February 6, 2018

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!




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