Another of the common questions we get asked is:
"What sort of training schedule should I be on?"
The simplest answer is, of course, "Any schedule that suits you!" This isn't as flippant an answer as it might seem, the majority of people reading this page are going to be holding down a regular job and probably have some form of family or other social commitment. If you're a full-time athlete then you're definitely in the wrong place and ought to be talking to a professional coach.
Triathlon training is a balancing act: you want to be improving on some aspects of your performance but you cannot afford to neglect others. Get the balance right and everything improves. Get it wrong and your overall performance suffers.
Break it down
It's possible to go on for hours and hours about training cycles, periodicity, etc, etc, and simply miss the basic point: training is about getting on with it. There are four phases to the training year: basic preparation, intense preparation, competition and recovery. For a triathlete in the UK where our season runs from May to October that effectively means that you have three months of basic training from December to February, two months of intense preparation in March and April, six months of maintenance training during the season and a month off in November.
This is the "back to basics" part of the year where you are concentrating on the techniques for each sport. In all the sports this will involve lots of drill sessions and feedback from coaches or colleagues. The intensity will be fairly low but the sessions will be long and often repetetive. If you're going to incorporate any strength training into your routine this is the time to do it. It's also the time to try out any new equipment that you are thinking of using in the coming season.
All through this period you should be monitoring your performance: both in terms of effort with a heart rate monitor and in terms of recording details of your sessions. An online heart-rate calculator is available and here's another from Stevens Creek Software. (A whole raft of online calculators for almost any sports need is available here.)
Don't be tempted to neglect speed work or pace sessions during this period. As the months turn you should always carry out a benchmark test in each of the disciplines to check that you really are getting an improvement. Occasional races over the winter months are also a great way of reminding you and your body what all this is supposed to be about. Keep the sessions fun: we often use mountain bikes rather than road bikes in the winter months and there are always duathlons or swim-runs to inject a bit of competition into the schedule.
After three months of getting your body ready and your techniques finely tuned it's time to get serious and start loading the muscle systems. Technique always matters so keep putting small amount of technique into each session but the main objective is to build speed onto the stamina base.
Intensity is really the simplest way to describe the difference between the basic preparation and what you are doing now. The heart should be working in top 15% of your range and the sessions should include minimal rest. This is where it hurts!
Benchmarking is vital during this period. You have to see that you are improving and be able to measure that improvement. Any reduction in performance could indicate overtraining (a major cause of failure in triathlete training programmes!) or illness. Every season we benchmark the club we coach every month on the first session of the month. Individuals should also be benchmarking on a more regular basis, perhaps every two weeks. Again, use of the heart rate monitor and a log book are vital if you are to keep track of your training and your progress.
Maintaining a peak of fitness through the entire UK triathlon season is an unrealistic goal for anyone who has a regular life, job, etc. There will be times during the season where you will need to go back and work through a mini-cycle of basic training/intense training to prepare yourself for a special event such as the Nationals or, if you are really lucky, the Worlds.
Plan your season to include a mix of races over differing conditons and distances. Once you have the plan marked in on the calendar you can then set about planning the smaller training cycles around these events. In an ideal world you can probably peak two or three times during the season but, realistically, you'll probably get two really good periods of three to four weeks where everything functions exactly as planned.
In an environment where there are lots and lots of races it is tempting to try to cram as much in as possible. There have been years where I've raced almost every weekend from April to October. Racing I might have been but effective I wasn't!
The one aspect of training that most people neglect is rest! Strange, given that we naturally tend to only do what we need to, but sadly true as most triathletes think that more is always better. Overtraining is the commonest cause of injury or breakdown in health that we know about and, sometimes, it can lead to a serious reduction in health and general wellbeing.
Avoiding overtraining is easy: build rest days into your schedule and don't abuse them by slipping in the odd extra "easy session" (which always turns into the hardest one of the week!). Seriously, though, rest is what muscles need to recover and strengthen. When we train we damage the muscles by extending them which causes tears in the muscle fibres -- this is what makes you feel stiff the next day. The muscles repair themselves within 48 hours or so, unless the damage is severe, and are then actually stronger than they were before you damaged them.
So, if you train a group of muscles one day you should leave them alone for two days before training them again. In this way you repeatedly damage and then repair (and strengthen) the muscle fibres. Planning a training schedule round this basically means that you don't put back-to-back sessions that affect the same muscle groups. And, yes, before you start pointing out that the professionals do this all the time I'd like to remind you that this is aimed at the recreational athlete with a job/family and not at the professional! They have other support services like massage therapists, coaches to regulate and monitor their training, etc. You and I don't have this so we have to look after ourselves.
To illustrate what I mean here are two session plans that I use. A typical week's schedule in the "off"' season looks like this:
|Mon||4 mile run (recovery pace)|
|Tue||40 minute swim (distance)|
|Wed||5-6 mile run (mixed pace or hills)|
|Fri||Coached swim (technique)|
|Sun||Long cycle (3 hours)|
As the days get rather longer and warmer the schedule tends to look like this:
|Mon||4 mile run (recovery)|
|Tue||40 minute swim (distance)||cycle session (turbo or time trial)|
|Wed||3k run/1000m swim/3k run|
|Thu||cycle session (turbo)|
|Fri||3 mile run (pace)||60 minute coached swim|
|Sun||Race or combination training|
I find that I can fit these sessions in around my work and my family commitments -- both being more important than triathlon -- and maintain a decent enough level of fitness for sprint and standard distance events. By varying the intensity of the sessions, always using a heart rate monitor to ensure that I'm training effectively, and including both rest and active recovery I also find that I suffer very little injury or health problems during a season.