Starting your triathlon journey can be a daunting task. The physicality needed to combine a swim, run and ride, as well as efficiently negotiate of each of the two transitions, means that for the first year at least, the focus is very much on just completing the event.
As you move into your second year and reflect on what has been achieved, what went well and perhaps not so well, your focus begins to shift from the events to the training. If you are anything like me, you went through the first year blindly following a plan downloaded from the internet or given to you by a friend, with the focus being on getting miles through the legs or time in the pool. But in order to progress in triathlon, or indeed any sport, consideration must be given to the way you are training, and what your training focus should be. This is called ‘purposeful training’ or training with an outcome in mind. Many books have been written on this subject, such as Joe Friel’s ‘Triathlon Bible’, however here I will try to give you a 101 of some of the key steps that you need to take in order to start training with purpose.
Step 1: Honesty. This has two main aspects; being honest about how many hours you can commit to training, and being honest about your strengths and weaknesses in each discipline.
If you can only commit four to six hours a week to training then perhaps for now at least scheduling an Ironman may be a bridge too far. However, the great beauty of triathlon is that there are many different race options to suit your schedule.
Being able to assess your own strengths and weaknesses is a good skill. Knowing your capabilities in each discipline will allow you to plan your training accordingly to build on your strengths and improve your weaknesses. For me I knew my bike and run cadences were poor and my swimming technique needed a complete overall. I was able to improve my cycling cadence by fitting a cadence sensor to my bike and working with a more experienced rider to improve my overall biking abilities. By running with a metronome (luckily my watch had an app for this) I was able to improve my running cadence quite quickly and, as a byproduct, my average speed also improved. To solve the swimming problems I worked with a swim coach. While this is not a cheap option, it was money well spent for me because swimming is by far the most technical discipline. Upping your cadence in swimming does not mean you will go faster if you have poor form in the water. Go slow to go fast is a mantra that you might hear. Get the form right and the speed will follow.
Step 2: Fitness test. At the start of each season time should be given over to performing some fitness tests in each discipline in order to gauge your level. This is in addition to identifying your strengths and weaknesses. The fitness test will give you a good baseline of where you are at as an athlete. These are standard tests that will define what your heart rate thresholds are for each discipline (yes they will be different), what your pace will be for each threshold and how you should expect to perform in an event. Typically you will revisit these standard tests every four to six weeks, and you should see that your training is having a positive effect. If you find that big gains have been had in running and swimming but not so much with cycling then be honest (there's that word again). Have you been following your plan? Are you developing your technique etcetera? If after that you find that you have been doing everything you believe to be right then you may need to reassess what you are focusing on and perhaps reach out to a friend or acquaintance for some advice.
Step 3: The plan. Not all training is created equally. Let’s say you have six hours a week and spend two hours on the bike on Saturday morning, do two one hour runs during the week and beast a two hour pool session on Wednesday. If you repeat this for a number of weeks then your overall fitness may improve, but you will not be developing your skills in each discipline. Depending on the material you read, there are a number of different focus areas; muscular endurance, aerobic endurance, speed skills, flexibility etcetera. What you need to do is vary your training so you are improving your weaknesses and building on your strengths. So, for example, with six hours a week a better approach may be 90 minutes on the bike plus a 30 minute run off the bike, three 30 minute pool sessions (one technique, one endurance, one speed), one 30 minute interval run, a one hour endurance run and one hour bike speed. By bringing variety into your plan you move away from the mundane and actually have a purposeful workout that begins to hone your skills.
Step 4: The phases. I'm not going to talk too much about this but in essence when you have identified your events for the season your training will go through different phases. Triathletes talk about base, build and peak periods. There are lots of online resources to help you with this planning such as www.trainingpeaks.com but typically it looks like this:
Base: Centers on building your aerobic capabilities while focusing in on your weaknesses.
Build: Beginning to introduce race pace workouts and focusing on technique, as well as aerobic and anaerobic fitness.
Peak: You start to reduce your workout length as you begin to taper for the event.
Planning the phases can be a great technical challenge but I do encourage you to reach out to a friend who has been through this, or avail yourself of some of the online resources mentioned.
Step 5: Fun. Training goes easier when you have fun with it. Triathletes are not machines, there are days when people feel they can't train or they are ill or life gets in the way or they just can't face it. All this is okay. If you are supposed to do a run but honestly are not in the mood, jump on the bike instead or swim or walk. Alternatively, turn that endurance run into fartlek - run between lamp-posts - walk the next lamp-posts etc. Have fun with it. If a plan isn't working for you change it up after a few weeks. Once you have mastered the phases of training it will change naturally after a few weeks.
So, I've tried to capture some of the key aspects of purposeful training. I'll be the first to admit that I have only scratched the surface and there is much more to learn as you progress. But having an outcome in mind when you train reaps dividends when race day rolls around. Purposeful training took 23 minutes off my Olympic distance time for the same course in just five months. So while you will see incremental gains week on week there is no greater satisfaction than coming across that finishing line with a great time knowing you got the training right.
Written by Colin Bradley, Renegade Triathlon
Catering for members of all abilities, Renegade Triathlon Team is an inclusive, independent and supportive multi sports community that can help you achieve your personal goals in 2018 and beyond.
We want to create a training and racing community – we are not a business and we are certainly not operating for profit. Our ambition is to support our members to become the most accomplished athletes they can, whether they’re competing in their first Sprint Triathlon, taking on a full Ironman race or simply running, cycling or swimming as a way to get fitter and cope with the challenges life throws up.