Whether you are just starting out or you are a seasoned IRONMAN triathlete, your chances of success on race day will be much better if you are following triathlon training plans that are tailored to your goals and individual needs.
IRONMAN Certified Coach, F.I.S.T. Certified Bike Fitter, and Licensed Physical Education and Health Teacher, Michael Bieber from Treis Athlos Coaching, shares his advice on triathlon training and developing triathlon training plans.
Michael covers the following topics:
- Why Use Triathlon Training Plans?
- Basic Format of Triathlon Training Plans.
- Breaking Down the Phases of an IRONMAN Training Plan.
- Training Load Progression (IRONMAN).
- The Benefits of Establishing a Training Routine.
- Training with a Purpose.
- Race Day Planning.
- The Last Word.
1. WHY USE TRIATHLON TRAINING PLANS?
Triathlon is a truly awesome activity and experience, whether you are a seasoned veteran or the greenest newbie. The community of people is widespread and in general, very friendly and open.
We all love talking up our favourite races and comparing T1 and T2 splits after the fact. However, ask any triathlete how they’re doing on race morning and most will say they are ‘under-trained’ or a ‘little under the weather.’
Sometimes this is the truth, and sometimes it’s just the friendly banter of race morning jitters.
My goal today is to help you understand how to avoid the former and ensure that you are well trained and healthy on race morning!
First of all, if you wish to have some semblance of sustained success in any athletic endeavour, you have to have some sort of plan to follow. This plan can be somewhat basic or it can be extremely complex, depending on your specific goals.
I’ve worked with athletes on both sides of that range, and it really boils down to motivation and accountability. Triathlon training plans, simple or complex, are worth nothing if there is no follow through.
Whatever the level of triathlete the plan is aimed at, there are a few things that all successful triathlon training plans will have in common:
- A recurring structure or pattern
- Periodization of activity (Phases and Elements)
More simply put, triathlon training plans will help the athlete develop a training routine, prescribe appropriate activity and duration at the necessary time, and detail training sessions that directly target specific goals related to the overall desired training outcome.
Whether you are developing your own plan or working with a coach, the information that follows will help you to understand what to look for and expect in triathlon training plans.
2. BASIC FORMAT OF TRIATHLON TRAINING PLANS
Length of Plan
The first item to consider when developing or evaluating triathlon training plans, is the overall duration of the plans. For instance, if you are planning for a sprint distance, 4-6 weeks is the bare minimum you should plan on. If, however, you are planning for a long course, such as IRONMAN 140.6 or similar, you will need to plan 12-24 weeks, depending on your level of experience and initial fitness level.
Once you have determined the length of plan required, the next piece of the puzzle is to consider how to structure the training plan. Structure will vary greatly depending on the race distance you are training for but all triathlon training plans will be composed of training phases.
Training phases are often referred to as ‘cycles’ and can be seen in Meta, Meso, or Micro form in many training documents.
I find that this can cause confusion to athletes. Therefore, I prefer to use the term ‘phase’ in general reference to the point an athlete is at in training.
The number of phases in a training plan will depend somewhat on the fitness level of the athlete at the outset of the program.
The standard 24 week IRONMAN training plan would consist of 6 total phases, broken down in to 4 week training cycles. What this means is that for every 3 weeks of Developmental Training Load (DTL) the athlete completes, they then have a single week of Recovery Training Load (RTL).
Simply put, you’ll have 3 weeks of work followed by one week of rest. However, the rest week is not total inactivity. It is merely a period of reduced training load in which the athlete will complete a lower overall training volume at a reduced intensity level.
More experienced athletes or those who are less prone to injury may stretch their programs to four, five, or even six weeks of developmental training before taking a week of recovery training.
This is not something I recommend for most athletes as the training gain is not significant enough to warrant the increased risk of injury or over-training.
3. BREAKING DOWN THE PHASES OF AN IRONMAN TRAINING PLAN
Depending on the race distance, there are a number of ways that you can develop a training plan. However, since IRONMAN races are very popular and make up a significant portion of the training plans that I develop, I will use this race to explain the phases that you should include in a training plan.
Let us assume that this plan is for a 1st time IRONMAN competitor and we are using a 24 week time frame to allow for maximal training benefit.
Our triathlon training plan will consist of 6 Phases which cover 5 essential training elements:
1) General Base – building the foundations for future training
2) Specific Base – setting out the specifics of training for your goal race
3) Competition Preparation – focusing on the specifics of the target race
4) Final Preparation – completion of final high volume training
5) Taper – a significant reduction in training volume
To get the most out of your training plan, it is important to understand all elements and how they relate to each phase.
Phase 1 & 2 – General Base
Both Phase 1 and 2 focus on General Base training. During these 2 phases, you will need to identify your primary strengths and weaknesses. Once identified, you can then develop a plan to emphasize your strengths, while improving your weaknesses.
Phase 1 and 2 are fundamental to establishing a training routine that meets your individual needs. This routine will infuse the rest of your plan.
Phase 3 & 4 – Specific Base
Phase 3 and 4 involves Specific Base training. This is where the specifics of the goal race begin to set the course of training.
These phases will consist of increasing the volume of all three disciplines and adding intensity that will be similar to what you will experience during the race itself.
Swimming will see an increase in open-water emphasis as well as race-target intensity workouts.
Cycling will be much the same, with an overall increase in volume and structured workouts that attend to the specific requirements of the course which will be experienced during race day.
An example would be if you were competing at IRONMAN Wisconsin, you will experience over 5,000 feet of climbing on the bike portion. This would mean their target sessions would include hill repeats or routes the emphasize climbing and descending.
Running will take much the same form as cycling, with an increase in duration and a more specific focus on the requirement of the course you will be competing on.
Phase 3 & 4 should also incorporate what is called brick training. This is where you place workouts from separate disciplines back to back to simulate race conditions.
The most common brick workouts are Swim-Bike and Bike-Run, but there is occasion to Swim-Run, dependent on your training needs.
An example of this would be a 50-mile bike ride, followed by a 5K run. The run should not be more than 5 minutes following the completion of the ride.
This form of training helps in the development of transition skills, and it teaches the body to adapt to the change in activity quickly and efficiently.
Related: Triathlon 101: A Beginner’s Guide
Phase 5 – Competition Preparation
The fifth phase encompasses Competition Preparation, where the specifics of the target race become the primary training purpose.
In the case of the beginner level IRONMAN competitor which we are referencing, this would mean that Developmental Training Load continues to increase and the overall volume of training approaches the goal race distance.
In this scenario, you would perform individual workouts that include a 2+ mile swim, 100+ mile bike ride, and 20+ mile run respectively.
Keep in mind you will not do these workouts on the same day, but you may do them on consecutive training days depending on the layout of your triathlon training plan.
If your schedule allows, it is advantageous if you can do one or more of the longer training sessions on the course of the race that you intend to compete at. This allows for comfort and familiarity, both of which will lead to a more relaxed mindset during the race itself.
When considering specificity of training, there is no better option than to practice your race plan on the course!
We’ll talk more about specificity later.
Phase 6 – Final Preparation & Taper
The 6th and final Phase of our IRONMAN training plan includes 2 training elements – Final Preparation and Taper.
Final Preparation involves the last of the high volume training which you will complete before your scheduled competition. It is also where you add in other pieces of performance relative to the race. This will include bike and run nutrition, hydration, and pacing.
Final Preparation is also a perfect time to practice the race plan which you have developed throughout training. You should make sure whatever supplements and food you choose, are appropriate and continue to serve your training and race requirements.
The high-volume training weeks will be very similar to the Competition Prep Element (Phase 5). Again, if it is possible for you to complete your keystone workouts in the Final Prep Element on the race course, it will be to your advantage.
The last element of Phase 6 is the Taper, which is just about the best and worst feeling any athlete can have!
The major trait of Taper is the significant reduction in training volume. The reduction in volume serves as a single purpose in multiple facets: Recovery.
In our IRONMAN training plan example, you would have been building your training up for 22 weeks before beginning a 2-week taper. The physical and mental strain of ongoing training (especially for those of us who don’t earn pay checks from racing) can, and does take its toll, not only on the athlete, but on those around the athlete as well.
The Taper Element forces you to take ample recovery time in the weeks leading up to your target competition.
4. TRAINING LOAD PROGRESSION (IRONMAN)
Now we have looked at the phases and elements which make up triathlon training plans, we will move onto looking at how your training load should progress throughout the plan.
The table above shows our 24 week IRONMAN training plan example. You can see that in each of the 6 phases, the hours you spend on Developmental Training Load (DTL) grows from Week 1 to Week 3. In Week 4, the hours spent on training reduce, indicating the Recovery Training Load (RTL).
Each week, Developmental Training Load also increases across the table from Phase 1 to Phase 6. For example, Week 1 in Phase 1 involves 8 hours of training and continues to build through Phase 6 to 14 hours of training.
The same is true of the weeks for Recovery Training Load. As training progresses, the athlete is prepared for a higher Gross Training Load (GTL), and therefore the time dedicated to Recovery Training Load increases.
The intensity of the Recovery Week does not necessarily increase, instead the focus is on shorter duration or fewer overall training sessions.
Taper begins in Week 3 of Phase 6 and is completely different to all other training elements in that it takes you through a significant drop in training volume in anticipation of the chosen competition.
During taper, you will still be training, but in place of high volume training, you will instead be doing shorter workouts with direct but brief high intensity periods. This form of training will allow you to maintain that ‘edge’ that we all look for when we toe the line. This can best be described as a period of Active Recovery.
5. THE BENEFIT OF ESTABLISHING A TRAINING ROUTINE
While an athlete will not be doing the same workouts from week to week, they will be working within the same disciplines.
This opens the door for workouts within the same discipline to be scheduled on the same days each week.
This can vary slightly throughout training, but I have found that the more an athlete can anticipate their training schedule to be the same, the more likely they are to complete it as prescribed.
For instance, if Monday is a rest day with the option to do strength training, that is what should be done on Monday throughout training. If Saturday is a long brick day with Bike and Run, then that’s what it should remain throughout training. Any time we can create a greater opportunity for success, we should do it!
You can see below a basic weekly workout template:
6. TRAINING WITH A PURPOSE
Specificity of training is exactly what it sounds like. To improve in cycling, swimming, or running, you must do those activities. You wouldn’t train to be a lumberjack by skateboarding. The same is true in triathlon. If you want to be better at Swim-Bike-Run, you must swim, bike and run!
To that end, each workout that is being done should have a purpose behind it. A workout without a purpose is a wasted opportunity for improvement. Some workouts will have a greater impact than others, but all should be leading to the same end.
Developing structured, meaningful, and ability-level appropriate workouts is challenging and will look different for every athlete. If you do not have the experience to do this, it is advisable that you enlist the help of a qualified coach to guide you with programming and workouts.
Workouts should also take a progressive approach. The success of the current week is built upon the work done in weeks prior. This also sets the tone for training to come.
Even the Recovery Training Load is progressive in the sense that it follows the trend of training and increases throughout the program until reaching Taper, in which there is a drastic reduction in volume.
The initial fitness level of the athlete provides the starting point for training, but there should be ongoing assessment of that fitness level throughout your training plan.
Individuals progress at different rates. If one athlete is taking more time to adapt to the training load than another, it is advisable that the Developmental Training Load be increased at a slower rate. This is yet another aspect of specificity, making sure the training provided is specific to the athlete, not just the discipline.
7. RACE DAY PLANNING
As already mentioned, the Taper training element focuses on recovery. However, it also provides you with the opportunity to consider other items for competition day including race planning, gear planning, injury avoidance, and not going crazy!
Other items to take into consideration are things that you may encounter during the race, such as equipment malfunction or inclement weather. The more you are prepared for a race, the more likely it is that it will go smoothly.
And let’s face it, being able to change your own flat is a skill any race competitor should have anyway!
The plan you develop should promote the greatest promise of success for you on race day. Whilst your training sessions are very important in the lead up to your competition, race day pacing, nutrition, and hydration plans are also primary concerns when developing your plan. You (and your coach) should have a plan in place for all portions of the race.
Below is a basic outline of what the plan should include:
- Pre-Race Schedule (both day of and day before)
- Course Meetings
- Bike check & Drop off
- Last Workouts
- Course recon
- Food & Hydration
- Nothing New Leading up to (or on) Race Day!
- Pre-swim Nutrition & Hydration
- Targeted Swim Pace
- Swim Course Plan (close to the buoys, edges of the pack, etc.)
Transition 1 – Targeted time in T1
- Full or Partial clothing change
- Order of gearing up (socks, shoes, sunglasses, helmet)
- Pre-bike nutrition & hydration
- Targeted Bike Pace
- Power Zones
- Heart Rate
- Nutrition & Hydration
- Scheduled stops?
- Aid Stations
- Special Needs Bag
Transition 2 – Targeted time in T1
- Full or Partial clothing change
- Order of gearing up (socks, shoes, sunglasses, hat)
- Pre-run nutrition & hydration
- Targeted Run Pace
- Power Zones
- Heart Rate
- Nutrition & Hydration
- Scheduled stops?
- Aid Stations
- Special Needs Bag
- Post-race nutrition & hydration
- Post-race recovery workouts
Gear preparation is just as important as all the other training an athlete puts in. A seam in the wrong place or forgetting chamois cream can spell doom in the form of saddle sores. Even a misplaced sock could invite blistering.
It is imperative that you use equipment during race day that has been proven to be reliable and comfortable during training. This way it reduces the chances of having inconvenient and often painful consequences.
Injury Avoidance & Not Going Crazy!
Injury Avoidance and not driving yourself crazy go hand in hand. Once the training volume has been reduced during Taper, you will find yourself with a greater amount of energy that is intended to be harnessed for race day.
With the reduced training time and ample energy, it is not uncommon for athletes to go out and participate in an activity that they have neglected during training and potentially go too hard.
Case in point, an athlete I worked with previously played a round of pick-up basketball a week out from a major event and broke an ankle on an aggressive rebound. Thus rendering 6 months of training wasted on a game that could have waited.
8. THE LAST WORD
Triathlon is a truly awesome activity and experience, whether you are a seasoned veteran or the greenest newbie. I started this article with that text and I find it appropriate again.
There are multiple distances for every level of competitor, from the social weekend warrior to the top elites. It is one of the few stages where we all compete together.
We might not all be earning a pay check to show up and race, but that doesn’t take away from the sense of pride and accomplishment.
Having triathlon training plans in place that are structured to address the specific abilities and needs of an individual is the only way to get the most of the experience and to give that athlete the highest chance of personal success.
Taking training advice off that guy you know who has done a few races can only take you so far and doesn’t take in to account the specificity required by individual athletes.
Although I have discussed the best way to create triathlon training plans, the best option, in my opinion, is to hire a coach.
Whether they write a personalized plan up front or it‘s an ongoing process, it further increases your chances of success.
It may cost a bit more than doing it yourself, but the result will be worth it. I can guarantee that as a coach, my success depends on the success of the athletes I work with. As does any coach.
My goal is always to take my athletes from where they are to where they want to be. And when that race goes off just as planned, there’s not much better feeling for both athlete or coach.
About Michael Bieber
Michael Bieber is based in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, and has experience working with athletes ranging from high school freshmen to elite age group athletes.
He is an IRONMAN Certified Coach, F.I.S.T. Certified Bike Fitter, Licensed Physical Education and Health Teacher, and has been coaching for over a decade.
Main areas of coaching expertise include triathlon, distance running, strength training, cross training, and injury prevention/maintenance. He is also qualified to perform bike fitting, form/gait analysis, and swim analysis.
Michael’s philosophy is that everybody has room to improve. He believes that adding the accountability of a coach is a great way to aid in an athlete’s development.
Michael loves to work with anybody who is willing to commit to the process of improvement and he gets a great sense of satisfaction from helping people work toward their goals.
To find out more about Michael Bieber and his coaching services, head over to his website Treis Athlos Coaching
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