Long-Course Triathlon – the Basics

One of the interesting things I’ve noticed working with newer Ironman triathletes is that they soon come to terms with the fact that Ironman is less about racing, and more about patient pacing. I often reiterate that it’s actually quite boring, as opposed to bike racing, for example. Gratification, though delayed, does come when the athlete has done the requisite amount of work in training, has tapered well, and executes a smart swim and bike. “It all comes down to that marathon coach,” I’ve heard time and time again. You want to arrive at that critical junction in a long-course race confident and ready to run tough. If, with 10mi to go in the marathon, you want to race, then step on the gas, if you find you have another gear remaining that is.

Here are some notes I’ve recently compiled on setting up our year of long-course triathlon training. Let’s hit our sessions and work mindfully to maintain a healthy balance of training and recovery. Your long-term enjoyment of the sport depends on it.

First off, a periodized training plan gets us to where we want to be; breaking up large periods of times into smaller, more manageable chunks that are used to guide training in order to optimize the physiological adaptations. Determining your Optimal Aerobic Heart-Rate (OAH) is one step in the process. The OAH is the heart-rate an Iron-distance athlete would hold for the majority of the 112mi bike ride still be able to run an effective marathon.

Note: most athletes in January will notice that it’s particularly difficult to keep their heart-rates down in their OAH due in part to the fact that they are just returning to training and experiencing a reduction in aerobic efficiency. It’s January, that’s normal! With frequency and consistency, soon the athlete will be cycling and running faster while at their OAH.

Testing: I am asking all of my athletes to conduct some pre-season tests, to include a 30-45min cycling test, seated, preferably on a climb. Also, athletes will conduct a 6-10mi running test on a flat surface at their OAH. Athletes are asked to report the time at their established OAH as well as distance and pace in both the cycling and running tests. Testing continues at appropriate times within the periodized plan. It is ongoing and allows for quantification of athlete’s progress within training. We then hold ourselves accountable to the data.

It is important to know that periodization is based on the training principles of: Progression, Overload, & Specificity. As Emerson so aptly stated, “That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the nature of the task has changed but our ability to do has increased.” So, over time, you can do more work (but only when you’re consistent). Your body has to be really convinced your serious about your training before it makes the physiological adaptations that allow you to reach new levels. So, overload training is a vital part of any long-course training plan. You want to get faster? Then we may want to consider doing more work than we did last year, or, if time’s a factor, we need to get creative with your available time to train and specifically target those areas that are truly holding you back.

It’s January, let’s look at Running. We’re stressing the body through our run training. Cumulative run training obviously produces a strain on the body. The response is the body will, at nature’s pace, adapt physiologically, thereby increasing your running economy/efficiency. The short-term effects of your run training include: increased muscle blood flow and increased oxygen delivery to working muscles. The long-term effect of a high frequency running program are increased capillary density and increased mitochondrial density. Recall, that mitochondria are the power-house of the cell. My how your body loves the frequency. It’s the big “convincer,” which expedites those physiological adaptations!!

Moving on, here are some other notes on Long-Course racing we should be considering in the pre-season:

Ironman Performance Targets:

Fast Age-Grouper: 10-12 hours / Normal Age-Grouper: 12-14 hours /  Slower Age-Grouper: 14+ hours

Regardless of the finishing time, an Ironman event is an AEROBIC event, usually conducted in Zone 2, otherwise known as your Extensive Endurance Zone. Your OAH is the heart-rate at which you will want to sit on in order to see your peak potential in an Ironman distance event. Above 65% of your max h/r and you’re simply “burning too many matches” and you’ll experience a sub-par marathon. Extensive aerobic training as well as training to save energy, therefore, produce the biggest bang for the buck.

Specificity!! Such a big thing to keep in mind with long-course racing. 80% of what we do in Ironman preparation is addressing your muscular endurance. If you want speed, then show me you can handle consistent 15 – 20 hour training weeks without breaking down. There is a time and place for Ironman-specific speed-work and it’s not typically conducted in the overload period. Again, if you have a substantial amount of aerobic base in the bank coming into your Ironman, that and mostly that is what’s going to carry you over the race. Muscular Endurance is where it’s at.

Limiters – most people are not truly able to analyze their own limiters. That’s why people have a coach! We can talk about where you’re strong and where you still need some work. Endurance, of course, is the first place I’m going to focus.

Endurance is defined as the ability to delay or prevent the onset of fatigue. How far can you go??

Endurance workouts are general volume based workouts, at a low intensity (OAH or lower). Not only volume is important, but for swimming and running, frequency is more important to maintain the neuromechanical connections in addition to the technique required.

Quality vs. Quantity

Quality workouts are efforts that once completed, have met all of the objectives we have laid out. In general, interval or intense training sessions need to be of the highest quality possible.

Quantity (volume) refers to the simple number and volume of the workouts. For running and swimming, frequency, in general, is the key! Quantity maintains technique as well as maintains and creates those fabulous neuromechanical connections!

In reality, if you are training for more than about 12 hours per week, recovery becomes more important than the actual workouts!

Recovery!! (Muscular / Metabolic / Mental)

Muscular recovery is self- explanatory. If you are continually training and training without proper recovery, the quality of the workouts will be compromised and at some point, we will not be able to workout due to injury.

Metabolic (fuel) recovery is just as important as the muscular recovery since it’s supplying the fuel to the muscles in addition to the nutrients they need to repair themselves properly. If you are not replenishing the fuel you are using, you will, AT BEST not see the extent of the physiological adaptations you are looking for, and at worst, end up injured. A great resource for racing and training nutrition is “Nutrition Periodization for Endurance Athletes” by Bob Seebohar, which I first introduced last January.

Mental recovery is also self-explanatory… for most age-groupers, training 2 times per day has the ability to take a toll on the person’s motivations… adding a day off into the training program each week is a great way to recharge the mental side of training! Also, a periodized plan will have recovery weeks inserted a key places, allowing the athlete’s batteries to recharge.

Swim Training >>> Demands of the Race:

2.4 mile open water swim We need to be able to cover 2.4 miles as efficiently as possible. You cannot set a new PR during the swim, but you can ensure you don’t set a new PR during the swim!

Key Swim Workouts
To Finish: Focus on endurance workouts that will allow you to comfortably swim the 2.4 miles
To Compete: Focus on longer steady-state efforts at T-Pace Ex: 5 x 500 @ Threshold Pace on 20m recovery interval, for example

Bike Training – Demands of the Race >>>

112 miles over variable terrain. We need to know the course to ensure our training is appropriate (IMAZ vs. IMWI)
For most age-groupers, it’s highly advisable that they stay in Zone 2!

Key Bike Workouts –
To Finish: Focus on endurance workouts that will allow you to comfortably ride the 112 miles in addition to some of the workouts on the next slide, but at the lower end of the recommended numbers

To Compete:

1. Maintaining the proper intensity for 5+ hours, with the proper mental focus

2.Longer efforts in Zone 4 such as 3-5 x 15 – 20min in Z4 w/ recovery equal to 75 – 100% of the work time, for example
3. Five to eight by 2 – 4min in Zone 5 w/ recovery equal to 50% the work time. Of course, these need to fit into a periodized training plan.

Run Training – Demands of the Race >>>

26.2 miles of running, after swimming 2.4 miles and riding 112!!

Key Run Workouts –

To Finish: Focus on endurance workouts that will allow you to comfortably run a marathon.

To Compete:

1. Two to five  by 10 – 20min @ Steady State/Tempo effort. RPE ~7 (out of 10)

2. One and two mile repeats at Threshold pace (starting at 3 miles and working up to 10-15 in a session

Note: My post today was adapted from Ryan Riell’s USAT Webinar on Ironman Basics.

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