The Off Season and the Self-Coached Athlete, Part II: The Time Investment Manager

by Rich Strauss, Endurance Nation

In Part I we discussed your role as The Coach. As a typical triathlete, this is the role you’re likely most familiar with, as you search for the latest and greatest training secrets to make you faster. But as your self-coaching instructor, I want you to take a step back and consider your true, more important role: The Time Investment Manager.

As an adult living and working in the real world, you know that TIME is your most precious commodity. You can make more money, you can buy more stuff, but there is only so much of your time to go around and, when you spend it, it’s gone forever. From this simple fact we draw three time investment principles:

Time Investment Principle #1: Any discussion of HOW to train must begin with a discussion of how much time do you have available to train.

Triathlon is culturally predisposed to frame most training discussions within the context of training volume: how much, how far, how long should I train. We also look to two primary sources for training advice: the former Pro Turned Coaching Guru, or the Local Fast Guy. But before you listen to the advice of either, ask yourself one question: “does this person’s lifestyle, and resultant training time available, closely resemble my own?”

The Former Pro: his job was to train, eat, and sleep…and nothing more, creating the ability to train 30 or more hours per week. If that former pro can’t step back from that perspective and frame the training discussion within YOUR constraints — busy age grouper with a fixed amount of time to devote to training — we advise you to significantly discount or ignore their training advice. Quite simply, what worked for him worked because he could do a LOT of it and recover from it. Your life conditions are very different so your training solution must be different.

The Local Fast Guy: again, ask yourself if their life conditions resemble yours. If yes, they may be a valuable learning resource for you. But if they are single, self-employed, no kids, with nearly limitless time to train during the week and on the weekends, and they are not able to frame their advice within your different life conditions, you should discount their advice as well.

Our coaching advice in Part I was framed within the constraints we’ve observed across thousands of age groupers just like you.

Time Investment Principle #2: What is Your Return on Investment (ROI) on Race Day for Every Training and Admin Minute (and Dollar) Invested?

So, your time is limited and we’ve told you to discount much of the advice you’ve been told to listen to…what are you left with? The same principle you likely use to make many decisions in your real life! Triathlon should be no different!

Before you ride 6hrs on a Sunday, or invest  2hrs of training and admin time in a 1hr master’s swim session or weightroom visit, or drop $$$$ on a carbon aero widget, just ask yourself “what is this time or money investment going to get me on race day?” Compare ROI’s between investment choices and make good decisions.

So how should you invest your limited training time and triathlon budget? In our experience, as professional Ironman® coaches coaching a team of age groupers just like you:

High ROI Investments:

  • 45-90 minutes of hard interval training per week, on the bike.
  • Well planned tempo paced running intervals
  • Running frequency
  • 1-on-1 swim lessons, especially with underwater video
  • Training with pace (ie, purchasing a GPS or training on a measured run course)
  • Aero helmet
  • Training with power
  • Bike fit

Low ROI Investments

  • Weight training
  • Swimming year round
  • Race wheels, especially a rear disk
  • Easy cycling volume
  • LSD running, to the exclusion of tempo work

Some of these likely make sense to you. Some may have you saying “WHAAA…..?” For more detail we recommend you take our Rethinking the Off Season virtual seminar.

Time Investment Principle #3: Training Time Cost is Variable Across the Season

Your primary training input is time: time on the bike, time packing a bag, driving to the pool, swimming, showering, etc. We use Principles 1 and 2 to help us decide how and where to apply these time inputs across our training week. But the last missing piece is to understand that not all time is created equal. Our observation is that your time can be more or less expensive, depending on the time of year and your lifestyle constraints. Let’s discuss two typical examples:

Inexpensive Time: 3.5hr Saturday ride in June.

The sun rises at 5am. You can be on the bike by 5:30 am and home by 9:00 am, in time to shower, put your mom/dad hat on and be a responsible human being for the rest of day. You can do that ride in the sun, with your friends, adding a valuable social component to your training. Your goal race, Mont Tremblant or an August half Ironman® is about 8-10 weeks away so this investment in June makes sense to all parties involved, especially your family!

Expensive Time: 3.5hr trainer ride in December
You’ve asked your family and lifestyle to accommodate your crazy triathlon habit all year. You’ve likely incurred some Spousal Approval Unit (SAU) costs in the process. You’ve also committed a large portion of own headspace, for months at a time, to thinking about, motivating yourself, and strategerizing this triathlon game.

Now it’s 5:30am in December, in Chicago, 32 degrees out (heatwave) and you swing your leg over your bike on the drainer. You cast your head forward to your A-race, Ironman® Wisconsin in September, do the math on how many similar trainer rides you have on the calendar before your bike touches the pavement again and make a note to hide the gun from yourself and your family for fear that someone might use it…

Same ride, same time investment, but with dramatically different cost considerations.

Conclusion

We can share many stories of athletes who’ve come to us for advice, after being sentenced to 18hr training weeks, or 4hr Zone 1 base building trainer rides in February for an Ironman® in September. In our opinion, these coaches or Off Season training plans blindly apply the cultural training knowledge of the sport without considering these three deeper principles above.

So, let’s combine our discussions from Part I and Part II to create our Off Season training guidance for you:

  1. The Off Season is best time of the year to make yourself significantly faster:
    • A moderate amount of get-faster training will make you significantly faster on race day (ie, high ROI)
    • There is no competing requirement to also build endurance for your goal race distance. You can separate FAST from FAR, freeing up recovery resources to make you much, much faster.
  2. Your Off Season training should be extremely low volume:
    • Off Season training time is more expensive than In Season time, demanding you spend less of it on high ROI activities.
    • As an age grouper with limited time available, low volume in the Off Season is just the right thing to do, for your head, your lifestyle, and your family.

Yes, I Want To Get Faster This Winter!


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8 comments
  • Rich Strauss
    REPLY

    @Dcontrico, thanks for the discussion.

    In my experience, speed at all distances and intensities is directly related to watts/speed/pace at lactate threshold. If talking about the bike, it's speed at LTHR, or power for a 60' TT effort. As you lift _this_ number you get faster at all lower intensities and longer distances. Same for the run, using pace at LTHR, or you can use pace for a 10k. We prefer to use Jack Daniels' VDot system with our team, recommending they train with pace.

    In my experience, two ways to lift these numbers: pull up from the top or push up from the bottom.

    Push Up: train at lower intensities (call is Z1-2, maybe Z3)
    Pull Up: train at higher intensities (Z4-5, or doing intervals at 95-100% of threshold power)

    I've tried it both ways, for both bike and run. My observation is that, yes, you can lift threshold pace/power/speed with Z1-3 work…but it takes a LOT of volume. My observation, about 15+hrs of cycling per week, and north of 50 miles of running per week. Yes…you will get faster with this training but it's completely unrealistic for 99% of us out there.

    My observation is that it's more time efficient to use the Pull Up method. This is what I've done with my athletes since 2005, as Crucible Fitness, and since 2007 as Endurance Nation. The volume of our OS plans are 6-8hrs total per week, as 3-4 bike, 2-3 run. Historical gains have been ~15% threshold power on the bike and a ~4:30 half marathon PR in 16-20wks of training.

    Now, I've seen similar gains with Z1-3 training, but the volume required is at least twice what we've had our folks doing. In the end, all I can say is that I've done it both ways, the later across many, many people, and these are the results I've seen.

    Of course, all of this is predicated on my assumption that as your (you) volume goes up, the relative intensity of your overall volume goes down as well. So, while it's entirely possible to get in a good bit of z4-5 training within that 15-20hr week, there will also be a good bit of z1-2 riding and running around it…cuz you only SBR so hard in a 15-20hr training week 🙂

    In my experience, and this is something I'm personally managing as I work through a cycling only training block, is that people achieve better, “make me much faster” results when they drop the volume, significantly increase the intensity, and apply the balance to taking 2-3 days complete off per week to absorb the work. Again, well north of probably 800 folks have done weeks like this — 5-8hrs/wk with 2 days completely off — and have reported much better gains than under a higher volume model.

    The rub is where training method bumps up against lifestyle. I have a lifestyle that would let me train 15, 20, 25hrs per week for month on end. However, I know that what's better for me, from a get faster perspective, is to train much, much hard, leverage my lifestyle to apply recovery to the problem and not spend so much time training. I know this because I've done it both ways and, in the end, I'm just not willing to spend an additional 8-10hrs per week training, to achieve the same results. I call that a lifestyle choice, not a training method.

  • Rich Strauss
    REPLY

    @Dcontrico, thanks for the discussion.

    In my experience, speed at all distances and intensities is directly related to watts/speed/pace at lactate threshold. If talking about the bike, it's speed at LTHR, or power for a 60' TT effort. As you lift _this_ number you get faster at all lower intensities and longer distances. Same for the run, using pace at LTHR, or you can use pace for a 10k. We prefer to use Jack Daniels' VDot system with our team, recommending they train with pace.

    In my experience, two ways to lift these numbers: pull up from the top or push up from the bottom.

    Push Up: train at lower intensities (call is Z1-2, maybe Z3)
    Pull Up: train at higher intensities (Z4-5, or doing intervals at 95-100% of threshold power)

    I've tried it both ways, for both bike and run. My observation is that, yes, you can lift threshold pace/power/speed with Z1-3 work…but it takes a LOT of volume. My observation, about 15+hrs of cycling per week, and north of 50 miles of running per week. Yes…you will get faster with this training but it's completely unrealistic for 99% of us out there.

    My observation is that it's more time efficient to use the Pull Up method. This is what I've done with my athletes since 2005, as Crucible Fitness, and since 2007 as Endurance Nation. The volume of our OS plans are 6-8hrs total per week, as 3-4 bike, 2-3 run. Historical gains have been ~15% threshold power on the bike and a ~4:30 half marathon PR in 16-20wks of training.

    Now, I've seen similar gains with Z1-3 training, but the volume required is at least twice what we've had our folks doing. In the end, all I can say is that I've done it both ways, the later across many, many people, and these are the results I've seen.

    Of course, all of this is predicated on my assumption that as your (you) volume goes up, the relative intensity of your overall volume goes down as well. So, while it's entirely possible to get in a good bit of z4-5 training within that 15-20hr week, there will also be a good bit of z1-2 riding and running around it…cuz you only SBR so hard in a 15-20hr training week 🙂

    In my experience, and this is something I'm personally managing as I work through a cycling only training block, is that people achieve better, “make me much faster” results when they drop the volume, significantly increase the intensity, and apply the balance to taking 2-3 days complete off per week to absorb the work. Again, well north of probably 800 folks have done weeks like this — 5-8hrs/wk with 2 days completely off — and have reported much better gains than under a higher volume model.

    The rub is where training method bumps up against lifestyle. I have a lifestyle that would let me train 15, 20, 25hrs per week for month on end. However, I know that what's better for me, from a get faster perspective, is to train much, much hard, leverage my lifestyle to apply recovery to the problem and not spend so much time training. I know this because I've done it both ways and, in the end, I'm just not willing to spend an additional 8-10hrs per week training, to achieve the same results. I call that a lifestyle choice, not a training method.

  • Dcontrico
    REPLY

    Thanks for the detailed response Rich. I will give it some further consideration. I still haven't convinced myself that my body (muscles/joints) are ready to sustain the intensity you describe.

  • Dcontrico
    REPLY

    Thanks for the detailed response Rich. I will give it some further consideration. I still haven't convinced myself that my body (muscles/joints) are ready to sustain the intensity you describe.

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