This is an excerpt from the new Triathlon 2.0: Data-Driven Performance Training (Human Kinetics, 2016), written by former elite triathlete Jim Vance.
“Fail to plan; plan to fail.” —Benjamin Franklin
Lack of a plan is one of the most common mistakes triathletes make, from elite to beginner. Many triathletes simply train according to peer pressure. Whatever their training buddies are doing, they are going to do it too. If there’s a group ride every Saturday, they will be joining it no matter if the group ride has zero correlation to the skills and energy systems the athlete will use on race day of a half or full IRONMAN.
Many athletes will repeat the same group workouts, day after day, week after week, month after month. In North America, it starts off usually as the daylight hours get longer and the temperature starts to warm up, and athletes are super excited to train hard and get in every group session they can. For the first three months or so, they continue to improve, and they are loving it. Come the fourth or fifth month, they begin to plateau and the frustration of no more improvement begins. They push harder, and they rest more. Training becomes random based on trying to find the one workout that seems to be proof that it still works. They can’t understand how the training worked so well for a while and why it wouldn’t just keep improving indefinitely.
It seems ridiculous to even think that you could do the same training over and over and expect to always improve, but many athletes think just that. This is why periodization is so important and a plan to change the training stress over the course of a season must be present. With no plan, there is no destination or pathway that can be effectively determined, tracked, and achieved.
A general definition of periodization is changing the stress according to different time periods, with the training changing its focus from general ability development to race-specific development over the time frame of the season or buildup to a big race.
For example, base training is the time to address the general abilities an athlete will need to perform on race day. This might include general turnover work and cadence improvement but also basic aerobic fitness development. After all, it is an aerobic endurance sport.
Come the specific preparation period, the main goal of all sessions is to better prepare the athlete for the specific intensity and demands of race day. This considers the athlete’s goals, strengths, and weaknesses; course demands; and the competition demands brought by the quality and attributes of the athletes in the field.
In Joe Friel’s Training Bible series, he uses the following training period names:
This is basically getting the athlete ready to train. This provides the break-in time, where the athlete can get to a healthy state of being ready to train seriously. This may last as little as one week, or if the athlete is really behind, due to a return from serious injury, or the athlete is a beginner just getting off the couch, it could last weeks or months.
Friel breaks this phase into three parts, but it is mostly aimed at developing the general abilities of the athlete to achieve goals. This is the time the athlete should be addressing the most basic weaknesses, like those outlined in chapter 4, Assessing Triathlon Fitness. This is also where the athlete sets the foundation for the body to be able to handle the load and intensity of the workouts in the build phase.
Friel breaks this phase into different parts as well, but this whole time frame is devoted to race-specific preparation. Whatever is going to happen at the main goal event needs to be addressed here. If the course is hilly, the athlete is training on a course with similar hills, at the desired power outputs for race day. If it is going to be hot, the athlete is training in the heat. If the strategy is to attack a certain part of the race, then that attack is practiced and trained here in this phase.
Some might include this in the build phase, but I feel it’s important to be addressed as its own phase, because the goals change from simply representing race demands to trying to do that while also shedding fatigue. How much fatigue you need to shed is entirely individual, based on the importance of the race, the history of the athlete, and the length and demands of the race.
This is dedicated to the off-season or downtime for the athlete. This might last a few months or be as short as a week. Rest and regeneration are the goal, and the athlete is hoping to have the body and mind ready to start training again for the next phase of the season or for a full season.
Other coaches use different terms, but the concept is the same, breaking the time periods up to meet the needs of the body to perform and achieve the goals set.
Planning General Preparation
General preparation, usually called the base phase, is any amount of time up until
12–16 weeks before the race date. This general preparation can be weeks, months, or even years if the plan is more long term. The more time an athlete has in this period, the less risk is needed to get the fitness required. Many athletes raise the training stress too quickly and get injured. A longer time frame allows the training stress to be introduced in smaller amounts, keeping injuries to overuse or overtraining less likely.
Planning Specific Preparation
Specific preparation, usually referred to as the build phase, begins 12–16 weeks out from the race date and lasts up to the race date. The variance in this is based on how fit the athlete is when approaching this time frame. The fitter the athlete, the sooner you might start this period, but beyond 16 weeks begins to risk early plateaus prior to race day. Remember, the goal is to hit the race just before the plateau. This keeps the athlete mentally fresh and physically ready.
What do you do if you have more than 16 weeks of time left and you feel like you’re ready for specific preparation? Good question. If you’re about 17–18 weeks out, and you are certain that you can begin specific preparation without peaking too soon, mentally and physically, then use the time to your advantage and begin the specific prep sessions, but be sure to be generous with your rest and recovery periods. Time is on your side, so don’t take needless risks. This will likely allow the adaptations to take effect and prevent injury or early plateaus. But you must be sure to track the data and metrics to make sure there isn’t a premature plateau or peak before the race.
Actually, you can begin training specifically for the race from a numbers standpoint even many months out from the race. If the goal is to prepare for a certain training stress score (TSS) value for a race, you can begin preparing for the race by creating training sessions at those TSS values. These sessions won’t necessarily have intervals at race intensity, but the TSS to be achieved on race day is perfect general preparation for teaching the body to better perform at that stress level. For example, if you want to ride 180 TSS points in your 70.3 race, you will want to have even long, easy rides in the general base period yield a 180 TSS. This begins to prepare your body for that level of stress, even if easy instead of at race intensity.
There are still a number of subjective aspects of these guidelines to be considered. For example, an athlete who is a very fast runner might not need to reach the higher end of the run chronic training load (CTL) or can make up for not reaching the w/kg for bFTP. A strong rider might not need to reach the bike CTL goal in order to still perform very well, so that rider might focus on run training more.
There are also age and gender considerations to be made; masters athletes and females might have trouble reaching the higher ends of these values.
Course considerations must also be made if the race the athlete is attempting to peak at is a course that demands more bike preparation or run preparation.
Jim Vance is a former triathlete and currently an international triathlon, running and cycling elite coach with TrainingBible Coaching. He is the founder and head coach of the nonprofit organization Formula Endurance, the nation’s first USA Swimming and USA Triathlon high-performance team.
As the first program to take advantage of the latest science and technology, Triathlon 2.0 examines the sport’s most popular devices, including cycling power meters, GPS trackers, and heart rate monitors. Vance, now an elite coach with TrainingBible Coaching, helps you put the numbers to work, translating data into a comprehensive program based on your performance needs and triathlon goals. Triathlon 2.0: Data-Driven Performance Training is now available in bookstores everywhere, as well as online at HumanKinetics.com.
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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.