Coach’s Note by Lance Watson: January Training Strategy

LifeSport's head coach explains how to structure your training January-March by assessing your strengths and weaknesses.

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In this month’s Coach’s Note, LifeSport’s head coach explains how to structure your training January-March by assessing your strengths and weaknesses.

In the 1960s Russian physiologist Leo Metveyev and Czech sport scientist Tudor Bompa, regarded as the fathers of modern periodization, organized the basic sport training periodization model to which we still refer. Since the 1960s, other coaches and exercise physiologists have created and modified periodization models, though the scientific basis for periodization remains a common ground.

Conventional endurance training wisdom has indicated using your winter months for base and strength, transitioning into slightly sub-threshold training focus in the spring, and finally emphasis on work at, and above, threshold as the athlete enters into the competitive season.

This is still good basic advice, particularly for Olympic or Sprint distance athletes, or the well trained athlete preparing for half ironman distance, where pace at threshold is a fundamental pre-indicator of race performance.

The picture becomes slightly more clouded when you consider training for three sports rather than one, and the resulting skill acquisition, energy system development, and recovery needs. Time needs to be allotted to address and emphasize areas for development of the individual athlete. You should consider your swim, bike and run, and particular aspects of each. You may need to work on your hill climbing on the bike, ability to hold a good flat threshold rhythm on the run, and comfort or speed in open water versus the pool.

Not surprisingly, most athletes tend to spend a lot of time training the aspects of their sport that they love. It is not coincidental that many of us love training disciplines of the triathlon that we are good at. Thus the cyclist who is a mountain goat will head for the hills, and the polished runners seem to always get that extra track session in.

If you want to improve this year, start now! Spend 6-12 weeks on your identified areas for improvement, rather than continuing to focus on training your strengths. Likely this is where you are going to get your biggest gains in your overall triathlon performance.

Your gameplan:

1. Identify your weaknesses.

You can decide where to focus your energies by doing a triathlon self assessment. Try and look a little deeper than just your swim, your bike, and you run, although that is a great place to start. For bike and run, contemplate how you do relative to your peers on the flats and on the hills. In the swim, contemplate your rough water swimming, flat swimming, wetsuit and non-wetsuit performances. If you are racing long, assess your sprint speed, your pace over 20-30 minutes (likely your threshold ability) and your pace over 45+ minutes in the swim, 1+ hour on the swim run and 2+ hours on the bike (Aerobic Power).  Also think about how you do in the heat or cold, and other environmental considerations such as altitude. If you are not sure, pull out some past race results where you were relatively fit, and see how you ranked comparative to the field in each discipline, given the different terrains and challenges of the course. Match these results against how you felt on the day or any other potentially confounding variables.

Finally, match your skills up to the demands of your goal race for the season. This should give you a clear picture of what you want to focus on this spring.

2. Write down your goals.

Write out your goals for improvement and identify the steps it will take to get there. For some it may be to finish an Ironman, or your first triathlon. For others it might include trying to move up in your age group, or to break 2:30hr over the Olympic distance.  Others may crave to finish and extreme or adventurous triathlon, in a different climate.

Assess your skills and consider the steps to get there. Rank order your skills and then rank order the importance of the various skills in accomplishing the task you set forward.

This is also a very good process to determining your race schedule and whether your goals are achievable and realistic. For instance, if one of my pro athletes states a goal of “winning an Ironman” we may choose a race to suit his or her skills. If the stated goal is “perform well at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii”, we would then look at the specific demands of the course and create a training strategy for the distance, wind, heat, non-wetsuit swim, etc.

3. Build your weekly schedule.

Many triathletes are creatures of habit: “Swim Monday with masters, Run Tuesday with the run club, Bike Wednesday with spin class,” etc. You have to break the mold if you want to impact your performance. If you want to become a better hill climber on the bike, then spend a lot of time riding hills for two months, and don’t water it down. It is hard to become a better sprinter, endurance rider, hill climber, and flat time trailer all in two months. Decide what you want to affect and work diligently towards that.

If you have an area of need, then build your training schedule around that first. Make sure you hit the key workouts fresh, as the priority session in the week. Fit in your other sessions and your rest days to compliment your key sessions.

What about the other disciplines?

Obviously you don’t want to be four to six weeks out from your key event and suddenly realize you haven’t trained meaningfully in your non-emphasis sports and energy systems for two months. The goal at that point is to be in touch with your strengths and ready to capitalize on your newly improved areas as well.

A concept adopted by many top coaches is “frequency of sport specific movement.” What this means is that rather than going easy all the time, or tearing yourself down with high intensity sessions, to do smaller pieces of work at race specific speed and full, efficient range of motion. This is to move biomechanically as you would on race day, and to touch on the energy systems necessary to be successful at your chosen distance and event.

In fact, it is good to do this year round, only adjusting the volume of this sport specific movement according to the time of year.  In the winter, it should not only be long slow miles. While this kind of aerobic work is the primary focus, interspersing short intervals at race pace and race specific movement reminds the body how to move  by recruiting fibres and firing your muscles in the right sequence. Sport specific working muscles add stress demanding oxygen delivery to those areas of your body, keeping you always not too far away from good threshold fitness.

Training sets for sport specific movement and threshold maintenance:

By doing 10 to 20 minutes worth of intervals at your race pace, while interspersing ample rest, you will maintain biomechanical efficiency and an element of threshold fitness.

Additionally, short accelerations or sprints of less than 10 seconds allow for significant sport specific muscle fiber recruitment without accumulation of lactic acid, minimizing residual soreness and fatigue. These accelerations remind the body how to recruit a lot of fibres into each swim stroke, pedal stroke and run stride.

Here are some great two part sets, to be performed after a good warm up and to be followed by a cool down. (Note the indicated threshold “pace” which is not to be confused with performing the tasks at threshold “heart rate.”


  • Part 1: 1-2 x 200m (1-2 minutes rest). 2-4 x 100m (30 seconds rest). 4-8 x 50m (20 seconds rest). These should be performed at your threshold pace, or 1500m/1500yd time trial pace.
  • Part 2: Swim 100m recovery. Do 8-12 x 50m (with 30 seconds rest) as 15m sprint (!) followed by 35 meters easy.


  • Part 1: Perform 6-10 sprints (with 1:30 minutes rest) counting out 15 pedal strokes (counting one leg only) Start from almost a standstill and pick a gear that is large enough that you don’t have to shift. It will take a few pedal strokes to get going.
  • Part 2: Bike2-3 x 4 minutes (2minutes rest); 2-4 x 2 minutes (1 minute rest) all at your threshold pace or 25 mile/40km time trial pace.


  • Part 1: Perform 4-8 building strides of about 50-60yds. You should be at 90% of full sprint speed by the end. Take 1 minute rest after each.
  • Part 2: Run 5 minutes (2.5 minutes jogging rest); 4-8 x 2 minutes (1 minute jogging rest) at threshold pace or your 6 mile/10km race pace.

This winter, analyze your skills, focus your training on your areas for improvement while maintaining your strengths. A good plan now will leave you in a great position for personal best triathlon performance this summer.

LifeSport head coach Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 20 years. Join Lance to tackle your first triathlon or perform at a higher level. 

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