This is the time of year where I get random emails from triathletes in panic mode. “Coach, I get dropped by my friends on the hills, so I am going to add in hills 3 days a week to help my climbing. What do you think?”
The question is legit, but the answer is ‘it depends’. As we all know, doing the same workouts or running the same routes over and over gets boring and our bodies stop getting stronger because the stress remains the same. In addition, adding too much stress too quickly when the body is not ready for it either leads to a very tired (or injured) athlete who can’t perform on race day. By following the seven steps I’ve outlined below, you should be able to put your training together in a way that allows you to absorb the hard days in order to get faster.
Let’s start with the basics: How do we improve at swimming, biking and running? The easy answer is that we change the stress on the body from cycle to cycle as our body adapts. This could mean adding more volume, more speed, more frequent workouts, or more strength work. In my experience the simpler I have kept the plan, the better the result I have seen with my athletes. For example, one time I had a first-time athlete racing Ironman Lake Placid. In December, he asked me what his ‘Build’ period would look like. I explained to him as gently as possible that he may not have a ‘Build’ period. He had to lose twenty pounds to start with (which he did) and he had to be consistent with his training week after week and month after month (he has amazed me with how consistent his training has been!).
Once he lost the weight and was able to be consistent, I challenged him with volume, not intensity. I added some intensity in small doses, but not enough to blow him apart. The plan I set out for him was very basic, but most importantly, it was very effective. We built a plan, for the most part, that allowed him to swim, bike and run on the same days each week. We did move the recovery days and long workouts around depending on family commitments. The result is a finely tuned athlete ready to have a great first IMLP. He went from having the goal of finishing, to breaking 14 hours, to finishing in under 12 hours. It was an amazing experience for him and for me, as his coach.
The point here is that we didn’t decide to follow a certain protocol for three weeks or two cycles, but instead, we went into each period open-minded and didn’t progress the program until the athlete had adapted to the previous cycle. This is what adaptation is all about – progressing the plan when the body is ready, not when the calendar says to. Many athletes either don’t have a plan or try to stick to a plan that’s unrealistic. Either way, it’s hard to get stronger and faster on a program that doesn’t allow for a natural progression.
Here are the 7 Steps to Getting Faster:
1. The first step is having baseline numbers at the start of training:You don’t know if you are getting faster if you don’t know where your starting point is.
2. Test often enough to see if your training plan is working or not:
Once you have the baselines set, don’t forget to re-test every 4-6 weeks. Knowing your LT from 4 years ago does not help your current training. Put the test on your schedule so you know you have to do it and get it done. Most people don’t test because a) it’s painful and b) they don’t want to know if they aren't any faster than 3 months ago!
3. Create training stress:
Just like my athlete above, you need to change things up – distance, effort, pace, power, HR etc. Routine is certainly a positive thing, but doing the same thing day after day, week after week is not. Changing up the duration, distance, speed, and effort will all create a stimulus that will cause you to get stronger and faster. If you run 1:30 for your long run two weeks in a row, then make the next week either a 1:45 or run 1:15 but at a faster pace for the last 15’. Whatever it is, change up the workout. Make it challenging and make it fun! Your body thrives on change.
4. Get out of your comfort zone:
Too many times I see athletes that run their 5k, 10k, and 21k races at the same pace. I often wonder how this is possible. My hat is certainly off to anyone who steps up to the start line of any distance, but if you don’t have the ability to get out of your comfort zone, you won’t get faster, no matter how far you can run at one pace. Workout with faster athletes once per week and see what it’s like to swim, bike, or run at a faster pace than you currently do. Even changing up your run pace by 15” per mile will give your body a challenge from the same old, same old.
5. Don’t listen to everyone and try to incorporate every expert’s ideas into your training:
By starting a new training idea or theory every few weeks you aren’t giving your body a chance to adapt to the new stress and your body keeps restarting or stays in a state of fatigue. Pick a plan that makes sense to you (not your friends or that of a professional athlete) and stick with it for at least 12 weeks. If you don’t see any progress then change the plan up or talk with someone who can advise you how to improve your plan.
6. Keep it simple:
The KISS method really does work. Create a challenging set of workouts that leave you tired but not exhausted - do this for 2-3 weeks, take a recovery week, and then come back and increase the volume, frequency, effort, or the intensity in the next block of training.
7. Go easy on the easy days!
The biggest difference between front of the pack (FOP) age groupers and middle of the pack (MOP) age groupers is that FOP racers know how to go ‘easy’. If you can stop training in that ‘no benefit zone’ you’ll absorb the harder workouts and make fitness gains. If you continually train too hard, your body will never be able to adapt to the harder sessions and will be in a constant state of fatigue. One of the best quotes I have read on training came from Frank Shorter, Gold Medalist at the 1972 Olympics: “On the hard days, I go as hard as I can, but on the easy days, I go as easy as I can.” If it works for a Gold Medalist, maybe you could give it a shot too?
If you are tired of the same old results from the same training, it’s time to get organized and plan out your training differently than you have in the past. By following these seven rules you’ll be setting yourself up for continued improvement throughout the triathlon season.
Coach Mike is the Head Coach for D3 Multisport, is a USAT Level III Certified Coach and had the honor of being selected the USAT Coach of the Year. 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.