There’s a lot that’s simple about training for the sport of triathlon on the surface. Swim. Bike. Run. However, in order to be truly successful for the long-term there’s a lot more to triathlon training than that. There’s both a science and an art to training for a triathlon. Smart and effective training incorporates both.
Triathlon Training as a Science
To start, more is better. But then again, less is better. Wait… what? Stick with me, and I’ll explain.
The science of training lies on the principle of progressive overload. The idea is that when you do a workout, it stresses and breaks down your body, which then stimulates improved fitness. But, it’s only in recovery from the workouts when your body adapts to the stress placed on it and builds itself back up stronger than it was before.1 This is called adaptation, and it’s how you build fitness.
At the beginning of a training program, anything more or harder than what you’re currently doing will most likely stimulate progressive overload and adaptation. As the season goes on and as you progress in the sport to longer distances and faster times, you need to do harder and longer training sessions in order to become faster and fitter. The goal (over weeks, months or even years) is to keep increasing the training stimulus, and thus, keep stimulating the adaptation that ultimately results in increased fitness.
That’s where the ‘more’ comes in. You always have to do more of something — more time (how long), more intensity (how hard) and/or more frequency (how often) — as you become fit in order to become even more fit.
So, if more is better, should you just go and train each day harder and longer? Well, no, as this would be a recipe for burnout, overtraining, or injury — all of which are bad things that will keep you from accomplishing your goals. The idea is to progressively increase volume and intensity over the course of your season, but to do so purposefully within a structured schedule that includes selective key workouts, rest days, easier weeks and most importantly enables you to achieve peak performance on race day. This is periodization.
As your training progresses closer and closer to race day, it needs to become more race-specific. Specificity is the principle that the training must stress the energy and muscle systems of your body that are critical for optimal performance on race day. In other words, as you get closer to race day, your training starts to look more like race day.
Triathlon Training as an Art
You are unique. Whereas adaptation to a particular exercise stimuli are generally predictable for a group of athletes, your individual response and how you adapt to the exercise (i.e. individuality) may differ from other athletes.
This is where the “art of training” comes in, and where you need to develop self-awareness for your body, and what it’s telling you in order to make adjustments to your training schedule for optimal results.
Sometimes, especially in a big week of training, you might feel bad for a workout, or even a stretch of workouts. This is normal…everyone has bad days. Let me say that again: everyone has bad days. Get whatever you can from the training session, but cut it short if necessary. And just as much, it’s your call to extend a workout too. Obviously, you have to be careful with this one — overzealous athletes can easily dig themselves into a hole.
If you experience any combination of these issues: constant fatigue, feeling continually run down, prolonged soreness, sickness, loss of interest in training, lack of motivation, frequent bad moods, increased frequency of injury, or inability to sleep soundly, then you might be entering a state of overtraining. It can happen to the best of us when training for a triathlon. The quick solution is to take a few days off from training to rest and recover. If you don’t take the rest, you might dig an even deeper hole, which may put you out of training and racing for months, an entire racing season, or even longer. Don’t worry. You won’t lose any fitness from a few rest days. In fact, as we mentioned before, your body rebuilds itself when resting so you are, in reality, becoming fitter. Just don’t rest too long or you will start to detrain (lose fitness).
Remember too that the stress of training doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it builds on top of any other stress you already have in your life — job, family, financial, etc. Even if your training load is typical, but you have a lot of stress at work or at home, you may need to back off training until the other stressors in your life decrease.
Be sure to respect other parts of your life. On some days, your significant other, your kids, your work, you friends or your social life might get in the way of a workout, and you won’t be able to get your planned workouts in. That’s completely fine. Cut yourself some slack and don’t worry about missing the occasional workout. Consistency is the key here. You gain fitness over the long run. Missing a day here and there won’t really impact your performance too much.
If you miss a week of sessions in a row (from sickness, travel, etc.) or a few weeks of workouts in a row (from injury), don’t panic. Again, resist the temptation to make up for the lost time by adding back in missed workouts, as that might just make you sick or injured again. Shift your training schedule a week to account for the lost time, and if necessary, adjust your race goal or defer to a different race altogether. In fact, if you can consistently get in 70-85% of the planned workouts in a given week, you are doing well.
It’s also important to understand the things outside of training that will help you. These include sleeping, eating, stretching, massage, even things like bike maintenance and laundry. They are all crucially important. Some athletes need 9+ hours of sleep, while others need only 7 hours. Some athletes need to be really conscious of their food and supplements, whiles others do great by eating what they feel like eating. Be sure to note (even if just in your head) what works for you.
Need Help Planning Your Triathlon Training?
Be sure to check out our triathlons training plans for: Sprint, International, Half (IRONMAN 70.3) and IRONMAN distance triathlons. Join the thousands of triathletes who have used one of our triathlon training plans to achieve their success at the finish line.
Coach David B. Glover, MS, CSCS has completed 28 IRONMAN distance triathlons including two sub 9 hour finishes and winning Vineman Full twice. Now, David’s passion now is helping triathlete and other endurance athletes achieve their dreams through his online triathlon education and training company, ENDURANCEWORKS. David has an MS in Exercise Physiology and is certified as a coach by USA Triathlon and USA Cycling as well as having his CSCS from NSCA. After six years of living, training and coaching in the triathlon mecca of Boulder, CO, David currently resides in Southern California.