The Balanced Athlete
Many triathletes find comfort in volume and miles. Filling each weekend and available weekday hours with training. However, chasing hours or miles is simply not enough to allow you to reach your full potential. Too many athletes fall into the trap of what I call the “Rocky Effect”. This misconception leads athletes to believe that if they just put in a tremendous volume they will reach their goals. Chasing volume alone will certainly get you to the finish line, but it will not allow you to reach your full potential. If you continue to push volume on the swim, bike and run you’ll find that you can go farther, but not faster. Ultimately, the goal is to go as fast as possible for the distance of your race.
So, while volume is necessary, it is not the only factor to reaching your full potential. For an athlete that is stuck or plateaued at a certain finish time, resist the temptation to add volume. Riding for 6 hours at a 200 watts is not the same as riding for 3 hours at 230 watts and running 2 hours at a 9 minute/mile pace is not the same as running 90 minutes at a 7:30 minute/mile pace. The physical demands of going harder are not met by adding volume alone. Plus, your training should mimic your race day demands.
Instead, consider working on raising your Lactate Threshold Heart Rate for the bike (or Functional Threshold Power if you have a power meter) and run. This is done with short intervals, starting at 5 minutes and going as long as 30 minutes, in zone 3 and 4. This will help you generate the power and upper aerobic capacity needed to increase your pace and speed over a long distance.
These sessions should focus on how much time you spend in the right zones and not on your total time in the saddle or on the trail. In fact, for many sessions going too long means you did not do the intervals hard enough. When done correctly, a shorter but harder session will leave you tired in a different way.
Since these sessions are more intense and physically demanding, most athletes can only manage two to three sessions per week. If you do not recover well enough between sessions you will not have the energy needed to hit the right zones. This can be difficult if you are trying to fit in these sessions for the bike and run, so it can be beneficial to focus on one sport for two or more weeks. This will allow you to bring up that particular sport, then switch to the other to bring it up a notch.
In addition to these shorter sessions, working race pace or race power intervals into your long sessions is also helpful. Rather than going out for five hour steady ride or 90 minute steady run, add in intervals that are at race effort or harder. These can be 3 to 10 minutes on the run and 10 to 30 minutes on the bike. This helps you build your aerobic capacity with some volume while also teaching your body to handle the demands of race day. If you solely run and ride long at an aerobic pace it will be difficult to produce the power and pace on race day.
These sessions are also a great time to work on your race day nutrition. Your nutrition plan needs to be tested at your race effort. What is easy to digest when in zone 1 or 2 may not be as easy when your effort is high and your heart rate is spiked into zone 3. Figuring out what settles well and keeps you fueled under race day conditions and effort is critical to creating a nutrition plan that works for you.
Long distance triathlon racing is all about finding a balance between having enough volume to cover the distance while also have the aerobic and muscular ability to generate power and speed. Too much of one element will lead to an unbalanced athlete that will not reach their potential. Rather than focusing on volume, athletes should consider if going to far too often is in fact holding you back.
Coach AJ Johnson says, “one of the things I love about coaching is that no two athletes are the same – even when their goals are. I view each person that I work with as a puzzle with unique abilities, motivators, lifestyle and potential. There’s nothing I enjoy more than helping someone incorporate the individual pieces to get the results they looking for – because when it all comes together, it’s amazing!” To learn more about AJ, visit his coaching page below.