Thoughts on Triathlon

As I work on transitioning into triathlon, I’m clearly approaching a different set of challenges and have to orient my training very differently than I’ve been doing for road cycling the last several years. The obvious questions I face, along with any athlete, is how do I best train for my goal events? Well, here are some of the main topics I’ve been thinking about, which I’ll post a few articles about:

– positives and challenges as I move to triathlon

– training structure and periodization (and how it will differ from past training)

– body composition/body mass

– pacing (bike versus running, even pacing versus not)

To get things started, I thought I would address two of these issues. The first two and last two listed above seem highly related to me, so I’ll do two at a time.

Positives: I’m happy with all of my cycling experience and hope that I can sustain a lot of the bike fitness that I have from road cycling as I try to enhance my swimming and running fitness. With the cycling fitness that I have, I will probably lean on that training more than the others as I transition into running and swimming more and more. This is largely because my workout quality and risk for injury will probably be better on the bike than running, but the aerobic fitness will carry over well to running. Swimming, on the other hand, seems like its own thing to a certain extent and relies on its own training and technique development.

That being said, I’m also pleased to look back on my running background and derive some level of confidence about my previous ability to train at a relatively high mileage and my previous running performances. Already, I know from the feel of things that I am basically as fit of a runner as I ever was in past years, because my training paces and faster running paces in workouts feel very much the same. But, I do have a little extra body mass that helps with cycling, but just hinders efficiency running and increases the stress on my bones and joints. (Not that it matters, but I used to weigh about 138-142lb/63-64kg as a runner through high-school and early college, whereas as a cyclist I have been more like 162-165lb/73-75kg.)

Concerns/Challenges: My biggest two concerns or challenges are swimming and injury prevention, primarily with running. More specifically, swimming is an event driven largely by technique, and I know that I will need to work on improving that in order to be competitive. I’m confident that I can, but at the same time, it’s not like running and cycling where you generally will get better by just doing the sport. Swimming requires learning and practicing good technique. Ultimately, it’s the sport in which I have the least experience and the most room for improvement.

In order to try to move forward and keep a good outlook on things, I’ve proactively tried to focus on improving technique and taking positive lessons or experiences out of every swim practice. Rather than be concerned about how I might not be a good swimmer now, I can try to identify things (or use other people to help identify things) that I can work on and improve. And, just as a general observation and experience that I’ve had so far, it seems like swimming should probably look easy. If you look like you’re trying hard, you’re probably not working very efficiently and are wasting energy, so if you can make it look easy, that is likely to be a very efficient technique… Clearly that won’t necessarily teach you anything about what good technique is or what’s going to be fast, but it’s something to keep in mind.

As far as injury prevention is concerned, I’ve never had any serious running injuries in the past and have been very happy about that. Even in college as I worked up to keeping a pretty steady 50-80 mile training load per week, I was able to avoid anything other than minor passing aches and soreness. That being said, I haven’t run much in several years and have more weight impacting my bones and joints, so just being aware of those things, I am trying to be proactive in keeping the volume and intensity of my running modest. I intend to increase it slowly and steadily, paying attention to any discomfort that I feel, so that I can hopefully avoid any trouble.

Overall training structure and periodization: Triathlon is definitely a very different sport than cycling and has very different energy demands, so the training structure will necessarily be different in order to accomplish different goals. I’ve done a lot of thinking about how I want to arrange my cycling, running, swimming, and cross training.

First off, the events themselves will be determined mostly by your ability to sustain a high pace for a long time, whereas in bike races that’s very important but so too is your ability to put in much more intense efforts intermittently at crucial moments. In training for bike races, intensity usually rises progressively throughout a training cycle, but for triathlon, it seems a different approach should be taken. Roughly speaking, I think that the first 2/3 of a training cycle for a triathlete should get higher in volume and intensity as the athlete tries to build up their endurance and high-end aerobic fitness. This would look similar to a traditional progression for a bike racer. But, in the last several weeks before a key event, the triathlete will probably engage in a cycle that narrows the focus (and reduces their intensity a little) to focus specifically on training at or around race-pace, building their tolerance to those intensities. I think I’ll approach the sport by trying to build the most endurance and aerobic capacity that I can before narrowing the focus down to threshold or just below as I get ready for goal events. I will still want to be doing some longer and more intense workouts to try to sustain a high level of endurance and aerobic capacity, because I think that will still be important. So, that might look something like this graph:

triathlon macrocycle

A training cycle might start out with moderate volume, but quickly increase over a few months and then sustained at a high level before being reduced in the last 3-6 weeks before a key event. Intensity would also start out at a moderate level, slowly increase, and then peak maybe 2-3 months out from a key event before being decreased to focus more specifically on race-pace intensities and less so on above threshold efforts to develop maximal aerobic capacity or anaerobic fitness. Likewise, cross training (e.g. strength training, plyometric training, flexibility training) would start off at maybe 2x/week, progress to 3x/week as volume and overall foundational fitness progresses, and finally could be reduced as sport specific training intensity increases, at which time it may be included just 1-2x/week. Of course, this is vague and general, but I hope gets the idea across. Basically, you still want to develop maximal aerobic fitness, but I think that then it will be good to focus that fitness on race-pace specific training for 3-6 weeks going into a key event so that you can use your fitness to its potential by increasing tolerance to the sub-maximal efforts required by triathlon.

Again, because of my recent background, I will rely more on cycling than running to gain fitness initially, but will increase my running volume as I find that my body tolerates it (i.e. that I get less and less sore or stiff from running). I do think, however, that I will never engage in truly high-mileage running, because of the increased risk for injury and because I know that runners are more prone to anemia than cyclists or swimmers, largely because of the trauma that blood cells sustain while pounding the roads or trails.  I don’t know if this was the case with me, but I do know that I personally had low blood values (i.e. hematocrit, hemoglobin, etc.) back when I was a runner, whereas the last few years as a cyclist, my blood values have been much more normal (say, hematocrit around 42-44 versus 36-38 as it was 10 years ago). Of course there are other factors in involved in this, so it’s hard to say for sure, but it’s definitely something I want to monitor. To that end, with moderate running volume I will focus more on brick workouts and running at or around race-pace more than just getting in mileage at slower paces. This should allow effective training at a lower volume and maximize the improvements at race-pace, because runners tend to get the most efficient at the paces they regularly practice. For that reason, I want to practice the neural and muscular stresses of running at those paces more than I want to rack up a lot of miles just for the sake of doing so. (Again, I would insert a plug for my favorite book on endurance sport training, Better Training for Distance Runners by Martin and Coe, advocating for multi-pace training as opposed to the popular but increasingly outdated Lydiard method.)

Likewise, I will try to develop good swimming technique through practice in training sessions, but there is limited fitness to gain from swimming itself. Even though it is probably my biggest liability right now in the sport, it’s also the shortest leg and relies the least on fitness per se and more on technique and being able to quickly and efficiently cover the distance. Just like biking, as you increase your speed swimming, the effort and energy required goes up exponentially, but for the time gained, that curve is even steeper. Namely, if you go faster on the bike and try to save 2-3m then you probably have to go maybe 4% harder, but if you want to save 2-3m on the swim, then you have to go probably 10-15% harder assuming you’re swimming in the mid-20m range. Again, 70.3 favors fitness and effort in cycling and running more than in swimming. I will do what I can to get as fast as I can, but focus on doing so in the most relaxed fashion that will allow a smooth transition into the bike leg with minimal wasted energy… again, assuming you’re an average to good swimmer, saving 2m on the swim will likely tire you out and cost you more time later in the race.