We live in the age of acceleration: new technologies and methods of training and coaching are emerging almost daily. Keeping up with all this new information keeps us all on our toes, but some key workouts have stood the test of time. Here are seven standouts and why you should include them in your training plan.
Main set: 10x100 yards
This set is great for all race distances and helps with pace discipline and understanding speed capabilities. It can be used as a test set, final prep to check race readiness or simply as a good, hard training set. Effort level and recoveries can vary, but it’s best used as a hard race pace or threshold effort. Hitting goal times on short recoveries indicates race readiness.
As a former ITU World Cup champion, I used this set throughout my career. I knew I was ready to race when I could nail my goal times. One year, at the end of an exhausting training block, my coach sprang this set on us at the very end of a swim workout. I was bleary-eyed with fatigue, longing to get some recovery and furious with him for doing this to me. But, at about interval No. 4, I realized I was hitting faster times on a shorter send-off than I had at any time in my entire swimming career. I left that session in awe, amazement and filled with confidence at my newfound swim speed.
As a coach, I use this workout with all levels of athletes as it helps us both feel confident in the athlete’s swim progression and preparation.
Open Water Swims
Hands down, this is one of the most neglected aspects of swim preparation. The law of specificity states: train in an environment as close to race conditions as possible. From first-timers to the highly experienced racer, open water training is critical to success. I’ve seen, both as a coach and an athlete, national caliber pool swimmers struggle and panic in the open water. Pool swimming ability does not always directly or quickly transfer to the open water. Although swimming is swimming in any body of water, triathletes need to develop and master a different set of skills for a successful triathlon swim. Navigation, breathing and stroke style are different based on dark water (can’t see the bottom!), rough conditions, currents, temperatures and swimming with hundreds of others around you. Whenever open water is available, I have my athletes out there as much as possible.
When I worked as the USA Triathlon National Development Coach, ITU World Triathlon Series event and World Cup champion Summer Cook was just starting her career as a triathlete. Her swim skills, fitness and speed in the pool were fantastic. Her first day in the open water was cold, and she struggled. After several months of open water swim training, she was first out of the water at her first big race in Clermont, Florida, won the race and earned her pro card.
In my racing days, we just did intervals. And intervals always meant riding very hard. Now, as a coach with a much greater volume of experience, I know that ‘intervals’ simply mean a varying set of intermittent efforts with varying work-to-recovery ratio. This opens the door to a world of possibilities.
Race effort intervals were, at that time, threshold intervals. Sets of intervals consist of 5-20 minutes with short recoveries (1-5 minutes). These intervals are relevant for all race distances, especially short course athletes. Pushing your threshold higher, whether based on heart rate, power or perceived exertion, helps your body learn to buffer lactic acid, improve speed and power and trains your mind to handle the pain of a hard race effort. Threshold efforts give a lot of ‘bang for the buck’ as they are easier to recover from and not as taxing on the body as VO2 max intervals.
When I coached Matt Chrabot during his ITU career, threshold sets were a staple of his training plan and a robust measure of his fitness and race readiness. During this time, he was one of the athletes who was instrumental in keeping the pressure on the field to really race the bike leg.
There are many levels of group rides, even for new cyclists. The ability and opportunity to ride with others helps grow your skills and fitness. You get faster when you train with those who are faster than you and you learn to improve your bike-handling skills. Group riding supports preparation even for non-draft races. If you’re racing draft-legal, group rides are a must!
When we first moved the resident program to Scottsdale, Arizona, from Colorado Springs, one of the first rides the athletes did was the long, local group ride. This helped them learn the roads, meet the local cyclists and work on their group riding skills. We pushed the envelope and had them ride at night to a weekly criterium style group ride on a closed loop course. Katie Zaferes, Chelsea Burns and Kevin McDowell’s skills, fitness and confidence soared after conquering these rides. It’s exhilarating to ride under the lights on a summer night.
Tempo runs are critical to running faster and stronger, especially off the bike. They teach your mind and your muscles to reach a new level of confidence and performance. Your body learns how to buffer lactic acid and your mind learns how to keep pushing when it hurts. During a conversation with elite triathlete Alicia Kaye, I asked what her one key, go-to run workout was that helped her prep for racing. For her, it was the 20-minute tempo run.
As a coach, I assign various distance- or time-based tempo runs and tempo intervals to all of my athletes at all levels of ability throughout the season. Intensity for these sessions can be determined using pace, heart rate or rating of perceived exertion (RPE). There are many definitions of how to do a tempo workout, and much will depend on your level of experience and run fitness. For novice triathletes, the best place to start is at an RPE of 6 on a scale from 0-10. The intervals should feel hard but doable, challenging but at an effort you could sustain for longer intervals.
Long runs help you run stronger, longer and hold your speed in a race. When I first started racing, I always fell apart at about mile 4 of a 10k. After doing my long runs regularly, I ran strong for the whole 10k. The long run can be done many ways, but the most important concept is to make it a relaxed, easy aerobic effort. Just putting in the time or miles consistently.
Running your long run too fast can excessively fatigue your body and hinder your recovery and performance in your quality workouts. Back in my day, Colleen Cannon, one of the fastest triathlon runners of her day, felt so embarrassed by how slow she had to run her long run, that she ran in the dark so no one would see her! More recently, many of the fastest ITU runners follow a run/walk pattern for their long runs. This way, you recover faster, feel better and can run more volume with decreased risk of injury. Run/walk efforts are not just for first-timers!
Run off the bike
Brick workouts are what make our sport so unique. Who doesn’t remember their first run off the bike? Running off the bike can be done throughout the season and throughout your race career. Bricks can be short, long and at various speeds depending on the time of year. It’s also a great way to practice your T2 skills.
Runs off the bike need to be frequent enough that it feels easier and easier to hit the run at race pace as soon as possible, but not so frequent that it compromises your recovery and quality run workouts. Athletes coming into triathlon from a strong running background may feel running is more challenging for a while. Remember, it’s just a skill and a mental hurdle that improves with time and consistent training. The more you do them, the easier they feel and the faster you can run. You know you’re making progress when that stiff, heavy leg feeling disappears sooner and sooner.
To train and race at your best, incorporate these time-honored and athlete-tested workouts as part of your training regimen throughout the race year.
Melissa Mantak, M.A., is a USA Triathlon Level III and USA Cycling Level 1 Certified Coach and has a master’s degree in sports science. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.triathlontraining-coach.com.