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The key to optimal triathlon training goes well beyond nailing a few individual workouts in the week. The progression of workouts from week to week is fundamental to your success and your ability to maximize your potential. You have to address fitness in all three sports, while placing different energy systems in the week effectively and targeting your personal areas of developmental needs. Plus, you still have to find time to rest. Every workout in your week should fulfill a specific role within your overall annual plan.
Step one is keeping your area of emphasis in focus. Are you needing to develop your running right now? Are you building endurance or sharpening for race season? Referencing your annual plan, coupled with an assessment of your current fitness needs and your work/life schedule, drives the format of weekly plan.
Build your week around your emphasis sessions and place those key workouts on the schedule first. Make sure they are spaced within the week to allow for recovery, and you hit those sessions first after a recovery day.
For instance, if Monday is a recovery day, and you are working on run threshold as a priority, make sure your first workout on Tuesday morning is your planned run interval session. This is your “Emphasis Workout.” If swimming is less of a focus, plan it for a second session in the day, or on the day following a hard training day.
Rest and Work
The flow of work and rest within the week determines the effectiveness of the individual sessions. Most working people have more training time on the weekends, and these are prime days for multiple training sessions, or longer endurance sessions.
Given this, for many it is easier to plan Monday and Friday as recovery days. These could be days off, or lighter, short aerobic training sessions. If training for active recovery, then swimming and cycling are safer bets as they are non-weight bearing. Running tends to pound the muscles more. Alternately, an efficient runner may do a 20- to 30-minute easy run, preferably on soft surface.
Monday and Friday identified as recovery days then target Tuesday to Thursday and Saturday to Sunday as work blocks within your training week. It also highlights Tuesday and Saturday as primetime for your “Emphasis Workouts.”
Intensity impacts the flow of the week. Controlled bike or run pace work on Tuesday allows for similar work on Wednesday or Thursday and aerobic work on the remaining day during your mid-week block. A higher intensity Tuesday typically dictates a lower intensity Wednesday and Thursday. Bike or run intervals on Saturday sets you up for a low heart rate endurance session on Sunday.
If you are building endurance on the weekend, place your longer Emphasis Workout on the Saturday. For example, if the bike is your weakness, then bike long on Saturday and run long on Sunday on slightly fatigued legs.
Multiple Sessions in a Day
If training multiple sessions in a day, placement in the day determines effectiveness. Research has shown that placing two workouts a minimum of six hours apart maximizes recovery and efficacy.
Generally, most athletes need to be fresher for running as it is weight bearing. So if you have a key run, do it first. This may seem counterintuitive to a sport that requires running off the bike. Specific bike-run sessions should also be planned, accepting you will run tired and run performance in that training session will be lower.
If you are efficient in one sport, you may find it takes less out of you than others. The ex-college swimmer would recover faster from an hour pool workout than the newbie swimmer performing a similar set. The ex-swimmer could be able to have a solid morning swim and still run well in the afternoon, whereas the rookie swimmer may be exhausted for the balance of the day. Again, assess what your Emphasis Workout for the day is.
If you have three sessions in the day, optimally you want to do two back to back, rest your six hours and then do session No. 3. It is less efficient to space them evenly through the day. If two of the three sessions are harder efforts, separate those two in the day, and do the easier session immediately after one of the harder sessions.
Unless you are rehabbing or early in your training build, strength typically is supplementary to swimming, cycling and running, and should be placed in the week so as not to impede recovery or negatively impact an Emphasis Workout. Resist the temptation to lift on recovery days. This is a common mistake because there is more time available on those days to go to the gym. Strength in not a recovery activity.
In our Monday and Friday recovery model, Thursday night and Sunday night are perfect times for strength, after completion of key swim, bike or run workouts. If you are doing high intensity biking or running, you may want to reduce the emphasis on leg lifts that day, to avoid risking deep tissue damage. A swim day may complement a full-body or leg-emphasis strength workout.
Recovery days are great days to do shorter aerobic sessions that emphasize skills. Do a drill emphasis swim or bike. Stop in the middle of a 30 minute recovery run and perform 5 or 10 minutes of drills. Take this as an opportunity to become a better athlete without inducing further fatigue or compromising your recovery day. Reinforce skill development as a matter of habit in the warm up and/or cool down of higher intensity sessions. When you start your main set, think about moving efficiently while working hard. Improving skills along with great work ethic are keys to becoming a faster athlete.
Not all athletes respond equally to similar workouts. This is where an experienced coach can really help you fine tune your training week and help you get more out of program. Some athletes recover better from endurance sessions, or have an ability to stack together more back-to-back hard training days. Some athletes have more fast fiber tissues and can crank out a speed session. They get great training benefits from this, but need more recovery time after this. Energy system efficiency can be swim, bike and run specific to different athletes. For instance, one athlete may be really fatigued by endurance rides and swim speed sessions. That same athlete may handle bike speed and swim endurance training well. This is impacted by skill efficiency of the athlete in each of the three sports.
Pay attention to how your react to training variables in the three sports. Plan Emphasis Workouts, workout order and recovery appropriately to create your most effective training week. If you are unsure, hiring an experienced coach will take the guess work out of what to do, when.
LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 25 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. Contact Lance to tackle your first triathlon or to perform at a higher level. Find more tips on Twitter @LifeSportCoach.