Getting Through a Plateau in Triathlon Training

Coach Jim Hallberg on his bike
December 15, 2016

Mike Ricci


The Weakest Link: Getting through a plateau

Many times you hear a triathlete talk about how they are very strong in one or two events but seem to be weak in a third. This is pretty common for most of us, and even at the elite level, this is a fact of triathlon. The question becomes, how do we change this pattern? How do we take swim from being a weakness to something respectable? How do we do the same for our bike or run events if they are the weakest links? It's not easy to do, but it's possible.

In my early twenties, I worked in a big city, took the train to work every day, and trained for triathlon about 6 hours per week. Even in the less than perfect training environment, I was able to improve my fitness and my weakest link. From this experience, I learned about something called 'Sport Rotation'. Even though I really found this training theory by accident, it worked for me. I don't even know if 'finding it by accident' is the right term, but I didn't have any other choice because the weather dictated the training schedule. Riding my bike outside in the winter months wasn't an option. Swimming year-round with a Master's program was out because I had to drive 30 minutes each way to get there. Time was a limiting factor for me.

Taking a closer look at some of the world's best endurance athletes, we see that usually, run or swim twice per day. Even cyclists ride for a few hours, refuel, and ride some more. When these athletes train, they are focusing on one sport at a time. If you have the desire to get better, you should think about implementing some sport rotation into your season. Letting your body focus on one event at a time will help it adapt more quickly and improve on technique and endurance. If you continue to keep training the way you are now and you aren't improving, then what do you have to lose by trying this approach?

If you are interested in using sport rotation (some coaches may call them 'Run Camps' or 'Swim Camps' etc.), then my suggestion for this program would be to focus on one sport for three weeks, take an easy week, and then repeat the cycle. If you use two months to focus on one sport, then a complete rotation would take six months. After six months, you can return to a more balanced approach. If you live in a part of the world where you have all four seasons, you can let the seasons dictate your schedule and it would look something like this: Starting around November 1st, you start your run focus. By early January, you would start your swim focus, and by early March, you would be starting your bike focus. You don't have to make it that rigid as we usually have off weeks, colds in the winter, and life that gets in the way of training. It happens.

So how would we set up a typical cycle? If you look at your training in terms of time and frequency, then you would want 50-75% of your training time to be focused on that sport. Let's take running for example: If you currently run 3 days a week, work yourself up to five or six days per week, even if that fifth or sixth day is only a fifteen or twenty-minute run. That is 'frequency', and it will help you to run better the more you are on your feet. In the other two sports, I would still train two times per week. I would do one drill session in the pool and on the bike, and I would add in an endurance set for each as well. Since the focus is on the running, the other non-running workouts are just maintenance and or skills (drills) sessions. After my two-month cycle, I would switch to swimming where I would try to swim at a higher frequency and increase my time in the pool. The running and cycling would be two times per week, with the focus on drills and endurance. Once we move into the cycling phase, we are repeating the process. Cycling becomes the focus with the other sports maintaining the fitness gained and continuing to work on skills and endurance.

Most importantly, during these phases, become a runner during your run focus. Run with people who are better than you. Watch how they train. Swim with the swimmers during your swim focus months. Become a fish. Watch the fast swimmers swim. Watch their form and see what you can learn. On the bike, become a cyclist during your focus months. Ride with a group. Learn bike handling skills. Learn to ride in a pack. During these focus months, you can learn a lot, you can improve a lot, and you can take your fitness levels to places you haven't been before. Don't become a slave to training. Use these ideas as a guideline, but not the end-all for your training. I have tried this approach with many athletes and even in situations where we only did a three-week block of focused training, there was improvement. So, if you really want to improve that weakest link, spend some time focusing on it, and in a few weeks, you may just turn a weakness into a strength.

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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