Fitness Isn't Always a Linear Progression
By Nick Logan
Every year there is always at least one athlete who comes to me and complains that despite training, they aren't getting any better. It's not always someone I coach, and more often than not, it isn't. Unfortunately we live in a world of instant gratification and when something isn't showing instantaneous results we panic. In the world of training, that panic usually consists of changing a routine/program or coach prematurely and it will usually have the exact opposite of the desired effect.
Endurance training is a game of patience. It typically will take about two weeks to see any fitness gains from any workout, which is why many coaches advocate a two week taper for most events. You aren't going to gain any fitness by doing any hard training immediately before the race, but you can certainly ruin your target race by burning yourself out training too hard. If you are changing up your methods or routine every few weeks you are essentially going to be starting from scratch and resetting that clock. Even worse is that if you start seeing gains, you won't be able to pinpoint where they came from or what you did that worked for you. I say that because coaching is not an exact science, and more of an art. What works for one athlete doesn't always necessarily work for another, which is why buying a canned training program might be cost effective, but most likely will not bring you to your potential as an athlete. Your best bet is to have faith in your program or your coach and let them guide you.
I'll take an athlete’s last 5 months of run training as an example. As we increased running mileage throughout the end of last year we saw a decrease in average pace of :07 per mile from October to November while having the athlete run an extra 50 miles. His average pace was again faster in December by :08 per mile while running an extra 60 miles for the month. Keep in mind this also coincided with the athlete dropping close to 15 lbs. along the way. At the end of January I noticed his pace had gone down even though I had him run about 20 miles less than December. Without looking at the whole picture I might panic and say, “well I reduced his training load and he got slower.” Even the trend in monthly TSS had decreased from Dec-Feb. (TSS stands for training stress score and can be better explained here)
Month Average Run Pace Monthly TSS
October 7:08/mi 2601
November 7:01/mi 2976
December 6:53/mi 3776
January 6:57/mi 3431
February 6:54/mi 3317
Just looking at the numbers alone, one would think that this athlete was getting slower as a result of less training. In actuality I lowered the training load so I could increase the intensity with some different workouts as I moved him out of the base phase into the build phase. You can see pace slowed in January, but actually came back down in February as a result of the speed sessions starting to pay off.
What you don’t see in the TSS numbers is how it all breaks down. I only had the athlete swim 10,600 yards in December while focusing on bike and run, and then I doubled his swim volume in January and added yet again in February. Adding these days in the pool forced the athlete to double up on workouts so instead of doing some of his runs fresh, he was running after swimming when after he was already fatigued. As he will get used to swimming again I expect to see his average run pace continue to go down as he continues to become more fit.
Here is a general outline of season progression that I use with my athletes:
Base: Here is where a majority of your training should be spent; I like to have my athletes in this zone for at least 8-12 weeks depending on how much time I have with them before their goal races. The majority of the training is steady pace training dictated by pace, power or heart rate zones, but I will start to trickle in some faster training as the athlete progresses. The point of this training is to improve your endurance and prepare the body to be able to handle the more intense workouts to come in the future. This is also a great time to focus some extra energy in to any weaknesses you may have.
Build: Here is where we look to increase fitness by taking our endurance built in the last phase and build on it by adding speed sessions. A healthy dose of tempo, intervals and different speed sessions is on the menu for about eight weeks. This gives your body time to adapt to the new training stresses you place on it, typical volume here is steady
Peak/Race Prep: The last few weeks before your taper for your A-race. This is the part of your schedule where your volume and intensity will be at the highest levels. This is where you get your race paces and nutrition dialed in as you prepare for the big day. This is arguably the most important phase of your training.
Taper: The key here is not to increase intensity like many athletes think, but to maintain intensity for the race prep phase while cutting back on volume. Stay sharp while giving the body adequate and increased rest as you gear up to go fast on race day. Increasing intensity too much is easy to do and a common cause of failed race performances.
In our sport consistency is the key to growth. There is no one magic workout that is going to set you ahead of your competitors, but instead a steady diet of hard but manageable workload is what is going to keep you improving. In reality triathlon (or any endurance sport for that matter) is a very "blue collar" sport. There is no (legal) way to get around the fact that you need to put in the work to improve. So get out there and put the trust in your coach or your training program and let them carry you to a new season of personal bests!
Nick Logan is a USA Triathlon Level II coach with Pacific Swim Bike Run and a USA Triathlon Certified Race Director with Team Mossman Events. He also holds certifications from Crossfit, USA Cycling and the National Academy of Sports Medicine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @nlogantri For more information, visit www.primeendurance.com or www.PacificSBR.com .