4 Keys to Your Best Season

By Jason Gootman and Will Kirousis | Feb. 17, 2015, 6:13 p.m. (ET)

Gain fitness and have fun doing it this year

Are you using awesome training principles? Or just logging lots of miles? These are the ways the best triathletes in the world train. And you can adopt them today! Are you ready to stop just logging miles and really get fast?

Swim, ride and run enough to stimulate adaptation, not to fill all available time.

runningOne of the first areas we investigate with a new athlete we’re starting to coach, and that we monitor in an ongoing sense for the athletes we coach, is how much time they have available for workouts. Highly motivated athletes often look at their day and suspect that any time not taken up by work, chores and family/friends can and should be used for swimming, riding and running.

This approach results in no down time, no real rest and greatly impedes recovery. Without strong recovery, plateaus are inevitable. You will train and train and train — and stay the same. Poor recovery also makes you more susceptible to injuries. And when you’re injured, you can’t do any of this fun stuff. And not taking any downtime is a road paved to burnout. When you are always pushing forward and always need to be accomplishing something, you never recharge (physically, mentally or emotionally) and you’re not a machine. Your desire to improve needs to be balanced with your desire to just be. When you look at your schedule for a given week, yes, plan your swims, rides, runs and other workouts, but also leave some space for rest. Build some slack into the system.

Training is about creating adaptation, which leads to improvement. Workout load (workout volume times workout intensity) is a way of quantifying the stimulus you take on that your body attempts to adapt to. Because load is described several ways, it can be complicated to use in an example. So, to clarify this point, let’s simply use hours of working out at a set level of intensity. Imagine you need to workout for eight hours a week with that mix of workouts (different intensities) to create adaptation and improvement, but you had as much as 15 hours available to workout on most weeks. You could do almost twice as much and get double the results, right? Wrong! If the amount of work you are doing is stimulating adaptations to occur, that means that it is already enough to knock you out of homeostasis — your body’s desired set point where everything is operating smoothly and in rhythm. Anything beyond that amount of work, which was stimulating positive adaptation to occur for you, is amplifying fatigue significantly, and doing nothing more! Doing an hour or two more, may increase your rate of improvement slightly, but, beyond that, you’re really only going to be fatiguing yourself. This will impede your recovery from your workouts. At best, you will plateau. At worst, you will slow down, get hurt and burn out. It’s not easy to find the exact amount, type and layout of workouts that’s right for you. It takes some experimenting and communication between you and your coach to fully dial in. They key is to find that sweet spot where you are creating adaptation and improvement and not get greedy. If you stay on an improvement curve, over time, you can reach any goal.

Take-home message: Do only enough swimming, cycling and running to see improvement. More is not better.

Ride the workout/monitor/adjust/repeat train.

Often athletes set a pattern of training, and just keep going as is only adjusting for major life events like work travel or graduations. This approach makes it hard to find the right workout load at a given time. The right workout load is the load that is stimulating improvement and leaving you in a state where you are continually eager to workout.

It’s a mistake to set up a pattern of workouts and rest days and assume it will work for you indefinitely. Good training is a process of monitoring how you are responding to training and adjusting how you are training accordingly and continually repeating this process. Many triathletes set a course of training, put their head down and do it, no matter what. If they are improving or not improving. If they are tired or feeling great. If there are other things going on in their life or not. The best training is a continual process of train/monitor/adjust/repeat. Some professional triathletes, for example, do not determine what workouts they will do on a given day until they wake up that morning and receive an assessment from their coach and exercise-science professionals. The triathlete goes through a battery of assessments, which determine their readiness to work out that day. Only after that assessment are that day’s workouts determined. While that’s not possible for most triathletes, a combination of objective and subjective monitoring of your training response on a regular basis will help you to train more effectively.

Resting heart rate and heart rate variability are useful objective measures. Assessing the quality of your sleep, how much you are enjoying your workouts, your level of muscle soreness, your mood and your desire to workout are also very useful. Increases in resting heart rate, decreases in heart rate variability, not sleeping well, poor mood, lingering soreness and decreased desire to and enjoyment from workouts, are all signs of reduced readiness to work out and call for reduction in planned workout load or complete rest.

We recommend you continually assess your training response and adjust your training accordingly. If you work with a coach, your coach will work with you to help you continually monitor and adjust your training to keep you on the best course. 

Take-home message: Sometimes you need to make adjustments with your training. Sometimes the best way to train on a given day or week may be to do a little more than you had planned, to do a little less than you had planned, or to do something a bit different than you had planned. Adjusting is not failing — it’s optimizing. 

Go hard and take it easy — do both with excellence!

Some of the athletes we coach are teachers. So they have time off for school vacations and a few months off in the summer. They often ask us, “I have all this time next week, so I can train like a pro right?” The answer is yes, but the details of our answer are not often what they expect to hear. We often have them work out very similarly to how we’d have them work out in weeks when they are teaching. And we encourage them to get more sleep, get more rest and use the additional time they have to prepare top-quality meals. You see, that’s the benefit of not working. If this goes well after multiple weeks, and they are in great recovery balance, we may start to increase their workout load given the demands of work are so much lower and they are using the extra time well for great sleep, rest, nutrition and recovery techniques.

That’s the benefit a pro has. More time to sleep, rest, eat and employ specific recovery techniques like massages and Epsom-salt soaks. What pros get, better than most age-groupers, is that training well is about being both a workout champion and a recovery champion. It’s about getting awesome sleep. It’s about getting awesome rest. It’s about having outstanding nutrition habits. Getting this requires an attitude shift for many triathletes. You must come to see that you have two jobs in order to become a better triathlete. First, you must work smart and appropriately hard at swimming, cycling and running. Second, you must excel at taking it easy. Few triathletes truly master both. Those that do go very fast.

Take-home message: Learn to excel at both working out hard and taking it easy and you will greatly steepen your improvement curve.

Do the right intensity for each workout.

The most common mistake we see when reviewing training logs, talking with athletes and viewing workout files from power meters and pace monitors is missing the boat for the prescribed workout intensity for a given workout. That’s fancy for going too hard when a more modest intensity is called for and not going hard enough when a more challenging intensity is called for. 

Triathletes are a motivated bunch, and doing a workout that feels light often feels entirely counterproductive. Conversely, because we all love to cover lots of ground fast (like racing) we often steadily tick up the effort on workouts so it feels like we’re getting some good work in. The catch is that when we constantly push up the pace, to “get a good workout,” we lose the positive benefits of working out at different intensities. Instead, you end up a little too tired to really nail your hard workouts strong, a little too tired to recover well, and ultimately, a little too tired to improve. 

With the athletes we coach, we give them specific pace, power-output and heart-rate zones for their workouts. This way they always know how hard to go. If you are not working with a coach or don’t otherwise have personalized intensity zones, follow these guidelines to keep your intensity down for workouts other than interval workouts or race-specific workouts: 

  1. You should not feel acid starting to burn in your muscles.
  2. You should be able to speak in short sentences with someone nearby.
  3. You should feel like “I could do this all day long.”
  4. You should feel like you are never pushing the pace.
Take-home message: In workouts other than interval workouts and race-specific workouts, keep your intensity down. This allows you to go hard when going hard is called for. Together, this gets you the optimal training effect.

Learn more about Jason Gootman, Will Kirousis,and Tri-Hard at tri-hard.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.