To swim, bike and run faster and for longer, you need to improve both ‘basic’ and ‘advanced’ fitness.
Base fitness represents the basic abilities needed to perform well at any distance of triathlon. Improving basic fitness is essential to improving fitness and race performance. Every athlete needs to return to base training every year, regardless of his or her experience or ability, and to keep it ‘topped up’ throughout the year.
Base fitness components include endurance, strength, and efficiency; advanced components are strength endurance, anaerobic endurance and power. Athletes often think of racing and training fast in terms of the advanced components and so focus their training towards these. They may consider that what is limiting them in races is one or more of the advanced components (for example, if a weakness in races is climbing short, sharp hills then anaerobic endurance and power may be limiting). However, what they don’t often realise is that all of the advanced fitness components are dependent on base fitness. Strength endurance depends on strength and endurance; anaerobic endurance is dependent on endurance and efficiency, while power depends on a combination of strength and efficiency.
It is also worth considering that these advanced fitness components can be relatively quickly developed - in weeks rather than months, whereas base fitness takes much longer to develop. Steady, consistent training at moderate effort levels forces the body to make small adaptations that add up over time. High-level aerobic fitness comes with years of effort rather than months.
The specific base training phase each year needs to take between 12 and 24 weeks or so, depending on experience and goals. In triathlon this needs to be done in winter and spring to prepare for the summer race season.
This ‘easier’, base training develops your aerobic system. If you try to train hard all year round you will compromise your aerobic development, as harder training develops your anaerobic fitness. The goal of base training is to increase the workload that you can sustain aerobically.
Endurance is the ability to resist fatigue. Improving endurance means that your body is more efficient at using fat (a plentiful fuel source) for a fuel through aerobic energy pathways, and can ‘spare’ carbohydrates (a limited fuel source). The body can never utilise fat quickly enough to provide all the energy you’ll need in races, but the more fat you burn, the less of your precious carbohydrates you’ll need to use.
Also, you will improve the circulatory characteristics in the exercising muscles. This enables more effective removal of waste products and delivery of blood, oxygen and fuel.
Endurance training sessions are aerobic because they are carried out at an intensity below the point at which lactic acid begins to accumulate in the blood, an indication that a significant contribution is being made from the anaerobic energy system. Training intensity therefore, needs to be low – around 55-70% of maximum heart rate, or at ‘conversational effort’; if you can’t easily carry on a conversation then the pace is likely to be too high. Probably best not to try a conversation whilst swimming though…
The longer the event, the more important it becomes to improve basic endurance. This doesn’t mean however, that triathletes training for a sprint distance triathlon can afford to neglect their basic endurance, as even a sprint distance triathlon is heavily dependent on this aerobic endurance.
The typical endurance session is the ‘long’ or over-distance workout. Tackling longer than race distance sessions, or longer than you are accustomed to, helps you both physically and mentally. Psychologically, you learn to cope with events that are long and challenging, and become ‘mentally tough’.
One long / over-distance training session in each discipline per week is plenty. If you are training for a sprint or standard distance triathlon then building your long training sessions to twice the race distance is the way to go. If you are preparing for a half Ironman distance race then aim towards 1.5 times race distances. Further than this and the risk of injury and excessive tiredness far outweigh the relatively small gains available, particularly in running. It is preferable to have time goals for these sessions, rather than distance, to avoid the temptation to ‘race’ through the workout. It is sensible to build the volume of these sessions steadily throughout the winter and spring, particularly if you are new to triathlon or endurance training. A good ‘rule of thumb’ is to progress by no more than 10% increments per week.
So, for those targeting a sprint tri your long bike should be built up to the region of 80 minutes to 2 hours, for standard distance 2hours 30 to 3hours, and for half Ironman from 4 – 5 hours. The pace for these rides should feel very comfortable, at least to start with… Perceived effort, and heart rate, will probably rise throughout the ride as fatigue increases. During any ride over 90 minutes or thereabouts, you will need to refuel yourself so take carbohydrate snacks, and / or drinks with you.
You should also consider regularly adding a short, endurance run off these longer bike sessions to develop the ability to move from biking to running. These do not need to be fast or long, but should focus on maintaining a relatively high cadence with a low effort. 15 – 30 minutes for all distances is sufficient.
As far as the run goes, sprint distance athletes should aim to make their long run between 50 and 70 minutes. For a standard distance aim for around 90 minutes, and those training for the half Ironman distance, up to around 2h 15 minutes.
Be particularly careful with building the volume steadily on the run. Have an easy’ recovery week every 3 to 4 weeks where volume is much reduced. It is good practice to avoid running on roads or tarmac – keeping off road as much as possible slightly reduces the impact stresses and associated injury risks.
Generally, the most suitable training mode for basic endurance training is continuous, steady state exercise of at least 30 minutes duration. The exception to this is usually swimming where endurance sessions can be broken down into shorter swims with recovery intervals. This can avoid some of the tedium which long, continuous swimming can create. A little recovery can also help to maintain good stroke mechanics during longer swim sets.
An example of aerobic endurance swims sets for a sprint distance tri could be 1000 – 1200 metres broken down into shorter swims with rest intervals, but with a short recovery only (10 to 15 seconds of recovery per 100m swum), for example:
- 10-12 x 100m with 15s recovery
- 5-6 x 200m with 30s recovery
- 4 x 300m with 60s recovery
Those aiming to race standard distance or half ironman distance should follow the same
guidelines in a longer set, to give ‘an over-distance’ swim of 2000 – 2500metres, for example:
- 20-25 x 100 with 15s recovery
- 12- 16 x 150m with 20s recovery
- 8-10 x 250 with 30s recovery
- 5-6 x 400m with 60s recovery
The goal for these should be to swim them all at a consistent pace and stroke count. As you progress week on week, aim to reduce rest intervals before you increase pace.
Strength is the ability to overcome resistance. In swimming this is obviously the resistance that the water offers to hand and body; on the bike it involves applying force to the pedals to overcome air resistance, friction and gravity, and in running to applying force to the ground.
Specific strength training involves providing a force overload using actions that closely, or exactly copy those used in the sport. Examples are swimming with hand paddles or a drag belt, ‘over-geared’ riding, and riding and running hills.
All, or parts of the swim sessions above can be completed with hand paddles to develop specific strength. Start by alternating between paddles and no paddles and build up to completing the whole set with paddles. Paddles present a larger surface area to the water during the stroke, requiring slightly more force to be applied to the water throughout the stroke. Be wary of using paddles that are too big for you – it’s tempting to go for the bigger paddles as you will feel greater pressure on the water, but they will also put more stress on the shoulders. If you are relatively new to swimming stick to smaller paddles and increase the size of paddle you use as your base fitness and specific strength improves.
As simple way to develop specific strength on the bike and run is to ride or run on hilly routes. Effort level will naturally rise as you climb, but aim to keep it relatively low and maintain the ‘conversational’ pace. On the bike try to stay in the saddle as much as you can to build hip strength.
Specific strength can also be developed on the bike by ‘over-gearing’. This involves selecting a gear which forces a lower than normal cadence, thus requiring more force to be produced during each pedal stroke. Slight over-geared work can be done as part of a ‘long’ endurance workout by selecting a gear that is one or two harder than you would normally choose and pedalling in this. You should be riding at a cadence of around 70rpm and on a reasonably flat course. If you are new to riding and this type of training, start with around 10-15 minutes total over-geared work, broken into shorter periods with recovery intervals of easy spinning (easy riding at a comfortably high cadence). For example:
4-5 x 2 minutes over-geared with 2-3 minutes recovery spin.
More experienced riders may progress to something like:
4-5 x 8 minutes over-geared with 5 minutes recovery spin.
If you have a couple of years or more of riding experience and are free from knee injuries, then you can add more forceful over-gearing workouts after a few weeks of base training. These are done after a good warm up, and generally as a specific session, although they can be included as part of a longer ride that is otherwise reasonably flat. This type of session involves efforts of between 1 and 5 minutes, with an equal recovery interval, on a relatively steep, steady hill, at a cadence of around 50rpm. The session can also be done on a turbo trainer with a high resistance. If you are new to this start with 3-5 minutes of total work time, for example:
- 3-5 x 1 minute with 1minute recovery.
12-15 minutes of total work over 6- 8weeks, for example:
- 4 x 3 minutes with 3 minutes recovery.
During these sessions you will need to focus on keeping the upper body still and relaxed, a loose grip on the bars, and staying firm in the core region.
Efficiency is closely related to skill, and refers to the effectiveness of your swim stroke, pedalling action, or running technique. Improving efficiency will enable you to swim, bike or run for longer with less energy expenditure. It involves improving muscular coordination, training the muscles to work together effectively.
There are dozens of swim drills designed to improve different aspects of stroke technique and coordination. Selecting and practicing an appropriate range of drills regularly should improve stroke mechanics and coordination; unfortunately few of them can be adequately described here! See the best at SwimSmooth: www.swimsmooth.com . One simple drill that can improve swim coordination and efficiency is short distances of fast, but relaxed, swimming. Keep the distance to around 10-12 meters, or 6-10 strokes, which is swum as fast as possible, with plenty of recovery. This will challenge and improve coordination, but is short enough so that fatigue does not become an issue. For example:
- 6-10 x 50meters with 10meters swum as fast as possible, staying relaxed. Remainder is easy swimming
On the bike single leg riding can help to improve many aspects of cycling fitness, including pedalling efficiency. Single leg cycling helps you to learn how to pedal in complete circles, as the other leg can’t help you to overcome the ‘dead spots’ in the pedal stroke. These are the places where you make the transition from pushing down on the pedals to pulling up, and from pulling up to going over the top and pushing down. You have to use your hip flexors and hamstrings much more than normally and, if you do it enough, this will transfer into your normal pedalling, which will become smoother and more efficient.
You can also use the turbo trainer to work on your pedalling coordination with high speed spinning drills – short intervals in a relatively easy gear at a higher cadence than you are used to. The session below combines single leg pedalling and high speed spinning drills:
Warm up: 10- 15 minutes progressive spin
10 mins one-legged drills as:
- 30 seconds right leg
- 30 seconds left leg
- 60 seconds both legs
Week 1 rpm = 70
Week 2 rpm = 75
Week 3 rpm = 80
Week 4 rpm = 85
Week 5 rpm = 90
Both legs progression:
Week 1 rpm = 90
Week 2 rpm = 95
Week 3 rpm = 100
Week 4 rpm = 105
Week 5 rpm = 110
- 5 mins spin at 90rpm
- 1 min easy
- 3 mins spin at 100rpm
- 1 min easy
- 1 mins spin at 110rpm
- 1 mins easy
Repeat the above set x 2/3
When doing one legged drills aim for a smooth revolution with controlled pressure throughout then transfer this to the spinning. The suggested cadences are just that – start with a cadence which you can manage reasonably comfortably for the time set and progress from there….
Week 2 increase each rpm by 5
Week 3 increase each rpm by a further 5
Week 4 increase each rpm by a further 5
Week 5 increase each rpm by a further 5
Warm down: 5 mins easy
As with swimming, there are dozens of difficult to describe running drills designed to isolate and improve different aspects of the running action. However, for most runners, particularly triathletes, increasing run cadence (number of steps per minute) is a relatively simple way of improving running efficiency. Try the sessions below to develop cadence and efficiency.
You can do this on a treadmill set at 0% gradient or outside. Initially you may find it slightly easier to maintain the higher cadences on a slight down slope. For the main set the speed should be ‘comfortably fast’ no harder. The emphasis is on correct cadence not speed.
You should not get faster through the set but rather shorten stride to maintain same effort and pace.
10mins progressive warm up
- 5 x 30 secs cadence of 90/30 secs rest
- 5 x 30 secs cadence of 95/30 secs rest
- 5 x 30 secs cadence of 100/30 secs rest
- 5 x 30 secs cadence of 105/30 secs rest
(Select the starting cadence according to current ability – if 90 is quite comfortable then start there, if not start lower)
10 minutes continuous run with highest comfortable cadence.
- 5 x 1 min cadence of 90rpm/30 secs rest
- 5 x 1 min cadence of 95rpm/30 secs rest
- 5 x 1 min cadence of 100rpm/30 secs rest
It can be difficult for highly motivated athletes to ‘buy into’ the idea that they need to slow down in the short term, and probably lose some top end fitness, to gain longer-term benefits. But what limits many athletes, even those with years of experience, is an under developed base fitness. The fitness components that you need to focus on during base training need to be in place before higher intensity, race specific training and racing can be sustained.
To swim, bike and run faster and for longer, you need to improve both ‘basic’ and ‘advanced’ fitness.