In this article, I am going to discuss five major different types of training methods you can use to design your training week, and will provide a few examples of each.
Training for a triathlon, at its most basic level, is fairly simple. All you need to do is swim, bike, and run. If you can swim 500 yards without stopping in the pool, can ride your bike 10 miles, and can run or walk 3 miles, then you are probably ready to tackle one of your local sprint triathlons.
However, as you learn more about the sport of triathlon and exercise in general, you will come to discover that there are different methods of training, each of which exercises a different group of muscles or focuses on a different physiological system within your body. There are as many training plans and philosophies regarding these training methods as there are athletes! In the interests of keeping it simple, I have summarized five very general methods for you below.
Aerobic training - I'm sure that you are familiar with this term. Aerobic training essentially consists of exercises and movements that do not overly tax your muscles or your respiratory & circulatory systems (your muscles don't give out quickly, nor does your breathing become too labored heart rate go too high). Aerobic training consists of exercises that you can continue doing for long periods of time - in general, for a half-hour or more. Aerobic training forms the backbone of your triathlon training and you should spend nearly half or more of your training time performing aerobic exercise (more for longer events, less for sprint events).
Terms you may hear associated with aerobic training are slow-twitch muscle, Zone 1 and 2 training, endurance, and base training. Slow-twitch muscles are muscle fibers adapted to long-term repetitive use; Zones 1 and 2 are the heart rate (HR) ranges (Z1 approximately 60% or less of max HR, and Z2 - 60-75%, depending on your age and maximum HR) which will tax your aerobic system; endurance is the result of consistent aerobic training and allows you to extend your time exercising as well as increase your general effort level; and base training is the term for the first few weeks or months of your training plan and should consist nearly entirely of aerobic training.
Some sample aerobic workouts for triathlon are:
- a 5 mile trail run at a relaxed pace with friends
- a 20 mile bike ride at a pace that you can hold without breathing hard
- a 1500 meter swim at a steady pace with a 20 second break every 100 meters.
Lactate Threshold (Anaerobic) training - Anaerobic training essentially consists of exercises and movements which quickly tax your muscles and your respiratory & circulatory systems. After a certain amount of time doing anaerobic exercise, your body will reach its lactate threshold (LT), and your muscles will no longer be able to respond at 100% effectiveness and/or your breathing will become so labored (as your heart tries to draw oxygen from your lungs in order to transport it through your bloodstream to your fatigued muscles, which are loaded down with lactic acid) that you have to slow down or stop. This is what I generally look like at the end of a sprint triathlon!
The amount of anaerobic exercise any individual can put out in one session depends on two things: Genetics and training. Some people can naturally stay at this level of exertion longer than others, which is one of the reasons why people like Chris McCormack win international triathlons (the other reasons would be an incredible work ethic and well-designed training plans). However, smart anaerobic training can take otherwise ordinary athletes and turn them into incredible triathletes, so never let those genetic limitations get you down. While McCormack may win a lot, he doesn't win all the time (granted, he doesn't do every race, either!).
Terms you may hear associated with anaerobic training include fast-twitch muscle, Zone 4 training, strength/muscular endurance (ME) training, and build-period training. Fast-twitch muscles are muscle fibers which are adapted to short-term high-demand use; Zones 3+ to Z4 are the HRs (Z3 approx 75-85% MHR, Z4 approx 85-94%, depending on training/genetics) in which your body uses your anaerobic system; strength/ME training are workouts designed to stimulate your anaerobic system in order to develop long-term adaptation to higher stress and demand levels so that you can race at a higher intensity for longer periods of time; and build-period training typically consists of a combination of aerobic and anaerobic training that work together in order to help athletes become progressively stronger and faster.
Some sample LT workouts for triathlon are:
- 2 mile warm up then 5 mile steady state run at around 85-90% of your Max heart rate (about 1/2 marathon pace)
- 1 mile warm up run, then 6 x 800 at slightly faster than 10k race pace with 2 minutes rest in between each, followed by a mile cool-down (if your 5k is 21, or 7:00 pace, your 10 sec faster pace is 6:50, which works out to be 1:42.5 per 400)
- 20 mile bike ride at the fastest pace you can hold steadily for the entire 20 miles (first 3 miles easy to warm up) - this is a beginner M/E workout
- 500 warm up swim, followed by 8 x 200 repeats at a steady mid-hard effort (your 1/2 mile race pace) with 10 seconds rest after each, then 200 easy
I should also point out that there is some latitude among individuals in determining where aerobic and anaerobic efforts meet. Some people may discover that they stay within an aerobic zone for most efforts, but quickly reach their LT with just a bit more effort. Others may discover that they can continue to exercise at an anaerobic level for literally hours. These differences are due primarily to the percentage distribution of slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscles and the maximum HR an athlete possesses.
Lactate Threshold (V02 Max) training - Your lactate threshold is the point at which your body produces lactic acid faster than your circulatory system can remove it. At this point the muscles being used will overload with lactic acid and either tighten up or cramp. More likely though, your inability to draw a deep breath and your rapidly beating heart will make you want to slow down. LT (V02 Max) training is a method of exercise designed to push your body to its absolute limits in order to slowly but progressively push those limitations higher. Each of us has a LT at any given point in time, and every one of us has a predetermined max LT; however, most of us don't do the kinds of exercises designed to help us approach that max LT.
Terms you may hear associated with LT (V02 Max) training include anaerobic threshold (AT) training, Zone 4 & 5 training, all-out, full recovery, and training-to-failure. AT training is simply another way of referring to LT training; Zones 4 (85-94% of max HR, or 95-100% of LTHR) and 5 (95% max, 100%+ of LTHR) refer to the target HRs you need to achieve in order to quickly reach your LT; all-out means sprint for as long as you can (Z5b,c); full recovery means letting your body completely relax and your HR to come down in-between efforts; and training-to-failure is a phrase borrowed from weight-lifting to indicate an effort so intense that your body is unable to do many repetitions or sustain that level of effort for anything other than a short amount of time.
Some sample V02 Max workouts for triathlon include:
- 1 mile warm up run, then 6 x 200 at 3-5 seconds faster than 1 mile race pace with full recovery between each, 1 mile cool down
- 10 mile easy bike, then 5 x 2 minute all-out efforts with full recovery between each, cool down
- 500 warm up swim, then 10 x 50 yards all-out freestyle with full recovery between each, 200 cool down
I never suggest triathletes run 'all out,' as we are not track sprinters and the risk of a torn hamstring or other injury increases radically on all-out running efforts. Cycling and swimming are non-impact sports and the chance of injury on all-out efforts, while it still exists, is much, much lower.
Strength training (and core training) - While the above training methods are sufficient to make you a talented triathlete, it is a good idea to supplement your triathlon-specific training with strength and core exercises for injury prevention and long-term muscular development. Strength training includes free weight training, machine weight training, plyometrics (jumping jacks, resistance bands), push-ups, sit-ups, and other core (torso) exercises. It is a good idea to hit the gym during your off season with a structured strength program and then return to the gym on a reduced or periodic basis during the racing season. Your focus in the gym should not be to see how much weight you can lift. The emphasis should be on lower weight amounts with higher repetitions (anywhere from 8-20 depending on the day, your background, body type, strength level, and point in training). 2 or 3 sets (8-12 reps) of several different exercises not lasting more than an hour in total is a general guideline.
In addition, core, or trunk, exercises are some of the most overlooked but most essential supplementary exercises triathletes can add to their program. Core exercises are designed to strengthen your abdomen, your back, and other stabilizer muscles (hip flexors & glutes being two). Remember that abdominal cramp you got halfway through the run? Core exercises will help prevent that. That aching back you deal with during a long bike ride? Core exercises.
Some sample strength workouts for triathlon include:
- Weight circuit consisting of regular bench, leg extension, lat pull-down, hamstring curl, bicep curl, squats, tricep extension, and calf raises
- Core circuit consisting of regular situps, machine crunches, medicine ball, machine back extension, side twists, leg raises, stability ball, flat floor back lifts, and crunches
- Plyometric circuit consisting of jumping jacks, resistance cords legs kick, step-ups, cords arm pull (simulated swimming), jump ups, and cords legs crossover kick
Drills training - Only a very lucky few get started in swimming, running, and cycling with naturally proper technique. The rest of us learn by watching others and listening to the feedback given to us by advanced athletes and coaches. But we also need to reinforce what we see and hear by attempting to emulate those movements ourselves. Drills training is the practice of performing repeated specific movements designed to aid us in becoming more efficient in that particular sport.
Every sport has drills designed to make athletes better, and triathlon is no exception. Swimming has catch-up, fingertip drag, one-arm, paddles, power-stroke, and power-kicking drills. Cycling has one-leg, stand-ups, spin-ups, and cornering practice drills. Running has strides, knee-up, fast feet, ankle-to-butt, sideways running, and backwards running drills. Each of these drills has one or two specific purposes, and while some drills may seem a bit silly by themselves, when they are incorporated into a well-developed technique they can and will save you time and energy. And that's what this sport is all about.
It would take me quite a few pages and a number of diagrams to adequately describe all these drills in this article, so my suggestion to you is to find a local athlete or coach who has the skills and the time to help you work on your technique (or buy a book or two). Oftentimes the fellow in the next lane at the pool or the fast lady on the bike next to you will be happy to give you a couple pointers. You just have to ask.
And those are the five major training methods that triathletes can and should use in their quest to become better athletes. How much of any one major training method you will use at a time will always vary depending on a number of factors - your skill level, your age, your goal race distance, your sex, your available training time, the point in the season, and your current limitations. There is no quick answer! But I will tell you this: Always err on the side of caution. Know your limitations, be realistic, build slowly, and do not attempt more than you can handle. You will thank yourself down the road - when you can handle more than you thought possible.
Good luck and I'll see you at the races,
* - slightly edited 2 March 2003 to reflect LT and V02 Max as they are referred to in popular training literature
* - edited 9-18-2007 to remove the specific HRs and replace them with percentage of max HR or LTHR.