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Planning your Triathlon Training

Planning our training for a season is like looking at a picture on our computer. At first, we look at the whole picture, taking in all the bigger details and the overall impression of the image. Then we begin to zoom in. We start looking at finer and more specific details. Concentrating on certain aspects or areas of the overall image more specifically.

A professional athlete will break their year or season up into phases and blocks. These are built around targets. There are primary targets, with an external focus, like events, but there are also internally focused targets, like physical and mental aspects of racing and training, that they feel they need to work on. The internal targets will always play second fiddle to the external ones for a professional athlete. Performing at the races is always the primary goal, as this is how their season, and ultimately, their career, is judged. It is also their shop-window. Good performances result in bigger sponsorship deals, appearance fees and invitations to bigger events.

So purely training-focused goals or physiological / psychological targets are worked around the racing program. It must be noted that maximal racing performance could rely on improving these internally focused goals. Especially in a younger professional.

As amateurs we will replicate how professionals plan their seasons in that we will decide when we need to be at our best based on the events that we have chosen and then build the training plan around them. Just like professionals we will have two or three peaks in a season with a steady build up to the first one. Each period, or phase of training, will have different goals and targets but they are all interconnected. In other words, what we do in one phase will set up what we want to achieve in the next one, not only what we want to do in the current one.

As discussed in ‘Planning our Season’, we will have selected our ‘A-Races’. These will determine our Macro Cycles. These are our big training blocks that each have a distinct focus and desired outcome. We shall refer to them as:

  • The Off Season
  • The Pre-Season
  • The Early Season (Peak One)
  • The Mid-Season (Possible Peak Two in a three-peak season)
  • The Late-Season (Peak Two or Three)

Within these ‘Macro-Cycles’ we will plan ‘Meso-Cycles’ (between macro and micro). The ‘Off-Season’ and the ‘Pre-Season’ are fairly short and normally not more than six weeks. It is not likely that we will need to segment them further. The: Early; Mid and Late season periods should all be at least 8-12 weeks, and here we should further divide the training block into what we are calling ‘Meso-Cycles’. The ‘Macro-Cycle’ will have a specific focus but, within that, there will be subtle shifts in intensity and duration, and these can be defined within the ‘Meso-Cycles’.

It is generally accepted that adaption to a particular training stimulus diminishes after four to six weeks. it is always a good idea to alter the training, even subtly, to keep the body adjusting and improving. Even though the ultimate objective of the ‘Macro-Cycle’ is maintained.

‘Meso-Cycles’ should always follow a training progression. There should be a gentle escalation of intensity or volume (or both) through the period. For example – an interval progression would comprise either a weekly increase in speed, a reduction in recovery time or an increase in the number of reps, through the ‘Meso-Cycle’.

The end of each ‘Meso-Cycle’ can flow straight into the start of the next or they can be divided by, what I like to call a, ‘Book-End Week’. Here we can allow some recuperation and recovery if the previous period of training has been particularly arduous. For those of us, non-pros, who are juggling training with the rest of lives’ responsibilities, the necessity for an easier week may be less about the tough training that we have done, and more about those, other responsibilities. Either way, they still take a toll and impair our bodies’ ability to recover from and assimilate the good work that we have done.

It is best to schedule these into our plan to avoid the potential disruption to a nicely laid out program, should we find that we need to slot one in later, out of necessity. Prevention is always better than cure. The best way to plan a recovery week is to end it with a lesser event. So, it can become a bit of a taper and the event will then give us an excellent snapshot of where our current form is and highlight any areas that may need focus. It also makes the easier week a lot more palatable to our psyche.

This brings us inevitably to the ‘Micro-Cycle’. For professional athletes this could constitute anywhere from three to ten days but for those of us juggling other responsibilities which probably include a nine-to-five job, our ‘Micro-Cycle’ will almost always be a calendar week of seven days. Within that cycle we want to fit the critical sessions that focused on our goals for this phase of training. There will be the highlights such as intervals or endurance sessions but the supporting cast is just as significant and probably the most of these are the ‘set-up sessions’, where we prepare the body for the key session to follow, and the recovery session, where we lock in the effects of that key session with an active but light session.

Most weekly ‘Micro-Cycles’ are broken into a two to three day ‘ON’, one day ‘OFF’, structure. For example: Monday and Friday as easier days with Tuesday to Thursday and Saturday and Sunday with more intensity or volume. Another popular format is the hard day, easy day approach, which works well for single discipline sports but, in triathlon, the different loads that the individual constituents place on the body, allow, and necessitate, more successive intense days. For example: Monday and Friday with hard swims as the highlight. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays hard rides, and Wednesday and Sundays hard runs.

The ‘Micro-Cycle’ is normally where we stop but, an even smaller training cycle can be defined, and this; despite its size, is the most important one. Let’s call it the ‘Nano-cycle’. This little cycle is not made up of days but rather hours. In fact, it is a 24-hour period. This is where we can achieve a great deal by emulating our professional counterparts. Ironically, it is amateurs who generally need to plan their days more precisely in order to ensure that they get their training in but, in the professional sports world, having all day to train comes with its own pitfalls. A day that lacks structure and a plan can lead to rushed or crammed days for professional athletes as well.

Planning our ‘Nano-Cycle’, or day, around fixed working hours is generally quite simple. A training slot first thing in the morning and one in the evening generally works for most of us. It becomes tricky for those who have more flexible occupations or, work in fields that are more adaptive and fluid. In those cases, it is even more critical to try to lock in training slots in order to allow the sessions to be performed at the desired intensity. Looking at the number of hours between sessions is important in order to allow sufficient recovery time. What we are doing during that recovery time is just as critical in planning when, and how hard the next session can be. Professional athletes may spend their time between training on the couch or the massage table, whereas we may be climbing a ladder, seeing patients, or conducting stressful meetings with clients. All of these factors place a strain on our bodies’ ability to recover from and to assimilate the training stimulus we have given it.

Everyone should attempt to plan and diarise their training for each day a week in advance. It is not practical to try this for longer, but a pattern will emerge, and each day of the week will develop its own, fairly permanent character depending on where we are in our overall seasonal plan. This helps with preparation for the session, execution of the session and also pre and post session nutrition. It is always much easier to stick to a plan when you know exactly when and why you are doing everything. It is also invaluable in coordinating the rest of our lives with our training plan.

I know that spontaneity is highly prized in modern life, but it is not what we are looking for as athletes. We don’t want any surprises. We want routine, consistency and predictability. Inevitably, our jobs, families and friends will provide challenges to this planned way of life. That is acceptable. We are not professional athletes, and our training needs to fit into our lives in order to be sustainable and enjoyable but, we should always be striving for that perfect plan. Aiming for the structure that will realise the consistency. Control and plan as much as we can, and the overall picture becomes much clearer and easier to see.

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