In the new year (or whenever you happen to be reading this), your thoughts may turn to choosing races and planning out your training and racing calendar for the coming year. There are some basic concepts you should get your head around, from a sports science point of view, but first you may also want to read through another blog called, "What motivates you?"
Goals for starting out - training and/or racing goals
You may have specific goals in mind, especially if you come from a competitive sports background in one of the three triathlon disciplines. For example, you may have always wanted to run a 10k in a certain time, and that feels like it will translate well into your new triathlon training and racing goals. You may also have to adjust your single-sp
ort goals when you start doing triathlons, and build up to that specific goal over a longer period of time. Of course, it is a good idea to consult with a coach and talk through some of your goals, making sure that your goals are sensible and achievable.
If the decision about what race you will do has already been made (e.g. you signed up with your friends, you got a charity spot, or there is a local race you have been wanting to do for a long time and you finally went ahead and signed up), then you will want to build your training and racing plans around your choice of race. Naturally, you will want to make sure those race-related goals are realistic and achievable, as much as you can. For example, I have seen some people new to triathlon who have chosen an Ironman® race as their first-ever triathlon, and they have less than a year in which to get themselves ready for that. In some cases, it is simply not possible to achieve these goals in the space of time given. In some cases, it can be possible, but you really need to consider these goals very carefully.
You may also have, as specific goals, that you just want to enjoy your triathlon training, reap the health benefits of all this exercise, and do it without incurring injuries. A lot of people come to the sport with some these goals and don't start out with specific races in mind. Personally, I think this is an excellent way to approach triathlon, and I encourage that mind-set in all my friends and clients. But, you can still follow the guidelines for periodisation, below.
So, if you come to triathlon training with a specific race in mind (what we might call your "A" race) and you have enough time to train and build up to it sensibly beforehand, you can choose "B" races to help you get ready. B races might be best described as races where you are not necessarily aiming for peak, personal-best performance, but you are just looking for some sort of practice in an organized, race-specific format. Especially if you haven't ever done a triathlon before, you might want to pick a race, perhaps a month or so before your A race, where you can allow yourself to take it easy and just go through your paces, without hurrying, without too much anxiety, just for the practice. This also holds true for experienced triathletes: every now and then, it is a good idea to do a race that is just for fun, just to mix it up, to try out something new, maybe not even a typical triathlon. In the winter time, a lot of people do duathlons, cyclo-cross and various off-road events. There is even a growing fascination amongst triathletes for ultra-endurance events (e.g. 10k open water swims, ultra-marathon running, Channel swimming, swim-run events like ÖTILLÖ ) and other, longer challenges. These days, the range of possibilities seems to be growing endlessly.
There will be more detail about this in future blogs (see Aerobic Endurance Training, Muscular Endurance Training and Anaerobic Endurance Training), but let's just look at the basic ideas for a sensible year (or however much time you have) of training ahead. These are some very rough guidelines, but should give you a good idea of how to focus your training on different aspects of fitness at different times.
The Base Training Phase is where you usually start your training. This is the phase where you do low- to moderate-intensity training (usually between 60% and 75% effort levels), focusing on good technique and biomechanics, while you build up to your target mileage. Please remember that this phase is not about hitting speed targets or strength targets, and really it is just about achieving distance targets, gradually and safely, with good attention to form and technique. In general, the more time you give yourself for this phase of training, then the more gradually and safely you can bring yourself up to your target distance. I usually recommend a minimum of 3 months for this type of training. Most athletes seem to benefit from 3 weeks of gradually increasing distance across all disciplines, followed by 1 week of rest, for a regular, 4-week cycle throughout this period.
The Build Training Phase begins once you have satisfactorily and safely achieved your distance goals of the last phase. The goal of this phase is to build up more strength and muscular endurance, gradually raising your training intensity up to higher levels (usually 75% to 85%). During the Build Phase, you typically do not want to do longer sessions, but keep your mileage about the same from week to week and just push the intensity level up each week. Your Build Phase doesn't usually go on for as long as your Base Phase, as the higher levels of intensity are not as sustainable or as desirable. Build Phase training typically doesn't last longer than 2 months, and then you usually go straight into your next phase of training. You can also repeat Build Phase training at different points throughout your racing season (e.g. between your B Race and your A Race). Some athletes choose the above-mentioned 4-week cycle for their training plans, especially if they had a long Base Phase that allowed for some consistent, solid aerobic fitness adaptations. Other athletes sometimes choose 2 weeks of progressive increase in intensity, followed by 1 week of rest and recovery, for a shorter 3-week cycle, especially if they are new to the sport or have not had a very long Base Phase of training.
The Peak Training Phase usually follows on directly from the Build Phase. The focus of this phase of training is more speed work, and so a lot of your training throughout this period will be done at higher intensities, ultimately aiming for new heights of speed and power. Peak Phase training will best be characterized as "short and sharp", and many athletes choose a shorter 3-week cycle of training for this high intensity speed work. This would also be a good period in which to build in a B Race. Again, Peak Training can be scheduled in and around your race season, especially if, for example, there is a 2-3 month gap between a B Race and an A Race.
Rest & Recovery Phase is an important, separate phase of training that requires just as much attention and support as any other phase of training. Most people think of this as "down-time" and I have even heard some people refer to this as "lost time", but please do not under-estimate the importance of Rest & Recovery. Sometimes, just a 1- to 2-week rest is good after a race (for example, if it is a shorter B Race). For longer A Races, or at the end of your race season, you can usually benefit from a 4-week Rest & Recovery phase. And, please remember, Rest & Recovery periods can be more than just "down time" and can have some specific things for you to focus on:
Injury repair, physiotherapy, stretching, massage and coordinated recovery
Biomechanical analysis, technical drills and improvement
Extra sleep and recovery time
Improved nutritional analysis and focus
Seeing how much you miss the sport and the training when you take some time off, how much you look forward to getting back to it, and why
Don't forget to have fun!
The more you smile, the better you feel. The better you feel, the more likely you are to keep doing what you have been doing. The more you keep doing what you have been doing, the better you will get at it. Long-term success can very well be based on enjoyment and fun. So, make sure you have fun!