There was a time when only one Ironman-distance race existed, the Hawaiian Ironman in 1978.
Fast-forward 35 years. Now, there are 32 Ironman-distance triathlons held every year and all around the world, with 15 events in North America; there are also 59 half Ironman-distance races per year, 30 of them in North America. And these are just the World Triathlon Corporation-sponsored events. With thousands of other corporate and independent races occurring worldwide annually, you can race a triathlon any time of year and in any corner of the world. As a result, a triathlete needs to train consistently throughout the year in order to improve performance and remain race ready. Whether competing many times throughout the year or peaking for only one race, consistent training year after year is a hallmark characteristic of all successful endurance athletes. The caveat here, however, is that training phases are variable. The days of an unfocused off-season are over. Goals, objectives, intensities, and training session duration all change during the yearly training plan (YTP), depending on the athlete’s training phase.
Let’s review some exercise physiology principles. The idea behind training is to induce an overload. Overload is a stress that produces a strain, which results in a response. For this equation to work and the athlete to continually improve, stress must increase over time. In other words, if I run the same route at the same pace every day for six months, I will not see an improvement in performance; I need to run multiple distances over varying terrains at prescribed intensities to see improvement. This increase in training stress over time is called progression. In addition, adaptations that occur to an athlete are specific to the stress that is induced; if I am training for a marathon, swimming ten hours per week will have little effect on my running performance. The response to the appropriate exercise stress is improved aerobic capacity and more efficient fat metabolism, both of which are integral to endurance performance.
In 1940, the Soviets implemented the idea of periodization, which is basically a method of breaking up the YTP into manageable blocks of time. These blocks have different characteristics throughout the year and allow specific types of training to be emphasized and quantified. Most athletes are familiar with the basic phases of periodization, such as the base, build, peak, and race phases. These are the most common and emphasized blocks of the YTP. What is not often emphasized is the training that occurs during the periods in between an athlete’s competitive seasons.
Recovery. This term is almost a curse word for some triathletes. However, it is following overload and during the recovery period that an athlete becomes stronger; the recovery, not the activity, allows training to be absorbed and adaptations to be created, which improves performance. This is the basis behind the standard pattern found in endurance training—three weeks of increased training stress followed by a recovery week. It is the recovery that allows an athlete to further increase the training stress over time (remember progression?) to continually improve performance and fitness level.
Now, what do all of these principles mean for the endurance athlete during the fall and winter months (also commonly called the “off season”)? As endurance athletes often neglect this period, I would like to change that mindset by proposing some specific training objectives for the weeks and months that follow a peak race. Let’s use the terms “transition period” and “pre-season period” instead of “off season.”
The transition period can be thought of as both physical and mental recovery. This period of time at the end of the season or after the completion of a top priority race can be as short as a few days (following a sprint race) or as long as two weeks (or more) after an Ironman-distance event. There are no hard or fast rules here; the recovery time is unique to each athlete and needs to be assessed honestly by athlete and coach alike. (I attribute my 25 years in the sport and lack of significant injury to the month of transition I take following an Ironman-distance race.)
This transition period leads into the pre-season period, which has traditionally been used for the base training necessary to rebuild aerobic capacity. While this is still the case—improving aerobic capacity is paramount for endurance racing—the trend now is to also use this time to incorporate sport-specific training blocks that last from 4-12 weeks. During these blocks, the athlete focuses on improving identified limiters in one sport while maintaining and building base fitness in the other two sports. For example: A coach might prescribe a focused block of run-specific training to improve running efficiency. During this time, the coach would also schedule low-intensity swim and cycling workouts to aid recovery and improve aerobic capacity. This run-specific training block ends with a recovery period, which would lead into another sport-specific block (cycling technique, perhaps). The pre-season period can last up to 30 weeks, enough time to incorporate three sport-specific training blocks. These blocks are the best way to utilize the pre-season period and most efficiently prepare the athlete for the upcoming race season.
As the transition and pre-season periods approach, I hope that I have convinced you (and your coach) to consider incorporating an appropriate recovery phase and multiple sport-specific training blocks into your YTP. This efficient use of your training time during the winter months will improve performance for your spring and summer racing season.