For triathletes, who typically thrive on structure and order, this season has been anything but. Uncertainty surrounding race cancellations and postponements has left most triathletes feeling like the name of the training game is “Hurry Up and Wait”—after all, how do you check all the boxes on your training plan when the boxes keep moving?
“Without knowing exactly when races will start again, it can be a bit difficult to plan for future races,” said Joan Scrivanich, an exercise physiologist at Rise Endurance. “But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”
“Without knowing exactly when races will start again, it can be a bit difficult to plan for future races. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.” - Joan Scrivanich, an exercise physiologist at Rise Endurance
The key is to be strategic about training now, so that it’s easier to ramp up as you approach race day—whenever that happens. “It’s much easier to bring yourself back up to speed when you have a strong base,” said Mary Eggers, coach at the Valor Triathlon Project. “We can’t make up time, but there are many things we can do to come out of this experience as stronger athletes in every way.”
1. Race in limbo? Train like it’s December.
“In some ways, we’re training like it’s the off-season,” Scrivanich said. Eggers agreed: “So long as the season is in limbo, hold off on high-intensity or longer sessions. You can’t go wrong with keeping most or all of your sessions aerobic.” Holding patterns are also a great time to work on form and technique, as these sessions will keep you healthy in the long run (literally and figuratively) when you return to racing.
2. Scratch the speed itch with short bursts.
Not every workout needs to be long and slow, however. “Adding some short bits of speed into training, like strides, is a good way to remind your legs how to go fast without the full intensity of a speed session,” Scrivanich said. On the bike, short bursts of intensity, like high cadence or a harder gear, provide a solid stimulus without taxing the body unnecessarily.
3. Set priorities.
Your original race schedule likely had a spring, summer, and fall race. But rescheduling may have crammed all of your events into a much shorter timeframe. If this is the case, you may need to reevaluate your race priorities. Which event is your top priority, or “A” race? Train for that, and determine how—or even if—other events fit into the build-up for your top pick. It may mean treating those “B” and “C” races as catered training days done at low intensity, or even scratching certain races altogether.
4. Begin your build 6-12 weeks out.
Contrary to what many think, you don’t need to follow a training plan for a year leading up to a race. In fact, if you’ve got a solid aerobic base, it’s quite feasible to build into any distance—even a half- or full-distance race—in as little as 12 weeks. For shorter distances like sprint and Olympic races, a few weeks of targeted training can bring you back up to speed.
5. Start small.
“As with anything, too much, too soon, is a surefire recipe for disaster. Avoid jumping in where you left off,” Eggers said. “While swimming is less caustic to the body, jumping into 20K per week right off the bat is something I’d avoid. For land sports, it’s even more important to err on the side of caution when it comes to adding volume.”
The same is true for strength work. Because the gym looks exactly the same as when you were last there, it can be easy to forget that might have been months ago. Resist the temptation to load up the barbell with the same amount of weight you were lifting before. Instead, start with a low weight and gradually build—even if you’re in great running or cycling shape, you’re like a newbie in the weight room all over again.
6. Don’t try to hack your fitness.
If you’ve been consistent with a general training routine, chances are high that you’ll find a quick return to peak fitness. But don’t force it—and definitely don’t rush it. “There are no hacks,” Eggers said. “The last thing we want to do is give in to impatience after enduring a time that is forcing patience, then end up in a walking boot for the season.”
7. Know that everything is unknown.
Even before COVID-19, races have made last-minute changes and cancellations—swims canceled due to water conditions, bike courses shortened due to safety concerns, or outright cancellations due to inclement weather. There’s always the chance a race will be canceled, postponed, or modified, so be patient, flexible, and willing to adapt. Races will return eventually: train smart, and you’ll be ready to rise to the challenge when they do.