Sunday, April 8, 2018

Anatomy of a Triathlon Workout

Anatomy of a Triathlon Workout

Grab Your Training Plan

Before you read this post, I recommend that you pull out your training plan.  If you don’t already have one, you can get a free sprint triathlon training plan from  If you don't have one and wand a plan that's personalized, you should have one written by a certified Triathlon coach.

As you read through your plan, you may be introduced to some new terms and concepts.  You may also have many questions about the duration of the plan, its structure, and the purpose of individual workouts.  This week’s clinic and post will explain “how” to read swim, bike and run workouts.  More importantly, it will explain “why” the workouts are designed with varying intensity, distances, terrains and skills. The “why” is important to understand “how” to approach the workout. 

Every Body Adapts

The subtitle is not a typo – it’s intentional.  Everybody and every body adapts.  The goal of the training plan is to train your body to handle the demands of the consecutive swimming, biking and running exercise of your upcoming triathlon.  To take your body and mind from where you are today and develop them for the demands of your future race requires adaptations.  These adaptations include strength, endurance, cardio-pulmonary and coordination changes that occur in recurring stress/recovery cycles.  Your training plan will have workouts that are designed to cause these adaptations – different workouts with different objectives to cause specific adaptations.

Workout Specifications

Notice that triathlon workouts rarely read “just go swim”, “ride your bike”, or “run somewhere and back”.  They are (or should be) much more specific.  If they are written by a certified triathlon coach, they should include specifics for duration (or distance), intensity, terrain (grade and/or surface), intervals and recovery, and potential skill focuses.

The specifics of a workout are designed to affect an adaptation.  Different intensity levels, distances, terrain, sequencing and progression stress different energy systems and the neuromuscular system to affect different changes to your body. 

Training Intensity

The “Training Zone Chart” refers to Zones that tie to a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) range and description of how that may be perceived.  Think of zones as gears in your cars transmission.  1st gear is the easiest (engine is doing less work) and slowest.  5th gear is the hardest (engine is doing a lot of work) and fastest. 

Zone 1 as a training intensity is intended for active recovery.  You are getting circulation and exercise, but it’s easy.  Walking is a good example of Zone 1 effort. 
Zone 2 intensity is designed to use your body’s aerobic energy system.  This means that it’s primarily using your body’s ability to combine oxygen with fat to produce energy to fire your muscles.  It does not put a high strain on your cardiovascular system.  Lower intensity efforts are typically prescribed for longer distance and time efforts.
Zone 3 is the hardest you will work while using fat as your primary fuel source, but you are starting to use more glycogen (sugar) stored in your body’s muscles and liver to produce energy.
Zone 4 intensity is the tipping point where your body starts to use more glycogen for fuel than stored fat and instead shifts to and anaerobic adaptation.  It also raises your heart rate drastically, influencing adaptations in your cardio-pulmonary system. You will often see interval training prescribed in 2-3 minute durations.
Zone 5 is designed for neuromuscular, or speed, development.  Higher intensity efforts are typically prescribed in shorter “intervals”.  You will typically see intervals prescribed in 20 second to 1 minute in duration.

Training Endurance

Of the physical adaptations speed, strength and endurance, the latter is the easiest one for the body to make.  Consider what it would take to decrease your 100-meter sprint by 10%, or bench press by 10%. Increasing your run distance from 1.0 to 1.1 miles is a relatively easy adaptation.  If you consistently and progressively apply low intensity effort swim, bike and run efforts, you will be amazed how easily you are able to increase the distance of what you are capable of today and reach your goals, given adequate time.  While you want to progressively increase your distance, you want to be careful to not add too much mileage too quickly.  5-10% increases each week is recommended to avoid injury.

Swim Specific Workouts and Skills

Swimming is a skill and form-centric activity, meaning proper form can make it much easier (more efficient).  Drills are prescribed to teach a skill or neuromuscular pattern required for proper swim form.  You will see drills titled “catch up”, “fingertip”, “fist”, “right arm”, “left arm”, etc.  For a complete list of drills and definitions, I recommend using the following website.

Swim workouts are typically prescribed as a total distance broken up into three parts, a warmup, main set, and cooldown.  Read below for warmup and cooldown descriptions.  Depending on the objective of the swim workout, your main set will be designed to help you focus on skills, speed or endurance. Following the intensity and endurance concepts previously discussed, you may have short intervals of 25 yards to trigger a speed adaptation, 50-150 yards to trigger an anaerobic adaptation, or 200-500 for an aerobic adaptation.

Bike Specific Workouts and Skills

You should see similar concepts in bike workouts with respect to total distance (or time) and intensity.  Again, longer distances are typically prescribed at lower intensities and higher intensities are reserved for short intervals. 

Terrain may be prescribed to train for strength, speed or endurance.  Hills (uphill) are prescribed for strength and endurance, while flats are typically for speed or skills.  You may see cadence prescribed to develop pedal stroke efficiency.  Faster cadence of 85 rotations per minute (RPM) are prescribed to develop neuromuscular efficiency, while lower cadence 75 or less for strength.

Bike handling skills will be a separate clinic.

Run Specific Workout and Skills

Running is another skill and form centric activity.  Proper form can make a big difference in perceived effort, speed and risk of injury.  We’ll cover running form in a future post.

Intensities are prescribed for run workouts and are like bike and swim workouts.  Intensities are often written as zones which can be indicated by rate of perceived exertion (RPE), pace (minutes/mile), or heart rate. Having a heart rate monitor is a good tool, but not essential.  RPE and pace work just fine.  

Warm Up and Cool Down

All workouts should have a warm up and cool down.  This allows your muscles, and neuromuscular system in general, to get ready for your workout.  This gets blood flow started, warms the tendons and muscular connections creating elasticity, and activates nerves that fire required muscles.  Cool downs allow the body a gradual transition back to homeostasis. It helps clear lactic acid and use circulation to remove waste products from your muscles.  It is also a good time to stretch since the muscles and tendons are still warm.  This will aid in not feeling “tight” after a workout.

I hope you found this explanation of “how’s” and “why’s” of triathlon workouts useful and will get more from your training as a result.  Good luck in your training this week!

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