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The Appropriateness of High Intensity Training for Long-Distance Racing

By Marty Gaal

The popularity of long-distance triathlons like Ironman®, Ironman 70.3® events, and newer branded races like Rev3 continue to bring many new triathletes to the sport and helps to retain seasoned athletes with new destination-style events.  A thematic question I have from new prospective athletes is regarding time constraints in their daily life and the volume/intensity of training required to be ready for longer triathlons.    

ridingTraining for competition (vs. exercise for health) is at its root a function of volume and intensity.  Additional factors like adequate recovery, proper nutrition, mental prep, technique, race execution and avoiding injury round out a good training program.  But the main questions are simply: How much can you train (volume); how hard can you train (intensity); and how much time do you need to recover (not training) before you can train again?

A school of thought is that for some athletes, less volume and higher intensity/effort is the way to go.   

My perspective is that there are really only two types of long-distance specific athletes who fit the bill for this type of training structure: veteran athletes with multiple seasons of higher volume training under their belt, and mid-level athletes who have proven to be durable, with limited time available to train.  

Such an approach is not appropriate for new athletes. However, I occasionally see this being sold as the best solution.  It is an easy solution — one year to an Ironman! Low volume training plans! I could not disagree more as far as this population goes. 

New and even many mid-level athletes lack the athletic age (time in sport) for their bodies to be adapted properly to absorb the sort of continued high intensity that these programs must include to make up for the lack of overall training volume.  I am writing about developing resiliency in tendons and ligaments, range of motion, muscular elasticity & strength, and everything else that is a side effect of chronic exercise.   

In a nutshell, for most folks that get into triathlon, training for an Ironman distance event in your first year on a lower volume-high intensity approach is not a great idea.  You have a much higher chance of injury, which equals sub-par or Did Not Start status (you're hurt) at your chosen event.  Unless you have some significant background in sports, you should make it a two or three year plan, at a minimum.   

These sorts of high intensity, lower volume plans can see some more experienced and durable athletes through a long-distance event with good results. These athletes have several factors in their favor, including experience, previous adaptation to exercise, and an enhanced ability to do multiple hard sessions in a training period and still recover well. I have done this myself, but it was after several seasons of "lots of miles." 

I write good results because the best results, as far as long-distance racing goes, are still ruled by volume of training — most of it at or just over/under goal race effort with the occasional high intensity workout in the right place — and the ability to recover quickly.   

Coach Marty Gaal, CSCS, is co-owner and head coach of One Step Beyond. Coach Marty has been a competitive triathlete for 20-plus years and coaching since 2002. You can learn more about coaching services and camps/clinics with One Step Beyond at