Triathletes know that being fit and healthy is a benefit of living the multi-sport lifestyle. Just like the many people trying to keep their New Year’s resolution, most triathletes have to continually make efforts to keep to their goals whether they are simply trying to stay in shape or trying to be competitive. Although the triathlon season doesn’t usually start until late spring, planning for the upcoming season commences with the search for events well before January comes around. Once a tentative schedule of races is made for the upcoming season, a general training plan is decided upon to best prepare for important events. It is vital to check with the schedules of everyone else involved in your life including friends, family members, co-workers and your employer. Make sure they are aware of your season’s intentions so they don’t schedule something like a wedding, birth, anniversary or class reunion on your priority “A” race day. Just because you may know the dates of hundreds of events around the country does not mean that others are aware of the triathlon calendar in any way.
Developing Your Season Plan
Be realistic in what you can do on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Your season goals should be identified, measurable and attainable, but still be a challenge. You will need to clearly IDENTIFY short term or season goals. Limit this to three or four items that could be a high placing at a local race, qualify or compete at Nationals, complete a long distance event or do a marathon. You will also want to identify several long term goals such as improving on your current short distance performances, traveling to a high profile event, training for or competing in a half or fill Ironman.
Determine Training Objectives
A proper training program will use a PERIODIZATION concept where your year is divided up into phases progressing from general to specific by creating a base, gradually build on the developed base and then peak at a predetermined event. Improvements come by adjusting the volume, frequency and intensity of training while incorporating a period of rest. This will allow the body to adapt to the physical stresses placed upon it and then rebuild for the continuation of Periodization Training.
Select Priority Races
It is important that you have the ability to prepare for and attend the events that you have decided to compete in. Plan out your year by placing an emphasis on several important (Priority A) races spread out over the second half of the season and use your first half to train through and gain experience. Try to select races that are well directed and that will highlight your strengths. These two factors will allow you to compete against the competition and the clock with your best possible performance.
The Importance Of Planning
Structuring your training over the year requires you to break your year into cycles. The process of breaking up your year is known as, "periodization". Without “periodization”, you will not be able to peak properly for your major races of the year.
Where to start - setting your goals
For any successful plan, the initial step is to work out the major goals. Once we have the goals set in place, we can work back from our goals and structure our training accordingly. It is important also to state what you want to achieve with these goals. The first two questions to ask yourself should be:
- Step 1. What are my major goals this year?
- Step 2. What do I want to achieve within these goals this year?
For this, you should ideally get out a piece of paper and write down all the races you want to p
eak for. So, for example, you may want to peak for the National Championships on 6th June and the regional championship final on Sept 2nd. These are your peak "A" races. Write down the dates. These two major goals should be “set in stone” as much as possible. You won't want to change these goals because all your training and racing relies on knowing these dates.
Next, you will want to consider your "B" secondary events, which are important, but not major season peak races. You may want to look at 1 or 2 per month that will build toward your peak “A” race. You cannot peak for all your races but you may be able to carry a peak for several weekends at the Olympic or shorter distance events. This allows you the opportunity to potentially have a breakthrough race at one or both of the races.
Your secondary “B” races are not as rigid as "A" races because you can experiment with pacing, nutrition and equipment that you may want use for your peak event later.
Breaking Down The Year - Periodization
Periodization categorizes the year into cycles. These cycles can vary in length depending on how close you want to look at your program.
The full yearly cycle of racing and training from beginning to end is your Annual Training Plan and includes a Base Phase through Race Phase, rest and repeat. This may occur several times during your season and can varying in length depending on the distance of your goal race. You can divide up the 12 months and add each training objective within it.
You will always want to start with a Base Phase, but this timeframe can vary depending on your starting fitness and the distance of the race preparing for. The Base Phase and Build Phases, sometimes referred to as the 'preparation/conditioning for training' can last 8 weeks up to 12 weeks. This is often followed by the Intensity or Speed Phase which is a period of 'specific' race training that should be 4-8 weeks. After a short Taper, it is then time to race.
The “Base” Phase
This is where you start your winter training. Normally most triathletes will use this to develop their overall fitness in swimming and running. Cycling is maintained with indoor riding if weather does not allow for year-round outdoor training. For those that do have favorable weather, it is usually a downtime for cycling since the majority of triathletes need to work on their swimming and running skills. This is a great time to consider doing long swims and runs that will create a base to start doing speed work come spring. In the pool really consider doing form drills and longer sets. With the run, build up to two hours or more and think about signing up for a half marathon to keep you on track. Your HR should be in Zone 1 and 2 with only a few short durations of speed work.
The “Build/Maintenance” Phase
The Build and Maintenance Phases allow you to keep adding to your Base Phase once the weather allows and the racing season nears. This is also the time to get outside and start doing the long bike rides. Be sure to stay in zone 1 and zone 2 of your heart rate to optimize your training adaptations. This training is to add to your overall fitness. Once you have reached a volume of high mileage, you will need to maintain it for a 3-4 week period. Sometimes athletes will Build/increase volume, then return to their Base Phase miles then Build again. This allows for a short recovery and then back to getting more fit.
The “Intensity/Speed” Phase
The Base, Build and Maintenance Phases all lead to being ready for the Intensity Phase and then after a quality Taper, to Race. This period starts a decline in the duration of your volume while increasing the speed of your workouts. More specific training means starting to increase the intensity to HR zone 3 and short periods in zone 4. Include at least one if not two hard workouts per week.
Unless you are doing Ironman, your volume will start to decrease in order to bring hard workouts and recovery into your program. Recovery is key to making improvements at this stage and eventually peak to better performance.
Select Priority Races
For competitive people, which make up most of the sport of triathlon, racing can be considered the test for all of your many training hours. Race day can be a nervous time that causes performance anxiety due to the stress of the preparing for, getting to, and actually competing in the event. Be positive and put yourself in a position to succeed. Although it is a day to test you current fitness level, it is a also a reward day to swim in the open water, ride on traffic-free roads (hopefully) and pound the pavement or trail to a potential personal record. There are many ways to prepare for race day and make it the best experience possible.
Events That Highlight Your Strengths
If you swim and ride well but don’t run so well, then you may want to stay away from hot hilly run courses. On the contrary, slower swimmers that are fast on land should gravitate toward events that are held on tough bike and run courses. Half Ironman and Ironman events are much better suited to the athletes with strong bike and run backgrounds because of the relatively short swim distance. This will allow you to compete against the competition and the clock with your best possible performance.
Local and National
There are many races around the country to choose from. However, don’t short change your local events. They provide key opportunities to prepare for your “A” priority events and give you a chance to shine as a good example in your community. Of course National events like USAT Championships, Ironman and IM 70.3 events let you see how you fare against the best of the best.
Climate, Time and Season
If you race well in hot conditions, then look for warm weather summer events. If you enjoy cooler or harsh conditions that have the potential for rain, then seek out those events to take advantage of your strong points. Likewise, if you are not a morning person then look for events that start later in the morning or have lodging opportunities near the start line. Even better is IM 70.3 Boise that actually went to an afternoon race start. Most ITU Elite events start at noon in order to highlight the Pros and capitalize on building community crowds. It is apparent where triathlon and running rank in the US since that they often start at sunrise and end before many people even wake up on the weekend. “Real” sports start at a reasonable hour so that spectators (other than family members) will actually attend the event.
Plan Your Calendar
Plan out your competitive calendar by placing an emphasis on several important (Priority A) races that are spread out over the season. Try to use the first half of the season to gain experience and then concentrate toward your goal events.
Select races that you have the ability to prepare for and can actually attend. This is becoming more difficult to do with races selling out almost a year ahead of time. However, barring unforeseen circumstances, a quarterly race plan will allow you to emphasize training with some higher intensity tempo work as well as a taper to maximize race day performance.
Race more. It is logical that the more you race, the better you will become at putting together the three distinctive sports of triathlon. Racing sharpens your skills with open water swimming, technical bike skills, and transition changes from swim to bike and bike to run. Sprint and Olympic distance events are excellent opportunities to practice what you train at a faster pace and also provide a great way to test yourself at something shorter that Half Ironman distance. Although the race distance is half of what 70.3 presents, the shorter more intense racing of sprint and Olympic make the pace of the longer distances seem slow.
Mental preparation has many facets including goal setting, self-confidence and perceived stress. To be successful, it is imperative to maximize and minimize these and other limiters.
Goals must be measurable in order to see progress. It must also be realistic but still challenging. You need to know you are getting closer to your goal. For instance, your goal may be to finish your “A” priority Olympic distance triathlon in a certain time. Break down your goal even further and determine what time you plan to finish your swim, bike and run in. Once you are in race shape, your race time (barring a mechanical on the bike) should be close to your goal time. Analysis will then be done on a breakthrough acceptable or disappointing time.
Communicate With Your Family and Loved Ones
Unless you are completely solo with no ties, you have to consider others in your circle with your training and race plans. Ensure that your employer, spouse, family, girl/boyfriend, friends, and/or children have an idea of what your time commitment and goals for the year are. You may think that you are doing the right thing by doing your training early in the morning so not to interfere with others, however, if you wake your entire house up with your early alarm then you have affected their routine as well. Most important is to compromise and talk things out.
Work On Your Weaknesses
Work on your weaknesses while still maintaining your strengths as much as possible. Training, especially during the winter months, is about trying to improve on what you are not doing well enough in the individual sports. It is never easy to do what you don’t do best. But working on your weaknesses is the only way to be faster to the finish line. If you are able to swim faster, you gain time there, but you also gain time by racing up front with the faster athletes and then getting off the bike more rested for the run.
Be Prepared and Content
Come race day, you have what you have. Participate, compete and analyze your performance. Then reassess your plan and make required changes where needed. Family situations, nutrition, sleep, work, and health all have effects on your performance. Realize this and try to mimic conditions of your good performances and eliminate the negative issues that had an effect on your race.
Triathletes know that being fit and healthy is a benefit of living the multi-sport lifestyle. Just like the person trying to keep their New Year’s resolution, most triathletes have to continually make efforts to keep to their goals, whether they are simply trying to stay in shape or trying to be competitive. Participate because you enjoy doing it. You don't have to do an Ironman or IM 70.3 to be a triathlete. In fact, you don't even need to race. However, racing rules training and training fuels your lifestyle and in turn life. So go forth and swim, bike and run to wherever it takes you.
About the author: Doug Marocco is a nine-time (9X) Hawaii Ironman finisher with a PR of 9:23:04. He has excelled at short distance triathlons as well winning two (2X) USA Triathlon National Age-Group titles and four (4X) Military National Championships among his 47 overall wins. An accomplished Marathon runner, Marocco has a PR of 2:33 in his 37 finishes at the 26.2 mile distance.