How to approach your training

Posted on: March 1, 2018

How to approach your training

To accomplish the best results possible, a triathlon should be looked at as a single sport as discussed in our last blog. Each section of a triathlon leads onto and impacts the next. A triathlon is not performed as a swim one day, bike the next and run after – it transitions from one to the other without rest.

This is how we coach triathlon (simplistically), with the focus here on developing strength:

We train our athletes to swim with a focus on developing upper body strength and endurance; both are required to enable the movement repetition (pushing to the rear) needed to swim long distances fast. Adding buoyancy to the legs with a pull buoy, or even better, a pair of good buoyancy shorts, is a key to this and applied to all sessions.

Adding buoyancy has many benefits for a triathlete, primarily because it:

  • puts the body into a better position (more horizontal) which in turn reduces drag;
  • reduces strain on the shoulders caused by legs that may otherwise sink;
  • allows the triathlete to develop movement patterns faster;
  • allows for extra focus on the most important propulsive phase of the stroke – the underwater arm action, especially the push to the rear;
  • replicates wetsuit swimming; and last, but not least
  • makes swimming easier and more FUN!

Strength and endurance are developed primarily through pull sets, using additional buoyancy, hand paddles (bigger isn’t always better!) and an ankle band.

Swim sets will make your arms, shoulders, chest and back strong – you will feel these muscles burn! The burn is good, it means you are stressing the muscles which results in them adapting and getting stronger.

Our experience from years of coaching and our own swimming has shown that traditional technique drills are, overall, not the best use of precious training time. Compounding this, adults generally lack flexibility and neuropaths to be able to perform the drills as prescribed which very often makes the swimmers technique worse!

Going into a sport late, any time after the adolescence years, makes skill acquisition (mastering the ability to swim like a “swimmer”, including kicking) near impossible. A different to normal approach is needed for adults.

Remember you are swimming for triathlon, not a youth swimming for competitive pool swimming – build movement patterns and upper body strength.

Training on the bike should similarly be aimed at building strength; pushing big gears at low cadences to reduce cardiovascular strain develops specific leg strength.

Emphasise pushing down on the pedals (power through 1-5 o’clock – red area on diagram) and NOT pulling back up (the green recovery area on the diagram). This will build bike strength whilst reducing the use of the key run muscles – calf’s, hamstrings and hip flexors – and so helps to have a fresher and better run. 

The major reason for lowering cadence (70-80rpm) is to reduce the heart rate; pushing big gears at lower cadences places the demand on the leg muscles and not the cardiovascular system.

The heart is a relatively small muscle and stressing it less (fewer beats) during the bike section leaves your body fresher for the run.

Men, typically being stronger, will have a lower cadence than women, and in both cases lower than is normally suggested by “traditional” cycling (and many triathlon) coaches.

Read more on pedal action and low cadence work here:

As the run occurs after the swim and the bike, your body will be tired, even if you adopt our methodology in the swim and bike!

Our goal is to train athletes in a way that compliments the movements from each section of a triathlon. As with the different approach to swim and bike, the way we coach running is not the norm.

Traditionally, running for triathlon is coached to replicate the technique of a classical track runner – focusing on high knees and foot carriage – sometimes known as a cycling action. The problem with this running style is that it is NOT sustainable over long distances, especially after swimming and cycling.

Even those with a run background, having trained through childhood and youth, the traditional technique is very difficult to maintain any further than a few kilometres.

Have you ever heard of the Ironman shuffle, referring to the way triathletes look when they run in an Ironman (or even sprint in some cases)? Towards the end of the run, athletes are so fatigued that the run becomes a shuffling action and is typified by low foot carriage, low cadence and, often, a forward collapsing body position.

Our approach is to coach athletes to optimise their run / “shuffle” – to be efficient by developing strength with a high cadence, small stride, low knee and foot carriage technique which is much more effective, efficient and sustainable for the body when it is in a fatigued state. It also reduces impact stresses on the body, another injury preventer!

The key points to a successful run (shuffle) in a triathlon is to have:

  • torso kept tall and above your centre of mass (CoM);
  • face looking forwards 30metres or so;
  • shoulders fixed but relaxed to limit rotation;
  • relaxed, mobile forearms;
  • a low knee and foot carriage – no heel flicks or high knees; and
  • the foot striking under, NOT in front of, your CoM.

Along with longer EASY runs, hill reps are a great way to build strength and movement patterns. Both hill reps and EASY running will progress development whilst reducing stress on the body. The maximum run time, for any distance triathlon should be 90min (unless entering a marathon as a “B” race or for charity!).

Read more on relaxing your upper body here:

A key element of triathlon training is to teach the body how to adapt to changing movement patterns. Bricks are not only for practicing transitions!

The swim, bike and run elements of a triathlon occur straight after one another. Your body must get used to changing movement patterns / muscle recruitment if you expect it to
perform optimally on race day. Training the body one discipline at a time does not make it adapt and versatile.

Generally, we include at least one brick session per week in a programme, often involving multiple transitions/repeats of the disciplines. This not only adds some fun, but more importantly, it keeps the body changing.

Read more on bricks here:

Rest and Recovery 
You will never truly reap the benefits of your training unless / until you recover from it. Recovery does not necessarily mean having a “rest day”. It can often be achieved by mixing upper and lower body sessions (swim with bike and/or run) or having a day of easier swimming after a longer or hill rep run session for example.

It is the mix of sessions that makes the whole progression work and rest must be part of the mix. Recovery periods are unique to the individual and so once the correct mix of sessions is achieved it is often the case that complete rest is not necessary.