workout, shower and change, drive to the next destination, maybe grab some food en route, and then get on with the rest of your day. 

All this unproductive time limits how often you can get into the water and, more importantly, your ability to become a better swimmer.

So if you find yourself feeling a bit stressed about how often you’re getting into the water each week and a move closer to a pool is not in the cards then here are a few suggestions to help build your swim fitness.   

5 Tips to Swim Better Without Adding Hours

1. Add a more distance.  Build your volume gradually by progressively increasing your swim distance each week.  For example,  if you normally swim 2000 meters/swim then increase your distance to 2100 meters/swim in week one, 2200 meters/swim in week two, 2300 meters/swim in week three and so on. 

2. Mix up your intensity.  Regularly change up your main set by doing short, faster intervals in one session set (8-16×50, 6-12×75) and then the next time do a longer sets (4-8×150, 3-5×300).  Also, mix it up within each swim repetition.  Example:  10×50 where every 50 is (25 easy/25 fast) or 3×300 where each 300 is (25 easy/25 race-pace, 50 easy/50 race-pace, 75 easy/75 race-pace).

3. Perfect practice matters most.  There’s no such thing as getting too efficient in the water so always build body position (kick on side) and power/stroke (catch-up, single arm, fist) drills into your warm up & cool down during each swim.  The more efficient you are the less energy you’ll use, which will serve you well later in the race.  Drills are a great way to add that extra 100-200 to each swim.

4. Get it on film.  Observing how you move through the water can be a real education.  Have someone video you from the front, side, and back while swimming.  Then compare your video to a top swimmer on and focus on areas to improve.  Look for things like where your hand enters the water, whether you’re swimming flat (minimal hip rotate), whether you’re doing a scissor kick, etc.

5. Swim like a fish.   Use a set of short fins like Zoomers when you’re doing drills to give you a little extra propulsion, when you’re doing short fast sets like 8-20×25, and when you’re doing kicking sets  (except for the breast stroke because the fins will put too much stress on your knees).

3 Dry Land Training Tips When You’re Time-Strapped

1. Build strength with stretch cords.  Make it a goal to get in at least four short stretch cord sessions a week.  Be sure to breakdown the stroke: the frontend catch, full stroke, and backend push through (triceps push back) and log some repetitions, such as 25 frontend catch/50 full stroke/25 push back finish.  Also, focus on perfect form so you get the extra benefit of honing your technique while you’re building swim specific strength.  For an extra bonus, stand on pillows or a Bosu to build core stability while you’re at it.

2. Lengthen tight muscles.  Tight ankles, shoulders, and hips limit your ability to get longer and smoother in the water.  When you’re doing your daily stretch routine pay special attention to these key areas to achieve greater range of motion and, ultimately, longer distance per stroke.

3. Visualize a smooth swim.  Your imagination is a very powerful training tool and far too often it’s way under-utilized.  If you spend a few minutes several times a week visualizing yourself being smooth and relaxed while swimming it will help you get the most out of your time at the pool. 

It takes great technique and high frequency/volume to develop true swim specific fitness.  If you just can’t seem to get to the pool as often as you like, these tactics should help you more quickly build your confidence in the water leading up to your next race.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

How to Prime Your Performance in the Off-Season

Avid triathletes focus on athleticism, building strength, or improving their swim, bike or run skill during their downtime. But there’s an even easier way to fast-track performance in the off-season and the best part is you don’t even have to break a sweat doing it.

The method to become a better triathlete is to “prime your mind.”

Psychological priming involves increasing your awareness through exposure to a specific motivation or stimulus.  Here’s what I mean.  Think back on a time where you bought a certain make, model, and color of car (the prime).  Ever notice how all of the sudden you start seeing the same car much more frequently than you did before?  That’s a form of priming.

There’s been a lot of research over the years in on how to use priming to change your behavior. One of the more interesting studies was done on, believe it or not, superheroes.

In this study the researchers wanted to find out if they could get psychology students to do more volunteer work so they had a test group write up a short essay on the characteristics of superheroes (they chose superheroes because they typically help people without regard to their own personal gain). The control group was given an assignment to write an essay about things around their apartment.  What they found between the two groups was fascinating.

Those who wrote about superhero characteristics were four times more likely to volunteer compared to the control group. This occurred even though the students in both groups were considered to be equally predisposed to doing volunteer work at the start of the study, which is crucial to getting a fair comparison when it comes to priming.

You see, priming can only work if it builds on what you already want to do or believe. 

If, for example, you’re a weak swimmer and you know you need to swim more to get better but you really don’t like to swim then writing an essay about the characteristics of great swimmers won’t help and, even worse, it might actually have the opposite effect.  The reason for this is simple.

Your unconscious mind may have acquired different goals than the ones you consciously wrote down… in fact, you may not even be aware of these goals.  An example from my own experience is when I go off on an easy run or ride and someone passes me before I know it I’m picking up my pace without any conscious decision to do so on my part.  Being passed fires up my competitive goals that lay in wait in my unconscious.

Priming can work for you, too, especially if you’ve decided to do triathlons and are predisposed to improving your performance.

Before Setting Goals, Start Here

Here’s how can you use priming to improve your triathlon performance next season.

Write up a short essay on the characteristics of a competitive age-group triathlete; someone who consistently finishes in the top five or ten in their age-group. If you don’t know anyone who falls into this category check out some triathlon industry magazines for ideas or you can just come up with these traits on your own based on how you think these athletes behave.  The only rules are to keep a positive mindset and have fun with it.

Here are some characteristics I pulled from my essay to help get you started:

  • Takes a long-term view and starts training early in the season
  • Establishes solid training habits early
  • Confident that if they do the work they’ll get the result
  • Builds on their strengths and incrementally improves their weaknesses
  • Finds ways to enjoy the process of getting fitter and faster
  • Are masters of their time because they eliminate all but the most valuable activities
  • Consistently finds ways to gain the support of their friends and family

As a practice I review my essay at least once a week to keep me honest about what it’s going to take to crank up my performance.

Is priming guaranteed to crank up your performance next season? Well, that’s entirely up to you. Priming works specifically to create the behavior you want by programming your unconscious mind. There’s a good chance that the success you have with this priming experiment will directly reflect your level of commitment to train consistently and ultimately perform at a higher level next season.  Give it a try and see if it works for you.

After all, what do you have to lose?

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.

Taper Down to Speed Up

Want to know the secret to squeezing out an extra percent or two in performance gains?  No, it’s not some magical elixir or banned performance-enhancing drug. The secret is to rest and recover in a way that lets you maintain fitness while eliminating fatigue.

The peak or taper period is the crucial training phase prior to your “A” race.  Do this right and you’ll set yourself up for a nice bump in performance.  Lucky for us, as the popularity of triathlon has grown so has the research into performance tuning.

Here’s what they’ve discovered:

  • The research has shown that you can consolidate your fitness gains and improve your performance by anywhere from 1% to 6% with 3% being the average.  Depending on your race goals that can be pretty significant amount especially if your focus is long course races.
  • Not all sports are created equal. For the most part it takes longer to recover from running than it does from cycling and it takes longer to recover from cycling than it does from swimming.
  • The biggest adjustment to your training load is a reduction in duration by approximately 40 to 60%. A fast reduction in volume appears to provide the biggest benefit.
  • Training frequency during the taper should be maintained at about 80% for highly trained athletes.  For the “Average Joe,” maintain training frequency at around 30% to 50% of normal to avoid de-training; do a minimum of two training sessions in each sport per week.
  • Sustain your race specific intensity in order to stay fit while you shed fatigue.
  • The taper phase can run anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks with two weeks being appropriate for most triathletes. The key is to make your taper long enough to shake off the cumulative fatigue from earlier training and keep this phase short enough so as not to cause any de-training.

Remember, this research is focused on elite athletes doing a full taper for their key races.  This makes perfect sense when you consider a percentage point in performance could mean the difference between big prize money and none.

Let’s go over how you can adapt what the pros do for your needs.

Power Down

Recovering from mental fatigue is every bit as important as recovering from the physical aspects of training.   Use the space that opens up from reduced training volume to improve both the quality and quantity of your rest with these three strategies:

  • More sleep. Nothing is better for your overall recovery than getting more sack time. Get a minimum of 7 hours of sleep at night and look for ways to build power naps into your schedule.
  • If you haven’t been meditating, now is a good time to start.  Even a few minutes a day can be just as good as a nap.  Some of the greatest triathletes in the world, including Mark Allen, made this a standard part of their training plan.
  • Reduce your consumption of caffeinated drinks and alcohol to help improve the overall quality of your rest.

How To Train

Race simulation type workouts should make up the bulk of your focused workouts during this phase.  These are combination training sessions (swim/bike, swim/run, and bike/run sessions) that as much as possible mimic your race conditions.

The key to these sessions is to keep them short to moderate in duration and close to your intended race pace.  Don’t try to go out and kill it! Your main objectives are to get dialed-in to your race day pace, rehearse your race nutrition, and smooth out your transitions.

Depending on your current fitness you should plan to do one of these race simulation sessions every few days starting two to three weeks before your goal race.  In between the key sessions build in lower intensity training as active recovery or take an extra day off.  Remember your performance gains come from using the shorter more intense training session to stay fit while you eliminate the cumulative fatigue built-up over months of training.

If your confidence is a little shaky in your level of endurance then it’s a good idea to substitute an endurance building session, such as moderate distance aerobic ride immediately followed by a short run, for a race simulation session.

How About Lower Priority Races?

So far all of the attention has gone to tapering for your “A” race.  But what about lower priority races, the so called “B” or “C” races?  Do you need to taper for these races and if so how much?  Well the answer to the first question is yes.   Even for your lower priority races you need to back off but not in the same way.

  1. B Races:  Generally these races are important to you and may even be a test race or single event race where you want to do well.  Consider reducing your training volume and minimize the intensity about a week out from a B race to shed some fatigue.
  2. C Races:  These are low priority races often used as a fun substitute for hard training sessions.  You can train through these races but don’t overdo it.  Back off of your training volume a couple days before the race and minimize the intensity in the week leading into the race.

While these may be low priority remember you almost always go harder in a race.   Be sure to recover from your effort before you load up the intensity again.  Going out with your friends and pushing it in your local 10K on the weekend is lots of fun, and I’m all for it.  But if you try to jump right back into your regular training schedule by heading to the track a few days later you can quickly find yourself injured, mentally burned-out, or over-trained.

That’s it for this week. Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.


How to Breathe Easy In the Swim

If you’re like most triathletes, practicing your swim breathing technique never happens.

This is strange when you consider that it represents the most inefficient part of the stroke cycle!  Yet practicing how to breathe properly during your swim training is every bit as important as other technical swimming drills in order to learn to stay relaxed and conserve valuable energy you’ll need later in the race.

If you lift your head out of the water, over rotate, or even worse just hold your breath until you come up gasping for air then all you’re doing is spiking your heart rate and slamming on the brakes every time you breathe.  That’s why you need to practice how to breathe first in your swim training until efficient swim breathing becomes automatic: Energy management during the swim hinges on smooth, relaxed breathing.

Slow Down and Breathe

Swimming requires full body coordination during your stroke cycle along with your breathing.  To improve your swim breathing use the same stroke drills you normally would.  The only difference is you start with a FOCUS on your breathing.  Once you get comfortable with your breathing during the drill then you’ll be ready to maximize the benefits of that particular drill because you’ll be more relaxed and aware.

Here are two examples to get you started.  Remember start slow:

Single arm drills with non-swimming arm in front:  Start with both arms extended in front of you.  On the first 25 yards keep your right arm extended and only use your left arm to take strokes breathing every 2nd stroke on your left side.  On the second 25 yards keep your left arm extended and use your right arm to take strokes breathing every 2nd stroke on your right side.  Focus on fully exhaling underwater and then only rolling as far as necessary to get a deep breath.

3 stroke kick on side drill:  Push-off from the wall and rotate your body with the left side facing the bottom of the pool.  Extend your left arm and place your left ear on your shoulder.  Your eyes are looking toward the bottom of the pool and slightly forward.  Keep you’re right arm at your side with your fingers pointing toward your feet.  Kick 6 to 8 times then take 3 smooth freestyle strokes starting with your left arm and fully exhale underwater during the 3 strokes.  Take a deep breath on your 3rd stroke and stay on your right side for 6-8 kicks and repeat.  Focus on your breathing 1st to stay relaxed.  By teaching yourself to stay relaxed you will be able to swim stronger longer.

To get the most out of these drills it’s usually best to use a set of short fins to help propel you through the water.  Once you are comfortable breathing during each drill then shift your focus to improving your stroke technique and body position in the water.

Breathing On Both Sides

As you probably noticed both of the drills above teach you to breathe on either side.  Why?  Because being comfortable breathing to either side can make or break your day.

Breathing on each side teaches you to take more balanced strokes and allows you to switch comfortably as the situation requires.  This is especially helpful when swimming in the open water where you need to site buoys and often have to avoid getting a mouthful of water from waves or other swimmers.  The bottom-line: it’s a handy survival skill in the chaos of mass swim starts.

If your goal is to become a better swimmer faster then build your swim technique on a foundation of comfortable, relaxed breathing.  This simple – and often overlooked – training tactic can deliver a marked improvement in your swim times, and do wonders for taming stress and panic come race day.


Ways to Save Your Legs for the Run

If you’re like most triathletes the one thing that makes you most anxious about racing (other than the dreaded swim start) is running well off the bike.  The secret is knowing how to save your legs during the bike.  Here are few steps to get you moving in the right direction.

Get Bike Fit First

The number one strategy to run faster is to get bike fit first.  The absence of solid bike fitness will leave you too physically and mentally depleted to snap off a solid run afterward.

Plan to spend about 40%-50% of your training time in the saddle.  Since the bike leg accounts for about half of the overall race time, it stands to reason you need to spend about half your training time on the bike, unless you come from a cycling background.  But there’s a little bit more to it than just going out and spinning your pedals.  To step up bike fitness, focus on frequency.

Cycling 3 or 4 times a week instead of twice minimizes the down time between bike sessions, which accelerates bike fitness and makes you more efficient simply because it improves your pedaling skills.  Your total cycling time for the week doesn’t have to go up dramatically.  Just shorten the bike sessions and do them more often.

This is where a bike trainer can be an invaluable and time efficient piece of training equipment.  A trainer will allow you to log some high quality bike sessions in less time.  If you make this one change, particularly early in the season, you’ll be well on your way to setting yourself up for a stronger run leg.

Learn Your Pace

Next up is to learn how to ride a consistent pace.  Pacing is all about energy management:  The less energy you use on the bike the more you’ll have available when you trade-in that bike for your running shoes in T2.

The key to energy management is to minimize the variance in your effort.  By keeping the variance small you use less energy because your body is able to stay in a consistent rhythm.  When you have large swings in your effort, when you get excited and decide to attack a climb or chase down your friend, for example, then your body is constantly adjusting.  This adjusting wastes valuable energy that can be used more effectively later on in the run.

Learning how to pace is a skill that takes practice and patience. The human body is not a machine; you can’t just set it on cruise control and enjoy the scenery.  It takes a considerable amount of focused effort to get good at it.  To learn your pace during your build phase be sure to include specific pacing sessions at least twice/week on the bike.  During these sessions set a target HR or power output and keep your HR or power output within a tight range of plus/minus 5 BPM or watts for a specific period of time.

Once again, the best and safest ways to do this is on a bike trainer.  Include blocks of time, such as 2-3 x 5 to 20 minutes where you focus on controlling your pace.  Start small and stretch out the duration as your skill improves.  Also, as you become more proficient, change gears and vary the cadence to simulate what it’s likely to be like out on the race course.

Only one session/week should be a race paced effort.  Keep all other bike pace practice sessions aerobic.  Focus on your breathing during these sessions and compare it to your HR or power output.  Soon you’ll be able to effectively use your breathing rate as a way of gauge your effort during your race.

Train Your Body and Your Brain

Running well off the bike just like pacing takes practice.  The fact is the more often you run immediately after cycling the more physically AND mentally confident you’ll be in your ability to run off the bike.

Not every session should be a hard run, however. You need intense and frequent bike/run sessions.

Add your high intensity bike/run sessions in the last few weeks/months leading up to your key race but limit this to once per week.  Keep your other runs off the bike short (10, 20, 30 minutes) and at a relaxed pace.  Do this early and often in the season to teach your brain how to conserve energy for the run, which will pay huge dividends come race day.  Also, frequent runs off the bike will give you ample time to practice how to quickly get into run rhythm.

Set Yourself Up

During the bike leg a good strategy is to ride the first half one gear easier than you feel you can hold.  This works particularly well in long course races because you know you’re saving energy and it allows you to build momentum gradually as the day goes on.  Combine this tactic with good pacing and you’re well on your way to a faster run split.

Once on the run have a simple strategy to quickly get into run rhythm.  Create a mental checklist to review your equipment, nutrition and hydration status as you head out of T2.  Then focus on a self-talk phrase that quickly gets you in good run form and fast leg turnover.  Your self-talk might be something like repeating smooth or quick to yourself.  Or you might prefer to count steps.  Just find something that works for you.  Practice it in training so it becomes automatic.

With these tactics in hand, plan for a more confident run as you ride into T2.

The Intelligent Guide to Heart Rate Training

A complex sport like triathlon demands that you build swim, bike, and run training into your schedule right along with strength training, stretching, and well, you know, the list goes on and on. Question is, how do you get the most out of the time you have available? The short answer is sparse coding.

Sparse coding is a concept I borrowed from artificial intelligence. Specifically it means you throw away everything except the most pivotal aspects of training.  And in this article, I apply this concept to heart rate training so that you get the biggest bang for your training time and can get on with the rest of your life.

First things first.  If you don’t use pace or heart rate (HR) zones to guide your training then you’re limiting your fitness gains and reducing your performance results.  My goal here is to give you a simple no cost field test you can use to develop pace/HR zones specific to you. Is this the most accurate method?  No.  For that you’ll need to go to a sport’s facility that does LT testing and it’s worth it if your goal is to be competitive in your age-group.  But if your goal is to get more fit and have more fun training and racing then read on.  Because with zones in hand, you can set those elusive daily goals, build your fitness faster, and ultimately perform better on race day.

Get Aerobically Fit First

Since the field tests we’re going to talk about are based on your maximum heart rate you need to make sure you have a good level of aerobic fitness first.  If you’ve been training for at least 4-6 weeks at a conversational pace to develop your aerobic system you can skip this section; otherwise start here.

Why?  Because if you just started your training doing a maximum heart rate test puts you at a high risk for injury, particularly in running.  So depending on your background and current level fitness here’s the simple process you can use to develop your aerobic system.

The process is the Maffetone Method. It’s used by a number of triathlon coaching companies and it’s one I’ve used successfully for years because it’s a safe process and very simple to implement. If you’re 16 years old or younger this method won’t work for you.

  • Subtract your age from 180
  • Add 5 beats per minute (bpm) if you’ve been training at least four times a week for the last two years without any nagging sports related injuries.
  • Subtract five beats if recovering from a minor injury or you’re prone to colds or flus.
  • Add 10 bpm if you’re over 65 years old
  • Subtract 10 beats if you’re recovering from a major injury or operation.

Once you’ve made the any adjustments to your 180 minus your age calculation you have your maximum aerobic training heart rate. Now subtract 10 beats from this number and that will give you your aerobic heart rate training range to use during this aerobic base building block of training.  Here’s an example for a relatively fit 40 year old:

  • 180 – 40 = 140:  140 bpm is the maximum aerobic training HR
  • 140 – 10 = 130:  130bpm is the minimum aerobic training HR
  • 130bpm to 140bpm is the aerobic training HR range

Training in this range might seem too easy at first but if you stay with it consistently you’ll effectively develop your aerobic system and minimize the risk of injury in the process. After you’ve completed a solid block of one to three months of aerobic base training you’ll be ready to shift to more intense build period training and that’s where the Maximum HR field test comes in.

Swim Pace Training

Once you’re ready to build your swim fitness the simplest method is to create zones based on your swim pace. To get started make sure you’re rested and ideally you have someone there to help you keep track of the time and keep you motivated.

Using heart rate in swim training can be very tricky. The simple fact is it’s difficult to wear a heart rate monitor while you’re in the water unless you have a shirt or some type of suit that keeps the chest strap in place. So early on during your base training you might need to stop at the pool wall and check your heart rate to make sure you’re staying within your aerobic zone.

So here’s the test:

  • Warm-up anywhere from 500 or 1000 yards and include some fast 50s
  • Time trial for at least 8 to 10 minutes
  • Determine your average time per 100 yards to establish your Threshold Pace

Your results will look something like this:

  • 600 yards in 9 minutes equals an average of 1:30 per 100 yards:  use this as your base line Threshold Pace to create your training Pace Zones.
  • Zone 1 Pace:  Threshold +5 to 10 seconds:  1:35-1:40/100 yards:  Aerobic base sessions, all drill work, warm up, and cool down.
  • Zone 2 Pace:  From Threshold Pace to +5 seconds:  1:30-1:35/100 yards:  Main set work only.
  • Zone 3 Pace:  From Threshold Pace to -5 seconds:  1:25-1:30/100 yards:  Main set work only.

Once you determine your three Pace zones you can apply them to your swim training sessions based on the goal of that session.  It’s a good idea to retest every 6-8 weeks to reset your Pace zones as your fitness improves.

Zone 1 Training:  Always do your warm up, drill work, cool down at this pace.  During your aerobic base phase the bulk of your training takes place in this zone.  When you transition to your build phase use this Pace zone to add volume and for active recovery.  A sample session main set (MS):  5 x 300 yards w/10-20 second rest interval (RI).

Zone 2 Training:  This is primarily race pace training and the bulk of your main sets during the build period needs to be in this zone.  Sample sessions are:  10-20 x 100 yards w/15-20 second RI, 10 x 200 yards w/15-20 second RI, and 5-10 x 400 yards w/15-20 second RI.

Zone 3 Training:  Because of the intensity these sets should never be more than 5% – 10% of your Main Set swim training. What it will do for you is build your fitness and make that Threshold work seem just a little bit easier. Sample sessions:  8-12 x 50 yards w/40 second RI or 12-20 x 25 yards w/20 second RI.

Bike & Run HR Training Zones

Determining your maximum heart rate on the bike and on the run is very similar. In both cases you’re going to perform a time trial that lasts 10-15 minutes. Once again it’s best to do this with someone who can help out so that you don’t have to keep track of time. You also stay more motivated when someone’s there watching and encouraging you!

For safety and convenience reasons use a bike trainer instead of doing this out on the road. For the run ideally you can do this at a track or some type of course where you can run loops on fairly flat terrain.  As with the swim, warm up thoroughly and include some short fast stuff to get your muscles ready for the test.

Record your HR at the end of the time trial and use it as your maximum heart rate.  Once you have your maximum HR apply the percentages below to create easy to follow training zones.

  • Zone 1: less than 80% of max heart rate:  this is your aerobic training zone.
  • Zone 2: 80% to 90% of max heart rate: this is your threshold training zone.
  • Zone 3:  greater than 90% of max heart rate:  this is your anaerobic training zone.

When organizing your training for either the bike or the run use these training zones to determine your goals for that particular day. As always the bulk of your training, at least 80%, will take place in Zone 1 because you need to maintain your aerobic base while you build your race pace and your body can only take a limited amount of intensity.

Do at least one session a week in each sport during your build training in Zone 2. A sample workout for the bike or run is 3-6 × 5-10 minutes with a two minute rest interval (RI).

Zone 3 work on the bike – should range anywhere from 1 to 4 minutes with 2 to 4 minute RI. Mix these into your training every few weeks in place of zone 2 sessions to increase your capacity to do work and crank up your fitness.  Be careful when you do these sessions because they are very hard and put you at risk of injury, especially running.

Zone 3 work on the run – is generally shorter anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes with 2 to 4 minutes RI. A common session might be 6 to 8 × 400m with 400m RI so you’re fully recovered before your next repetition. Once again be cautious.

Also, be aware that due to the short duration of these maximum efforts HR is not a good indicator.  The reason is because there’s a lag time between the start of your effort and your HR associated with that effort: e.g., for short intervals of less than a minute or two the effort will be over before an accurate HR reading.  So when you do these sets you’ll need to learn how to gauge your effort more by feel or what’s referred to as rate of perceived exertion (RPE).  This will take some time but as you practice training at different effort levels and compare your effort to your HR you’ll quickly learn to read your RPE.

That’s it for this week.  Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.


How to Set Up a Drama Free Swim Start

The swim start can be a pretty scary part of any triathlon and with good reason.  If you’re like most triathletes then your swim training is primarily focused on improving your freestyle swim stroke.  One key aspect to an efficient freestyle stroke is to minimize drag by looking down and slightly forward while you swim.  That means you spend most of your time not looking where you’re going.  Not a big deal when you’re doing laps in the clear pool water.  But when you add poor underwater visibility at many venues and anywhere from a few dozen to a couple of thousand other competitors all bets are off.

So what can you do to keep the swim start from ruining your big day?  The number one thing you can do is come prepared.  This article’s going to cover three key areas to help focus your swim training so you can enjoy your day from the moment the gun goes off.

Confidence Comes with Competency

If you don’t know how to swim then you’re in over your head from the start.  No matter what precautions the race director takes it’s unlikely you’re going to feel comfortable in the water. The fact is you entered a race that begins with a swim and it’s your responsibility to come ready to cover the distance.  So if you can’t swim or have minimal skills then the first step to becoming confident is to crank up your competence.

  • Personal lessons can quickly jump-start your swim training:  Nothing is more effective than some one-on-one coaching when it comes to the swim.  It’s a highly technical sport because it takes place in an unstable environment so just trying harder won’t do.  A swim coach with a video camera can help you identify problem areas and get you focused on the right technique drills to correct them.
  • Skill comes from technique drills:  Technique drills should be built into every swim session.  Early in the season it’s particularly important because you can focus on your swim stroke without the pressure of preparing for an upcoming race.  Swim drills come in two different flavors.  The first is body position drills that get you streamlined in the water. These drills consist primarily of kick on-side drills and focus on getting you long and narrow in the water.  If you have a weak kick it’s best to get a pair of short fins, like Zoomers, to help move you through the water.  The second type of drill is power drills.  Single arm, catch-up, and fist drills are some of the most common.  The goal here is to build your distance per stroke by focusing on how your arm moves through the water in conjunction with rest of your body, particularly your hips.
  • Start Early and Swim Often:  Frequency is the secret to getting better and improving fitness faster.  However, finding the time to increase your swimming can be tough.  Here’s one way to build more stroke time into your program.  Every third week during your base building period focus on swimming.  Try to get anywhere from 3 to 5 swim sessions in during that week. In the other two weeks try to maintain anywhere from 60% to 75% of your swim focus week training volume. That means that during your swim focus week you might swim five times but they might be sessions of 45 minutes. During your non-swim focus weeks get in the water at least twice for an hour to an hour and 15 minutes.  That will allow you to maintain your swim fitness at the current level and focus on your bike or run that week.

Performance Through Dry Land Training

Not all swim training has a place in the water.  You can use stretch cords to improve your swim specific strength and hone your stroke technique.  Get in the habit of using your stretch cords for a few minutes every day and especially before you leave for the pool to warm up your muscles.  Make sure you break the stroke down (the catch, pull, and finish) and practice perfect technique.   Complete the session with 50-100 full stroke repetitions.  If you want to get the most out of these sessions stand on a Bosu or a couple of pillows so you engage the lower half of your body.  Do this consistently and you’ll get measurable serious gains in less time.

Use Your Imagination to Gain an Edge 

Visualize yourself being under control and relaxed at the beginning of the swim on a regular basis in the weeks/months leading up to the race.  The best way to do this is to write out the ideal scenario as you’d like it to happen.  Then read it over until you can close your eyes and easily imagine being there.  The more sensory information you can build in, such as the feel of the water or the sound of the crowd, the better.  It’s a good idea to incorporate some bad things, such as getting kicked or having your goggles knocked off, and see yourself using your breath to stay calm and relaxed while you handle the situation and then go on with your day.

If you follow these three steps there’s no guarantee that you won’t have an incident during the swim.  But there’s a very good chance that whatever happens you can handle the situation calmly.  Remember triathlon racing is a voluntary endeavor.  Show up on race day prepared for the challenge and enjoy the day because if you aren’t having fun what’s the point?

That’s it for this week until next time train safe, stay healthy, and I hope to see you at the races.