Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Four Ways to Optimize Your Triathlon Training

by Hunter Allen, PCG Founder/CEO and Master Coach

An early morning alarm, a drowsy head, a slow moving body, and a busy work day can quickly have you looking for inventive ways to get in more training, without mentioning having to take the kids to soccer in the evenings and then do homework. These things all combine to make it tough to train the way you want. You’re busy, your life is busy, your emails sometimes overwhelm you, and yet you have goals. Those goals include triathlon racing. Maybe it’s not a full ironman this year (or maybe it is), but whatever the goal, one thing is certain: you have to plan, organize, and use your limited time more efficiently than ever. It’s a lesson that triathlon teaches us all. The lazy days of sitting around watching the grass grow and getting the trivial things done in life are long over. Time is your most precious commodity.

One of the key reasons you should use your power meter is to make your cycling training highly time efficient and effective, especially as you challenge yourself more and more in this amazing sport. I’ve got four ways to use your power meter to cut out “fluff” miles, get focused on the training that will make a difference, and ensure you have time for running and swimming.

1. Optimize daily workouts. One of the most important benefits of training with your power meter is that it brings focus to your workouts. By riding in precisely the training levels that will give you the improvement you want and make you the fastest possible, you can reduce your training time.

Before embarking on this highly directed training, however, you need to decide if you are in the “survive” group or in the “thrive” group. The “survivors” are just doing the triathlon to finish it and have fun without ending up on TV highlight reels as they crawl to the line on bloody knees. The “thrivers” are focused on a new PR, aim to win their age group (or a top placing), and have long since passed mere survival days. If you’re a survivor, spend your training time in two levels: tempo and threshold power.

If you’re a thriver, you need to spend your training time in three levels: tempo, threshold, and Vo2max. Tempo power is defined by riding between 76% and 90% of your functional threshold power (FTP). FTP is the best average power you can maintain for one hour, so you will need to test your FTP first, either with a full one-hour time trial or by doing a 20-minute time trial and then subtracting 5% off of your watts. Once you’ve found your FTP, you can determine your tempo level, which is where you’ll want to spend a majority of your training time. Why? Tempo is harder than endurance pace and will challenge your aerobic/cardiovascular system to improve and become more efficient. By riding at this pace you can ride shorter distances than your event. You’ll also be assured that on race day you’ll be able to drop the pace down a notch to a more reasonable endurance pace and have plenty left in the tank for a great bike and then a super run. Stated more simply, a two-hour ride at tempo is worth three and half hours at endurance pace, a three-hour ride at tempo pace is worth five hours at endurance pace, and so on. Increase your intensity and reduce your volume, using your power meter to confirm that you are indeed in your tempo pace for the time needed. Tempo isn’t easy, but that’s exactly why you need to do it and why it allows you to reduce your training time. Start out with 30- to 45-minute blocks of riding at tempo pace before moving up into 60, 90, 120, etc. blocks at tempo so you can build up and handle the pace.

If you’re a thriver, you need to spend more time at the upper ranges of tempo, which is called the “sweet spot” range and correlates roughly with 88-93% of your FTP. This is even more intense, and the more time you can spend here, the higher your FTP will rise and the faster you’ll go. Again, start out with shorter 30- to 45-minute blocks at sweet spot and build up in time.

The other training level you have to ride in as either a survivor or a thriver is the threshold level. This is an even higher intensity than tempo and is associated with 91-105% of your FTP. Do shorter intervals in this level, with 10 minutes being the shortest and 30 minutes being the longest. The purpose of threshold intervals is to push your FTP higher and higher, since essentially that is your fitness determiner. The more fit you are, the higher your FTP is, and that is the number one factor for riding the fastest bike split.

If you’re a thriver, you’ll also need to spend a day every two weeks doing a Vo2max workout in order to improve your “top end.” Vo2 max is the training level that focuses on improving your body’s ability to better utilize the oxygen that you take into your lungs and move into your blood stream to the working muscles. While your absolute Vo2 max is a genetically determined amount (there’s only so much room inside those ribs of yours), you can improve your velocity at Vo2 max by doing intervals from 3 to 8 minutes at a high intensity level of 106% to 120% of your FTP. I recommend that you start out with 7 x 3 minutes at 115% of FTP with 5 minutes recovery between each and then work up to 6 x 5 minutes or 5 x 8 minutes.

2. Do the right amount of intervals. Your power meter allows you to determine the optimal number of intervals you should do. It is important to do just enough intervals to exhaust the energy system you’re training and not so many that you take away from your other training in the pool or out on the run. One of the ways to do this is by doing what I call intervals to exhaustion (ITE). ITE is the concept of continuing to do interval repeats until you can no longer produce enough watts to elicit the proper training response in the physiological system you’re training. ITE is based on your average watts from the third interval, and typically you’ll stop the interval session when your power drops off about 5-12% (depending on the length of the interval) from the average watts in that third interval. See Figure 1 below for a guideline on when to stop doing intervals, and check out the book I wrote with Dr. Coggan, Training and Racing with a Power Meter, for a more in-depth discussion on ITE.

To increase your fitness, you have to push yourself a little farther than before in your interval repeat sessions. If you normally do five intervals, then using the ITE concept can help give you the confidence you need to keep doing more intervals until they aren’t being effective anymore. Should you do six repeats? Ten repeats? Four? With a power meter and the ITE concept, you can easily determine the exact optimal number of repeats needed for maximum training adaptation and time efficiency.

Figure 1: Hunter's Interval Guidelines

3. Forget the easy days. You’re on a time schedule. You don’t have time for putting around spinning the legs in active recovery. This is a waste of your time. Sleep, rest, do a yoga class, or get a massage. Forget the easy days. They aren’t really helping you to improve your fitness. While active recovery does have some benefits in helping you recover more quickly for the next workout, you need to fully rest one day a week and do nothing. That is a more effective use of your limited time, plus it allows you to catch up around the house on things that need to be done.

4. Train for the specific demands of the event. Plan your training around the demands of your event. If you’re doing a hilly triathlon, train in the hills as much as you can. If you’re doing a flat triathlon, forget the hills and focus on your power on the flats. If your race is an Olympic distance event, ride extra so you can easily reach your goal, but no ironman type rides are needed. The demands of the event will dictate a good portion of your training focus, and in many cases it’s best to work backward from the event demands themselves to help you be more time efficient with the type of training you do. For example, if you have an Olympic distance race coming up and the course has three 2-minute hills on it and one 8-minute hill, you’ll need to do those in training so you can prepare for that specific effort. Of course, even shorter obstacles will need to be accounted for as well, like accelerating out of corners and popping over short bumps. Reminder: the general demands of the event can’t be forgotten either, so make sure you adhere to step 1 above.

Time is a great equalizer and a great differentiator; it allows each of us to time as efficiently as possible, and those who have more time will generally have more fitness. You have the opportunity to push your limits within your own time constraints, and becoming highly efficient with your training time will make a difference in your finishing position and possibly your race success. Time for more time. 

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, 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