This excerpt is from the book, Triathlon Anatomy eBook. It's published with permission of Human Kinetics
Training Plan development
There is a lot of science behind optimal training plan development for triathletes. As multisport participation becomes more popular, the research literature on best practices and training methodologies expands at a staggering rate. Although the science of effective training is certainly important, so is the art of developing a training plan.
Triathlon coaching has been an area of explosive growth over the past decade. A range of professional triathlon coaching certifications is now available, and scores of coaching companies, large and small, have sprung up to meet the growing demands of this burgeoning field. Developing a multisport training plan can be daunting, and as athletes attempt to train effectively for three sports, they discover that a knowledgeable coach can save them time and headaches by shortening the learning curve. But although coaching does involve the science of training, it’s also important not to neglect the art of training an athlete. After all, if human performance improvement was as simple as adding 1 and 1 to equal 2, everyone would be getting faster and competing at a similar level. The truth is that each athlete is an experiment of one, and a good coach will discover the balance of training in order to help the athlete reach his goals while remaining healthy and injury free. Hence, the art of training.
In many ways, a triathlon coach is like a chef. Every chef has access to common ingredients. It’s how they mix, prepare, and then present the ingredients to create the dish that matters. And let’s face it: Some dishes are great while others are not so great. It’s the same with triathlon coaching and how the coach works with the athlete, addressing individual strengths and weaknesses in order to develop the ideal program for achieving goals.
Let’s begin our discussion of developing a training plan by exploring the basic ingredients that all triathlon coaches have at their disposal. Planning and strategic oversight of a program are important, and when it comes to designing a training plan, the first step is to determine your ultimate goal for that season. We’ll call this your A race. Next, you’ll need to determine races of lesser importance you’ll use in order to gain competitive experience and develop your race legs. Many elite athletes use these B and C priority events as hard training days to race themselves into shape, both physically and mentally.
Once the race schedule is mapped out and the commitment is made, it’s time to start developing your plan, working backward from your A race and using the principle of periodization. Your training ingredients include the variables of intensity, duration, and frequency; the mixture of these components will enable you to develop an effective plan.
For a more nonlinear approach to periodized training, focus on certain energy systems for periods of 4 to 6 weeks, while also incorporating training intensities to bolster other systems simultaneously, because no one energy system is developed at the exclusion of others. For example, an aerobic base development phase will also include some bouts of short, intense work that targets the anaerobic energy system. This makes the transition to a more specific block of hard training much easier while lowering the risk of overtraining and injury.
In addition to cardiorespiratory and sport-specific training, most coaches and athletes now agree that supplemental strength and flexibility training is crucial for enhanced performance and, more important, long-term health and well-being. Supplementary resistance work should be done year-round using a selection of exercises found in this book, with an approach that complements the seasonal training needs of the athlete. For example, when an athlete is in season, the focus of a strength training routine is mostly maintenance and injury prevention. On the other hand, during the preseason, the training focus is more on developing strength and a biomechanically sound foundation.
Table 3.1 shows a sample preseason program used by a beginner to intermediate-level triathlete with one to three years of experience who is preparing for an Olympic-distance triathlon. The emphasis is on aerobic base and basic strength development, with a total training commitment of 10 to 12 hours per week.
From this example, you’ll notice that each sport discipline is trained at least three times during the week in addition to three strength training sessions. Athletes should perform sport-specific training before strength work in order to ensure good form and enable solid development of technique. Muscles that are tired because of resistance training can foster poor movement patterns when swimming, cycling, and running, impeding efficiency and wasting energy.
With such a wide variety of strength training exercises from which to choose, it’s imperative that you have a focused strategy for continual improvement. Using the expert help of a coach or certified personal trainer, choose from the recommended exercises in this book to create a plan tailored to suit your individual needs.
Most triathletes spend the majority of their training hours on the three disciplines of the sport; few spend sufficient time practicing the actual mechanics of transitions and preparing for the subsequent segment while still competing in either the swim or bike portion. Therefore, the aim of this chapter is to discuss what some have called the fourth discipline of triathlon-transitions-including how to minimize the amount of time spent in T1 and T2 and how, from an exercise physiology aspect, to improve overall triathlon performance by taking advantage of recent advancements in pacing and drafting strategies across all disciplines.
Various studies have shown that the transition from one event of the race to another has important implications for physiological and kinematic (movement of the body) measures that affect both perceived effort and performance in the remaining events. One study found that athletes do not bike or run as economically after swimming and do not run as economically after the bike segment. Part of this lack of economy may in fact be due to an athlete's inadequate technical ability or fitness level, which in turn leads to an increased metabolic load. This, then, emphasizes the need for transition training between each discipline and specific physiological training that will help triathletes switch between disciplines quickly and more efficiently-thus biking faster out of T1 and running faster out of T2.
One of the key factors in having a successful transition experience is knowing the layout of the transition area, including its entry and exit points, and also the layout of your own equipment. Many triathletes bring far too much baggage into the area and clutter it up, not only for themselves but also for those sharing the rack, so bring only what you will be using during the actual race. You should also note that in accordance with USAT rules, you "own" only the piece of real estate where your wheel touches the ground, so do not spread your equipment in too large an area.
Most athletes rack their bikes by the seat so the front wheel is touching the ground. This can make for a faster exit from the bike rack than, say, if the bike is racked by the brake levers, which makes it more difficult to remove. Most races have a single transition area, so according to USAT rules, athletes must return their bikes to their assigned positions on the bike rack, and failure to do so may result in a penalty. Remember that others will be in close proximity to you, and thus you should be considerate and keep your equipment in a tight and logical order. Lay your equipment out in reverse order, meaning the items that are farthest away are those you will be putting on last. For example, if you are looking down at the ground from farthest away to nearest, you would lay out your gear next to your bike in the following order:
- Running shoes with lace locks or similar
- Hat or visor
- Socks (although many think they can race without them, the time spent putting them on for the run may be well spent rather than getting a blister)
- Bike shoes (see later section on cyclo-cross mount and dismount)
- Race number, which is usually attached to an elastic race belt so it's easy to put on (check with the race director on local rules because some require you to wear your race number on the bike and some only for the run segment; if you have to wear it on the bike, in order to stop it flapping so much in the breeze, scrunch it up and wrinkle the whole race number, then spread it out and attach it to your race belt to limit the "sail effect" behind you)
- Helmet and sunglasses, which may be on the ground or hanging on the front of your bike, but remember your helmet must be on and securely fastened before you leave the transition area; if you do not fasten your helmet before mounting your bike (outside the transition area), you could be disqualified
Swim to Bike Transition (T1)
It is well known that swimming has an impact on subsequent cycling performance, with some studies demonstrating that overall cycling performance may be hindered by short-duration, high-intensity swimming, such as a sprint triathlon when the distance is much shorter (usually 750-meter swim, 20K bike, and 5K run), thus many athletes try to swim this leg much faster than normal. One method of countering the detrimental impact of high-intensity swimming is drafting.
Drafting is the act of swimming very close behind or at hip level to another swimmer. It reduces passive drag, thus decreasing the effort to swim the same distance. Also drafting usually improves stroke economy and efficiency, therefore potentially improving the subsequent cycling performance. To take maximal advantage of drafting, swimming behind another triathlete at a distance up to 1.5 feet (.5 m) back from the toes is the most advantageous; in lateral drafting-in kayaking this is termed "catching the bow wave"-a swimmer's head can be level with another swimmer's hips. You would do this when there isn't physical room to get behind another swimmer's toes or there are other athletes all around you, preventing you from moving.
Also, many triathletes are aware of terms such as blood pooling and orthostatic intolerance but don't actually know what they are. Orthostatic intolerance is characterized by impaired balance, dizziness, blurred vision, or even partial or complete loss of consciousness. This may occur postswim in athletes with normal blood pressure because of gravitational stress and the removal of the muscle pump. In fact, one study showed that severe dizziness after swimming when exiting the water and standing up for the transition section is a common occurrence for many triathletes, but it is more prevalent in highly trained endurance athletes. If this happens to you frequently, you should seek medical advice. However, the good news is that most athletes who get checked out by their doctors discover that severe dizziness is usually benign.
To counteract the effect of gravity and maintain blood pressure and venous return, one study suggests continuing to keep moving rather than stopping abruptly. This is especially important when removing the wetsuit upon exiting the water, stopping to walk up wet steps or noncarpeted transitions, bending down to put on cycling shoes, and so on. One way to offset dizziness as you leave the swim is to start utilizing the muscular pump by working the calf muscles as soon as possible, meaning you should take short steps at a higher cadence than normal as you make your way to the transition.
Ultimately, this will improve your ability to maintain venous return and blood pressure, maintain mental concentration through the transition, and execute pacing strategies for the start of the cycling discipline-thus going faster out of T1.
Bike to Run Transition (T2)
A debate exists regarding the metabolic cost of running at the end of a triathlon compared with running the same distance in isolation. However, the vast majority of research suggests that high-intensity cycling will have a detrimental effect on subsequent running performance, with the effects dependent on the fitness level of the triathlete; the greatest decreases in performance are observed in recreational triathletes, and minimal effects are seen in elite triathletes.
To offset the impact of cycling on running performance, researchers have come up with a few practical strategies; see Bentley et al. (2008) for further details. In summary, triathletes may be able to improve running performance by (1) drafting behind as many athletes as is practical (in draft-legal events); (2) adopting a cycling cadence of between 80-100 rpm (note, however, that cadence is a very personal matter-just consider the cycling cadence of Lance Armstrong (above 110 rpm for several hours at a time), for example-but many in triathlon will find a slightly higher cadence is acceptable); and (3) concentrating on reducing the effort during the final minutes of the cycling stage to prepare for the run. Points 2 and 3 really strike home for many coaches and physiologists. Pro cyclists will of course state the physiological benefits of spinning at greater than 110 rpm, but all too often, triathletes will trash themselves on the last 5K of the cycling discipline when coming in for the home stretch. However, the global performance time of a triathlon is the most important aspect, not the bike time. As such, establishing optimal pacing strategies for the start of the bike, the end of the bike, and the start of the run is an individual task and should be done in training on a regular basis. To put it as simply as possible: Don't leave your run on the bike! And spinning is better than crunching big gears.
To emphasize this point, various studies tried to determine the best pacing strategy during the initial phase of an Olympic-distance triathlon for highly trained triathletes. Ten male triathletes completed a 10K control run at free pace as well as three individual time-trial triathlons in a randomized order. In the time trials, the swimming and cycling speeds imposed were identical to the first triathlon performed, and the first run kilometer was done alternately 5 percent faster, 5 percent slower, and 10 percent slower than in the control run. The triathletes were instructed to finish the remaining 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) as quickly as possible at a self-selected pace. The 5 percent slower run resulted in a significantly faster overall 10K performance than the 5 percent faster and 10 percent slower runs, respectively (p < .05). Of note, the 5 percent faster strategy resulted in higher values for oxygen uptake, ventilation, heart rate, and blood lactate at the end of the first kilometer than the two other conditions. After 5 and 9.5 kilometers, these values were higher for the 5 percent slower run (p < .05).
This excellent and well-controlled study demonstrates that contrary to popular belief, running slower during the first kilometer of an Olympic-distance triathlon may actually improve overall 10K performance. With the recent advances in global positioning system (GPS) watches, split times and distances are easily available for triathletes to take advantage of even if no distance markers are provided during the triathlon. This technology is best used only if the triathlete has previously established performance standards for that particular event. Thus, for these data to be most effective, the triathlete must know what split time equals 5 percent slower than his maximal effort.
Regardless of their differing levels of knowledge and experience, success for all triathletes begins with the planning process. In the forthcoming Complete Triathlon Guide (Human Kinetics, May 2012), USA Triathlon says that planning helps you identify clear goals, understand your current level of readiness, and establish an accurate training regimen. Planning also requires you to take a realistic look at your current position on a frequent basis throughout the season, acquire new information, and then make decisions on the way you are going to train.
According to Sharone Aharon, a contributor to Complete Triathlon Guide, the gold standard of developing an annual training plan and avoiding the pitfalls of poor planning is periodization. This refers to dividing a certain amount of time, in this case the training year, into smaller, easier-to-manage phases. The most common periodization refers to three segments of time that repeat themselves and differ by size:
1. Macrocycle. This is a long stretch of training that focuses on accomplishing a major overall goal or completing a race. "For example, if the Chicago Triathlon is your most important race of the season, the time from the first day of training at the beginning of the season until that race will be considered your macrocycle," says Aharon.
A macrocycle is then made up of several small- and medium-size phases and covers a period of a few weeks to 11 months. For most athletes, especially beginners, a macrocycle covers the entire racing season, focusing on one big race for the year and the development of their basic physical and technical skills.
2. Mesocycle. This is a shorter block of training within the macrocycle that focuses on achieving a particular goal. It usually covers 3 to 16 weeks and will repeat a few times, each time with a different training objective or goal. Coaches often use three mesocycles, or phases, within the annual training plan: preparatory, competitive, and transition.
The preparatory phase establishes the physical, technical, and psychological base from which the competitive phase is developed. The competitive subphases are dedicated to maximizing fitness for ideal performance; coaches refer to these as build, race, or peak phases. The transition phase, finally, is the rest and rejuvenation phase in between training cycles or seasons. "Keep in mind that the level of the athlete will also influence the length of each phase," Aharon comments. "A beginner most likely will have a very long preparatory phase, up to 22 weeks, to develop a strong foundation that will enable him or her to endure the load of progressive, more advanced training."
3. Microcycle. This is the basic training phase that repeats itself within the annual plan. It is the smallest training period and is structured according to the objectives, volume, and intensity of each mesocycle. The microcycle is probably the most important and functional unit of training, since its structure and content determine the quality of the training process.
A microcycle can last for 3 to 10 days but typically refers to the weekly training schedule. "The progression of the microcycles within the mesocycle has to take into consideration the important balance between work and rest," stresses Aharon. "Too much work without appropriate rest will lead to overtraining and injuries. On the other hand, too little work with too much rest will lead to underperformance."
Athletes spend hours training to hone their skills, but few consider stretching a vital component to their athletic performance. According to popular author Frédéric Delavier, stretching has the ability to increase performance levels and should be included in every athlete's training regimen. In his upcoming book, Delavier's Stretching Anatomy (Human Kinetics, October 2011), Delavier discusses the top five reasons every athlete should stretch.
Maintain or increase range of motion. Repetitive athletic movements can reduce range of motion by tightening the muscles and tendons. "A certain tension is required, especially in strength sports, but too much tension and a decreased range of motion can ultimately lead to injury and reduced performance," Delavier explains. "Stretching regularly can prevent this problem." In certain fields, like swimming or gymnastics, stretching must be done regularly to increase the range of motion in a joint when that range is synonymous with increased performance.
Increase muscle tone. Stretching is a powerful signal to strengthen muscles. "Using the muscle's passive resistance strength, stretching accelerates the speed at which the proteins that compose the muscle fibers are synthesized," says Delavier. "Your body gains muscle tone, strength, and resilience this way."
Although flexibility is important for an athlete, Delavier advises finding a balance between muscle tension and flexibility. The muscle must be flexible enough to have a slightly greater range of motion to prevent injuries and aid movement, but not so flexible as to diminish performance by becoming like a rag doll whose joints move around easily. "Stretching has the ability to increase or diminish performance levels," Delavier adds. "So we must be careful to use stretching properly." Delavier's Stretching Anatomy offers stretches for releasing tension, increasing flexibility, and creating an overall sense of well-being.
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"Since 1971, I’ve trained and coached athletes in a variety of sports with abilities ranging from beginner to professional. Some became national- and world-class competitors; others achieved less impressive, but no less important, personal goals. All improved their physical abilities in some way.
I don’t know who learned more - me or
them. My lessons came from observing how small changes in training
brought big results. Some riders obviously had a lot of potential when
they came to me. They were highly motivated and did challenging
workouts, but for some reason they weren’t getting all they could from
training. At first this was perplexing. How could athletes with such
great potential achieve so little? After years of reviewing hundreds of
training logs, I began to see patterns and understand why a person with
latent ability was not coming close to attaining it. He or she was
breaking one of what I call the Cardinal Rules of Training.
No matter what you want from riding, there are three rules you must obey. Breaking any of these means, at best, limited improvement, and, at worst, overtraining and loss of fitness. The Cardinal Rules of Training are as follows:
- Rule 1. Ride consistently.
- Rule 2. Ride moderately.
- Rule 3. Rest frequently.
These may seem overly simple. Sometimes, however, the most
important things in life are the simplest. Such is the case with
Rule 1 is based on the premise that nothing does more to limit or reduce fitness than missed rides. The human body thrives on regular patterns of living. When cycling routinely and uniformly progressing for weeks, months, and years, fitness steadily improves. Interruptions from injury, burnout, illness, and overtraining cause setbacks. Each setback means a substantial loss of cycling fitness and time reestablishing a level previously attained. Inconsistent riding is like pushing a boulder up a hill only to see it roll back down before reaching the top - frustrating.
Riders who violate the first rule of training are usually frustrated. The solution to their problem is simple: Train consistently. "Okay," they say, "but how do I do that?" Good question, and that leads to the other Cardinal Rules. The second Rule, ride moderately, is the first step in becoming more consistent. This one usually scares highly motivated, hard-charging cyclists. They can see themselves noodling around the block in slow motion and not even working up a sweat. However, that’s not what moderate means.
Moderate riding is that level of training to which your body is already adapted, plus about 10 percent. For example, if the longest recent ride is 40 miles, then a reasonable increase is to 45 miles next week. That’s moderate. A 60-mile ride would not be moderate and could lead to something bad, such as an injury or overtraining that forces several days off the bike and a lapse in consistency. Another moderate change is steadily progressing from riding flat terrain to rolling hills, to riding longer hills, to riding steep and long hills. Going from riding on the flats to steep, long hills is not moderate.
Consistent riding also requires frequent resting. That means planning rest at the right times, such as after challenging rides or hard weeks. Chapter 7 discusses this misunderstood concept in greater detail. Rest taken in adequate doses and at appropriate times produces consistent training and increased fitness.
Even though the Cardinal Rules of Training are basic, if you follow them, fitness will improve regardless of what else you do on the bike. They are deceptively simple to read about; incorporating them into training is a different matter. At first, it may be difficult to ride moderately and rest frequently. Keep working at it. Old habits are hard to break. When you initially train this way, it’s better to err on the side of being conservative with moderation and rest if you’re a rider who has frequent breakdowns and missed workouts. With experience you’ll become better at determining what is right for you.
Although what we have discussed so far came strictly from experience, the following basic components of training come mostly from science.
F.I.T. for Riding
Even though moderation is necessary, it’s obvious that a portion of your riding must be somewhat stressful to cause a positive change in fitness. Moderate stress comes from carefully manipulating three workout variables:
- Frequency - how often to ride
- Intensity - how hard to ride
- Time - how long to ride
The first question to ask at the start of a week is, "How often should I ride?" Training to race, for example, in the United States Cycling Federation’s national age-group championship, requires a different response to this question than if the goal is general health and fitness. The higher the goal for ultimate performance, the more often you need to ride.
Potential is an elusive concept: an ability that is possible but not yet realized. None of us ever knows how close we are to our potential. We do know, however, that getting there demands many sacrifices, one of which involves being on a bike several times a week instead of sitting in front of a TV nibbling on potato chips. When it comes to frequency, there are suggested minimums and maximums, depending on goals. If your reasons for riding are strictly health and basic fitness, the minimum number of rides each week is three. This assumes you ride only and don’t cross train. Because training in other aerobic sports has a cardiovascular benefit, you could get away with riding less frequently and still improve the most basic elements of health and fitness.
Other than achieving high levels of fitness, another frequency issue is how to get in shape the fastest. When first starting to train on a bike, five or six rides each week will cause the most rapid change in fitness. Scientific research shows an increase in aerobic capacity, one measure of fitness, of about 43 percent for novices training this frequently. Three to four rides each week bring a 20- to 25-percent improvement.
If you already have a high aerobic capacity from many weeks of consistent training, all you need to maintain it is four rides a week. High-performance racers, however, usually ride five to seven times a week.
Regardless of training frequency and time, the single most critical training variable is how hard and fast you ride. There are several ways of measuring intensity. The one you’re most likely to have available is heart rate. The greatest changes in aerobic capacity come from training at high heart rates, in excess of 90 percent of maximum. Although the highly motivated athlete often seeks such benefits, frequent training over 90 percent of maximum heart rate obviously violates the Cardinal Rule of moderation and will eventually lead to inconsistency and loss of fitness.
The key to cycling intensity is knowing when to ride at higher heart rates and when to slow down. So, 90 percent plus is the high side, but what about the low end? Riding less than 50 percent of maximum heart rate has little or no impact on aerobic fitness. Such low-effort riding is of little physiological value except, perhaps, for recovery.
Getting intensity right is the trickiest aspect of training. Later, this chapter will teach you how to use a heart rate monitor, and chapters 5 and 6 will pull all pieces of the training puzzle together with suggested routines based on riding goals.
The duration of your rides is the second most effective variable in improving fitness. In fact, there’s good reason to believe that longer, slower workouts are equivalent to shorter, faster training sessions in improving aerobic capacity. Because lower intensity workouts are easier on the body, most athletes and coaches recommend building a base of endurance with long, steady rides before starting to do high-intensity workouts, such as intervals, later in the training year.
The length of your rides depends on what you’re used to. In your first five years of cycling, you should be able to increase riding mileage or time by about 10 percent over the previous year’s volume. However, if you’ve ridden for several years, there’s a limit to how many miles you need to improve. Through experience, you may have already discovered that limit - due primarily to an inability to recover and go again."