Tri Nation training sessions in South East Queensland.
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.
HOW TO USE A SQUAD PROGRAM
Tri Nation has developed a training menu for members to select which squad sessions they’d like to attend. In peak season, we run up to 12 sessions each week across the beginner, main squad and long distance programs. The sessions are mostly grouped by ability which allows athletes to work at a level that’ll improve their fitness and, more often than not, force them to work harder. Add in the social element, as well as the coaching that goes with being part of a squad, and it’s a great way to improve.
The nature of group training means the majority of the sessions are at an intensity of at least 80-85 per cent of our maximum heart rate. Training at this level improves fitness and will give you an edge on race day. Endurance programs also require a component of workload with an intensity tailored to 65-75% of a maximum heart rate. This type of training underpins all that’s required to be a good athlete as working at this level improves your aerobic energy system which is the predominant energy system used in triathlon.
Get the right balance between hard squad training and easy aerobic training by keeping it simple as it’s easy to get lost in all the latest and greatest training methods advocated on the internet. What works for one athlete may not work for another but removing all the bells and whistles is a winning method. Go hard on your hard days and easy on your easy days. Be consistent and you will improve. The biggest mistake age group triathletes make is going too hard on their easy days. If you’re not sufficiently recovered from your previous hard efforts and go too hard on an easy day, you’re won’t get the most out of your upcoming hard sessions. A heart rate monitor is useful on those easy days to ensure you keep in the 65-75 per cent of maximum heart rate zone. You’re building your aerobic engine but not taxing yourself too much.
The Squad Program
What does all this mean for someone following a squad program? Factors such as training history, injuries, age and work/family commitments all play a part in how much training you do.
For the purpose of this article I’ll use the approach that the majority of our athletes can train six to ten sessions (8-13hrs) per week. This being the case, 50%-65% of our training time should be the easy aerobic kind. On the Tri Nation training calendar we have five swim, two-three bike sessions and two run sessions. The bike and run sessions are, for the most part, interval-based and as are the swim sets. Each session lasts for between 60-90 minutes including warm-up and warm-down.
The time of year determines intensity but the 12 weeks leading into a major event, such as Noosa, means the athlete will work at or above 80-85 per cent of maximum heart rate for the majority of the time. Therefore, I would recommend completing one of the squad runs, one or two of the bike sessions and two to three of the swim sessions. That gives us about 30-60 per cent (4.5-6.5hrs) of your total weekly training time.
For the remaining two-four sessions per week, the training should be easy aerobic cycling or running. About two-four hours on the bike and one-two hours on the run, depending on the above factors and the event you’re targeting.
Mixing it up with hills is fine as long as the intention of the session is not forgotten and you recover well enough to be ready for your next hard hit-out.
An example program
Let’s say John Smith is training for Noosa. John is aged somewhere between 25 and 35, married, has a professional job and has been training consistently for two to three years. He has no injuries and is able to sometimes run or ride to work.
A weekly training schedule for a performance 12-week block might look like:
MON: Am or pm swim squad. Moderate day
TUE: Squad run in the morning. Hard day
WED: Squad WT/treadmill in the morning and easy recovery swim in the evening. Hard day
THU: Swim squad in the morning and easy 40-50 min run in the evening. Moderate day
FRI: Easy ride of 2hrs
SAT: Easy long ride of 2-3hrs and recovery endurance swim in the afternoon. Easy day
SUN: Easy long ride/run or maybe a race. Hard or easy day
The above program would change depending on what John Smith did the day before.
Over a fortnight John Smith can change things around to get in one hard run, one-two hard bike and two-three swims per week, as well as the easy aerobic training.
Obviously family and work commitments mean this schedule may have to be juggled around. Although John has been smart through winter as he has taken his wife away for a holiday, not trained as much and cooked her some nice dinners to build some credit points for his 12-week Noosa campaign.
Another example might be John’s sister, Jane, who has recently joined the Beginner Program. Her week may look like this:
MON: pm swim squad
TUE: am run squad
WED: am swim squad
THU: Easy 90 min ride or squad ride technique
FRI: Rest Day
SAT: Easy 45-60 min run
SUN: Easy 90 min to 2hr ride
Jane is new to the sport so her training age is young and the program has been modified accordingly. The principles still need to remain the same but over time Jane’s body will adapt and she will be able to do more training.
As a general rule, the older we are the more recovery we need. For some, an easy week every four weeks works while for others it’s an easy week every 3 weeks.
There must be two-three periods within those 12 weeks where you have an easy four-seven days of training to allow the body to recover, adapt and return stronger.
Over a week, this might be a couple of extra sleep-ins, reducing overall training volume by 40-50 per cent and having a few beers, red wine or chocolate. At the end of the day, we’re still meant to enjoy life and can’t be consumed with swim, bike and run.
It also keeps you fresh mentally and after a few easy days you should be ready to get back into some hard work again. Good sleep patterns, massage, a balanced diet and following the hard/easy principle also assists with recovery.
My experience, firstly as an athlete and also a coach, has taught me most people can only maintain motivation and focus for about 12 weeks to do the extra efforts, the hard interval-based training, and to get out the door early in the morning regardless of the weather.
Therefore in any given year most people will have one, maybe two races where they really apply themselves. Any longer and the discipline starts to drop off. Outside of those 12 weeks, it is about maintenance rather than performance.
So, in those 12 weeks what can we do to maximise our performance mentally and give us the confidence we need on race day?
Again, I think it is quite simple. Within all of us, is a good dog and a bad dog. The good dog is a strong, powerful, fast and attractive German Shepherd and the bad dog is a little yap-yap pooch that pees on the carpet, makes a lot of noise, is weak and generally very annoying.
The more we feed the good dog, the better. The good dog becomes stronger, faster, and more confident. The food it needs is daily positive self talk so by the time race day comes it only knows one way to be – fast and strong. Try it and you may be surprised at how effective it can be.
Keep it Simple Stupid (KISS)
When I started running as a 19-year-old (only a few short years ago 🙂 ), I was fortunate enough to train with some very talented state and national representatives. The majority were ‘old school’ athletes who didn’t have the option to use the likes of GPS, power meters, heart rate monitors, and speed measuring devices. We trained at two intensities – easy or hard. Some 25 years later, I still apply the same training philosophy. I’ve tested other approaches, on both myself and athletes I’ve coached, but I believe the two-intensity approach remains the most effective.
Athletes today have access to all sorts of training technology which is beneficial and has its place yet it can be relied upon too heavily. People, particularly at the start of their training journey, are purchasing GPS devices to assist and are failing to listen to their body. They become too reliant on the GPS to the extent that their inner-GPS is drowned out by the beep of a heartrate or numbers on a screen. What happens on race day if the GPS goes flat, reads incorrectly, or falls off the bike? I’ve experienced all three in a race so it’s not far-fetched. Many an athlete has lost their race focus because their technology’s failed. We need to learn to listen to our inner-GPS. Listen to that gut instinct, our breathing rate and levels, that feeling in our legs telling us the pace is right. When has your gut instinct let you down in life?
What are the key pointers to help us gauge if we’re training or racing at the right intensity?
The simple talk test is perfect; endurance equals conversation, stamina equals sentences, speed equals words and sprint equals silence. Endurance and stamina are generally easy aerobic training, and speed and sprint is our moderate to hard training. Another simple trick is to run for an hour without a watch. Leave your watch at home, head out the door and run for what you believe is an hour. If you’re in tune with your inner-GPS, you’ll come pretty close to hitting the mark.
“endurance equals conversation, stamina equals sentences,
speed equals words and sprint equals silence”
The Benefits of Strength Training
Triathlon is a strength endurance based sport. To perform at your best you need to develop specific strength to ensure your body can perform the same movement repeatedly. Remember it is those that slow down the least that win the race. No one speeds up towards the end of a race, the faster athletes just slow down less compared to their competitors.
There are a number of ways to develop specific strength to improve your triathlon performance. These include paddle work in the pool, big gear efforts on the bike and running hills. These are all proven ways that will make you a faster athlete.
I am also a firm believer in regular strength work in the gym to compliment your triathlon swim, bike and run training. This type of gym work can come in many forms including circuits, pilates, yoga, boxing, weights and group fitness classes. All depending on the athlete can have a direct benefit to improving your triathlon performance.
Here are 5 benefits of regular strength work in the gym:
- We know that after the age of 35 we start to lose lean muscle mass which is our productive tissue that we need. Regular strength work can delay that process.
- Overcoming and preventing injury. I know myself that a strength routine in conjunction with my physio helped me to overcome achillies and knee injuries last year. In fact some of the latest research according to my physio, Paul Fien from Brisbane Sports and Spinal is advocating specific strength work in the gym to overcome tendon type injuries.
- Improving movement patterns through specific training . This includes things like pilates, reform classes, yoga and specific strength work designed to improve movement patterns to make your more efficient.
- More variety in training. By hitting the gym 1-2 times per week it gives you something else besides swim, bike and run.
- Vanity – everyone likes a buff body!