So racing season is coming to a close. You can finally kick off those running shoes, fold that lycra, and stash that bike for a few months, right? Wrong! The off season is the crucial time to fit in your “homework” for the upcoming season, especially if you want to move up to the next level or take on a new challenge.
What do I mean by homework? For starters, you should work on the weaknesses that held you back this season, which means you should make a significant enough change to your daily training to allow you to improve your results. Secondly, you should consider increasing the amount of work you do in one of the three sports so you can make a big improvement that will translate to the greatest reduction in your overall finishing time. Lastly, try focusing some of your effort on improving your economy on the bike. All three sports are great places to improve your economy, but many times improving your economy on the bike is the best place to do so, because it often results in the greatest increase in speed while saving you a proportionally larger amount of energy, which can then be used on your run.
Let’s take a look at how you can tackle these three areas of homework.
Work on your weaknesses.This is the biggest change you can make to your triathlon. While this seems obvious, most people don’t work on their weaknesses, because let’s face it: it’s just not that much fun. We all enjoy the training that we’re good at, but limiting our training to the fun areas also limits our success. One way to work on your weaknesses is to improve your functional threshold power (FTP). I’ve seen so many triathletes focus solely on endurance and neglect their FTP time and time again. After all, riding at endurance pace is fun; it takes you places, feels great, and doesn’t necessarily require you to ride at high power outputs or wattages. But triathlon is a highly aerobic sport, and your FTP is critical to your success. You might have great endurance from riding for hours on end, but have you done the hard work to improve your FTP and fitness? Why does Bob or Jill always beat you on the bike? He/she has a higher FTP than you and can push harder and/or faster on the pedals than you can. Period. The higher your FTP, the faster you go. Once you understand this, your main goal should be to improve your FTP so you can ride faster than Bob or Jill.
So how can you improve your FTP? The answer is simple, but you probably won’t like it! The more you ride at your FTP, the better you’ll get at riding at this high intensity, and your body will begin to adapt and improve the underlying physiology to make it easier for you. Thus the old saying is true: it does get easier! But I’m willing to bet that once you improve your FTP to a certain point, you’ll want more. It’s human nature to want continual improvement.
Here are a couple of workouts you can implement this month and next month, at least one or two times a week.
Workout 1: The Power PunchWarm-up: 10 minutes at endurance pace, followed by 4 x 1-minute fast pedaling drills. Focus on pedaling faster with low force on the pedals. Keep your cadence over 110 rpm during each minute and rest at 80 rpm for one minute between each drill.
Main Set: 3 x 15 minutes at 98-105% of your FTP, making sure to build up to your FTP in the first two minutes so you can maintain it for the remaining 13 minutes. Keep your cadence steady, and really focus on pushing yourself to the limit in the last 3 minutes. Rest for 5 minutes between each 15-minute segment, recovering at 56-70% of your FTP to prepare for the next effort.
Cool-down: 10-15 minutes at endurance pace (56-70% of your FTP), allowing your muscles to rest and recover.
Workout 2: The Threshold ThreatWarm-up: 15 minutes at endurance pace (56-70% of FTP), followed by do 4 x 1-minute fast pedaling intervals with cadence over 110 rpm. Rest for 1 minute between each interval.
Main Set: 4 x 10 minutes at 100-105% of your FTP. Nail these and do your best; you’ll really have to be intense to keep your effort at or above your FTP. Rest for 5 minutes between each segment. Do these at a cadence 5 rpm faster than normal in order to challenge your muscle contraction rates a bit (your legs might burn a bit more than normal). After the fourth effort, do 20 minutes at upper endurance pace (70-75% of FTP). Finally, do 10 x 1 minute all out; attack these like you’re trying to get away from a mad dog! Hammer and push yourself in the last 15 seconds. Rest for 3 minutes between each.
Cool-down: 10-15 minutes at endurance pace (56-70% of your FTP), allowing those muscles to rest and recover.
Invest more training time.Since the first action you should take right now is to work harder, it makes sense that the second action you should take is to work more! This is another key to doing the right homework this off season. Can you do an extra 30 minutes more each day? An hour more each weekend day? One of the toughest concepts you’ll have to reconcile with your goals is that in endurance sports like triathlon, the more training time you put in, the better you’ll be, which means the triathletes who train more than you will almost always be faster than you. Yes, those fortunate people without kids, demanding jobs, and all the other obligations you might have will pretty much always kick your ass in races. However, with just a little more training volume, you can make a proportionally large gain in fitness, especially if you use those extra 30-60 minutes very effectively by doing interval training. Your intensity has to increase and stay up during those extra precious minutes; riding at endurance pace (or even even tempo pace) won’t help improve your FTP or overall fitness.
Here’s a key workout you can do that will help maximize your training time.
Workout 3: The Wattage WarriorWarm-up: 15 minutes at endurance pace (56-70% of FTP).
Main Set: 10 x 1-minute fast pedaling with cadence over 110 rpm. Rest for 1 minute between each. Then do 4 x 12 minutes just below FTP (about 88-93% of your FTP0, or what we call “sweet spot” wattage. Do your best to hold it there and stay focused. Rest for 5 minutes between each. Then ride at endurance pace for 90 minutes, but every 5 minutes do a 30-second effort at FTP and then return to endurance pace. In the third hour, focus on improving your anaerobic capacity with some short, more intense intervals; do 6 x 2 minutes (preferably on a flat road), 2 minutes on, 2 minutes off. Try to hold 115-120% of your FTP on the effort, with easy pedaling between each at your endurance pace. Finish with 45 minutes at sweet spot (88-93% of your FTP) and do a burst every 3 minutes to 110% of your FTP, holding for 20 seconds before returning to sweet spot. Ride at endurance pace (56-70% of FTP) afterward for 20 minutes.
Cool-down: 5 minutes.
Improve your cycling economy.This means improving your ability to do work with less energy. There are many ways to improve your economy, from more effective training to improvements to your aero position on the bike to reducing your rolling resistance with a better set of tires. In my opinion the best way to improve your economy on the bike is to train in the morning before you eat, while in a “fasted” state. Get up early, make sure you have water in your water bottles, and do a workout before you eat, forcing your body to burn its fat stores. Take it at fairly low intensity for the first couple hours at your endurance pace. After two hours, start eating; just make sure you have plenty of protein along with complex carbohydrates for your on-the-bike breakfast. Clearly, doing longer rides enhances this training more than just an hour’s ride before work, but if you’ve got only an hour to ride, then do your hour-long workout and resist the temptation to eat for another hour and half if possible; this will help stimulate your body’s reliance on fat as a fuel source.
If you can make these simple additions to your training, you’ll be able to improve your aerobic engine, the biggest benefit of which is being able to burn more fat as fuel at a higher rate of intensity. Your aerobic metabolism is the bedrock of your cycling fitness, whether you’re an Ironman or a sprint triathlete. When we talk about triathletes with “big engines,” what we’re really saying is they have extremely well-developed aerobic metabolic systems. Think of it this way: the stronger your aerobic energy system (especially your fat metabolism), the less your body will rely on carbohydrate use while riding at a set workload (e.g. 200 watts) early on in a race. This allows you to ride longer at that 200 watts before running out of glycogen or have more carbohydrates available for the hard attacks above 200 watts at the end of a race. In day-to-day training, a stronger aerobic metabolism thus also becomes the critical foundation for improving your anaerobic capacity by permitting you to do more or harder intervals. Therefore, if you can do just one thing to improve in cycling, you’ll want to train to improve your body’s aerobic system and its efficiency at using fat, carbohydrates, and protein as fuel, because the more fat you can burn while cycling at a moderate intensity, the more you can save precious glycogen for more intense running at the end of your event.
Do this work out to help build your aerobic engine.
Workout 4: The Four-Hour Fat BurnerWarm-up: 30 minutes at endurance pace, keeping your pedaling light and smooth.
Main Set: Continue at endurance pace, resisting the desire to ride faster than 75% of your FTP and also resisting the temptation to take in ANY calories in the first two hours, including no sports drinks. Ride at endurance pace and burn fat! At the end of two hours, begin feeding with protein and complex carbohydrates to make sure you have enough energy for some higher intensity. In the third hour, the goals are to get in 2 x 20 minutes at sweet spot (88-93% of FTP) and to ride up a bunch of little hills, making sure to push it up them at threshold pace (not at anaerobic capacity, so hold back a bit). Rest for 15 minutes at endurance pace between each. Finally, in the fourth hour, do that last 60 minutes at a strong tempo pace (80-90% of FTP), smooth and steady and motoring. Finish strong!
Cool-down: 15 minutes.
Improving your fitness is never easy. All three of these homework items require you to do some hard work, and unfortunately there’s no cramming for that “final exam.” If you can commit to doing these three things, you will make a significant improvement in cycling and in your running and swimming, as much of this training will translate into your other disciplines.
Hunter Allen is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former professional cyclist. He is the coauthor of Training and Racing with a Power Meter and Cutting-Edge Cycling, co-developer of TrainingPeaks’ WKO software, and CEO and founder of Peaks Coaching Group. He and his coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes. Hunter can be contacted directly through PeaksCoachingGroup.com.
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