Training for a 1/2 or full Iron distance race is an exciting, challenging, and deeply satisfying journey. Crossing that finish line for the first time is a once in a lifetime experience that will remain with you for a long time. Such an event requires one to be committed, disciplined, structured in training, and perhaps a little bit crazy. Sound like you have what it takes? But how should your training plan for such a race be built? Lets go over some of the principles of training that should be considered when planning your workouts.
First lets talk about performance improvement. Performance improvement is achieved by progressive overload and recovery. A workout on its own does not make you more fit. It is during the rest and recovery time following the workout, that your body is able to repair the stresses recently applied and compensate by making you more fit. This is an important bit of information for you to drill into your memory. It is just as important to get quality rest and recovery after a workout, as it is to do the workout itself. Progressive overload involves continually improving the body’s fitness by stressing its physiological systems beyond normal levels. Increasing frequency, intensity, or volume are all functions of accomplishing this. The progression in overload should generally be somewhere between 5-15% to avoid burnout or injury. Regeneration or recovery becomes increasingly more important as the workouts get more challenging. Include activities in each workout that promote rest and recovery (warm up, cool down, rest during intervals). Consider having a scheduled rest day every week, or follow a hard workout with an easy workout. Schedule a “recovery week” every 3-4 weeks in your plan. Include a transition or “off-season” every year that avoids any formal training, and don’t forget to ensure nutrition is healthy and balanced to help rebuild your body stronger and fitter than it was before.
Now lets look at specificity. Specificity suggest that in order to improve a certain aspect of your fitness, that particular aspect needs to be targeted in training. If you want to become a better swimmer, then you are going to have to get into the pool and swim. While there is definitely some transfer of benefits in cross training, such as cardiovascular fitness and core strength, in most cases your training needs to be specific to see measurable gains. As your training plan develops over time, your workouts should become more specific to the muscular, environmental, and even mental demands of the event you are preparing for. When training for a long distance triathlon, you will need to ensure you get in some long bike rides, and long runs. Biking 6 times a week for 1-2 hours would definitely make you more fit but once you went out for that first 5+ hour bike ride on race day, your body would not know how to cope with this particular stress after a few hours and you would likely have a very long and uncomfortable ride…potentially resulting in a non-finish. By including long bike rides that progressively get more challenging throughout the season, you will be training with specificity and will be doing it progressively….good! You will also need to consider which energy system to focus on during the different types of workouts you are doing too. If you tried to do your entire long bike ride in zone 4, for example, you would be putting too much stress on your body and would likely injure yourself or totally burn yourself out.
Now lets consider individuality. No two athletes are exactly the same. There are definitely some similarities between all of us, but we all are also very different in how we respond physiologically to overload. Some people are what we call “naturals”. Put them on a bike for the very first time and they are able to keep up with you for a 50km ride without any complaints. While that same person nearly drowns the first time you put them in a pool, or is totally lost when trying to keep up during your easy run. It is important to remember that everyone has a different genetic composition, a different starting level of fitness, a different level of experience, a different amount of time available to train…the list goes on and on. So what does this tell us? The best type of training plan is built for the individual, allowing for the athlete to adapt at their own optimal rate.
Tolerance or adaptability is the principle suggesting that strengthening of the body’s components (tendons, ligaments, muscles, physiological systems etc) will result in the ability to sustain increasingly greater stresses in training with a greater resistance to injury. This process will also vary between individuals, and should be done so taking the previous principles discussed into account. Having a strength program that is specific to your training needs that becomes progressively more challenging is a great way to add some variability to your training, and helps reduce the chances of injury when done correctly.
Finally, lets consider the principles of maintenance and reversibility. Maintenance suggests that a current level of fitness can be maintained with less work than was necessary to achieve it, as long as intensity is maintained. Example is reducing your training volume by 30% but continuing to include high intensity intervals. This is one of the key principles to building a successful taper. The principle of reversibility suggests that once training is removed or reduced, the body will gradually revert to its original state. The rate at which this happens depends on how much training is reduced and for how long.
Now that we are more familiar with some of the principles of training, we can apply them to the different phases of our training plan throughout the season.