Ten high-leverage ways to improve your training and triathlon performance | EP#189
Learn about ten extremely important and high-leverage ways to improve your training and triathlon performance. These aspects of the training process are often not in place, in particular in self-coached athletes. If you can start incorporating even a few of them in your training you are pretty much guaranteed to see great improvements in your training and triathlon performance.
- Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Knowing the purpose of each and every workout.
- Having the right mindset in training to make the most of every workout.
- Pre-requisites of successful workouts - mobilisation, hydration status, energy and carbohydrate status, recovery status.
- Using session RPE to train at the right intensity.
- Focusing on the big picture.
- Balancing your engine and your chassis.
- Getting out of your comfort zone by doing things that you consciously or subconsciously tend to avoid doing in training.
- Using group training strategically.
- Benefiting from the compound effect of coaching, testing, and technical advice.
- Constantly improving your training and racing by an effective review and self-reflection process.
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1) Know the purpose of each workout
- The reason this is at the top is because in my experience, 90% of self-coached athletes don't know what they're trying to achieve with each workout.
As a result, the likelihood of executing the workout incorrectly increases.
- Each workout should have a purpose in at least one, if not several, of these categories:
1) Metabolic (what "energy system" are you targeting and what level of stress are you applying, also in what nutritional state are you training and what nutrition and hydration are you taking on board)
2) Musculoskeletal (what level of stress are you applying on the musculoskeletal system - where and why, can you handle it?)
3) Technical (are you working on particular technical aspects, using particular equipment setup etc)
4) Environmental (this is sort of a mix of metabolic, musculoskeletal and technical, so I let it stand on it's own. E.g. open water swimming, climbing and descending on the bike and run, training in hot or humid temperatures, training at altitude etc)
5) Recovery (could be active recovery or a complete rest day - why do you think whatever you chose is the better option?)
- When you know what the purpose of each workout is before you execute it, it will help you keep on track and stay present.
- E.g. if you have a technical focus then your mind should not be drifting, you need to remain focused on the technical aspect.
If you're targeting a certain intensity zone you need to know why you're targeting that zone, which will stop you diverting from the plan.
- Remember you are looking for maximum adaptation and maximum results - but the point is not to maximise training stress or input, it's the output you want to maximise.
- Not all hours of training are created equal, and this is often what sets amateurs apart from professionals - they get more from each hour of training they put in.
This happens by having a great mindset and attitude for everything they do related to triathlon performance.
- The primary thing to consider is to be positive - we do this because we love it.
It's a gift to be able to swim, bike and run. Not everyone has that opportunity, and those who have been injured will remember how difficult it is when you can't train.
- If you consistently struggle adapting a positive mindset, there are two likely reasons:
1) You need to work on your mental skills. You may be lacking self-confidence which makes you feel negative about the workout, even though you want to do it.
2) You may be overdoing it. Lack of motivation is actually one of the strongest markers for overreaching or overtraining.
- See each workout as a blank slate, forget any difficult ones before and focus on the here and now.
- See the workout as a stepping stone, not a test of your fitness or a race with others.
- Each workout should be seen as part of the process of building your fitness, it's not the test of where your fitness is at.
- Some workouts will be bad, and some will be good - fitness fluctuates on a near daily basis.
If you executed the intended purpose on whatever categories you set, you should be happy with the workout, irrespective of the numbers.
- Make the most of the workout and the circumstances.
E.g. if you're going for a low intensity endurance run, make the most of it by running with good form.
In addition to getting the metabolic purpose in, you'll get the technical purpose in.
- Good form makes a big difference and elite runners spend a lot of time working on their running form, and thinking about their form.
Being present in each run can help achieve this.
- If you have circumstances that aren't ideal (e.g. weather), take a positive attitude and consider it to be great training for the next race in those conditions.
E.g. if it's raining, most of us will race in the rain at some point so see it as an opportunity.
3) Pre-requisites of successful workouts
- Mobilisation is a key pre-requisite. It's really important for swimming and running in particular.
The harder you go the more important it becomes.
- It doesn't have to be much, five minutes of mobilisation will give you 80% of the benefits fro 20% of the effort.
- If you aren't doing it, go back and consider what the purpose of your workout is.
Ignoring mobilisation before your workout means you're short changing the musculoskeletal and technical aspects of the workouts every time.
- The second pre-requisite is recovery status. Workouts don't make you stronger, they create a stress that your body will hopefully adapt to in your recovery.
- If your recovery status going into a workout is poor, the stress that you planned from the workout may be too much for the body to adapt to because you're already in a hole.
- We're not just talking about the workout itself, as you could have poor recovery going in but have a good workout.
You need to consider you recovery from the workout.
E.g. If you had poor sleep for 2 nights before a workout, you're likely not going to be able to make adaptations effectively even if you make it through the workout.
Turn it into an easy workout and focus on sleep for the next two nights.
- The final points here are hydration status and energy and carbohydrate availability.
- For shorter low intensity workouts this isn't really a pre-requisite, but for longer, harder workouts it can really make or break the session and the adaptations you make from it.
- Starting with hydration, once you get somewhere past 2% dehydration your performance will start to suffer.
Depending on what workout you're doing, the performance decline may mean you can't execute the purpose of the workout.
- The same thing can happen if you haven't eaten properly and have low energy availability in general.
In particular, if you are low on carbohydrate and the intensity is high, it's a big problem and you can't push as many watts or run as fast.
- E.g. if you're doing a set of VO2max intervals and you have poor hydration status or low carb availability, you will likely not get as much time accumulated close to your VO2max.
Depending on the degree of performance decrement, you may not even be executing on the intended purpose of the workout.
4) Use Session-RPE to train at the right intensity
- I'm a big fan of using training zones (heart rate, power, pace) to help athletes train at the right intensity.
- However, to get the most out of your training you should be able to perform any workout based on RPE and session RPE (sRPE) alone.
It should be almost as effective as if you had access to other metrics (heart rate, power, pace, etc).
- I want all my athletes to be able to use sRPE because quite often an athletes true fitness is no longer reflected in their set training zones.
Training zones are one snapshot in time of your fitness.
One caveat is that heart rate zones don't change too much, but they're not very useful in harder workouts, particularly if you're above threshold.
- If you try to stick to your power and pace zone, they may no longer be current if your fitness has improved and you're holding yourself back.
The opposite can also be true, for example if you've been off training for a period due to illness or travel.
- sRPE forces you to work at the right intensity on that day in your current circumstances.
- sRPE comes from an article by Carl Foster - A New Approach to Monitoring Exercise Training.
- In TrainingPeaks you are able to rate your sRPE on a 10-point scale but they have moderate in the middle at 5, making it slightly different.
It doesn't matter which version you choose, but remain consistent and follow the verbal descriptors.
- The way I recommend using this simple but extremely useful tool is make sure that once you complete an easy workout you can honestly rate it as a 2.
- I believe that most of the hard workouts you do should be on the 'very hard' spectrum (so 7-9 using the above scale).
There are some exceptions - e.g. a beginner just starting out with interval training, or during a taper with light interval training.
- Additionally, I also think that you never, or almost never, should have a 10.
It's just not necessary and you're probably in the realm of diminishing returns.
Using the Pareto principle, you're not getting 80% of the return for 20% of the effort.
- One of the main drawbacks is that each time you do a maximal effort workout, it's a withdrawal from your 'go to the well' and 'mental toughness' accounts.
You need those accounts to be topped up on race day when it really matters.
- When you do the very hard workouts in training (7-9's), you deposit something into those accounts - you get used to going very hard, but you also leave something in the bank so you don't make a withdrawal.
- Deciphering what a 7, 8 or 9 can be difficult to distinguish - unless you really think about it it may feel like a maximal effort.
I teach it that if you were at gunpoint during the workout and someone said you either had to go slightly hard or slightly longer at the same speed or power, could you do that?
If you could, but not a lot longer or harder, then you're probably in the 'very hard' range.
Where you are depends on how much harder or longer you could have gone.
- For example, if you're running a set of 10 x 400m on the track with 1 minute recovery and you run the 400's in 75s.
If that effort felt hard, but you think you could have run them at 73s if you were at gunpoint, that workout is probably a 7.
If you think you could have gone 1 second faster if your life depended on it, that might be an 8.
If you genuinely think you couldn't have run any faster, but you might have been able to do one more repeat at the same intensity, or even 300m at the same pace, then that might be a 9.
- If you get a workout like 10 x 400, it's a hard workout, so at the end of the day you want it in the 7-9 area for sRPE.
If you do this again and again, using sRPE, training will be effective.
- When you are improving, you can trust your sRPE as much as your training zones.
5) Focus on the big picture
- The thing to remember is no single workout and no group of 'key workouts' is going to move the needle for you.
- What will move the needle for you is the amount of adaptation to training stress you can accumulate consistently over a long period of time.
- The greatest threats to this are:
- Lack of motivation
- Inconsistency for other reasons
- Personally, I made two big mistakes this season where not focusing on the big picture caused a running injury.
- I had a race mid-April which was my first half of the season.
I took a risk as I stopped going to the gym in March/April to try and maximise my training volume in swim, bike and run.
I still did 3-4 x 15-20 min per week of home based strength training, but I knew it was still a risk.
- I took the risk which was stupid as my triathlon philosophy is that we should not balance right on the edge of illness, injury of overtraining.
When we do, we are already well into the realm of diminishing returns.
- Put another way, the Pareto principle again - you can get 80% of your training benefits for 20% of the risk.
I should have done a little less swim, bike or run training to fit in the gym based strength training.
- However, I got such great short term improvements in my swim, bike and run that I got greedy and continued to follow the same training structure.
This was mistake number one, focusing on the short term gains and not looking at the big picture and risk profile of my training structure.
- What then happened was being out on a long run in late April, and I felt my hamstring start to cramp a little.
- This is where I made mistake number two. I should have stopped and walked back.
I justified keeping running by saying I was already 8km away and I didn't want to walk back, and there were no cars around.
Thinking back this wasn't a good justification!
- 2-3km later the cramp turned into a complete hamstring strain, I couldn't walk and had to wait 30 minutes or so to hitch a ride back.
- I had to do my second race of the season with very limited run training leading into it.
- Only now, early July, am I getting to a point where I'm complete rid of the injury, and I just did my first run with intensity since the injury.
- Unnecessarily, I lost around 8 weeks of normal run training because of mistakes that stemmed from not looking at the big picture.
- This is one of the main reasons a coach is so important for anybody.
I am self-coached, and work as a coach, but I'm actually starting with a coach in October.
It's just impossible to be objective about your own training - we all think that we're not as risk of these things that happen to others.
- In your training you will often be at a cross roads where you have to estimate a risk:benefit ratio of a training decision.
The tendency is extreme over-estimation of the benefit, and extreme under-estimation of the risk.
- Strive for low risk training, which will reduce your risk of injury, overtraining, lack of motivation and other inconsistencies.
- Use that Pareto principle, if your risk profile is as low as 20% you can still get 80% of the training benefits.
- In the long run, you'll then get far more improvements.
- On the flip side, say you travel for work or something similar that'll lead to forced inconsistency.
Using the big picture approach may mean you figure out a way to get even 20 minutes of exercise in every day.
This might be running, bodyweight strength training, swim bands etc, but those 20 minutes will add up and limit the detraining that happens.
- It may not seem like much while you're doing it, but it's worth a lot from the big picture perspective.
6) The engine, the chassis, and the theory of constraints
- A formula one car has a V6 engine that produces up to 800 horse power, and they need to withstand lateral forces of up to 4 or 5G.
- Put the same engine in pretty much any other car on an F1 circuit, or a bigger engine like the 1000 horse power V10 engines, and that car will still lose.
This is because the chassis isn't built to handle that amount of lateral force.
- As an example, a Nascar car has similar motors but only have to withstand lateral forces of 2G.
They'd do okay on an F1 course but would need to corner more carefully.
- A family station wagon with an F1 engine on an F1 circuit wouldn't do as well because the chassis isn't built for that type of force - you'd only get a fraction of the engine out.
- Now for how this relates to triathlon: you can have the best engine in the world but if your chassis isn't up to scratch you may only get a fraction of the potential.
The vice versa is also true but it's rarely an issue for triathletes, except for people coming into triathlon from a strength training or team sports background.
- If you want to get the most out of your training and performance, you have to make sure your chassis is at around the same level as your engine.
- This means you have to do mobility, strength training (weights and core stability), counter rotation and plyometrics, regular bodywork (massage therapy/foam rolling).
- Also regularly assess your chassis with a physical therapist.
- If there are weaknesses, they need to be addressed.
- Returning to my personal example, being away from run training had some benefits as it made me return to focusing on my chassis.
I went back to getting regular massages, I went back to lifting weights twice a week and doing regular plyometrics.
I also kept up with core training and mobility.
- The result is that I'm now getting back to soon resume normal run training.
Even though my engine has decreased in strength, performance wise I'm not far away from where I was.
My chassis is so much stronger and prepared to handle that work so the net loss of performance hasn't been that big.
- Be aware that in all three disciplines you're only as strong as your weakest link in the train.
If your weakest link is the chassis, you can do all the work on the engine and be capable of producing a ton of power, but you'll be bleeding it and not transferring it into performance.
Similar to the station wagon with an F1 engine on an F1 circuit.
- The disciplines are strongly overlapping, but there are some things that'll need to be considered separately for each discipline.
For example, plyometrics is not needed for swimming or cycling, but it's vital to get the most out of your running.
7) Get out of your comfort zone
- Not just by going harder, but by doing things that are new and that you aren't good at.
- We often end up doing the things we're good at and comfortable with over and over again because it gives a sense of security.
- There's a lot of low-hanging fruit that can be gained by starting to do things you're not as good at.
- One example if strength and conditioning training, and it's one of the most common ones that would be low-hanging fruit.
Another example is transition practice - you could maybe get a minute of free speed by practicing this!
- Two examples from my personal training would be working on my left sided breathing.
Left sided breathing isn't a lot slower, but I don't feel as comfortable doing it so I always try and breathe to the right or bilaterally.
I'm working to correct this to give me more flexibility in races.
- The second one is doing hard bike workouts on the indoor trainer in the TT position.
Whenever the intensity of a bike workout has been at threshold or higher and I've been on the trainer, I've been more comfortable and have produced higher power numbers when sitting up.
Starting to do this was horrible, my power was lower and I couldn't finish a whole main set in the position.
- Think about whether you have things you're avoiding - it may be subconscious avoidance.
Assess why you're avoiding it - is it out your comfort zone? And does it have the potential to improve your performance?
If it does, and you're avoiding it because it's outside your comfort zone, time to go after it!
8) Use group training strategically
- Group training can be a really great way to get more out of a single session that you would on your own.
- For example, a hard criterion ride can be a great fitness builder as you work at a very hard intensity but it doesn't feel as hard because motivation is higher.
You'd also get other benefits such as bike handling skills, tactical awareness and concentration/focus.
Also if you are training for a draft legal race, you're working on race specificity.
- The main benefit of group training is that it allows you to break self-imposed barriers that you may not even know exist.
- Consider the track session of 10 x 400m in 75 seconds.
If you do that with a group and some people are running at 71-72 seconds, you may just about stick with them and have a breakthrough in performance!
- This can apply to swimming and cycling as well.
- If there are things that are important to your race goals, such as race specificity of crit racing or open water swim workouts, or you feel stuck, group workouts can be really helpful.
- However, it's key to not overdo them, particularly if the workouts have intensity to them.
There is only so much hard training that you should do slightly outside of your control - i.e. trying to stick to a group of people.
- If you suddenly start doing three hard group runs a week you'll likely to backwards quickly.
Even two group workouts a week might be too much if they have you right on the limit.
- For longer steadier endurance work, be aware of the importance of sticking to your own low intensity training zones, not getting stuck in moderate intensity to remain with a group.
I would advice avoiding groups for low intensity workouts unless it's a small group of friends and you're evenly matched in fitness and purpose of workout.
- We often tell ourselves we're not going too hard, but often it's difficult to be objective about your own training.
Looking at the details may show spikes in power and heart rate.
- Many agree that the big secret to Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners success is not genetics or altitude, but their group training culture.
However, there are probably hundreds of runner casualties of that running culture that can't keep with the group!
- Use group training, but use it sensibly, when you need it, and not where it has the potential to only increase risk for no additional reward.
9) Benefit from the compound effect of coaching, testing, technical advice, bike fits etc.
- Similar to the compound effect of saving for retirement.
The earlier you start investing or saving, the more money will grow through the compound effect and the more returns you'll get.
- The same is true in triathlon when it comes to coaching, testing, getting technical advice, assessments etc.
- For example, take a triathlete that is going to be in the sport for 5 years.
If they're only going to have a coach for one year, only going to get lab testing done twice to get accurate training zones, and only going to get 3 swim video analyses, when should they do this?
- Coaching - Year 1
- Lab tests - Start of year 1 and start of year 2
- Swim video analysis - Every 4 months during year 1 (Month 0, 4 and 8)
- This athlete will gain so much information from this, and improve so much in the first year that they'll start year 2 with a better baseline.
They'll also already have learnt all the things they need to learn about training, swim technique, understanding their zones, etc.
Year 2, 3 and 4 will be so much more effective.
- Going back to the compound effect, the athlete keeps getting rewarded for the year 1 investments.
- Compare this to someone who does all this in year 3.
They'll have a great year 3 and likely have lots of improvements, but they'll only get 2 years of the compound effect.
Also the first two years won't be as effective so their baseline for year 3 won't be as good.
- Basically do as many of these investments sooner rather than later and you'll be rewarded for it with effective training for many years to come.
10) Constantly improve your training and racing by an effective review and self-reflection process
- Reviewing your training and racing is a key component of figuring out how you can improve it and make it more effective.
- It doesn't need to take a lot of time.
Don't overanalyse every single workout, this is a common trap many athletes fall into.
- You should always write something down about each workout in your training log as it helps you actively reflect on the training, and gives you more clarity on improvements.
- It doesn't have to be a long comment, but I recommend asking these questions:
- How did I feel during the workout? Normal, better than normal, worse than normal?
- What was the session RPE of the workout?
- What was the purpose of the workout and did I execute this?
This is where you might want to look at your heart rate, power and pace data 0 but without overanalysing it.
- What went well, and why?
E.g. I swam faster than normal for the same RPE, maybe because I started a pre-swim mobility routine so should probably keep that in.
- What did not go well, and why?
E.g. I still fade a bit in the later swim intervals, even though it feels like I'm going just as hard. I think I let my stroke rate drop without noticing it.
- Is there anything I should do differently, or keep the same for the next workout?
E.g. I should try to swim this workout with the Finis Tempo Trainer in stroke rate mode so I don't drop my stroke rate.
I should also have a sports drink instead of water as the fading may be due to energy stores running low.
Also I should keep up pre-swim mobility.
- There are lots of other things that you can ask, but these key questions are actionable which is helpful.
- Doing a quick workout review is another way to cause a compound effect.
By noticing things that have a positive impact, it means they'll have the same on future sessions.
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with host Mikael Eriksson
Hi! I'm your host Mikael,
I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.
I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show.
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