Five Keys of Triathlon Coaching, Part III: TeamEN vs Traditional Triathlon Coaching Approaches

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In Part I we introduced you to the Five Keys of Triathlon Coaching, and discussed one through four. In Part II we discussed Key 5, lactate threshold training. Finally, in Part III, we summarize how the “TeamEN Way” is different from how you’ve probably been accustomed to thinking about triathlon coaching.

Let’s start by reviewing perhaps the foundation of all endurance training: Progressive Overload

Your body is lazy, only adapted to the stress that you place upon it. The objective of training is to impart greater and greater stresses on your body, progressive overload, forcing it to adapt and become more fit. Traditional long course triathlon training ignores or obfuscates this fundamental principle. Instead the focus of the discussion is:

  • Magical, tasty, aerobic adaptations that happen at Zone 1-2 and do not happen in Zone 3 or 4.  All you need to do is just punch the clock (a lot) in these zones and your body will be ready for the race…which it will, no doubt. But this approach ignores the science of human physiology, which says that increased fitness is the expression of adapted muscle fibers. These fibers are recruited, and forced to adapt, across a range of intensities, such that work in Zone 3 and 4 also accomplishes your Zone 1 and 2 objectives…while also making you significantly faster and decreasing your overall time investment.
  • Training volume required for the distance. In our experience, volume has been at the center of long course triathlon discussions, training plans, and lore, becoming deeply anchored within the culture of our sport: “How long does my long bike/run need to be before I’m ready for a successful race…how many total hours do I need to train this, that and the other week…I read/heard that Joe Pro/The Local Fast Guy does 20-30hrs per week!”

The fundamental flaws of these perspectives are:

  • The purpose of training is to introduce greater and greater stress on my body, forcing it to adapt. But…
  • The only intensity I’m allowed to sit on is Zone 1-2 because that’s only where the good stuff happens. But…
  • If my intensity is to remain static, the only tool I have left to manipulate training stress is training volume. But…
  • If I’m a real person in the real world with real world time constraints, and volume is my primary training tool…what happens when I run out of volume?

After working with age groupers for so long, we’ve learned age-grouper-specific perspectives and tools:

Divide your training week into Weekday Hours and Weekend Hours:

  • Weekday Hours: what is the amount of time each day that life gives me to train while still meeting all of my other (more) important obligations? If the answer is 1hr on Monday, 1.5hrs on Tuesday, 45 minutes on Wednesday, etc, THAT’s the box that life gives you. Fit your training within that box and then focus on the details, particularly the appropriate intensity of each session, to ensure you’re getting the best return from your training time investment.
  • Weekend Hours: what amount of training volume is repeatable (physically, mentally, family-ly) week after week after week? Maybe it’s a 2.5hr ride on Saturday and 1.5hrs on Sunday, but anything over this begins to quickly place a lot of stress on your other obligations. That’s fine, it is what it is. We recommend you “Keep the volume as low as you can for as long as you can.” Set the expectation that, about 8-10wks out from your race, you’re going to be asking for a few extra hours of training on the weekends because the race distance requirement a larger volume investment. So, rather than nickle and diming your family for 2+hrs of extra, high life-cost training every weekend for months and months before your race, bank those SAUs (Spousal Approval Units) and ask, months in advance, for permission to cash in those chips on a small handful of very valuable weekends much closer to the race, where the race-specific volume will do you the most good.

Recognize the Variable Cost of Training Hours
Not all hours across your season have the same “life-cost.” Training hours far away from your race, especially in the winter, have a very high motivation, sanity, and family cost. Anyone who has ridden a trainer for four hours at 4am in January, 9 months before their A-race, knows what we’re talking about. Training hours closer to  your race can be a little easier to get (more daylight, better temperatures, a greater sense of urgency), but are extremely valuable. How much money would we have to pay you to skip your long ride four weeks before your Ironman? We thought so!

Our mantra’s of “FAST before FAR,” “keep the volume as low as you can as long as you can,” and the concepts of the Spousal Approval Unit (SAU) and Return on Investment (ROI) are the results of our recognition of the variable time cost of training.

Perhaps the most unfortunate misconception in the tri-space is the notion of aerobic and anaerobic training zones. This has created a culture that believes that in Zones 1 and 2, we are developing “these” fitness components. As we move to Zone 3, a switch is flicked, we stop training the Zone 1 and 2 stuff and are now training Zone 3 stuff. At Zone 4, we are no longer training the Zone 1-3 goodness and instead beginning to enter the “anaerobic zones,” the purview of speedy folks looking to race shorter distances. These hard divisions between zones and their associated fitness components are then combined with the notion of race specific fitness. The training conversation goes like this: “On race day I’m going to spend a LOT of time at a Zone 1-2 effort. Therefore, I need to spend all of my time in Zone 1-2 so I/my body gets really, really good at Zone 1-2 work. Further, if I stray outside these zones I’m actually hampering my Zone 1-2 fitness!

Instead, we focus on the science, which says that increased fitness is the expression of the cummulative adaptations of individual muscles fibers. These fibers only adapt when stressed, when they are recruited, and recruitment happens when I go harder, making more and more muscle fibers chip in and contribute to the work.

Training zones are then “Muscle Recruitment Zones” and the conversation with our athletes goes like this:

  • Zone 4 = just at/under lactate threshold. You’re recruiting a LOT of your muscle fibers, both slow and fast twitch, making them each better at what they do. This is your “get faster zone,” but you’re also getting lots of tasty Zone 1-2 adaptations because nearly all of your slowtwitch fibers are being recruited. This is a very time efficient zone, since as little as 40 minutes of Zone 4 across your cycling week and 30 minutes across your running week can make you significantly faster.
  • Zone 1-2 = your “race-specific” zone for Ironman® racing. As we get closer to your race, the volume of your training increases, intensity must therefore decrease, and we spend more time in Zone 1-2 as a consequence. We also want to make you more comfortable, confident, and familiar with all the things you’ll be doing on race day at this intensity (hydration, nutrition, bike position, etc).
  • Zone 3 = a very valuable place to spend a lot of time. You’re recruiting lots of slow twitch fibers, many of your fast twitch fibers, and you can sit here a long, long time. The result we seen, through analyzing the power and pace files of our athletes, is that they are able to significantly boost the training stress (see Progress Overload Principle) for each session with the same time investment. This is a REALLY time efficient training zone.

The net is that we view training intensities as tools to be applied to your relatively static Weekday Hours and slightly more flexible Weekend Hours. The application of that intensity is a function of where you are in your season, which we define as OutSeason, General Preparation, or Race Preparation:

  • Out-Season: cost of training time is very high = volume goes WAY down, intensity goes WAY up and you get MUCH faster.
  • General Prep: volume can go up (more daylight, warmer) = intensity comes down a bit. But volume is limited by what your life says is repeatable. In other words, your Saturday ride is 3hrs because that’s what is repeatable, not because your Ironman® says that your Week 6 long ride needs to be 3hrs
  • Race Prep: volume goes up again because the distance of the race requires it. Intensity comes down a bit so we can get you better at doing the things you’ll do on race day.


Coach P

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