Training Load - Intensity vs. Volume
Sure, speed can be gained by shorting the critical volumes and doing more intense workouts. However, a drastic reduction in total race time is realized when an athlete "hits the wall" during a race and the risk of this happening is also greater. In addition, the chance of injury is drastically increased with this kind of short cut. It is much more beneficial and safe to meet the critical volume via aerobic riding before adding significant amounts of intensity.
Does this mean no intensity will be done in preparation for the race? No, it just means that a significant amount of time during the buildup will be dedicated to aerobic efficient saving the final 10 weeks for periodic intensity workouts. The exception is those athletes who are either born with the ability to be more aerobic or have become very aerobic over years of training volume. In fact, it is often these athletes who require more intense training in order to continue any significant long-term aerobic development. These are the athletes who, when given the option to do a 20-minute all-out effort or a three-minute all-out effort, will choose the 20-minute effort without even a thought. Typically, the maximum average pace that these athletes can sustain over only three minutes is very similar (on a relative basis) to that which they can sustain over a full 20 minutes. This is the same athlete whose Olympic-distance race pace is only minimally faster than their 70.3 race pace. Simply put, they lack that extra gear! These athletes will typically be best served to side with the physiological component (speed work), when between 16 and 30 weeks out from race day.
Either way, as race day draws closer and closer, be it a sprint race or full Ironman, it is absolutely essential to include as much race-specific training as possible (aerobic training in the case of Ironman). Many people call this reverse periodization, however, the need for this approach is quite rare — maybe 1 in 100 athletes as it requires unique physiology, and/or years of aerobic training (near 10,000 hours in many cases).
Also realize that additional training beyond critical volume does not typically do much but decrease speed potential due to inadequate recovery between key workouts, elevated catabolic hormones, and the inability to push previous bests on the key intensity days due to a fried peripheral system. Typically athletes who have gained the durability (through volume) to race a double ironman don't have the speed potential to be competitive at the single iron distance. This is the same with ultra marathons relative to marathons. Due to this realization, more isn't always better. Instead, just enough, with good quality mixed in at the appropriate doses is the correct approach. Build volume slowly over many years (add 30 percent max per year), mix in good quality workouts and never do anything today that even has the slightest chance of risking tomorrow.
Biking and Running — An Appropriate Balance
Recently, I’ve noticed many athletes with run limiters really focusing and in some cases over focusing on their run training volume. Although bigger run miles can lead to better running, that doesn’t always lead to faster run times off of the bike in triathlon. How does one know what the correct balance is between bike and run training for the sport of triathlon?
If you are an athlete training for a triathlon, I never like to see the run volume on a weekly basis much more than a 1/5 of the bike volume. That is, if the bike mileage is 200/week, we shouldn’t see the run mileage beyond 40 miles. This applies for all races where bike training mileage is below 150 percent of critical volume (450 in IM, and 275 in half IM). This ensures that the athlete has the bike durability required to use his run off of the bike. Although run mileages that exceed this rule may improve open run times, this improvement will likely be negated (and in many cases reduced further) in triathlon running due to the significant impact that the bike ride will have on the athlete on race day — an athlete is simply not in a position to run well off the bike.
Another key realization related to improving bike speed/power is that run miles hurt cycling strength and vice versa. Simply using the same triathlon bike program with no running will result in more bike strength than a more balanced triathlon program. This makes how you approach the bike-run balance important to the bike strength discussion. If run volume is reduced, it becomes important to keep the hip flexors engaged via stretch band work, power cranks, and or other targeted hip flexor work.
To help summarize the process, the early years of a career should be focused on building durability and aerobic efficiency with an even bike/run balance (years 1-5, or even 1-7). After reaching critical volume safely, the athlete may stay focused on bike volume increases up to 150 percent critical volume while maintaining run volume up to critical volume depending on bike vs. run performance. At this point, which very few athletes reach, it may be best served to hold bike volume where it is with increased intensity work depending on how aerobic your physiology has become.
As always, patience is the key! Stay focused on your long-term goals and try not to rush things, even as many folks around you may be doing just that!
Jesse Kropelnicki is an elite/pro level triathlon coach who founded QT2 Systems, LLC, a leading provider of personal triathlon coaching; TheCoreDiet.com, a leading provider of sports nutrition; and Your 26.2 a marathon training company. He is the triathlon coach of professional athletes Caitlin Snow, Ethan Brown, and Pedro Gomes among others. His interests lie in coaching professional triathletes using quantitative training and nutrition protocols. You can track his other coaching comments/ideas via his blog at www.kropelnicki.com.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.