October 11, 2017

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!

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