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Mix up your training and racing by taking to the trails–here’s how to make the most of your off-road foray.
Variety is important for endurance athletes, not only because it keeps your training fresh and engaging, but because it leverages the fitness you already have while introducing new challenges. Off-road triathlons (ORTs) are a perfect example; the activities are similar enough for your road-triathlon fitness to transfer over, but there are unique challenges that can improve your fitness and your performances in all types of triathlons. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your off-road adventure:
Time your off-road triathlon right
If you’re primarily an on-road triathlete, ORTs are great options for after one of your major goal races. The change in environment and structure helps keep you engaged, while the shift in focus helps reduce the pressure athletes place on themselves. ORTs are also great mid-season options for athletes on long-term programs, like athletes on 12- to 14-month Ironman progressions, because they provide an escape from the normal regimen, and a chance to reduce or change the repetitive stress on muscles/tendons/joints while keeping your fitness moving forward.
Prepare for short bursts of high intensity
Whether you’re using data or perceived exertion and experience to pace yourself during road triathlons, the goal is to maintain a steady effort and minimize big spikes in intensity. But in mountain biking and trail running those spikes are unavoidable. To prepare for them, your run and bike training—both on- and off-road—needs to include short, high-intensity efforts.
On the bike, 1–2-minute VO2max intervals (as hard as you can go for the interval, 1:1 interval/recovery ratio) will help you gain the power and lactate tolerance for repeated high-intensity surges. Repetition is key, so a good starting point set would be 5–8 x 1 minute intervals with 1 minute recovery between each. Acceleration is also a big priority for ORTs because you’ll be slowing down for switchbacks and other technical areas.
Seated “power starts” are a great workout for developing the ability to accelerate quickly from a near-standstill. To do them, shift to a big gear and roll to a standstill without unclipping your feet from your pedals. While staying seated, accelerate as hard as you can for 10 seconds, pulling through the bottom and pushing forward over the top of the pedal stroke to extend the productive range. Take five minutes of easy spinning recovery between power starts; full recovery is important for these high-resistance, high-force muscular efforts.
To prepare for the intensity of trail running, incorporate steep hills and/or stair climbs into your training. ORT hills aren’t gradual road grades; they’re often steep and rough single-track. If you want to run these hills instead of slowing to a hiking pace, train on steep trails. At minimum you’re looking for a steep grade for 30- to 60-second hill sprints. Surge as fast as you can to the top, walk down for recovery, and complete a total of five repetitions. If you have a trail that features a climb that lasts 8–10 minutes, a good workout is to run that hill at your 5K race pace and jog back down to recover, completing 2–3 ascents total.
Have a way to clean your feet in T1. Chances are you’ll be running from the water to your bike over sand, grass, and/or mud. If the distance from the water to TI is far and you don’t have to strip out of a wetsuit, consider having your mountain bike shoes at the exit of the water (if possible); depending on the surface you may be able to run to T1 faster even though you’re running in mountain bike shoes.
Invest in trail running shoes, and train in them beforehand. The difference in cushioning/stability may be minor, but their traction and “armor” is important.
With too much air in your tires you’ll feel like you’re bouncing off rocks like a pinball; too little and the tire will bottom out on the rim or have excessive flex in the sidewall when you turn sharply. Athletes less than 180 pounds should rarely go above 40psi for single-track.
Keep your point of focus way out in front of you on the bike and run descents. You’ll pick a smoother and faster line by looking at where you want to be in 5–7 seconds.
Essential tools on the bike: multitool that includes a chain tool, “PowerLink” or equivalent connector for your brand of chain, replacement derailleur hanger, tube, and CO2 inflation device (if you’re inexperienced with these, carrying a pump is a small sacrifice that can completely save your day).
Chris Carmichael is the author of The Time-Crunched Triathlete and founder and CEO of Carmichael Training Systems, the official coaching and camps partner of Ironman. Trainright.com/ironman