Endurance Nation Five Keys of Triathlon Coaching, Part I

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We’d like to share with you our distilled summary of what triathlon coaching is all about, learned from our nearly 20 years of triathlon coaching, training, and racing experience. Our goal is to make you, our readers and ENFans, a much better self-coached triathlete by sharing with our experience and bringing you several years up the learning curve.

In Part I we’ll discuss the Keys 1-4. In Part II we’ll discuss Key #5. Finally, in Part III we’ll contrast our approach with the conventional triathlon coaching wisdom.

The Five Keys are entirely a function of the need to both maximize and reserve your training time investment for as long as possible to meet real world constraints.

Everything we do — the workouts, the structure, everything — flows backwards from the fact that you are an age group athlete living in the real world. Period. We feel very strongly that any discussion of how to train that does not begin, in the first sentence, with defining how much time you have to train, is largely invalid. In other words, we can’t talk about what goes in your training box without first talking about how big your box is.

LIFE — not a spreadsheet, not a coach, not a book — dictates the size of that box. This is an absolute, do not pass go thing you gotta get through your head. This is all just a game and it MUST fit within your life.

Endurance Nation Five Keys of Triathlon Coaching 

  1. Real World Volume
  2. Maximize Return on Time Invested
  3. Fitness = Ability to Perform More Work
  4. Intensity = Most Flexible Tool to Manipulate Training Load
  5. The Best Predictor of Performance is Pace/Watts at Functional/Lactate Threshold.

I. Real-World Volume Your training plan is a box of workouts. Your life is also a box. You insert your training plan box into your life box. Any discussion of what goes into your training box without first discussing the size of your life box is inherently flawed.

In our experience, there is very little you, the real world athlete can learn from the training of a Pro (genetic freak) with relatively unlimited training AND recovery resources. His weekly training plan (frequency + volume + intensity) reflects the reality of being able to train 25-30+ hours a week and sleep 9-11hrs PER DAY! Your training plan must reflect your reality: 1-2hrs per workday, max, with consistent 3-4hrs per day available on the weekends, maybe. Oh, and don’t forget those pesky work, family, and personal life commitments.

We discount or ignore any triathlon coaching protocol that is either not framed in this perspective from the start, or is framed from the perspective of 18+ hours per week. That is not the real world. We begin our triathlon coaching conversations with this very simple question:


What is the training week (frequency + volume + intensity) that works for 95% of age groupers 95% of the time?

II. Maximize Return on Time Invested What time returns on race day are you getting for every minute of training time invested? 10′ to pack a bag + 15′ drive to the gym + 45′ weight session + 20′ shower and change + 20′ drive x 2-3 days per week…what exactly are you getting on race day for that significant time investment? What are the true costs of that time, to your work, family, and personal life? If you can achieve the same results with a 1:30 ride as you can with a 2:30 ride, why waste an hour of your day? More importantly, why would you want to compromise the more important parts of your life (work, family, etc) when you don’t need to in order to reach your race day goals?

Within this point, recognize that the cost of your time, your primary training input, is highly variable across the season. For example, a four hour ride on the trainer in a cold basement in January before your son’s 9am hockey game is much more costly than a 4 hour focused, race-specific ride 6 weeks out from your event.

Our advice to you here is: don’t nickle and dime your life and your family for 1-2hrs here and there, week after week, for months before your race. Instead, keep the volume as low as you can for as long as you can, spending those training hours and the associated Spousal Approval Units (SAUs) closer to your race, where they can do you the most good.

III. Fitness = Ability to Perform More Work The measure of your current fitness is the ability to do work: to move the mass of your body through space, via wheels, water, or shoes, at pace/speed/watts X for distance/time Y. “Fitness”, as you know it, is simply your body’s ability to perform work at a specific work rate. Don’t worry about what is/is not going on inside your body, or how fit you are. Instead, focus on the output of that fitness, which is your body’s ability to perform the work of pedaling a bike at 20mph for two hours or to tick away 9:00 miles on the run.

Training Overload:

However, your body is very efficient and will only adapt itself to the stresses that you place upon it. If you all you ever do is ride 20mph or run 9:00 miles, your body will not be forced to adapt to perform more work. Any training session, therefore, is nothing more than an opportunity to make your body do more work than it’s accustomed to. The cumulative effect of this increased stress applied over a week, a month, a training period, etc, is that your body is forced to adapt to this ever increasing stress. The expression of this increased adaptation is the ability to do more work = you can go faster and/or longer, ie, you have become more fit.

In summary,

  • Fitness is the ability to perform more work.
  • My body is currently adapted to perform work at a specific work rate.
  • I introduce my body to increasing levels of stress and it adapts.
  • The expression of this adaptation is the ability to perform work at a higher work rate, ie, I go faster for longer

IV. Intensity = Most Flexible Tool to Manipulate Training Load: The vehicle in which you do this work and apply training stress to your body is your training week. To express your training week as a simple equation:

Weekly Training Stress = Frequency x Volume x Relative Intensity


  • Frequency: Number of swims, bikes and runs per week. Largely dictated by your real life and is relatively static. You can ride three times, run four times and swim three times per week because life SAYS you can. Once you reach the frequency that life lets you have, you’re done.
  • Volume: the length of these sessions, measured by time. Volume is relatively flexible in the short term, becoming inflexible in the long term. That is, your Wednesday run can go from 30 minutes to 45 minutes to 60 minutes…but then becomes fixed, as life only gives you 60′ to run on Wednesday. Likewise, your life can accommodate a 2-3hr long ride relatively easily, week after week. However, the life cost of the ride rises very quickly above 3-4hrs. Therefore, your ride tops out at a consistent 3-4hrs per session because this is the volume that LIFE says you can get done, week after week, while still wearing your husband/wife/father/mother hats on the weekends.  Your job then as a self-coached athlete is to maximize the work you get done in the time that life gives you.
  • Relative Intensity: How “hard” you go for each session. Intensity is infinitely more flexible, as you can manipulate training zones, paces, etc to achieve a variety of goals.

In summary, Intensity is your best tool for manipulating weekly training stress because it is so flexible and is often the only tool you have!

  • Frequency: life says you can only swim x, bike y, and run z times per day week. Done.
  • Volume: life says you can only run 60′ on Wednesday, or ride consistently 3-4hrs on Saturday. Done
  • Intensity: but there is no end to the variety of Zone This, Pace That variations you can do within these fixed inputs of frequency of volume.

We’ll leave you with this thought: traditional triathlon coaching focuses on volume as the primary training input. Frequency is fixed, intensity is always low, so the only way to introduce a training overload, forcing your body to adapt, is to manipulate training volume…up and up and up. A 3hr ride becomes 3.5 becomes 4 becomes 4.5 becomes a 14 hour week becomes 16 hours becomes 18 becomes 22 becomes…what? Divorced? Jobless? Homeless?

Think about it: if training volume is your primary training input, and life puts a limit on that input, what do you do then? Remember: the training box fits within the life box. The answer is to change your perspective from training = time, to training = the application of work to the time that life gives me. Once you’ve made that mental shift, you’ve now freed yourself to do more work, in less time, getting much faster while retaining the delicate time balance between work, family, training and lifestyle.  In the end, this all just a game.

Want to Learn More? Take our FREE seminar below!

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Coach P

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