I’m an older guy who has been obsessed throughout his life with finding a workout strategy that minimized my injuries but really let any hidden athletic talent shine. In the 30+ years that I’ve been trying to find my athletic fountain of youth, I’ve tried just about every trick I came across– some worked (for a little while) and some didn’t. If you are on a similar journey, here are some of my general observations:
- There are No Training Miracles. Frequently, you may read about the latest training fad that is sweeping the pro ranks and think, “I just gotta have that.” Chances are that, if you try it, it will yield some benefit– but that benefit was far overblown by the media. Publishers want to sell magazines and manufacturers want to take advantage of a fad while its red hot. Another reality is that the elites filling out the pro ranks are even more susceptible to these pressures than us mere mortals– they have a pro contract on the line and so their livelihood depends on having every possible advantage. Steve Magness describes new ideas as going through a “hype cycle”– first they become wildly popular before falling into their rightful place in an athlete’s closet. I need only say the words, “barefoot running” for this last idea to make perfect sense.
- Research is Never Perfect. One might think that exercise physiologists would make perfect coaches, but this rarely happens. The problem is due to how and what is being measured. In a lab, an exercise physiologist will try to eliminate all other variables to determine if a particular stimuli yielded the desired change. By contrast, coaches live in the real world where all of those other variables compete with an athlete’s attention. This dichotomy is somewhat like the huge difference you feel when you’re at a training camp versus working out in your basement– only greater. The second problem is that exercise physiologists only measure performance differences in the short term (typically 10 weeks at most)– rarely do their results extrapolate to a full season (52 weeks) and never to an entire career. A great example are so-called Billat maxVO2 intervals– sure they will give you a huge performance boost if you haven’t done them before, but they are just not sustainable over an entire season.
- Never Underestimate Your Uniqueness. Of course, no two people are the same. We know that instinctively yet we will read a running magazine and conclude, “well, if that workout schedule works for Paula Radcliffe, it’s gotta work for me.” It’s not just that she’s a world class marathon runner and we’re not (or, at least, I’m not). Instead, the differences between individual athletes are far more subtle than that. Two world class athletes may both have similar race times but react entirely differently to the same stimuli. One may be an “endurance monster” and be able to tolerate huge volume day after day. The other may be more fragile with volume and have to approach long distance gingerly. But that same volume-sensitive athlete may crush her volume-insensitive team mate in her ability to rebound from fast sessions at the track. Greg McMillan talks about these differences at length in his book, You, Only Faster. But I think that our uniqueness goes even deeper than that. For instance, my body tends to build faster than most, hit a peak more quickly, but then struggles to maintain that level of fitness. Does that make me a better or worse athlete than my teammate who builds much more slowly but can hold a peak for a longer period of time? Absolutely not. It’s just something I have to factor into my training. I’ve mentioned before that the quickest way to learn these differences about yourself is to hire a coach and be a great client.
- Focus on Your Key Workouts by Allowing More Recovery Instead of Less.. In order to build fitness successfully, the key to your success isn’t to just slog through every workout in your workout schedule– instead, it’s to do every key workout in your schedule well. Generally, there should only be one or two of them per week– compared to those one or two workouts, everything else is just fluff. You can’t afford to go into your key workouts tired and expect results– if you are tired and think it may affect a key workout later, drop the workout like a hot rock and substitute in something easier.
- Don’t Live By a Fixed Schedule. I find that my brain is much happier if I don’t live and die by a fixed training schedule. Yes, I’ve lived by a schedule before– almost with an OCD-like precision– but I find it tiresome and makes training less fun. And we do this crazy sport because it’s fun, right? As noted, the most important thing is to do the key workouts. When exactly those workouts get done, however, is sketched out in pencil and should always amenable to being tweaked.
Like life, this is a continuing work in progress. As I find different strategies or ways of doing things better, these pages will get updated to reflect my latest thinking.
How I Train
Recognizing that this is an experiment of n=1 and that your body may be entirely different from mine, here is how my training develops over the course of the season. My training is focused on sprint and olympic distance duathlon, but you can take some of the general concepts and resources in this site to create a training plan for a much shorter event (e.g. 5K running race) or longer event (e.g. Ironman).
So let’s jump right in. I’ve written before about how I prefer non-linear periodization models in my training– and I think this is true even more so for older athletes and for multisport athletes. I also tend to follow Philip Skiba’s model of dividing the season into three phases. While the “phase” concept isn’t necessary in non-linear models (because training can be thought of as one gigantic phase starting at the extremes of speed and endurance and then leading to increased specificity), breaking it into phases just makes it easier for me to wrap my brain around it. The length of each phase can vary depending on my race schedule (end of phase 3 should be an “A” race).
Phase 1: General Fitness and Base-Building
After a nice 2-week break at the end of my last season, I start with building my all-round fitness. This phase includes a bunch of strength training and SLOW aerobic run accented with some hard short hill sprints. The following is a typical week.
|Run||Off||PM: Speedwork||Easy Moderate Run with Hill Sprints||AM: Easy Short Run||PM: Easy Short Run||Long Run||Easy Short Run Off Bike|
|Bike||AM: Hard Sprints||AM: Easy z1-2 Ride||Easy Moderate Length Ride with Occasional Sprints||PM: Hard Indoor Session||Off||Off||2-Hour Indoor Ride at Moderate Effort|
Now for the explanation of the week outlined above:
- Monday Run. I believe in at least one off-day per week. Even if I were purely a runner, I’d still have an off-day; my ideal week would include one speed work session, one tempo session, one long run, three easy days, and one off day. In a general duathlon build like this, however, there simply aren’t enough days in the week for a purely running build PLUS cycling workouts. To accommodate this reality, I’m going to largely (but not entirely) drop my tempo sessions because that will come later in the build.
- Monday Bike. The Monday bike and Tuesday running sessions are both hard workouts two days in a row. This is okay because I’m leveraging the 36-hour rule and because hard bike sprints are relatively easy to recover from. A hard bike session here is Tabata intervals– something like 20 seconds all-out sprints and 10-15 seconds off. These build a lot of strength and fitness. While they are so hard they make me want to puke, I usually feel a bit sore but otherwise fine the next day.
- Tuesday Run. This is our team’s weekly track session. In the pre-season, I like to work on high-intensity stuff (800m or shorter) with nice full recoveries. This is where I build the speed and economy for later work. The speed of these workouts should be FAST– consistently faster than your mile best time. As the build progresses, you want to move from really short blasts (e.g. 100m near all-out sprints) and slowly progressing up each week. Once you hit 300m, switch these to Billat intervals run at mile best time. Because of the high speed in the cold weather, it’s essential to have a good long warmup and cool down. The net effect is that these workouts tend to be at least 5-6 miles long.
- Note: To do Billat intervals, first calculate your running split (using your one mile best time) for the run distance you are running. For instance, if your best mile is 6:00, then your 300m time will be 67.5 seconds. Then you run 300m in 67.5 seconds, jog 67.5 seconds, and repeat. When you can’t do make your 300m splits in 67.5 seconds anymore using a jogging recovery, walk or stand still for the 67.5 seconds instead. When you fail at holding 300m even with stationary recovery, quit and start your cool down. Billat intervals in my plans start at 300m and build up to no more than 800m.
- Tuesday Bike. Just a recovery ride. I used to neglect these, but they are essential. First, I need the extra z1-2 work– it feels like nothing, but it adds up over a season. Second, I need the recovery it provides. Doing something and just getting the legs moving is more important for recovery than doing nothing.
- Wednesday Run. This is really just a recovery run, just stretched out to a longer distance (about six miles). I try to shoot for double the length of my short recovery runs.
- Wednesday Bike. This is also all about added volume while getting the right recovery in. This ride will be about an hour with some 15-second all out blasts sporadically put in. I also like to get off the bike every now and again and do some box jumps to further enhance my “pop” in the sprints.
- Thursday Run. This is a short recovery run, just to get some miles in and to warm up before the evening bike. Make sure to finish this workout at least 6-8 hours before the evening bike session. Also, feel free to put in some box jumps or strides to keep your neuromuscular system engaged.
- Thursday Bike. This is an evening session done with my team. In the winter, I particularly like riding to Sufferfest videos like Revolver, which emphasizes short intense intervals. As the phase draws to a close, you will want these shorter intervals to evolve into long Billat style intervals using your 5-minutes best power– start the intervals at 1:00 and increase slowly but don’t go beyond 2:30 by the end of the phase.
- Friday Run. Recovery again– just like Thursday AM.
- Friday Bike. A day off the bike at least once a week is nice for sanity purposes.
- Saturday Run. This is my bread-and-butter long run for the week. I like this run to be three times the distance of my shorter recovery runs. It is run slowly with plenty of hydration.
- Saturday Bike. This is either off or super-easy. Saturday is all about the long run and so whatever I do on the bike is all about supporting that long run. So it might be a warmup ride before/after a cold weather run.
- Sunday Run. This is a short run off the bike. It is NOT intended as a hard effort (like a brick workout). Instead, it’s an easy effort just to facilitate recovery and unfold the body after the ride.
- Sunday Bike. I’m a wimp. I hate riding outside in the cold and wet. I’ll plug in one of the longer Sufferfest videos (usually either The Blender or ISLAGIATT videos using PerfPro and a computrainer.
In this entire build, it is clear that the one key workout is the Saturday run. This one is non-negotiable. Apart from that one workout, possibly the Thursday bike is an important “nice to have” workout.
Every third or fourth week, I’ll substitute a harder, shorter tempo effort for one of the speed sessions. This may be something like 4 x 5min at 5-K race effort. Better yet, I’ll toss in a local race (not more than once every three weeks). The goal is to keep SOME sustained lactate threshold efforts going– but just not that much. Again, there will be plenty of it later in the season.
If I’m recovering from an injury or preparing for an early season race in some exotic location, I may change this strategy and use a sports rotation approach, but generally I find that maintaining a weaker more sustained stimuli across all sports disciplines yields better results for me than having concentrated but more intermittent stimuli that I get when I rotate sports. This preference for more well-rounded stimulation is unique to this pre-season phase.
Folded into the above schedule is strength training at the gym two or three times a week. My strength workouts tend to focus on core and glute strength. They aren’t elaborate or prolonged– very much a get-in-and-get-out approach to strength training. I also tend not to schedule them because I do them whenever the mood strikes me. My sports club has the hottest sauna in Seattle and, being the heat-craving person that I am, it doesn’t take much incentive in the winter time to get me down to the gym.
Phase 2: MaxVO2 to Lactate Threshold
In Phase 2, we really do the critical bulk of our training. This phase should be the longest of all (except for athletes with exceptionally long competitive seasons). Our goal is to start with a hefty dose of maxVO2, which was introduced at the end of Phase 1 in the key workouts and lengthen these out to 20-30 min efforts. The end goal is to have several weeks of steady 2-3 x 20-30min at FTP or lactate threshold. As the length of these intervals extend past the five minute mark in both running and cycling, I also like to split the harder speed sessions in each sport into two workouts– one workout with faster intervals of two critical shorter durations (one in the 4-8 minute range and in the 400m split time) and a second speed workout with longer and longer intervals focused on lactate threshold pace. The reason for this is because I feel that there is a lot of drop off in the 4-8 minute range– the more that we can do to extend our speed here, the better our running and cycling will be at shorter gut-wrenching events (e.g. 5-K races) and when the hammer comes down in the closing miles of a longer race.
During Phases 2-3, scheduling gets a little bit complicated, because there are a number of key workouts of varying priority. Before getting into discussing those ingredients, let me address a few ideas that I have about how to schedule.
- Abandon the 7-Day Calendar. If you do two sports (or, if you a triathlete, then three sports) and there are 2-3 key workouts, you’ve got too many workouts to fit into a 7-day calendar. But, the 7-day week is an arbitrary creation for the working world– our bodies don’t have a clue about what day of the week it is. Say, for instance, that you need a day of recovery between each hard workout and that you have six key workouts that you need to balance. You could just set up a 12-column chart to serve as your calendar, arrange your hard days and easy days, and then fill in the actual days of the week afterwards– making minor adjustments for preferences like “I like my long runs on the weekends” or “I want to be at track practice on Tuesdays.” You could also apply the 36-hour rule for some of the faster workouts (as discussed in How I Train: Part 2) or all of the workouts (if you’re young and injury-free)– potentially reducing a 12-day schedule down to only 9 days.
- Use Sports Rotation. You should also remember that you have sports rotation as a powerful tool in your toolbox. I would seriously consider using it if (1) you are injured or feel like you might be developing one, (2) you feel particularly weak in one sport, or (3) you’re mentally fried from balancing too many workouts from 2-3 different disciplines.
- Separate Out Energy Systems. One of the most important things that one of my coaches told me was to try to not do two workouts that emphasized the same energy system back-to-back. I’ve extended that to even avoid doing two such workouts with adequate recovery between them. So, for instance, don’t do Tabata intervals on the bike on Monday, easy day on Tuesday, and then Billat track intervals on Wednesday– that’s just too much maxVO2 work back-to-back. But, if you remember what I said about the 36-hour rule and the relative ease of recovery from maxVO2 intervals, you can still get some good schedule compression going if you don’t mind being a morning person. For instance, a very powerful 10-day schedule of exercises might be:
Day 1: Hard AM bike intervals (maxVO2) and easy late afternoon jog.
Day 2: Easy AM bike ride and hard PM running tempo intervals (lactate threshold).
Day 3: Easy jog, preferably early in the day.
Day 4: Long Ride (aerobic) and easy jog off bike
Day 5: Easy run or ride
Day 6: Hard AM running intervals (maxVO2) and easy late afternoon ride.
Day 7: Easy AM jog and hard PM bike tempo intervals (lactate threshold)
Day 8: Easy jog, preferably early in the day.
Day 9: Long run (aerobic) and easy ride afterwards.
Day 10: Easy run or ride.
In this schedule, key workouts are all italicized– and the absolute key ones are in boldface. These non-negotiable workouts are the two lactate threshold workouts— non-negotiale unless you substitute in a race for them instead. We’ll have more to say about these key workouts later.
- Toss in Early Season Races. I’ve said it before– race often. Anytime you can figure out how to substitute in a 5-10K race into your schedule, do it in place of a tempo effort. Ideally, this means you are racing every 2-3 weeks. I wouldn’t race every single weekend, however, during this phase– there’s other energy systems that need the focus and racing every weekend just messes that up.
Referring now to the 10-day sample schedule, what are some of these key workouts and how are they built out?
- Tempo Workouts. These are the single most important workouts of the phase. If your schedule is a wreck and you have to juggle your week around to make room for other aspects of your life, these are the workouts that you should do your best to keep on your schedule– and with enough recovery to perform well while doing them. These workouts are typically 60-90 minutes in duration– just be sure to pad enough gentle zone 1-2 work on both sides of the actual intervals to reach this duration. The main intervals start with 4-6 x 5 minutes efforts with 2 minutes recovery for both running and cycling. Each effort is hard but controlled efforts at 1 hour race pace (running) or FTP (cycling). If you don’t know your 1 hour race pace, I recommend running a solid 5-10K race and then going over to the McMillan Running site’s race pace calculator to find a race distance that most closely approximates an hour’s duration. For cycling FTP estimates, I like to use the Sufferfest Rubber Glove FTP video, preferably run on a trainer connected to PerfPro Studio. Over the course of the build, these intervals build out to 2-3 x 20-30min efforts. I noted earlier that I think Philip Skiba’s builds give great examples of how this is done. A sample of a compressed schedule over the course of six weeks might be:4-6 x 5 minutes x 2 minute recovery
- 4-6 x 7 minutes x 2 minutes recovery
- 3 x 10 minutes x 3 minutes recovery
- 3 x 15 minutes x 4 minutes recovery
- 2 x 20 minutes x 5 minutes recovery
- 3 x 20 minutes x 4 minutes recovery
- MaxVO2 Workouts. While these are important workouts, they are secondary to the tempo workouts above. These workouts are also 60-90 minutes long– again pad in enough zone 1-2 time on both sides of the actual intervals. For maxVO2, I like to alternate workouts between Billat intervals and 4-8 minute hard efforts. For instance, if I did a set of Billat intervals on the run, the next time I do a maxVO2 workout in running, I would focus on 4-8 minute hard efforts. This may skew the 10-day plan outlined because I find that a hard session of longer maxVO2 efforts (e.g. a hard set of mile repeats at the track) requires a lot more recovery than a set of Billat intervals. Instead of running Billat intervals based on time, I find it much more effective to run them based on distance– and specifically 400 meters. I run 400 meters at my mile best time (again calculated using the McMillan Running Calculator and jog/walk for that same amount of time before running another 400 meters in that same time. These pretty much don’t change over the period– I’m just able to do more of them by the end. As for the longer efforts, I tend to like good old-fashioned mile repeats. While other coaches tend to like jogging recoveries, I prefer walking or even stationary recoveries because the goal is to run faster– not to develop the overall endurance systems. For cycling, the two types of intervals are roughly the same. For the shorter Billat intervals, I tend to like 90 second intervals on equal rest and done at about 120% FTP or, preferably, your best wattage for a 6-minute hard effort. For the longer intervals, I like 4-6 minute efforts. In this regard, an excellent workout is the Sufferfest A Very Dark Place video.
- Long Runs/Rides. Unless I’m training for a really long event (e.g. Powerman Zofingen), these workouts stay just the same as during the first phase. Because building volume is the least important goal of the big three, some volume can be shed if desired.
- Easy Runs/Rides. These don’t change much from the last phase. Just keep them easy and try to fit them in when your schedule allows. They help– but not if they add stress to the overall system.
Phase 3: Lactate Threshold to Race Specificity
Phase 2 developed the most important training for any hard, serious racing– lactate threshold. Really. There are a ton of scientific studies that show that bumping up your lactate threshold only produces better results. Phase 2 made you incredibly fit– and perfect for a one-hour time trial or a fast 10K race. While you could probably finish any race (except possibly Ironman distance or greater) respectably by the end of Phase 2, to really get specific to the demands of your race, we need to now transition from lactate threshold to the actual demands of the race.
Here again, a fixed training plan becomes even harder to sketch out because it really depends on what kind of race you are doing. Training for a Olympic triathlon, for instance, is going to be completely different than training for a half-marathon. Nevertheless, there are a few general principles I like to follow.
- Race as Much as Possible But Choose Shorter Distances. During Phase 3, I think it’s important to get in a lot of racing because nothing trains for a race better than a race. But an even more important reason to race a lot is psychological. If you race a bunch of races, you don’t get nearly as nervous about racing. And, when you are at that big “A” race of the season (for which you may have traveled hundreds– or even thousands– of miles), the last thing you want is a lousy performance because your nerves were friend and you hit the first leg like Usain Bolt and then barely crawled to the finish line. But it’s important to choose shorter races than your big “A” race– and ideally in a single discipline. For instance, if you are training for an Olympic triathlon, 5K running races or 40K or shorter TT’s are perfect.
- Race Simulations. These are essential to build into the schedule. These are hard training sessions (usually bricks) in which you try to hold your race day power or pace just as if you are racing on race day. Accordingly, race simulations are much shorter than your actual “A” race. For instance, it is not unreasonable to do a race simulation of 1/3 actual race distances 4-6 weeks before your big race and then a race simulation of 1/2 actual race distances 2-4 weeks before your big race. The reason for the big gaps is because longer races should be spaced further apart (i.e. at 4 and 6 weeks) whereas shorter races can be spaced much more closely (e.g. at 2 and 4 weeks). This is because race simulations are really quite taxing, especially at longer distances. One word of advice: don’t be terribly disappointed if you can’t hold your watts/pace in a simulation. Doing race simulations alone can be tortuously boring– it’s simply hard to go at such a hard tempo alone.
- Bricks are Key. An enormous part of specificity for multisport racing is the switching between sports. I remember coming across a research study years ago comparing all the possible permutations of transitions in triathlon (e.g. the usual ones like swim-to-bike but also unusual ones like run-to-bike, swim-to-run, etc) and the results showed that, hands down, the hardest is run-to-bike (I will amend this post with a direct link when I find it). Of course, this just shows the obvious– that duathletes are tougher than triathletes. 😉 But it also shows that transitioning from one sport to the next really does have a huge impact on the second sport’s performance. For instance, one study demonstrated that, while cycling in a triathlon significantly alters running form in the last leg of the race, the impact on form was significantly less in elites than in less competitive athletes. Millet & Vleck, Physiological and Biomechanical Adaptations to the Cycle to Run Transition in Olympic Triathlon: Review and Practical Recommendations for Training (British J. of Sports Med. 1999). The authors of this study speculated that elites would do well with short duration but high intensity bricks with power and pace at or slightly higher than race power/pace. I think age groupers would like benefit even more.
- Build Out Race Performance in Each Discipline to Meet Race Demands. While race simulations (above) should be kept at distances well below the full length of the expected race, I believe that athletes should be able to build out race performances at a single discipline sport that matches or exceeds their race performance on race day in the combined event. For instance, if you want to run a 1:45 half-marathon in your half-Ironman “A” race, you better be able to run a 1:45 in an open half-marathon at least 8 weeks before your HIM A race.
Pulling it all Together
The rest of pulling together a phase involves plugging milestones (i.e. race simulations and single-sport race performances) into the calendar and then filling in a sensible training program to get us to each milestone. Probably the simplest way to do this is with an example. For instance, say I am preparing for the ITU World Championship Duathlon in Adelaide, Australia on October 18, 2015 (a hopeful goal– maybe sketching out a plan for other competitors will bring me some luck in getting my roll-down slot).
- Race Simulation: Sprint Duathlon and a Hard Brick. The standard duathlon format for ITU World Championships is a 10K run, followed by a 40K bike, followed by a 5K run. All in all, not terribly long distances. While I COULD do a race simulation at half these distances 2 weeks before Adelaide, I think I would feel more comfortable if I entered a sprint duathlon (5K/20miles/5K) and matched my predicted performance 3 weeks before my race. Also, I would want to set up a solo race simulation of 3K/15K/3K at least 8 weeks out and hit my numbers. So I could pop these into my calendar at September 27 (for the sprint duathlon) and August 23 (1/3 distance race simulation).
- Half-Marathon and a 40K TT. An ITU duathlon has some respectable running volume (15K or about 9.3 miles). I could find either a half-marathon or 15K race about seven weeks out from my race– say on August 30th. Now, I need a 40K TT. As I worry less about my bike performance (I’m a stronger cyclist), I can put this one earlier– say on August 16th.
- First Weekly Plan to Individual Sport Specificity. Being able to have the fitness to meet the first race simulation (3K/15K/3K) should just come from the training that I need for the individual sport milestones. So up to August 16th, I want to be able to be both a fast time trialist and a fast half-marathon runner in each discipline, but not necessarily combined. Fortunately I’m just at about the hour mark on a 40K TT, so tempo workouts are perfect. Becoming a great half-marathoner, in my experience, means also hitting tempo efforts at one hour to half-marathon pace on short recovery. So for both running and cycling, I want to keep extending out my running and cycling tempo work from Phase 2 to become 3 x 30min at race pace on short recoveries. These are hard efforts and should have at least two easy days between them. This permits one extra hard workout, where I usually use a long easy bike or long easy run (on alternating weeks).
- Next Come Bricks. Once I’ve hit my individual sports milestones on August 30, it’s time to switch gears a little bit. Here, we’ll substitute one of the two weekly tempo workouts with a brick workout instead. So now the week includes one tempo workout and one brick workout. As running is my weaker sport, the tempo workout will usually be running– I’ll get my bike tempo on the weekend and in the bricks. For whatever reason, I usually find the brick workouts easier to recover from than tempo workouts so one recovery day is usually fine. I’ll keep the long workout on the weekend. Usually, this becomes a long hard bike ride at upper sweetspot (88-91% FTP) with a short run off the bike. For the actual bricks, I like to do alternating 10min bike intervals at FTP or higher with 1-3 mile running efforts at race pace. There is no recovery other than transition time. Over time, slowly lengthen out each sport. For instance, a build may be:
6 x 10min bike/1.5 mile run
5 x 12min bike/1.75 mile run
4 x 15min bike/ 2.25 mile run
3 x 20min bike/3 mile run
- Home Stretch. The last race simulation (September 27) should give me a very good idea of where I stand– and where my weaknesses exist. I will continue the brick workout pattern up to race day– mostly working on improving my shortening my recovery times or increasing my pace in my bricks and tempo runs instead of adding extra volume. I’ll make sure to tweak the workouts to give added emphasis to my weak spots.