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Coach’s Note By Lance Watson: Can You Go Short And Long?

Coach Lance Watson explains why (and how) it's possible to have success in both types of triathlon racing.

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Thinking of racing Ironman and the ITU World Champs (or another short-course race) next year? If your reaction to this query is one of disbelief, then I would like to welcome you to the changing landscape of triathlon. The old school of thought was that it wasn’t really possible to have both a successful short-course and long-course season in the same year. The theory “if you go long, you can’t go fast,” is no longer popular. For those of you who have always wanted to see results in both arenas, I am here to tell you that it is possible and that you could even set new PRs in both—if you go about it the right way.

Ironman and short-course racing are vastly dissimilar, involving different energy systems, technical skills and training. They can, however, be used to complement one another, as there are several benefits to following a program that incorporates both types of racing. Adding the speed from short-course training will help sharpen you for Ironman, making it easier when you need to drop that guy sitting on your wheel or feet. Adding the strength from long training will give you a great base for your intense short course workouts and will make your base aerobic work a breeze. Additionally, increased mental toughness will result from being able to deal with the demands of each type of training. Finally, variety in your racing will help keep you fresh and motivated.

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Striking The Balance

When attempting to balance both types of racing, you must factor in two important considerations: First, the time needed to recover from an Ironman eats into your short-course training time. Second, the high-intensity short-course workouts decrease your ability to put in long miles.

There are several distinct combinations of short- and long-course racing that can maximize the benefits of training and racing in both disciplines. Each combination has its positive and negative attributes, so the first thing a multi-discipline athlete needs to do is to decide upon a race schedule for the year.

1. The first type of short-long season includes an early Ironman event, then the athlete shifts focus to short course for the rest of the year. This is the best possible scenario for an athlete who wants to race both disciplines.

2. A second type of short-long season has the athlete race short course for most of the early and mid-season then compete in a late-season Ironman. For example, if you have already qualified for Kona, you could fire up your competitive juices with a summer of speed, peaking in late June or early July and then move into your Ironman training.

3. A third type includes multiple Ironman events. This could be an early-season Ironman followed by mid-season short-course racing and finishing with a late-season Ironman. I have many of my long-course athletes do an early season Ironman such as New Zealand, race short course throughout the North American season and then finish their year off with Hawaii or Florida. This type of plan maximizes the benefits of yearly periodization.

Alternatively, you could race two Ironman events in a row before moving into short course. Doing this provides you with a solid base, but it cannot be done often as the body starts to break down over time from repeated long-course training.

4. Finally, you could do three Ironman events in a year. In this case, there would only be opportunity for limited short-course racing as these events can detract from the time you need to spend going long. You would use the short course races as speed work sessions, but there would be no rest or peak for any of them.

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Planning Your Training Program

Once you have decided upon your race schedule, the next step is to plan your training program. There are specific energy systems that need to be worked for precise durations, and a periodized training plan is the only way to achieve this. I recommend buying a big dry-erase yearly calendar. This allows you to block off weeks of training as specific phases and will help you visualize your plan as a whole.

The basic training plan I use for my athletes depends on their race schedules, but there are some general principles that should be followed for any multi-discipline athlete. Let’s look at the following example of a short-course season followed by a late-season Ironman such as Hawaii (October):

The first thing to consider is the length and placement of your Ironman training period. This phase of training should last 18 to 20 weeks and consist of a 12-week volume phase, a two-week taper phase going into the race and a six-week recovery phase after the event. The recovery phase is split into two three-week cycles. The first cycle is done as active rest, and the second cycle should be used as a slow build back to form. It is important to remember to take this recovery time so that your body can mend itself and be ready to tackle your later races (or ability to walk.)

After planning out the Ironman training block you need to work backwards and add in the rest of your short-course periodization. I break this up into three phases: base, prep and speed.

The base phase should include solid aerobic workouts that emphasize strength and aerobic endurance. Stay away from high intensity during this phase. You should do two cycles of four building weeks with one-week recovery. Since you are doing an Ironman later in the year, your workouts in this period should be of a greater duration than if you were only racing short course.

The prep phase will include aerobic workouts, tempo and steady state with a touch of speed. It is okay to do a single sport focus period in this phase, and time-trials or low key races should be included as part of the training. You should do two to three cycles of three weeks building and one week recovery.

The speed period will include specific race preparation workouts, more speed-oriented sessions and increased rest to recover from these workouts. You should look at doing three to four races during this time, and include a taper for your A-priority short-course race at the end of the period.

After the short-course season is done, and following a week of active rest, the focus shifts toward the upcoming Ironman. You will be very fit from your short course racing so you will be able to go straight into volume-oriented workouts. With the increase in volume of the workouts, you should follow a cycle of two weeks on and then one-week recovery. You want to cut out almost all short-course races as they affect your recovery and the amount of training time available for volume building. You should touch on speed occasionally during this phase just to stay sharp. However, Ironman pace will be your priority and should not be sacrificed so that you can feel fast. As I stated above, the taper should start two weeks out from the race as you will not be able to make any more gains in this time, and stressing the body further will only lead to decreased performance.

More from Lance Watson.

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. Join Lance to tackle your first triathlon or perform at a higher level.