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Training for a triathlon is no simple challenge. Logistically, you have to balance time and equipment needs of three different sports. Physically, each of those disciplines require vastly different skill sets and energy demands. While every training plan can and should look different based on time available, skill level and the distance you are racing, there are some foundational and fundamental types of workouts that all triathletes should embrace.
Triathlon may not be easy, but the rewards are often life-changing and these workouts facilitate that fulfillment.
Brick workouts combine at least two of the disciplines in a single workout. For instance, you may combine a bike/run session or swim/bike session. Brick workouts accomplish many goals for a triathlete. First, they help you prepare mentally for race morning and let you learn how to make through quick transitions. There’s something about hopping off the bike and heading for your running shoes that triggers that “race mode” sensation. Don’t waste these sessions moving slowly and meandering between the two disciplines. As much as you can, treat these brick workouts like race day practice. Not only are you training your body physically, but you are also going through the real motions of race day.
Brick workouts also give you a realistic feel for how your body will react to the sudden change of sports and different muscle recruitment. Yes, it is an unnatural feeling to go from biking to running within a matter of minutes, so you want to discover how long it takes to find a rhythm and settle into the next discipline.
Finally, brick workouts also allow you to practice your nutrition for race day. What settles well in your stomach? How long does it take to settle into a bike ride when you’ve just finished a 60-minute swim? How are your energy levels? Use brick workouts to practice how you will feel, react and fuel on race morning.
Race Pace Efforts and Intervals
If you’ve set a specific time or pace goal for your race, you no doubt need assurance that you can actually hit those targets. How will you know? Practice! After extended warm ups, practice shorter race pace efforts in your training sessions. Many coaches also schedule “race rehearsal” days where your focus that day is to hit your target pace goals while also practicing your nutrition strategy. Triathletes who don’t often train at the actual efforts they want to race at may end up bonking or blowing themselves up early because they haven’t gotten a true sense of how that pace or effort will feel and how it will impact their ability to absorb nutrition—all very important as mileage grows.
Race rehearsals and race pace efforts put you in the mindset of the true experience and help you assess the feasibility of your stated time, pace and effort goals.
Purple Patch Fitness head coach Matt Dixon says one of the biggest mistakes he sees in triathletes is the failure to go easy on the easy days. Athletes often think of recovery as a weakness or liability to their training. You see the hours that the competition appears to be logging and feel compelled to match or even beat it. Unfortunately, if your barometer of success is a simple accumulation of training hours without regard to the quality of those hours or what you do in between, danger looms. As Dixon describes in his recovery pillar of performance, “Recovery is the body’s physiological process to compensate for the demands of a progressive training load. Physiological adaptation (e.g. metabolic rest and rebuilding) of the body takes time and must be structured in order to elicit the changes that will optimize athletic performance.” Simply put, recovery days stimulate adaptations, set you up for success in subsequent harder sessions and ultimately allow you to train more consistently.
You want recovery sessions each week in between long and hard sessions. You also want recovery throughout the year and training cycle. There are many types of recovery modalities, including sport specific, lifestyle and qualitative. For more information on these, listen to the Purple Patch Podcast on Recovery.
Open Water/Wetsuit Practice
One of the largest sources of anxiety in triathlon is the open water swim. It’s not just what’s lurking below the water but also the chaotic atmosphere of being surrounded by several hundred (or thousand) others who are sharing the same space in the murky waters.
If location allows, spend time practicing your swim in an open water setting with a wetsuit. Yes, prepare to have some anxiety when you stop seeing the black lane line at the bottom of the pool. Expect to feel some stress without the comfort of knowing there is a wall 25 yards away. The fear of the unknown in open water and the constriction of a wetsuit can be paralyzing and should be rehearsed multiple times prior to race day if possible.
Even if you don’t have access to open water, you can still practice techniques in the pool. Line up with some of your friends and practice mass starts. Swim 25 yards with your eyes closed and sight three to four times each lap. Practice fast starts and even try your wetsuit in a pool for a couple of laps just to get used to the feel of what it does to your swim stroke.
If possible, practice open water swimming once a week. If you don’t have access to open water, you can still practice sighting, buoy turns, mass starts, and more at least once a week in a pool with fellow triathletes.
Functional Strength Training
Functional strength training for triathletes isn’t about going to the gym, grunting and pumping heavy weight for hours on end. In fact, just two sessions per week for about 30 minutes is more than enough to vastly improve your coordination, proprioception, form and biomechanics.
Another equally important component of functional strength training is to improve your mobility and flexibility. That’s where the “functional” part becomes so important.
Yes, one of the goals of functional strength training is to help recruit and strengthen the sport-specific muscles you use for the various triathlon disciplines, but another equally important component of functional strength training is to improve your mobility and flexibility. That’s where the “functional” part becomes so important. In doing so, you also significantly decrease your risk of injury.
For examples of exercises to perform to get the most out of your time at the gym check out this piece detailing moves beneficial for each of the three triathlon disciplines.