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How (and Why) to Do Double Workout Days

Hitting more than one workout in a day is often standard practice for triathletes, but do you know how to get the most from your "double days?"

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Two-a-day workouts are the hallmark of triathlon, part of the lifestyle. As a multisport athlete, at some point, you’ll probably need to embrace fitting in more than one workout a day. While it can seem daunting at first, there are plenty of benefits to it: You’ll be fitter, avoid injury, and potentially find a more agreeable workout/life relationship. Here are the whys and hows of successfully executing double days.

Why do doubles?

There are several answers to this depending on the event you’re training for and your level of competitive experience.

“The single most important reason to do doubles is that people are busy,” said Suzanne Zelazo, coach with Team Atomica in Toronto, Canada. “Even an hour-and-a-half ride may be too much to do at one go. Splitting it into two sessions may be the only way to get it in.”

The practicalities of doubles go beyond just fitting in the daily training. Splitting up a long run allows an inexperienced runner to maintain good form throughout the run and avoid injury. “If someone finds 20K daunting, doing 14K in the morning and 6K in the evening allows them to hit the training goal while maintaining pace and form,” Zelazo said.

Two-a-days simulate race day in a sustainable way. After a morning ride, you’ll go into the evening run with slightly fatigued legs, but not so much as to invite injury.

“Psychologically, it’s a confidence boost to have done a mini version of multisport racing in training,” Zelazo said.

And whether she’s coaching age groupers or pros, Zelazo uses double days to protect one day a week completely off. “Two-a-days can be used for adding volume, but I would caution against that. I think it’s important mentally and physically to have one day to totally unplug. Doubles allow us to fit the overall week’s mileage into six days.”

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Tips for the more experienced athlete

“The main benefit of working out twice versus once per day is the ability to do more overall volume at a higher quality,” said Chris Lundstrom, who has a PhD in kinesiology and is a coach with Minnesota Distance Elite. He said: “Breaking the overall volume into two sessions makes it less physiologically challenging, so there is less accumulation of fatigue within the session, and less potential for things like glycogen depletion and dehydration. That said, breaking things up into two sessions is not always beneficial in terms of desired training adaptations.” So, if you’re training for an Ironman, two-a-days won’t be used to break up a long run, for example, but rather to adapt to back-to-back high volume sessions.

Pro triathlete Tamara Jewett got into doubles when she transitioned from being a track athlete to pro triathlete (she’s coached by Zelazo). “I think of two-a-days as being necessary from a practical perspective,” she said. “I have to fit in much more training than I ever did as a middle distance track athlete to accommodate all three sports.”

Doubles fit more effectively around her part-time work as a lawyer, and she finds she can hit two high quality sessions if there are a few hours between workouts.

“I have a few sessions a week where I run off the bike or combine a high quality swim and bike, and those are an important part of my training, but they definitely take more out of me than separating each sport by a few hours,” she said.

Doubling up most days allows Jewett, even with her pro-level volume, to take one day a week off. “I’ve been told that two-a-days can interfere with your body’s ability to go into recovery mode, so Suzanne and I try to make sure I have a full day off every week to mitigate that, and to give my body a bigger window in which to recover.”

For 2020 Olympian Kevin McDowell, two-a-days are his job. “They [doubles] allow me to do more in a day, execute each session better, and build endurance with less stress on my body,” he said. “A swim/run in the morning and a bike in the afternoon is better than doing all three in one four-to-five hour session.”

How to do double days

For an inexperienced athlete or an age grouper with more modest goals, Zelazo recommended starting with one double day per week. Anyone setting their sights on the Ironman distance will be looking at a minimum of two doubles per week, likely more, but they’ll build into that.

When it comes to timing the workouts, Zelazo said: “In general, we schedule harder workouts in the morning. Most people prefer to bang out something intense in the morning knowing they can relax in the afternoon. And most races take place in the morning, so you’re teaching your body to be ‘on’ in the morning.”

McDowell works out seven days a week, with five or six of those featuring double days in which he touches at least two of the three disciplines. Rather than assigning intensity to the morning and endurance to the afternoon, McDowell has two entire days of high quality, in which both morning and afternoon sessions are hard. Other days, one of the sessions is active recovery. He gives the example of the Sunday morning long run, weights in the evening, followed by an easy spin on the bike that acts as a “flusher.”

And what about single-sport double days?

Zelazo doesn’t have hard and fast rules about training the same or different events morning and evening, but rather focuses on changing the stimulus. So, a hard training ride in the morning might be followed by an easy mountain bike ride; a hard swim in the morning with weights in the afternoon. “Changing things up is a good thing, and don’t always relegate the swim to recovery,” she said.

Like McDowell, Jewett uses doubles to get in two, sometimes three, sports in the day, for example, swim/bike in the morning and run in the afternoon. She switches up her sport combinations, but said there are some activities she rarely does on the same day. “We’ll put weight sessions on days with shorter/higher power-focused bike sessions, rather than a longer aerobic bike or run.”

How to recover between sessions

“Best case scenario, you fit in a power nap,” Zelazo said.  But taking a few minutes to get up from your desk, stretch, go out for a walk—these things, along with being mindful of eating and drinking, can keep your body loose and ready for the afternoon workout.

Pro Dede Griesbauer has often talked about the importance of making time for recovery in the form of stretching, mobility, and rehab/prehab work, both before workouts and in the evening before bed. If you’re serious about making improvements in triathlon—and recovering well from your double days—then it pays to invest in some key recovery tools, such as compression boots, a percussive massager, and/or a foam roller.

RELATED: How Do I Know If My Recovery Sucks?

How to fuel for a double day

Jewett is vegetarian and has worked extensively with sports nutritionists to dial in her nutrition. Because her energy needs are so high, her diet is about the same whether it’s a double day, one longer workout, or a day off.

“I really eat a lot as a triathlete, and a lot of high-energy foods: peanut butter and dark chocolate are staples of my daily diet. I make sure that I get some kind of protein snack in after each workout, and I try to make sure that I’m not going into any workouts feeling hungry,” she said. She’s conscientious about getting plenty of protein and healthy carbs, but otherwise is an intuitive eater, tuned in to what her body is telling her and encourages all athletes to do the same.

Frequent, simple, and fast sum up McDowell’s nutrition plan. It takes some organization, but he prepares basics—pasta, rice, chicken—ahead of time so it’s ready and waiting.

RELATED: The Busy Triathlete’s Guide to Meal Planning

“I’ll have some rice with peanut butter, banana, and honey in a cooler so I can eat it within 15 minutes of finishing a session—even before I drive home,” he said. His bags are packed with plenty of snacks so if he’s doing a back-to-back swim/run, he can get some calories in between. While he eats frequently throughout the day, he likes to finish a meal two to 2.5 hours before a run to prevent stomach upset. He’ll top off the tank an hour before a workout with something simple, like toast with honey and banana. His diet during the season is admittedly “not exciting,” but it’s proven reliably effective at fueling months of grueling two-a-day workouts.

Organization is the key to two-a-days. Pack your gear and snacks the night before, put the bike on the rack, and get ready to live “la vida duo.”