A look at how to set up your triathlon season

Credit: Robert Laberge/Allsport
I know a guy who gets up at 4:30 every morning, greeted by his Mr. Coffee which, preprogrammed to brew at 4:15, is the closest approximation to anything else awake and functional in his time zone at this time of the morning.

He needs no alarm clock. By 6 he's training, his coffee machine already cleaned, refilled, and set to auto-brew the next day. By 8:30 he's working. And so his life goes.

As it goes for many of you. You may be competitive, meticulous, driven, hyper-organized, in control, and preplanned. I'm sure you've heard that these assets you exude are just those which have brought you the success you've achieved.

You've also probably been told that they are the pathologies that keep you from getting what has so far eluded you. In all likelihood both views are correct. But that's the way you are, and there's no changing it ...

... Which is why the way you approach your training is such a paradox. If you were an investment banker and were taking a client public in, say, four months, you'd have a time line drawn up. You'd know you can't get to day-zero without first completing pre-publicity, due diligence, and prospectus mailings, which require writing, editing, graphic design, and on and on. Four months before day-zero you're long past planning; you're well into execution.

But you don't train that way, do you?

I don't have to tell you that in January/February (which it now is) you should be doing a specific type of training which is very different than what you'll be doing in June. All that sits somewhere in your subconscious, and when I tell you the proper way to construct a season of training and racing, it'll all be stuff you instinctively know. It's intuitive, and the approach is exactly the same as when you take your client public.

But you just never moved the notions of proper training strategy from the corner of your peripheral vision to front-and-center. But since it IS winter and it IS preseason -- unless you're in the Southern Hemisphere -- let's go over how to plan your season. Let's do it now, while there's plenty of time to do it right.

Many of the pros and top age-group racers I know historically race two mini-seasons during the course of the year. This is partially because of the seasonality of resort locations, where triathlons are frequently held.

Just before and just after summer are the "shoulder seasons" for most resort towns: the kind of towns that have beaches in which to swim and hotels which must be filled. The shoulder seasons are when these towns want triathlons, and this is why many of your favorite races take place when they do. So there are races in May and June, and other races in September and October. This also works well for many of the pros, because it is hard to hold a peak all year long.

So they'll plan to peak for races in May and June, through which they might qualify for a World Championship or the Hawaiian Ironman in September or October.

In North America such races are Wildflower, St. Anthony's, St. Croix, Ralph's Half-Ironman, and perhaps a national championship that qualifies its participants for Worlds. Overseas races like Ironman Australia and Zofingen also fit into this training/racing pattern.

The September/October races you'll again peak for are Hawaii, Nice, and perhaps a World Championship.

We'll plan your year using this two-seasons-in-one approach:

  • We'll start with what you should be doing now through March, and into April.

  • Then, in the next article, we'll look into how you'll leverage your early-season training against some real speed, which we'll achieve in April and May.

  • After that we'll cover your first-peak racing, and what you should be doing immediately afterward.

  • Then we'll discuss how you'll train leading to your late-season peak.

  • Finally we'll cover the end-of-the-season races, and perhaps a little fun racing post-season.

    Winter months

    The Germans started wintering in San Diego in the late '80s. Back then nobody had ever heard of Jurgen Zack, and the big cheese was Wolfgang Dittrich. They both showed up in North County to escape the German winter. There were some other occasional Euro-drifters showing up back then as well, including a short-course MOP'er from Belgium named Luc.

    We used to laugh at the Germans. They rode 12 miles-an-hour. You couldn't go on a ride with them, you'd be climbing the walls and fidgety within 5 miles. We used to talk a lot of smack back then, and the Germans were the butt of many jokes.

    Wolfie's comment to all of this was always the same, and became a bit of a mantra for all of us: "We shall see." The undeniable truth to the decade of the '90s, at least as regards long-distance racing, is that We Saw. The Germans clearly "got it." The Americans clearly didn't.

    The Germans don't ride as slow as they used to. Yanks and Germans had a sort of detente on that issue somewhere along the way, an unspoken agreement to split the difference, riding at around 15 miles-an-hour. But that's it. No faster. Not for the first month. And although it might not have been hard riding, that doesn't mean it was an easy regimen.

    It might not have been fast, but it was long. There is Jurgen's loop, for example. It starts and ends on the coast, and hits such cultural landmarks as Dudley's Bakery (just about halfway, where you have precisely five minutes to do whatever it is you need to do or you get left behind). The ride climbs to 1,000 meters above sea level, and it's 120 miles all-told. Jrgen would ride this as many as three times per week.

    So, then, the point is that the American pros who "did" San Diego were in full-stride in February. The Germans were just warming up. We must grudgingly concede that the Germans knew what the Yanks didn't -- that January and February are not August and September -- and that being in shape for the season opener in March is not the point. January and February is the time for base miles.

    Myself, I think cycling -- of the three disciplines we do -- is the most important for the aerobic base achieved during this time, for a couple of reasons. It is hard to get hurt cycling if you are doing it technically correctly, and so long as you aren't crashing.

    Cycling is curative. It is non-ballistic, and is not the joint-pounding, muscle-knotting, imbalance-producing activity that running often can be.

    When you are on the bike you are building an endurance and muscular base that will aid you in all three endurance disciplines in which you are engaged. Also, physiologically, there is no other way to spend four or five hours exercising. You can't do that running or swimming.

    So you'll build an endurance base which is useful for both of the other two disciplines without damaging yourself.

    But you have to make sure you are taking care of yourself properly in these early weeks and months. The most important thing is to be properly positioned on your bike. You'll also want to take care to keep your cadence up to somewhere between 80rpm on the very low end to a high of 105rpm, and spending the bulk of your time at 90-95rpm is a good way to go.

    Cadence is one of the really central aspects of cycling, especially in triathlon. It's harder at first to ride up hills at 95rpm when you naturally want to go 75rpm. This is the time of year to deal with that.

    Teach yourself to ride a higher cadence, regardless of the terrain. Later, when your concentration must migrate to effort and speed, you don't want to be working on your proper cadence -- you want that to be second nature.

    Pile in the miles. Go for it. Do a President's Day ride. Get a couple of your buddies and go for three days over that weekend, 80 or 100 miles each day. Book a couple of nights in little motels along the way. Get your pals to give you two changes of clothes, and throw one set for each of you into a box, and UPS the box to each of the two hotels. When you get back send out UPS call-tags to the motels to get the clothes back. That's the way I used to often do it. Then you don't have to get your significant other to drive sag (which will only happen once to each unsuspecting rube you sucker into that job).

    You'll want to do these three- or four-day bike jaunts once every couple of months, by the way, and one way to get this into your schedule is to take your vacation days one at a time, like a Friday every other month or so.

    It is nigh unto impossible to do an Ironman (which is probably what you want to do, right?) without some really big weeks on the bike. It is impossible to contemplate a 350- or 400-mile bike week if you think of it overlaid on your regular work week. But 300 miles over a three-day-weekend makes a 400-mile week within reach. And this is how you should be spending your pre-season, doing weeks just like this, at a very low level of effort.

    I don't believe in doing the same sort of schedule week-in and week-out. I prefer to gang up miles in one event during a week, and a lot of pro athletes approach their training this way.

    Once a month is enough for your big bike week. Perhaps two-hundred miles, perhaps double that, and if you're a top-level male Ironman pro, perhaps almost triple that. But on that week the running will be almost nil, as will the swimming.

    On your big run week -- and big depends on what sort of runner you are, a top pro who's been doing it for awhile might do 80 miles, another might do 50 -- you will not ride much at all, but you'll perhaps swim quite a bit, since running just doesn't take that long. And, of course, swimming can be another of those therapeutic and healing activities, rolling back the damage you do during your runs.

    While we're on the subject of swimming, I'd like to remind you of something of which you are probably aware but don't, perhaps, want to allow yourself to admit. These two winter months are low-intensity, as is explained ad-nauseum above. That means your work should be done at under, say, 70% of your max heart rate -- in other words, "conversational pace."

    I make allowances for topographically-generated heart rates above this range: If you are riding along on the flats at 85% of your max, you're cheating; but if you're climbing a hill on your bike, and THAT is what gets you to 85% of your max, it's OK. I'm not sure why that is, but that's my rule, and I'm sticking to it. Back to the swim ...

    You are possibly on a master's swim team, and that's a good thing. But master's swimmers only swim. That is the beginning and the end of their glory. They aren't going out for a bike or a run afterward. They're quite happy to take you out of your target heart rate. It is impossible to do the "main set" and also keep your pulse below 70% of your max.

    So realize that during these early winter months you'll have to cool your jets in the pool. Go to the back of the line. Go down a lane. Swim lap-swim if you have to. But resist the urge to duke it out. Well, OK, you can duke it out once a week, maybe. But the other days just do the laps.

    I was talking to Tim DeBoom just two weeks before his third-place finish in Hawaii (he would then go on to place second, followed by a pair of wins). He said something which is so very true, it showed insight, and it is to his credit that he realized it.

    The other years doing Ironman, as he was getting better and finishing higher, were not spent training for Hawaii. They were spent training to be able, finally, TO BE ABLE to train for Hawaii.

    It is hard to do the training required to do an Ironman. You CAN'T do Ironman training your first year. You can train to finish it. But you can't train to race it until, perhaps, your fifth year. In his best years Wolfgang Dittrich did his big week three to four weeks prior to the race. That week consisted of 700 miles riding and 80 miles running. But it took him years of Ironman training to build up to that kind of week (which he only did one or two times a year).

    I remember once in the mid '90s calling Ken Glah on the phone at 9 p.m. his time, three weeks before Hawaii. I hoped he wasn't in bed. After many rings he answered the phone, huffing and puffing. Turns out he had just got in from a 17-mile run, immediately following a 130-mile ride.

    That's Ironman training. But it's only Ironman training for somebody who's got real endurance talent, who's got the time to train, who's been doing triathlons for 10 years, and Ironman racing for a minimum of five years.

    And it takes a lot of base miles in the early season, many seasons in a row. You're starting now. Doing it right means doing it one step at a time. Today's step is long, slow, base miles. That's what the Germans will be doing right about now, and we don't laugh at them anymore.

    Next: Incorporating speed

    Dan Empfield is the publisher of the online triathlon journal Slowtwitch.com, and is the founder of bike- and wetsuit-maker Quintana Roo.

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