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Even before the Norwegians dominated this year’s Ironman World Championships – first, with Kristian Blummenfelt’s win at St. George in May, then again when Gustav Iden took the top step of the Kona podium in October, triathletes have been enamored with the idea of unlocking the secrets of the so-called “Norwegian Method.” With high volume, lots of data to track fatigue, and a brigade of threshold workouts, there’s no question the Norwegian way is the big training trend of 2022. But is it just, that – a trend?
It’s a question worth asking. After all, triathletes are susceptible to fads. We are an obsessive bunch, and we’re always looking to gain an edge. This is why triathletes are legendary for being early adopters of the most ground-breaking technology and techniques in endurance sport—from wetsuits and aerobars to finding every advantage they can within the rules. But for every success story, there are a dozen more fads that have fizzled. Take a look at the history of triathlon and you’ll see that some of the training fads that dominated the sport quickly disappear.
Triathlon Training Fad: More is Better
At the dawn of triathlon in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s training was a blank page. Professional athletes were building the plane as they flew it. Scott Tinley and Scott Molina became early pioneers of triathlon training and followed the mantra of “more is better.” Their mega training of 45 hours per week rippled through the obsessive triathlon community in San Diego. Tinley’s description of their plan is hellish:
“I thought OK, let’s look at what the top marathoners in the country do,” says Tinley. “Then let’s look at what the top cyclists do. And then let’s look at what the top 1500-meter Olympic swimmers do on a weekly basis, and let’s add it all together.”
But Tinley eventually learned that combining all three sports led to burnout. Athletes from the “more is better” era describe hormonal issues, depression, and poor training.
“Without any knowledge, predecessors and data by exercise physiologists, nobody knew any better,” Tinley said. Tinley described seeing Mark Allen, who trained closer to 25 hours per week, win the Ironman as a wakeup call that less can be more.
This experience is an important reminder for triathletes: The aim is to race fastest, not train the hardest. Though it can be tempting to view others’ Strava or Training Peaks and feel like you aren’t doing enough, remember that more isn’t always better.
Triathlon Training Fad: Medium Days Only
Go to a local group ride, and you might see people racing each other to a stop sign, then pulling back to go “kind of hard.” This is a perfect example of how the top athletes would train together in the 1980s.
“They would go out and beat the bejesus out of each other and it would turn training into races,” says Gale Bernhardt, a former top professional athlete and current triathlon coach. They wouldn’t go all-out, of course – they had the foresight to save something for race day – but they still shot for what can be described as a “medium” intensity.
“Locking in at a steady pace below threshold for many long segments during the week is detrimental to your heart,” says Ironman champion and triathlon coach Dave Scott. “You have to be careful about going ‘kind of’ hard all the time.”
Instead of constantly training in the middle all the time, this fad was phased out in the late 90s and has been replaced by the 80/20 training guideline, also known as polarized training. Stephen Seiler is a pioneering exercise physiologist who researched the top distance athletes training regimes. He found their weekly schedules were common and established a training formula from his research.. Seiler’s 80/20 method prescribes 80 percent of training at an easy pace, and 20 percent at a high intensity. The variation allows for plenty of recovery and allows athletes to maximize their hard days.
During your next group ride when the front-pack starts to slug it out, it might be best to drop off and ride at your own pace. By having your easy days become medium days then you dig a hole for your body. Ultimately, you won’t be able to go hard when it counts.
Triathlon Training Fad: The High-Cadence Obsession
One of the explanations for Lance Armstrong’s amazing run of Tour de France victories was the cyclist’s extremely high cadence. As pundits posited, Armstrong cycled somewhere between 100 and 110 revolutions per minute (RPM), while most of the other tour riders spun at around 80 RPM. Triathletes and cyclists noticed Armstrong’s success and began to emulate his high cadence.
We now know that Armstrong’s success was not so much about high cadence as it was from his admitted doping. And besides, it turns out cadence doesn’t matter much, anyway.
Research that Bernhardt and others have done consistently shows that the most efficient cadence rate is different for everyone, so blanket recommendations for high (or low) cadence simply isn’t sound.
“The force you are able to exert on the pedals is very individualized. We all have a natural cadence where we are most efficient, where you produce the maximum power for the least metabolic cost,” says Bernhardt. This is true for other disciplines, too – Bernhardt said that trying to emulate others’ stroke rate and run cadence won’t make you faster.
The big takeaways from Lance Armstrong? What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. And if something seems too good to be true, like Armstrong’s dominance, it probably is.
Triathlon Training Fad: Superfood Secrets
Perhaps it was inevitable that in a sport as grueling as triathlon, athletes would look to food for a competitive edge. Over the years, triathletes have tried to find the foods that could unlock the secret to speed. Caffeine! Protein bars! Medium chain triglycerides! Certainly, you could eat your way to a PR…right?
Bernhardt remembers when one of the food fads was figs. The dried fruit is a staple for cultures where religious fasting is common, and many athletes would munch on them during long distance races. Spoiler alert: It didn’t go well. “Figs are extremely fibrous and people would have gastrointestinal issues,” says Bernhardt.
Bernhardt also remembers discussions around sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, and how it was supposed to buffer lactic acid. The problem is that to get the buffering effects, you have to consume a large dose that makes you susceptible to diarrhea or vomiting.
What happened to the superfood fad? The fanfare behind some foods, like figs, didn’t last until the end of the race. But science is becoming more precise about what the human body needs to fuel during grueling triathlons. During races and workouts more than 90 minutes long, simple and complex carbohydrates can restore the loss of glycogen without the upset stomach issues of old fads. And when not racing, most successful triathletes simply need to follow a well-balanced diet that avoids gimmicks.
Triathlon Training Fad: Rest is Bad
In September 1988, Scott told Triathlete that he didn’t taper much: “Most other triathletes would say ‘slow down, take it easy,’ but I do that during the season.”
But now Scott has changed his approach. Studies now show the importance of mitochondria in allowing the body to repair itself, and Scott has used the science for athletes he works with. Scott recalls coaching professional Ironman athletes who in the week before the World Championships in Hawaii would go for blistering 20 mile long runs in the blazing sun at race pace. “I wanted to strangle them!” says Scott.
The long workouts meant they weren’t rested. Many had their best sessions during training, rather than for their goal race. Even today, there’s still ample evidence this fad is still going strong: “I see a lot of athletes coming into their major races blasted,” says Scott.
So what can you do to avoid being in this camp? If you are getting grumpy in your social life, sleeping all the time, and you can’t complete workouts then it’s time to listen to your body and back off a bit. Your times (and family) will probably thank you for it.
Forget the Fads: Tried and True Methods for Triathlon Training
So what training advice can you trust? There are a few basic ideas that withstand the test of time.
Quick fixes and fads should be eyed with suspicion. Instead focus on the fundamentals and ask why this fad is gaining popularity. For the Norwegian method, most of their success comes down to years of increased mileage and intense testing to avoid overtraining.
- Workout. Recover. Repeat. “The principles of training mean that you need to have progression overload and recovery,” says Scott. What does that mean? A hard day needs recovery to let the training sink in.
- Listen to your body. There are hundreds of data points to track, but the most useful piece of information is how your body feels, says Bernhardt.
- Get enough sleep. Athletes don’t get faster during the workout, we get faster when we rest because our body adapts. It means that if you aren’t getting enough sleep then your body will suffer.
- Less can be more. Choose a well-designed, periodized training plan – and resist the urge to do more than what it calls for. Ditto for panic-training in the weeks before a race.
- Be intentional about your schedule. Pick one or two goal races (or “A” races) per season and build up to it. If you try to get your body in peak condition for every race, you won’t ever be at your best. Instead, use early season races as a guide for how training is going.
- Consistency is key. Success doesn’t come after one workout, but hundreds and thousands of hours that eventually add up.
- Don’t drain your body’s battery. It’s better to be undertrained and healthy rather than overtrained and injured.
- Eat a balanced diet. Advertisements about superfoods or a pill that can make you faster are probably gimmicks and have nasty side effects.
- Remember to have fun. If you’re exhausted and not enjoying your training and racing, what’s the point?
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