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Getting Started

Jumping In: Training At Various Intensity Levels

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Over the next week Triathlete Magazine Senior Editor Matt Fitzgerald will provide six tips on jumping in to the sport of triathlon. In the second article, Fitzgerald explains how to incorporate a variety of intensity levels into your training.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

The body adapts differently to different speeds, or intensity levels, of swimming, cycling and running. Doing very short sprints at maximum speed enhances your ability to produce power and activate muscle mass to propel forward motion, whether it’s in the pool, on the bike or on foot. At the other extreme, doing very long workouts at a moderate speed enhances your body’s ability to use fuel efficiently and to continue moving efficiently despite mounting fatigue, again whether you’re swimming, cycling or running. And training at various in-between speeds carries other distinct benefits. Your ultimate goal is to maximize your efficiency and fatigue resistance at your triathlon race pace in all three disciplines. But training at race pace all the time is not the best way to achieve this objective. Rather, the best way to maximize your race performance is to regularly train at a variety of intensity levels. Most of your training should be done at intensity levels below race intensity, because doing so allows you to spend more total time training than you could if you tried to train fast all the time, and spending a lot of time training is the most effective way to boost aerobic fitness. Still, you cannot truly maximize your race fitness unless you also regularly spend a small amount of time training at higher intensity levels.

The following table summarizes the fundamental training-intensity levels and provides workout and training guidelines for each. Notice that I recommend spending a greater amount of your total swim training time at higher intensities compared to cycling and running. I could write a separate article on the reasons why, but suffice it to say this pattern represents the norm in triathlon training because swimming tends to create less orthopedic stress on the body, meaning you can recover more quickly from hard pool sessions.

Intensity Definition Sample Workout % of Total Training Time (Bike and Run) % of Total Training Time (Swim)
Recovery A very comfortable effort that initially feels like a 4 on a 1-10 scale of perceived effort, where 10 represents your maximum intensity Relatively short, slow recovery-oriented workouts undertaken between hard workouts (example: 30-minute bike @ effort level 4).

Warm-ups and cool-downs.

Active-recovery periods between fast intervals within an interval workout

10-15% 5-15%
Aerobic A comfortable to moderate effort that initially feels like a 5 or 6 on a 1-10 scale of perceived effort Steady, moderate-intensity base workouts (example: 45-minute run @ effort level 5-6).

Long workouts (example: bike 2 hours @ effort level 5-6).

60-70% 40-55%
Anaerobic Threshold A manageably hard effort that initially feels like a 7 on a 1-10 scale of perceived effort Threshold or tempo workouts (example: Run 30 minutes @ effort level 7 between warm-up and cool-down).

Long intervals (example: Swim 5 x 400m @ effort level 7 with 45-second recoveries).

8-12% 10-15%
VO2 Max A hard to very hard effort you could sustain for no longer than 10 minutes Hill repetitions (example: Bike 8 x 2 minutes uphill @ effort level 8 with 3-minute active recoveries). 3-5% 10-15%
Speed A very hard effort you could sustain for no more than 4 minutes Short intervals (example: Swim 10 x 100 @ effort level 9 with 20-second recoveries). 3-5% 5-10%
Sprint A maximal effort, sustainable for no more than 20 seconds Very short sprints/steep hill sprints (example: Run 4 x 10 seconds up steep hill @ 100% effort after completing base run). 1-2% 5-10%

Click here to see the complete series.