The month of April marks the start of triathlon race season for many people on the east coast and soon summer in all its hot and humid glory will be upon us. Just as professional baseball players go to “spring training” or football players compete in the “pre-season,” triathletes often use their races at the beginning of the season to work on increasing their fitness level, sharpen transitions skills and get the feel for going from one discipline to another at race pace.
Spring is often the time that many triathletes train by just logging lots and lots of miles without any real plan. They are “just getting into it” and since their goal “A” race is months away, they will not start toward it until the weather turns more consistent. Although it is important to accumulate miles during the Base Phase of Periodization, an athlete still needs to have a plan that will provide an adequate foundation (Base) to progress into the next two phases (Sustainment and Intensity). Each phase is a building block to the next and taking shortcuts or not having actual accountability for what needs to be accomplished to reach Peak Phase will not allow a person to reach their full potential or at a minimum improve on past race results.
The basics of how an athlete gets ready to race in events from the Olympic distance all the way up to Ironman is about the same. Many athletes that are new to endurance training are not sure of how much (volume) and how hard (intensity) they can push their individual or string of workouts along so they continually exercise in a moderate heart rate zone. For those that are new and exceptionally motivated they often train in the highest HR and power zones which taxes the recovery system and has a real potential for injury. In either case, they are doing only one phase of what is required with Periodization. Maximizing performance for all athletes starts by building their aerobic base and then progressing through the additional phases of a Periodization cycle.
A simple way to look at a training plan is to follow the basic concepts of plan, prepare and perform. Once you have results from a quality training session or race, then you can assess and re-do your plan to make any required changes to prepare better than the past time period. Even if everything went well, you will have to continually tweak or make adjustments to build upon past accomplishments because your base level will plateau and a only a change in volume or intensity will allow for improvement.
Ensure that you use your early season to gradually build your endurance while you listen to your body and discipline yourself to recover effectively. Build intensity only sparingly as well. It seems common for many triathletes to consider doing an early season half or even full Ironman race when in most cases they have not been able to accumulate the mileage required of the event due to various factors including weather, daylight, etc... You have to seriously consider if you can be ready both physically and mentally to race the event. Even if you consider a long distance race a "training event" it is still important to be training for the distance and have a quality result to build confidence.
Your training cycles should progressively move you toward being comfortable with the distance you will be racing so volume and frequency are important. This will vary based on your available time and the length of event that you will be focusing on. Be patient with your program and you will eventually see gains. You will not get in shape in a few days or weeks, but over consistent planned training. By making adjustments to the volume, frequency and intensity of your training while incorporating a period of rest, you will see improvement in your training and racing. Don't be confused that rest means "no activity" moreover; it means an active period with less volume, frequency and intensity. This period will allow your body to adapt to heavy load of the Base Phase, and speed of the Intensity Phase and rebuild it for another step up of your Periodization Training. When I develop a plan for a working athlete, I rarely build in rest days because I know that life activities require days that have less or no training. Those days become your rest day and thus you shouldn’t have another rest day that week built in. Sure, you could swap them but most people are better off with low intensity than total rest. Real rest comes from quality sleep so make that a priority when life stresses built up.
The sport of triathlon is unique in that it is often difficult to measure improvement on the race course since times vary from course to course due to a variety of factors like properly measured distances, weather conditions and terrain. Rarely is a course measured exactly to meet its labeled distance. They may get the run correct but swim distance and especially the bike are dependent on the whim of the venue. When you hear that everyone is happy about swimming a PR, most likely it was not measure properly or you were swimming with the current. The best way to see improvement is in your training sessions. You will know the time and distance spent in the water, on the bike and on your feet over courses that you have repeatedly done. As the season goes on, you will feel stronger and have more endurance. The goal should be to add another 500yd in the pool, 10 more miles on the bike or another mile or two on the run. Eventually you then build on that step up and so on. It's all cumulative. However, realize that a person still only has a certain amount of time and endurance to train. If you shift focus from one sport to another, something usually gives. Running or riding more may make your swim training sessions become slower because you have increased volume in another area and are tired. You only have so much to give and when you are spent it's time to recover and then race. Your performance should be at its best right after a peak in training followed by a short recovery phase. Depending on how it goes is how you adjust to do it all over again.
By planning out your early season training and racing through shorter more intense events you will have laid the groundwork for an epic half or full Ironman later in the year. Most importantly you will feel much stronger and avoid injury so that you are able to actually make it to the start line in September or October. So plan, prepare, perform and make the early season count!
About the author: Doug Marocco is a nine-time (9X) Hawaii Ironman finisher with a PR of 9:23:04. In addition, he has been a USAT All-American for the past two decades while winning two (2X) 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.