Podcast, Training

Q&A on season planning, goal setting, and limiters | EP#372

 January 9, 2023

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


That Triathlon Show logo

Mikael answers listener questions (from Instagram and Newsletter followers) on the topics of season planning, goal setting, and personal limiters.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • How to set race goals (and account for factors like course, competitiveness of the field, etc)
  • How to know what's realistic to aim for
  • How to track the progress towards your goals
  • How to establish limiters and assess if you're training to tackle them is working
  • When is the best time to do a marathon if triathlon performance is your main goal?
  • How to plan your season when you want to qualify for Kona but you don't know if you will manage to qualify or not

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1º Question: Racing goals where both time and result depend on outside factors

04:00 -

  • Outside factors are always present, but it doesn't mean that your time or results are unpredictable or random. 
  • Weather can vary even on the same race course from one year to another, with different heat and wind conditions. However, these weather variations would result in a variance in time of minutes rather than tens of minutes over the 7.3 distance.
  • The results in the race will depend on who shows up naturally, but this strength of the field is not generally something that varies wildly in the same race from one year to another.
  • You can check a race where you might know people, allowing you to see how you would end up in previous years if you had participated.

Time goals

05:39 -

  • If you have done the race before, the result can serve as your baseline for a time goal. 
  • Moreover, you can check how performance variations will impact your time. (cycling and running improvements)
  • It allows you to be quite specific with the goal that you can set.
  • If you haven't done the race before, you can study the results of your target race from previous years and use those results to see what might be realistic for you.
  • Let's say you've done some races. 
  • Check where you place as a percentile of the entire field or your age group. 
  • If you have finished in the 45th to 55th percentile of your age group, you are roughly in the middle of your age group.
  • Then, let's see what that means for this race you are targeting. (what would 45 % or the 45th percentile in this race mean for you)
  • You may check if it's likely that your time will be in this range.

Result goals

  • 08:23 -

    • If you want to place in the top 10 in your age group, you can analyze where you typically finish again as a percentile of the field or your age group and set your goal to improve on that for the same tier of race.
    • For example, if you compare a regular 70.3 WC to a standard 70.3, we will not compare the same tier of race.
    • There are some differences between countries and continents, but you can account for that to some extent. 
    • If you have been finishing between the 45th and the 55th percentile in your races this past year, you could set a goal to break into the top 33%.
    • Your times might not improve, but you can see that you're improving based on your position.

Tools for goal setting

09:50 -

  • The race website includes course information and results from past years. 
  • obstri.com is an excellent website for doing this kind of research on races.
  • The only downside is that it only pulls data from Ironman-branded races. But it is excellent if those are the races that you will do. 
  • I use the premium version of OBStri.
  •  Strava is also good.
  • I use it to see the distance of the swim bike and run legs of a race.
  • For example, the run could have been 20.5km (not 21 and 21.1km)
  • You can also use it on the bike leg to see well there are the top five cyclists.
  • You can check performance metrics.
  • Most big races will get a bike segment created for the bike leg.  
  • I use a free subscription to do my research, but with a premium subscription, you can get a bit more granular. 
  • With a free version, you only have the all-time results. 
  • In BestBikeSplits, you can put in power, pull the race course and see how well you would perform for a certain CdA, which you would need to estimate from a past race. 

2º Question: How can we establish limiters with field tests?

11:51 -

  • Limiters are not the same as weaknesses. 
  • A limiter is something that is holding you back.
  • You could have a weakness in your sprinting ability as a cyclist or as a runner but as a triathlete, that has no impact on your finishing position.
  • Of course, if you're a lead world-class athlete doing sprint and Olympic distance, your running sprint power will be vital for you. 
  • An example of a limiter might be that your run is much weaker than your swim and bike.
  • The first way to establish limiters with field tests is to do tests of time trials of different durations, meaning a critical power/speed test.
  •  I tend to prescribe these days a 20-second test, a three-minute test and a 20-minute test.
  • Concerning swimming, I prescribe 100m, 400m, and 1900m swimming tests. 
  • It can give you a good idea of your power duration or speed duration profile and where to improve.
  • In the running, I don't prescribe testing for running (more lab testing or using races). That's a good starting point. A 5km and 10km can already tell you how you stack up performance-wise.
  • The other would be to do tests before and after a certain amount of work or time. (for example, a time trial before and after two hours of riding at an endurance power or even one and a half hours at race effort to access your fatigue resistance)
  • You can do a 15-minute time trial before in a fresh state. On the second day, you could do a 15-minute time trial after two hours of endurance riding and see how endurance riding impacts your fatigue resistance.
  • The more specific test would be to do race pace tests, meaning 1-1.5 hours of race pace and see how that impacts your time trial ability over what you did. 
  • It's not something I use too much because you can see that quite well through standardized workouts. 
  • An example is a threshold workout which might be 5x10min at 90% of critical power with 2-3min recovery. 

3º Question: Adjusting your goals if you hit them early or you fall behind

18:30 -

  • If you hit them early, then set a new goal.
  • Take your time with the next one because it is a real thing to be constantly looking to the next milestone but never taking the time to celebrate.
  • If you fall behind, it's not necessarily a bad thing.
  • In many cases, you should keep going but consider whether you need to change the approach to maximize your chances of moving forward towards that goal.
  • There are cases where circumstances have changed, and it becomes obvious you just won't be able to hit that goal. 
  • So, don't be afraid to scrap it and set a new one, a different one.

4º Question: how to factor in current injuries or niggles that may worsen

19:57 -

  • With more severe injuries, I would always set getting healthy as the primary goal to focus on right now.
  • You can still have some other goals in the background, but I would set them lower rather than higher. (for example, instead of finishing an Ironman in sub 10 hours, you could set your goal to be able to train and complete the Ironman injury free)
  • I would go into more detail with an athlete I coach, where I know all the circumstances and all the context.
  • It depends on the injury and how long-standing and severe. 
  • Moreover, set a goal of having a process to keep you injury-free once you get healthy so that you don't have a recurrence of the injury. 

5º Question: how would it change the training between a sprint triathlete versus an Ironman triathlete

21:26 -

  • We have to look at the race demands for a sprint triathlon versus a full-distance triathlon.
  • It would be best if you always looked at this from your level.
  • Let's take typical elite male finishing times. (comparing a race that takes 15 minutes with one that takes 7.5 hours) 
  • It tells us what kind of intensities and durations we might need to focus on. 
  • We would also look at the influence of draft legal versus non-draft racing in terms of the race demands with variable power output and skill requirements of being able to ride in a pack and take corners.
  • Then we can zoom in on each discipline and see how the requirements differ.
  • The swim and the transitions are much longer relative to the sprint race event than an Ironman. 
  • At the elite level, this doesn't necessarily mean that there's a big difference in how important the swim and transitions are in an Ironman versus sprint distance because of how the race dynamics play out.
  • For amateurs, the relative time in each discipline impacts how you should prioritize them.
  • Prioritize more if they take a long time relative to the event duration.
  • The final point to look at is nutrition, and, in sprint distance at the elite level, you might have some sports drink on the bike.
  • Ironman is often described as an eating contest,t so there are huge differences.
  • Then, it would help if you looked at where you stand concerning these demands. For example, if you have a weakness in sustained power on the bike, you might get away with it in a draft legal sprint distance as long as your skills are good and you can accelerate out of corners. 
  • In an Ironman, this weakness will undoubtedly be a limiter.
  • Another example would be a good swimmer in a draft-legal sprint triathlon consistently losing the pack by being too slow in transition.
  • The limiter is that you get dropped from the race because you are not quick enough in transition.
  • So practice transitions to solve this limiter. 
  • Then you can worry about what comes next. 
  • In summary, you should analyze the event's demands and where you stand relative to these demands. Then, figure out your biggest limiter and prioritize that as the number one thing.

6º Question: How to assess which limiter to work on and if a block has been productive without testing 24-7

25:55 -

  • You may have two different limiters, and you can't choose between them as they seem equally limiting.
  • For example, if you're a good swimmer but lose ground consistently through the bike and the run.
  • In these cases, I would first look at if race dynamics are of matter or not for the athlete (race at the pointy-end of the overall age group category, race dynamics do matter)
  • When race dynamics matter, you almost always want to work on the limiters chronologically to ensure that you stay in the race as long as possible.
  • As long as you stay in the race, you have a chance. 
  • When you're no longer in the race, you're out of a chance.
  • If you could choose between biking and running, then choose the bike
  • If you're most people and you're just looking to race at your level, set personal bests, or place higher in your age group, triathlon is an individual time trial.
  • In many cases, I still prioritize the limiters chronologically because what you do earlier impacts what you can do later. If you get stronger on the bike, that might also positively impact your run.
  • However, the difference is that I wouldn't prioritize the shorter swim ahead of a longer bike and run.
  • You can design some specific workouts rather than tests that don't have to feel like soul-draining affairs.
  • It can be a challenging workout specific to what you're working on and assessing that limiter. 
  • You do that workout at the beginning and end of the training block and compare the results.
  • You can also have a standardized workout that you repeat every week and measure your progress.
  • If your limiter is sustained-bike power, you can do 5x10min at 90% of critical power, and you do this workout once per week.
  • Then, add 1-2min per week to each interval until the end of the block, where you could do 5x15min, for example.
  • If you can do that and you're not more wrecked than you were at the start of the block, that's a good sign that the block has been productive.
  • You don't get as quantitative improvement measures as if you do time trials, but you can feel whether something is productive by doing standardized workouts.

7º Question: What should we track as interim measures?

29:44 -

  • It's prevalent to overestimate things that we can measure and underestimate things that we cannot measure (measure your mental game in a race)
  • When we decide to measure things, we need to ensure that we measure things that matter. 
  • We also need to make sure to focus on things that we need to improve even if we cannot measure them (mental skills)
  • It depends on what you're trying to improve. 
  • If we're talking about season planning where a goal might be a race 8-10 months from now, you might be trying to improve many things (swim, bike, run and transition times).
  • So you end up with a lot of metrics.
  • The most important one is to track performance in critical workouts.
  • I think that threshold workouts have a lot of relevance.
  • As a coach, I tend to prescribe them frequently in all three disciplines, and I would then track how an athlete's performance progresses.
  • I keep track of the progress in other workouts, but I think they are more relevant to race performance than something higher intensity, like VO2 max workouts and tempo workouts.
  • I often prescribe tempo workouts that are not as standardized as threshold workouts.
  • If your training is very polarised, it will make sense to track the performance in your high-intensity workouts.
  • There will be workouts that I'm sure you're doing similarly throughout the year; those would be key metrics to track.
  • Races would be the most specific thing really that you can track.
  • The downside is that you can't have as many data points.
  • I say that it would be the most specific thing.
  • You can have critical workouts for an Ironman or a marathon that are more specific than a 5k or sprint distance race.
  • Races can still help you determine where you're limited, even if it's not specific to your standard goal distance.
  • Any testing that you do relevant to your goals would be essential to track. (critical power testing, critical speed testing, lactate testing, aerodynamic testing or running economy testing)
  • For example, if you have performance goals and know you don't sleep enough, you can set a process goal to support your performance goal. (Sleep at least seven hours every night)
  • In some cases, it makes sense to only measure what you can control your input.
  • There are tens or even hundreds of things that we could track.
  • It comes back to what I already said before about analyzing the demands of the event with your specific goals and then prioritizing what you need to work on next.
  • You might have some things that are your main priorities in a training block, and you can assess whether you're making progress with testing pre and post-that training block or some simulation workouts.
  • After, you can assess whether you can make the improvements you want. 
  • If you cannot improve, you can take further action from there. (Change the approach)
  • If you succeeded, do an updated gap analysis. 
  • Review where you stand currently concerning your goals and your event and ensure that you keep your prioritization of objectives up to date.

8º Question: What are the pros and cons of training for a marathon as a triathlete?

35:56 -

  • I'm training for a marathon right now. 
  • I'm doing that because I'm just enjoying running more than triathlon.
  • I want to do something different for a little while.
  • As an amateur triathlete, you can always appreciate the importance of doing what you enjoy and keeping things fun. 
  • As a triathlete, you will not benefit from training for a marathon from a performance perspective.
  • You don't see any single triathlete at the top level doing this, even if the run is your weakness.
  • It still makes more sense to keep training as a triathlete but with greater emphasis on running.
  • You should train for your triathlon goals.
  • It's a different sport than triathlon, so injury risk is also a considerable downside.
  • If you want to work a marathon into your season plan, the best way to do that is to finish your season with a marathon.
  • I would say that 8 to 10 weeks after your last triathlon or the season would be a good time to do that. 
  • The Valencia marathon is in the first weekend of December, a great example that many athletes and triathletes here like doing. 
  • If you want to do a marathon 8 to 10 weeks after your last triathlon season, I would say take a week or so off after your last triathlon and then get into your marathon training refreshed and recovered. 
  • You should still support your marathon training with a bit of cycling and swimming. 
  • Don't run more than you can do safely without getting injured.
  • For some, it means not changing your running volume too much from your triathlon running volume.
  • After the marathon, you take another short break of run training, where you do minimal running but focus on getting your bike and swim levels up again.

9º Question: how do I know what's realistic to aim for?

39:45 - 

  • If you have done a particular race before, that sets a good benchmark for what you can do on that race course in similar conditions and at similar fitness, take that as a starting point.
  • You can compare courses by checking where you usually rank in the field.
  • The weather is the factor that is the biggest unknown. In most cases, weather changes won't lead to massive time differences if a race is in the exact location at the same time of year.
  • The depth of the field or the competitiveness of the field is similar from year to year in the same event. Therefore, you can look at results from past years to get an idea of what the competitiveness will be
  • For example, I did this Olympic distance race at 3h15. What should I aim for, and when I do it? Should I aim for sub-3, or should I aim for sub-2h30? 
  • It will depend on many factors. Firstly, how long have you been in the sport? 
  • Secondly, how much have you been training in the last year?
  • Thirdly, how much are you going to train this year?
  • If you get a good training plan or a coach, you can expect much more improvements. 
  • Number four - it is easier to improve more at a younger age.
  • However, it's impossible to predict how much you will improve. 
  • The one thing that makes it a little bit easier to give an estimation is that while they improved their Olympic distance time by 30 minutes the first year, they probably have less low hanging fruits to pick from this year, but maybe they can still improve by 15 or 20 minutes next year.
  • As a general principle, once you find that kind of rhythm, you get more significant gains earlier in your training and then you can still keep improving but at a slower rate.

10º Question: I plan to do my first Xterra race this summer, which will be my A- race for the year. Lucky for me, there is a local run race on the same course three weeks before the Xterra. What should the three weeks between the two races look like in that period? Should I peak for the first race and focus on recovery and sustaining fitness for the Xterra or peak for the Xterra?

44:00 -

  • It would be best if you peaked for the local race. It would be best if you incorporated it as part of your training. 
  • If you're peaking for the Xterra, then it comes to how you do that. 
  • If you need to recover for a week from that 10k, it probably doesn't make sense to do it (maybe 5km easy; 5km at race effort) 
  • You want to be ready to train the next day again.
  • After the race, you should be well to do a quality workout. 
  • It makes sense to do the run race as a course trackie because that's always a good thing when talking about trail running. 
  • Three weeks from the primary goal, if it's a standard 10km trail run, 2-4 days of rest would be enough. 
  • After, you could do 7-8 days of good training before starting to taper, which might start 10 to 12 days before the Xterra.
  • You never want to go into something a bit overcooked.
  • Assuming that you don't go into the taper period overcooked, 10 to 12 days is more than enough to get to a perfect level of freshness and fitness.

11º Question: I've been mainly competing at the 70.3 distance, but now I'm racing iron man Vittoria on July 16th. What is your view on racing Kona in October if I potentially qualify? Would it be too soon, especially since this is my first attempt at the total distance?

46:40 -

  • It would be perfectly fine to do Kona in October. 
  • It's three months between the races, so that is a long time if you arrive at the start line of your first race fit and fresh.
  • The potential issue is that you train too hard and you're in too deep a hole for that first race, but then it will take so long to recover after that first race that those 12 weeks or three months that you have it's not that long anymore.
  • I would say this is the potential pitfall that you should try to avoid being "fresh" when you are on the start line for the first race.
  • From a general perspective, it's hard to plan around the potential qualification that you don't know if it will happen, but it's mostly logistically for flights and hotels.
  • The qualification race can serve as a fantastic data point for where exactly you are now and what that means for training and prioritization of objectives.
  • I stopped doing yearly plans and approached things more flexibly.
  • As a final point on this question, it's worth noting that the vast majority of athletes that will participate in Kona this year have yet to qualify because there has only been a handful of qualifying races at the end of 2022. 
  • The large majority of Kona qualifiers have to deal with this situation of working towards a potential qualification every year.


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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