TRIATHLON TRAINING QUICK START GUIDE
What are the triathlon training principles that all good training programs share? Many athletes embarking on their triathlon journey are quick to jump into a training schedule they find online which may be totally wrong for them. In most cases, what I’ve found is that these beginner or intermediate triathletes need an education in sound training principles more than they need to be thrown into a strict training schedule.
That’s why I’ve created this article, which is more of a triathlon training guide than a triathlon training program or schedule. The goal is that by using this guide you’ll be able, over time, to create your own program or schedule without having to rely on others.
The problem with other online triathlon, duathlon, or ironman training programs is that they only consider one side of the developing a sound training plan; they begin with the starting point of where you’re going – your goal race – but they don’t consider where you’re coming from – anything about you as a person and an athlete! These plans do not consider your athletic and training history, injury history, work schedule, any intermediate races on your schedule, and so on.
This is a big problem for online training programs! Furthermore, dividing training schedules into “beginner”, “intermediate”, and “advanced” is not enough to capture your unique, individual situation. In triathlon, as it is said in medicine, prescription without diagnosis is malpractice.
You might see, “24 Week Ironman Training Plan,” “free duathlon training plan”, “10k run training schedule,” and think these are specific to your needs, but they’re not. In short, training schedules like this are completely inflexible. If you miss a few days to illness, have to miss one week of bike training because you’re on vacation; or – better yet – you’re progressing faster than the training plan allows, this will throw the whole plan off. And trust me, something will come up. No one can follow a training plan perfectly.
In this guide, I’m going to show you the training principles you can and should use to develop your own triathlon training plan. Really, these principles could apply to any endurance sport, so these tips will be relevant to duathlon, cycling, and running as well as triathlon. I believe every triathlete, duathlete, marathoner, 10k runner, and cyclist – beginner to advanced – will benefit from understanding and applying these principles. This even applies to athletes who already work with a triathlon, running, or cycling coach such as myself. Everyone can benefit from understanding to a greater degree why they are doing what they’re doing.
The Big Idea
The foundational principle which unites all endurance sports, discovered by Arthur Lydiard of New Zealand, is that humans naturally lack endurance, but with intelligent training, improvements in endurance can be exponential. I truly believe that all endurance athletes can compete at a level beyond their perceived physical limits – everyone can compete “beyond themselves”. When I was a junior in high school, I could run just 1 mile in 4:40. At this time, I never thought I could run this pace for much over a mile. However, just six years later as a senior in college I was able to run this distance for 6.2 miles, for a final 10,000m time of 29:14. This represents a 600% improvement in endurance! These are the types of improvement that should be commonplace and expected, yet unfortunately most endurance athletes never see these types of improvements because they don’t know how to develop their aerobic system to its maximum; in addition, they are often haphazard in periodizing their training schedules.
Coaching greats such as Arthur Lydiard, Phillip Maffetone, and Joe Friel are all in agreement that aerobic development is king, yet so much valuable knowledge is diluted or completely lost when individuals try to put together their own training plan based on information they have received from internet forums, magazine articles, and even the well-meaning advice of training buddies.
Even scientific research can be biased, usually favoring very high intensity training regimens which have success in the short term (6-8 weeks) and which also happens to be the length as most of the studies. Yet these same high intensity, short duration training protocols are the same plans that stunt the long-term development of many an endurance athlete and thieve the fun out of otherwise highly enjoyable activities.
Intelligent training addresses at least 6 elements – (1) base training, (2) lactate threshold, (3) interval training, (4) strength training, (5) speed skill training, and (6) mechanics– at the right time, in the right order, and in the right amount, to optimize potential.
On the macro scale, more athletes would perform better if they periodized their training to a higher degree. In general, I’ve noticed that most triathletes’ training looks really similar throughout the year. However I think by changing the training stress throughout the year most triathletes will get better results. In particular, they would do well to include a multi-month base training period at the beginning of each season, where their aerobic capacity is developed to its maximum.
There is a lot of research that says you can only “go deep,” either in racing or hard workouts, so many times per year and even so many times in an athletic career. You want to save those efforts for when it pays the most dividends; the rest of the time you want to keep your body’s PH balance more alkaline by avoiding “anaerobic,” or all-out interval training.
We need to think about our training intensities like a continuum, with the long, slow stuff on the left and max sprint/force stuff on the right. As you get closer to the middle, this is where intensity “feels” the hardest. During the prep and base phase, you want to avoid those middle intensities, and work on the two opposing sides.
Central Governor Theory
Most of us are familiar with Aerobic/Cardiovascular model of understanding performance in endurance sports. This is probably the method you learned in biology, or exercise science, or many other training manuals. Most coaches reference this model, which focuses on the body’s ability to process and deliver oxygen to working muscles. This model usually focuses on improving Aerobic Endurance, VO2 max and Lactic Threshold to improve athletic performance, terminology which many of us are well-acquainted with.
While most of the conclusions drawn by the Aerobic/Cardiovascular model are true, I think that adherence to this model can lead to some big gaps in how to approach training. Tim Noakes, author of The Lore of Running, has recently uncovered some flaws that I think are worth noting, and could have vast implications on endurance athletic performance. They are:
(1) The Aerobic/Cardiovascular model relies on the assumption that the heart would be the first organ in the body to run out of oxygen and have to perform anaerobically (without oxygen). This has been found to be false as the heart is its own blood source and cannot tolerate any anaerobic function.
(2) The Aerobic/Cardiovascular model does not account for difference in muscle contractility, which affects efficiency, which in turn makes it possible for one athlete to be more efficient in their use of oxygen than another, while the aerobic/cardiovascular model is more focused on solely increasing VO2 max.
(3) The Aerobic/Cardiovascular model ignores the possibility that a central governor in the brain controls pacing and can be affected by sleep, nutrition, supplement use, and environmental conditions.
(4) The Aerobic/Cardiovascular model is incorrect that muscles can perform anaerobically during maximal efforts.
So, to sum up things up, the Aerobic/Cardiovascular model of training is generally true in that the primary purpose of training is to improve the body’s ability to uptake oxygen and use oxygen in an efficient way. However, it is not as robust as the Central Governor Model, which recognizes the critical role of the brain on athletic performance.
For instance, in hot conditions, the body is not able to perform up to the same capacity as in cool conditions, because the brain tells the body to slow down before damage can be done to itself. Obviously, the muscles do not tell themselves to stop working, for they have no capacity to do so. If there were no control mechanism for them, they would keep working and working until the muscles had literally worked themselves into a state beyond repair. This why a central governor in the brain must limit exercise intensity.
It is hypothesized that there are three primary governors within the brain:
(1) Cardiostat – Limits exceeding a maximum heart rate.
(2) Glicostat – Limits intensity if blood sugar is too low.
(3) Thermostat – Limits intensity if body temperature gets too high or too low.
My training approach is created based on the belief that if conditions in the brain are optimized, one will be able to train at a generally higher intensity, which will in turn allow the body to make greater fitness gains. Therefore, I advocate training in an intelligent way as well as nurturing the body during recovery. In addition, athletes will need to train their bodies specifically for races in extreme conditions; this way, the central governor will not cut off their performance prematurely.
Phase 1: Prep Phase for Greater Efficiency
If you are reading this, and you are over 16 weeks out from your goal race, you may want to incorporate a “prep” phase. During the prep phase, the focus is on speed and strength, because you can actually afford to lose some time that you could be devoting to base training. You have a long time before your next important competition so aerobic fitness is not at the premium that it usually commands.
During this period, I would lift weights 2-3x/week, with a high emphasis on plyometrics, incorporate some very hard striding on a slight decline (see Lydiard article below), hone technique in the pool, and work on max power and leg speed on the bike. Of course, you need a certain base level of fitness even to accomplish these goals, so if you are a true beginner, you may want to skip this phase in favor of more endurance training.
The goal of the prep phase is to prepare your body for the rigors of base training. You want to drill in good habits over the yards and miles you’ll be putting in. If you are stronger, more efficient and less susceptible to injury, this will result in a more successful base phase. You can almost think of the prep phase as working on the chassis, while the base phase is working on the engine.
Phase 2: Base Phase for Maximum Aerobic Development
The base phase, usually occurring from January through to April for most endurance athletes in the western hemisphere, is the bread and butter training phase. All the training should be zone 2 or lower, aside from leg speed and strength work, which are less damaging and risky than VO2 Max and threshold work.
During this phase, you get the most aerobic improvement from staying below your “Maffetone Threshold,” which usually corresponds to the upper limit of zone 2. This is the intensity where the most mitochondrial development occurs. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell and are able to metabolize fats, a crucial energy source for any endurance athletes, but especially so if your race lasts for over 2.5 hours.
How to Calculate Maffetone Heart Rate
During the base building period nearly all the work is done at an optimum aerobic heart rate, which I refer to as Maffetone heart rate. It has been found that if athletes train at this optimum heart rate, they can develop their ability to burn fat as a fuel source and cardiovascular improvements are greatest. The formula for this optimum heart rate was proposed by Phillip Maffetone, an applied kinesiologist and former coach of Mark Allen and Mike Pigg.
Here is the formula:
(1) Start with 180
(2) Subtract your age
(3) Add 5 beats per minute if you are in good shape and have been training without interruption for two years
(4) Subtract 5 beats if you have not exercised regularly before or have been laid up due to injury or illness.
That’s it! To train at an optimum aerobic heart rate, I propose you make a couple of simple changes to your training during your base phase:
(1) Do all your base training at as close to your Maffetone Heart Rate as possible, without going over. An example of this would be if you were to complete a one-hour run, you would warm up for the first 20-30 minutes, and then spend the next 30-40 minutes as close to your Maffetone heart rate as possible without going over. If you hit a couple of steep hills and go over by a couple of beats, that’s okay; otherwise, keep it under that heart rate.
You can imagine all the time you spend at your Maffetone HR as putting money into the bank. Mark Allen calls this, “building your engine.” To see more information on Maffetone HR training, please read the article “Working Your Heart”, by Mark Allen.
(2) Buy a heart rate monitor that can record current heart rate, average heart rate, and time in your heart rate zones.
(3) If possible, create heart rate training zones for yourself. To do this, it is best to perform a 30 minute “all-out” test, either running or cycling, and capture the average HR for the entire 30 minutes, as well as the average for the last 20 minutes. Generally speaking, your lactate threshold heart rate will be the average for the last 20 minutes, if you did the test correctly.
Visit the Training Bible’s Resource Pages and go to “The 30-minute test” to get more specific instructions. It is crucial that you do this test with a full (all-out) and even application of effort.
If you’ve done a recent 10k run, 20km time trial, or other race of approximately 30 minutes, your lactate threshold heart rate can be drawn out from that data as well.
(Mark Allen used the Maffetone method to devastating effect)
Heart Rate Zones
When we speak of heart rate zones, they are usually divided as:
Zone 1 – Active Recovery. Most athletes will not want to go this slow unless they are tired or are warming-up to eventually enter one of the more difficult zones. Zone 1 has its place but doesn’t accumulate aerobic improvements as quickly as zone 2.
Zone 2 – Extensive Endurance. This pace usually feels “easy-moderate.” You will see the best and most rapid improvement by banking large amounts of time in this zone. Your upper limit of zone 2 should loosely correspond with your Maffetone Heart rate; for older athletes, the Maffetone figure may be closer to the mid-point of zone 2. Really, you should use the Maffetone figure to estimate your heart rate zones before you run a proper threshold test.
Zone 3 – Intensive endurance. This is the pace you would run at the end of a progression run, or during some tempo workouts on the bike.
Zone 4 – Sub-Threshold. This is the intensity level at which you may be asked to do short tempo runs, cruise intervals, 6-20 minute intervals on the bike, etc. This is a crucial training zone for developing race-specific fitness, especially for the Olympic distance triathlete.
Zone 5 – Super Threshold. Interval sessions (3 x 1 mile, 6 x 800m, 12 x 400m, etc.) are performed at the highest intensity level. This zone is usually associated with the training intensity an athlete needs to achieve in order to improve VO2 max.
Phase 3: When to Introduce Speed Training
Even though it has been proven time and time again, in empirical research and in the lab, athletes and coaches still LOVE to overdo speed training. I mean, people just eat this stuff up like it’s candy. What is so frustrating is that it is really easy to incorporate speed training in order to see a significant benefit from it, but everyone still seems to be able to make a mess of it. I would like to include some quotes from many of the great coaches throughout time to prove my point:
Tim Noakes says, “You cannot do speed training indefinitely within a season. Carlille and Lydiard have taught us that six to eight weeks intensive training, when added to a solid period of base training, is all that is needed for a peak performance, and this is something on which everyone seems to agree.” (Noakes 309)
“Derek Clayton [former marathon WR holder] wrote that he could sustain heavy training for only 10 weeks before his performances began to deteriorate.” (Noakes 309)
“Ron Hill came to precisely the same conclusion, for he wrote, ‘my ideal build up to a peak occupies a period of ten weeks.’” (Noakes 309)
I tend to agree with Lydiard that speed (meaning interval work performed at something like 5k-10k pace in running) training is the least important phase of training. As mentioned previously, that is why I advocate training at the two opposite ends of the spectrum – extensive endurance training and all-out leg-speed and strength training – during the base phase. This way you avoid the VO2 max sort of efforts that can only add improvements for 6-10 weeks, but you can also improve economy, reduce staleness, and prevent injury by throwing in some sprint work (such as strides) and weight training/plyometrics.
Once in the speed (meaning interval) phase of training, it is okay to do 2-3 harder workouts per week, in which you spend a small amount of time at very difficult intensities (perhaps 25-45 minutes per session), for a period of 6 to 8 weeks.
How do you decide on when to start speed training? If you find yourself to be a “short-swing” athlete (one whose body responds relatively quickly to interval training), count back 8 weeks from your first big race of the year. This will give you 6 weeks of intense tempo and interval training, and two-weeks to taper. If you are a long swing athlete (one who responds fairly slowly to interval training), you may want to count back 10 to 12 weeks from your first big race to establish the date to start your speed training.
I have encountered many athletes who can continue to hold good race fitness while doing speed training for more than 10 weeks; however, their performances rarely improved past the 8 to 10 week window, but rather they leveled off. Since there is nothing to be gained by speed training more than 6 to 10 weeks, I advocate being conservative in one’s volume of speed training. Going beyond this window is risky at best, and foolish at worst.
Another option that is well-utilized by pro triathletes is to do shorter buildups, one with say, 4 weeks of base training, followed by 3 weeks of interval training, followed by 1 week of peaking, then racing, and repeating this cycle over and over again during the course of a year. I have found something along these lines to be quite effective.
Phase 4: Peaking to Race
So much is talked about “peaking,” which is often meant that training volume is drastically reduced to freshen up an athlete for a big event. I disagree with most peaking or “tapering” protocols, as they are very risky, leaving the athlete in a lethargic and potentially undertrained state.
The most common mistake is to back off far too much in the final week before an “A” priority race. In reality, you should back off the week before your big race, and try to have race week feel as normal as possible. Triathlete Magazine recently published an article that agrees with me on this.
Says Torbjorn Sindballe: “Athletes who do long-distance races may benefit from a tapering model that consists of a peak training cycle, a period of active rest and then a short training module in the final stages of the taper. I have used this approach with success on several occasions both on myself and with some of the athletes I coach.”
When I ran at University of Portland, we had a pretty significant shift in the training style. UP was always known for high mileage, but I took it even a step further. Instead of the 90 mile weeks which were common for the varsity runners, I began putting in 130-140 mile weeks, nearly 20 miles per day on average! But I slowed it down a bit. Instead of averaging 6:00-6:15/miles, I probably averaged somewhere in the 6:30-6:45/mile region.
The team was really competitive, and quite a few runners adopted this new training style (with a seatbelt – I was the most extreme) because it was incredibly difficult just to make the varsity team. The year after I graduated, U.P. had two guys qualify for the Olympic Trials. One of them, Michael Kilburg, had begun running 120 mile weeks, and ran a PR at Stanford that spring in a time of 28:20, smashing the old school record. I asked him, “Kilburg, what have you been doing?!” He told me about the 120 mile weeks. Also, since he had such spotty results with using a drastic taper he also gave this piece of advice which led to his 28:20: “F%^k Tapering!”
I’ve had the best luck, and the least amount of risk, when I drop my volume by about 20% in the last couple of weeks. This is much more conservative than the 50% drop that a lot of other protocols will espouse.
Of course, if you are racing an Ironman, and you calculate for your taper to include the time of your race (10-12 hours, give or take), you might end up with only a few other hours to sprinkle throughout the week. This would be a big mistake! Instead, calculate your volume based on if you had a “normal day” on race day and count your volume for race day as if it was your normal Saturday/Sunday (whatever day your race falls on) workout. Perhaps count the day as your long bike/run brick day, so maybe pencil in race day as 4-5 hours instead of 10-12.
Tips for Race Day
Do not try anything new the day of the race. This is an old adage and a true one. You will want to have practiced with any equipment you might be using on race day, to avoid a malfunction or potentially uncomfortable situation. New racing shoes might give you blisters, different handlebars might cramp your neck, a new wetsuit might not fit properly and will fill up with water, or worse yet, you won’t be able to get it off in transition. Seemingly small details have the potential to leave you stranded on the roadside.
Similarly, don’t change any food habit; practice using any nutrition product you plan to race with before race day. If you are on the road, try to select foods you are accustomed to when eating out. Above all, don’t skip breakfast on race day. You should have something on the lighter and higher carb side – cereal, low acidity fruits, oatmeal, etc. – and will want to avoid any fatty breakfast foods.
You absolutely must warm up before your race, preferably in the water. Again, this will help prevent the likelihood of a panic attack in the water. You will be calmer, you will be able to deliver more blood to your working muscles, you will delay the onset of lactic acid, and your movement patterns will feel more efficient even if you warm up only ten minutes.
You must practice your transitions before you race. This will save you a lot of time! Ask a friend or coach to show you how to transition quickly from swim to bike or bike to run. With all the hard work you put in during training, it only makes sense to not lose precious seconds or minutes in the transition zone.
Race Using Even or Negative Splits. You absolutely must go out conservatively in the first 1/3 of the race. Select an effort level that is congruent with the length of your race, and try to steadily increase the level of effort throughout the race, as opposed to getting caught up in the moment, going out too hard and “blowing up.”
You must practice swimming in open water before your race. Otherwise, it is likely you will experience a seemingly random and unprovoked panic attack at the beginning of the swim, which could ruin your entire race. This is a common occurrence among athletes doing their first or second triathlon. A combination of nerves, cold water, a constrictive wetsuit, and the thought of battling through the water with hundreds of other competitors can unhinge even the coolest of characters.
Additional Supplementary information
There is so much knowledge that goes into training for an Ironman, Half-Ironman or other triathlon that simply cannot be expressed on a training plan, which is why I encourage as much correspondence as deemed necessary with athletes I coach. “Should I buy clipless pedals?,” “What routes should I ride?,” “How often should I replace my running shoes,” “How do I descend quickly and safely,” “How does my swim stroke look?” Much of the information that is captured on a training plan – basically time, duration, and intensity – will not tell you the whole story. That is maybe 50% of the information you need from a coach. The rest of the input you need is more detail oriented and requires a trained eye.
Here, I’ve tried to synthesize some very generic principles that you will want to explore which generally fall outside of your “training plan”:
Strength Training: It will be smart to lift weights, do plyometrics, and perform body weight exercises about twice per week. This will help in preventing injury as well as add additional muscular endurance. A sample triathlete strength training program is available at the Training Bible Coaching Website.
Stretching: Most coaches and current research agree that static stretching (30 second hold) should be reserved for after activity when muscles are the warmest. Static stretching before training actually increases the likelihood of injury! Therefore, you should ease into a workout by simply starting slowly and building your pace. Make sure to do your static stretching following every workout for 5-15 minutes.
Shoe Replacement: You will need to replace your training shoes (for running) every 300-500 miles. For most triathletes that means you can run in one pair of shoes for about 10-16 weeks. As an advanced strategy you can alternate between two (or more) pairs of shoes. Anecdotally, this seems to decrease the chance of injury because your foot is given slightly more variety in it’s landing patterns.
Iron Intake: Serious triathletes should get their ferritin levels checked once per quarter as the prevalence for low-iron is quite high amongst triathletes. Iron is critical in transporting oxygen in the blood, so without adequate levels of iron, your performance will certainly suffer, and you will likely feel fatigued all the time. Once you know your ferritin count your doctor can help you devise a supplementation strategy to increase your iron levels.
The majority of these articles explain why aerobic development is so important and anaerobic (interval) training is virtually useless for the endurance athlete without proper endurance built through steady aerobic efforts. You should consider these articles mandatory reading.
1. Lydiard Osaka Lecture – Arthur Lydiard.
2. AeT Training – Joe Friel.
3. Working Your Heart – Mark Allen.
4. Base Training – Mark Allen.
That’s it for my triathlon training guide! To get a quick summary of everything I covered in the article, sign-up below.