Articles relating specifically to long course training ie. Ironman and 70.3 events.
The Importance of a Solid Aerobic Base
Triathlon is a sport that predominantly uses the bodies aerobic energy system. Even the shortest of races are still powered by the aerobic energy system so it makes sense to my simple brain that is the system that needs to be developed and appropriately trained.
Without having the solid aerobic conditioning it’s like a house without a slab. The walls and roof start to become a little shaky and under stress they will eventually collapse. On the outside it might look awesome and really pretty to look at but check inside and there is no foundation to keep it together.
There are a lot of triathletes like this, really pretty to look at but once you take a closer look you can see there are some major structural issues that need addressing.
By having a solid aerobic foundation you can recover from your training sessions better, can hold a faster pace for longer, you will get a better training effect from interval sessions as your recovery between sets is quicker and you’re able to hold a faster pace for more efforts. Additionally your body is more efficient at burning fat as a fuel source.
So how do you build a solid aerobic foundation? How long does it take?
It’s actually quite simple really which is why it’s surprising that many get it wrong. Sometimes in training you need to go slow!! Go slow to go fast. To get faster and to build the aerobic foundation we need to swim, ride and run at our own individual aerobic heart rates. I have touched on this formula in previous articles but once you know it you need to spend 70-80% of your total training time in that zone. You’re either training above or below race pace, very little at race pace.
And when you do this over a period of weeks, months and years that aerobic pace becomes faster. And this is where people struggle because after a few weeks they lose patience and can’t handle the fact they might be going slow. Building an aerobic foundation is something you should do every year. It takes patience and discipline.
I have trained athletes and am still coaching those who can run a fast 10km in well under 40 minutes but have an aerobic pace of almost 6 minutes which is too slow in comparison. Everyone’s aerobic pace will be different but if you can run 35 min for 10km it is fair to say your aerobic training pace will sit somewhere between 4.30 and 5.00 min km’s.
I have an athlete at the moment that has improved his aerobic training pace by 20 sec per km in the last 3 months following this formula. This particular athlete had done too much intensity, was injured and starting to lose his love of the sport. It was about going back to basics, getting the aerobic foundation again and then building slowly from there. We’re now starting to add a little intensity into the program but it has taken 3 months before we’re even able to do a little bit. And this athlete has over 10 years in the sport already.
I always look at what the athlete needs and how they will respond to certain types of training. If an athlete comes to me with a solid aerobic foundation already I will prescribe a different strategy. One where there might be more intensity but again to the amount of intensity is different for some athletes.
Interval training will get a person fit quickly. It also has aerobic benefits but the benefits are greater once you have the aerobic foundation in place.
In my last article I spoke about polarized training and the importance of going easy on the easy and hard on the hard. Before I go into the benefits of volume training and the benefits of training with more intensity it is important to discuss what is easy and what is hard.
I believe in keeping it nice and simple. Many coaches will discuss 5 different zones of training from zone 1 being active recovery to zone 5 being faster than race pace. Each with a different heart rate range however from a programming perspective I find this to be confusing and unecassary.
Easy, moderate and hard is all you need. Easy is aerobic training at under 70-75% of your maximum heart rate, moderate is 75-85% of your max and hard is 85% and above. We should try and spend most of our time in the easy aerobic range and most of the other 20% in the hard range. I am not a big fan of doing too much in the moderate range.
We don’t go hard enough or easy enough to get the physiological benefits required. These include improved fat burning and improved muscular endurance which in my opinion are the two key principles we should be look at improving. The easy aerobic training predominantly improves fat burning while the harder anaerobic work improves muscular endurance.
One thing we know with training is that volume works. It gives us the required physiological changes we need to perform well. When it comes to long course racing I think a level of 15-20 hrs per week is the ideal consistent range you need to be in if taking a volume based approach to your training or the 80/20 polarised approach.
However not everyone has 15-20 hrs per week to train. In that case an approach where the formula is changed to a more 70/30 of 70% easy and 30% can also yield similar results. It should be noted however this type of training is very challenging both physically and mentally. There can be not any wasted training time.
Shorter intense training can lead to a similar training effect to longer easier training. As am example a 4hr ride with specific interval work can give a similar training stress to a 5-6 hr longer aerobic ride. My experience and studies have shown that the longer aerobic ride will produce better results but not my a great deal.
Where this type of shorter harder training comes into play is for an athlete that is time poor. The make up of the 4hr ride with intervals vs the 5-6 hr aerobic ride are different but depending on the athlete both have application.
I have tried both philosophies myself and also coached athletes in both ways and have found the longer rides to produce better training adaptations. An example if Chris Bailey who has qualified for Kona twice on nothing longer than 4hr rides and also Stella Foley who went onto more longer aerobic rides of 5hrs plus.
Another athlete I trained to Kona Scott Budd did more intense running due to time restrictions but longer rides so sometimes we mix it up depending on their available time.
The underlying principle here is that while I have a guiding philosophy you need to be flexible and adapt according to the athlete.
In the next article we’ll touch on the importance of building the solid aerobic foundation and going slow to go fast.
I am a triathlon tragic. I love everything about the sport and confess to devouring all the different websites, social media posts and latest training improvements every day. I can’t get enough of it.
Through my own experiences as an athlete for over 25 years and a coach for 10 years, I think I am fairly well placed to have an informed opinion on what works when it comes to training. Additionally through my own research and studies and having trained with, coached and spoken to elite athletes, elite coaches and age group coaches I keep coming back to a very simple but effective approach.
Easy on the easy, hard on the hard and be consistent. In fact it is in our DNA to train that way.
The human form can out run anything on the planet. As cavemen we had to hunt for our food and whilst our prey were faster we could run for longer and when it came time to catch it we were able to quickly increase our speed. Our bodies are built to go slow or fast.
With training for any distance as a general rule I believe in polarized training. About 80% of our training needs to be at an aerobic level and the remaining 20% at an anaerobic level. There are cases where that differs slightly based on the athlete but that is my underlying principle for triathlon.
This teaches our body to become fat burning machines, improves V02 max, threshold levels and muscular endurance. All key components to becoming a faster athlete.
The problem is many athletes will go too fast on the easy sessions and not hard enough on their hard sessions. Some think that unless they are screwed at the end of every session then they haven’t improved. Others seem addicted to their garmins or not disciplined enough to go at their easy pace and not their training partners. So whilst it is easy to get right it is also easy to get wrong.
As a coach we manage the volume, intensity and recovery for the athlete so they get the best outcome. That is the part that differs for athletes but as a general rule the training principle should stay the same.
In my next article I’ll talk about what is easy and what is hard. And go into volume versus intensity and how there maybe slight changes in the training formula based on the specific athlete.