Four Triathlon Fundamentals Learned from Coaching Thousands of Athletes

Förderzentrum PestalozziIt’s Time to Go Back to Tri School — You Ready???
Creative Commons License photo credit: mueritz

We initially were going to title this post something like: “Everything I’ve Learned About Triathlon Has Come From Coaching Over 5,000 Athletes, Not From A Random Book”  But that wasn’t as catchy and we’re pretty sure no one would read it!

The reality is, there’s what you learn from books and then there’s what you learn when you apply that book stuff to your own training (25 IM finishes, including Kona, between us) and the training of thousands of real-world, age grouper long course triathletes. There’s what you learn when you coach 15 people at a time…then there’s what you learn when you guide 500+ athletes per year to Ironman® finishlines around the world.So put down that TriRag with all the sexy models, bling components, and the latest and greatest way to lose 20lbs while training to qualify for Kona in just 12 weeks.

Do your best to quell the urge to pull out your wallet and spend your way to triathlon success.Just because you have a full-time job doesn’t mean that you need to spend 10% of your annual salary in order to be competitive. In fact, as you’ll see below, there are plenty of things the average person can do to improve their fitness, strength and ability to race that don’t involve tons of money or time.

1. Work Is Speed Entering the Body (aka Go Fast to Get Fast)

As a triathlete, you move your body down the road, either by running or cycling. Your body has mass and by moving it at a certain speed/velocity you are performing work.

You and I weigh the same and we run the same three mile course. I average 8:00 miles and you average 9:00 miles. I’ve moved the mass of my body (the same as yours!) over the same distance in less time. I’ve done more work than you. Lets call it 300 units to your 200 units.

All things being equal (conditions, our fatigue level, etc) the reason why I can do 300 to your 200 units is because I’ve forced my body to adapt itself to be able to support a workload of 300 units. Your body will only adapt itself to the workload that you expose it to, nothing more. Doing more work forces your body to adapt. So how do you develop the ability to go from running 3 miles at 9:00/mile pace to running at 8:00/mile pace like me? You need to do more work.

The most time-efficient way to do this is to spend more time running at / under / near 8:00/mile pace: half-mile repeats, mile repeats, pick ups, etc. Hard work plus recovery will make you stronger, eventually enabling you to reach your 8:00/mile pace goal.

A well thought out and proven training program will prescribe work that’s appropriate for your level of fitness, turning the dial up and up, and then backing off a bit just when you need it.

Most importantly, work is measurable. You can measure watts on a bike, or pace on a run. You can quantify the % of level effort you are able to sustain, and then improve upon it on a regular basis. Leave the thoughts of just adding volume or training for 25+ hours a week for your single friends or those TriRag profiled athletes. As an age grouper with a job, a family and other responsibilities, doing more “work” in your training is the most direct way to see improvement.

To put it another way, if your primary definition of “more work” is “more volume,” turning up the dial so that a 12hr week becomes 14hrs becomes 18hrs becomes 20hrs…becomes what? Where does it stop? When you’re divorced, unemployed and homeless?!

We’ve learned, through experience, that our primary tool to impart greater and greater training stress to our athletes is to manage the intensity of the workouts first, volume a very, very distant second.

Weekly training volume for the average grouper is largely fixed by life, family, job, life and life. However, the intensity at which you do workouts within that fixed volume is infinitely flexible. This is why intensity, not volume, is the primary dial our age group athletes use to adjust training stress within each training week.

2. Fast Before Far (aka Volume is Easily Added)

Since 2007 we have been teaching our “fast before far” approach, where we use the winter months to improve our athlete’s speed and strength at threshold. We can afford to do this higher intensity training because in the winter there are no volume demands on our training schedule and there are plenty of opportunities to recover from the hard training.

The net is that our Endurance Nation OutSeason® plan has between six and eight hours of weekly training — total! — across four or five months of the year.

So in the winter, roughly October/November through February/March, we drop the volume dramatically, turn up the intensity…dramatically…making our athletes much, much faster. The average Endurance Nation athlete improves his/her Ironman® or Half Ironman® race pace on the bike by 1.5 to 2 miles per hour, and over a minute per mile faster on the run…often making them 30 minutes faster than last years version of themselves, long before they have even started to ride longer than 90 minutes.

Once the weather turns and we can add volume without burning the athlete out on a trainer, we drop the intensity and add more miles.

Triathlon training culture and old-school coaching books continue to sell the need for many long, aerobic miles before speed can be properly added. The result is snow-bound, age group athletes doing 4-5hr trainer rides, and 12-15hr training weeks in February, months and months before their goal race. Not only is it an inefficient way to train, the mental cost to the athlete is off the charts.  Since we all live in a world where 5-7hrs per week in the winter — when it’s cold, dark, and months and months from goal race — is simply more appropriate, our training approach shifts to low volume/high intensity because it’s simply the best, most time efficient way for real world age groupers to train.

3. Volume is Race-Specific

Just because volume isn’t the means by which we build your fitness over the season doesn’t make it any less important inside Endurance Nation. In fact, we provide multiple options for our Team to put in some epic training: our annual Tour of California Cycling Camp, various Triathlon Rally events on IM courses, member-run camps across the country, and even members-only plans for big bike and big triathlon-specific training weeks.

Each of these different opportunities shares a single common thread: they are all focused opportunities ranging from three to seven days in duration. They are structured to have an impact on your actual race performance, with the timing of the Texas Rally, for example, set to approximately 4 weeks prior to the event.We’ve found that these relatively short volume pops are a much more time-efficient way to dramatically boost endurance — assuming, of course, that you have the time to do them. Rather than requiring them to nickle and dime their families for multiple 5-6hr training days every week for months and months, we work with our athletes to put a Big Bike or Big Tri Week/Weekend “X” days out from their race.

With your Fast already built, it’s easy to add Far to the equation because volume isn’t actually that hard. If you and I were planning on a 2.5-hour ride, but I rolled up and said let’s go 3.5-hours, it ain’t no big thing. You wouldn’t tell me that you have to train more before you could ride another hour with me…you’d simply go get another energy bar. Done.

It’s not the individual dose of volume that can be damaging, rather it’s the cumulative effect of repeat days, weeks and months of such training that can cause serious issues such as injury and over-training.For the average age-group triathlete, the weekly volume of training required to complete an Ironman® or 70.3® is at or above the basic level of time they can sustain.

By leveraging intensity early in the year and then dialing the focus over to volume as race day approaches, Endurance Nation takes a season of massive training hours and boils it down to an eight to twelve week focused exercise.

Remember, the reason why the Endurance Nation athlete doesn’t do months and months of 5-6hrs long rides, 3hr long runs, 2hr brick runs, isn’t swimming 3x week in January for a race in September, or spending 2hrs/wk in the gym is because Rich and Patrick have learned better through their own training (aka School of Hard Knocks) and through coaching thousands of age groupers just like you. We have done the 3-hour tempo runs, the back-to-back to back 120 mile cycling days for weeks on end, the 25-hour training weeks until implosion.

We’ve learned what works, what doesn’t, and what can be done better — through our own extensive training, racing, and coaching experience — so you don’t have to experiment and, frankly, make the same mistakes we did.

4. Race Day is about Execution not Fitness

Conversations in the triathlon space are dominated by discussions on how to train and what $$$$ aero widget to buy. How far/long/hard/often should I bang my head against the wall each week and which $150 bottle is going to save me 15 seconds on race day?We’ll say it again because it bears repeating: we’ve raced over 25 Ironmans between us. We’ve brought thousands across finishlines in the last decade. TeamEN has 20-45 athletes at every US Ironman. Either Rich or Patrick has been AT every one of those races to support the Team, for years. In short: we’ve made, managed, or observed more rolls of the Ironman® racing dice than probably any two coaches on the planet.Our Number One Observation is that race day is about execution, not fitness. Regardless of how they got there, how they trained, etc, 95% of Ironman® athletes at the starting line are very, very fit.

What separates people at the finish line the most is how they drive that fitness vehicle on race day. The race course is littered with the bodies of very fit guys and gals…who just don’t know how to race.

Therefore, we view proper race execution as free speed and about half of our members-only resources are dedicated to teaching everyone on the team how to race with the collective experience of 1000’s of Ironman® finishes — an extensive Ironman® How-To, webinars in swim, bike, run and nutrition execution, power and run pacing calculators, threads to collect sneaky speed tips on bike set up, gearing, and much more.

It’s important to remember that there are many different ways to get stronger and faster as a triathlete. Endurance Nation’s approach focuses exclusively on the age-group athlete who has real-world constraints and commitments, but the lessons we have learned above can help anyone looking to seek improvement. And who knows, your family might just enjoy being on the sidelines watching you execute the perfect race!

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AUTHOR

Coach P

All stories by: Coach P
2 comments
  • Shane
    REPLY

    “You and I weigh the same and we run the same three mile course. I average 8:00 miles and you average 9:00 miles. I’ve moved the mass of my body (the same as yours!) over the same distance in less time. I’ve done more work than you. Lets call it 300 units to your 200 units.”
    I know what you're getting at but by the real/correct definition of “work”, then the work done (in Joules) would be pretty much the same (same mass moved over the same distance). The rate at which the work was done (ie power) is different.

  • Shane
    REPLY

    “You and I weigh the same and we run the same three mile course. I average 8:00 miles and you average 9:00 miles. I’ve moved the mass of my body (the same as yours!) over the same distance in less time. I’ve done more work than you. Lets call it 300 units to your 200 units.”
    I know what you're getting at but by the real/correct definition of “work”, then the work done (in Joules) would be pretty much the same (same mass moved over the same distance). The rate at which the work was done (ie power) is different.

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