18 Aug 2021
7 min read
I want my legacy to be that I was consistently good at triathlon but also consistently good at being a good person too
How often, how long, and how hard should I train are three of the most common questions any new endurance athlete wants answered. While the detail of your workouts has a bearing on how you develop, it can often be a case of overcomplicating it – one of the cornerstones to improvement is simply frequent training consistency.
Getting out of the door and keeping it short, easy and often it the way to go, as this article explains.
You have two advantages when you first take up endurance sport. Firstly, while you might find some of the techniques challenging, you have the motivation of tackling something fresh. Secondly, any volume of training will typically result in leaps in performance.
Seeing these gains can be a powerful motivator. The more you train, the better the results, so the more you train. The temptation is to push harder for longer, outdoing last week or last month’s training load every time. But this is where you should heed caution. The fast development that comes in the initial stages of training rarely continues at the same rate. Progression is not linear and while you should continue to improve with focused training, the gains tend to become more incremental.
As you increase the volume and intensity, your body needs time to absorb the training and adapt to become stronger. Simply training harder for longer without being mindful of recovery increases the risk of overtraining and injury. This is where short, easy and frequent sessions play a key role.
You might read about an epic training session or killer workout a professional athlete has completed and have an urge to copy it. There’s nothing wrong with this providing it’s gauged at a level which is correct for your current fitness, but it’s not going to be optimal if it means you can’t train for five days afterwards.
While it’s not a particularly eye-catching marketing term, simply training consistently is likely to give you the best chance of giving you improvement and longevity in your chosen sport. Here are nine reasons why:
While genetics have a role to play, studies show that an endurance base is built over years not overnight. This means having consistency in your sessions and patience in the way you train allows you to build the volume and develop those slow twitch fibres. Sorry, but whatever anyone tells you there are no shortcuts to endurance training.
If you know you will be swimming every Tuesday and Thursday morning, you’ll become accountable to the paid-for time slot, your coach, or the training partners who’ll be waiting on the pool deck. Excuses such as poor weather, a hangover, or just not really feeling it, will be harder to justify. It becomes automatic and over time all these sessions add up to make you a better athlete.
If you train regularly without a huge spike in workload from one week to the next, your body adapts to what it’s being asked to do. This approach tends to reduce the chances of injury, and if you do spot a niggle you can take action early to address it. For example, a rule of thumb for run training is to not increase your weekly mileage by more than 10% from one week to the next.
When you become fatigued during a long training session your technique starts to break down. We see this with runners in a marathon or swimmers towards the end of a long swim. While learning to sustain technique under duress is worthwhile, frequent, easy training sessions where you’re not so worn out give you more chance to learn and ingrain better technique, more often. Swimming is a good example. When coaches talk about gaining a feel for the water they often advocate swimming as often as possible, rather than one mammoth session a week.
Training consistently allows you to assess your fitness levels more accurately, and make small tweaks to nudge them in the right direction. Regular repeated sessions offer you a benchmark for times, perceived exertion, or heart-rate. If you lurch from very little training to big sessions and back, it’s far harder to keep track of improvements.
For the working amateur athlete, short, frequent sessions can more easily fit around the commute or lunchtime work break. Many of us don’t have two hours plus to devote to sessions without compromising on sleep or refuelling, or reshuffling priorities that may not benefit the rest of our lives. In the long run, this can create unnecessary additional stress.
A short training session and a boost of endorphins can sharpen our minds and make us more proactive for the rest of our day. If we can see that training is having a beneficial impact in other areas of our life, we are more likely to stick with it. And if we can get our tasks done more efficiently, then we might even have more time to train.
Many of the best endurance coaches favour a polarised training approach, which could be 80% of the time spent on very easy effort and 20% on very hard intensity. Studies show that this is often the best way to build an optimal aerobic engine, but many amateur athletes spend too much time in the grey, middle ground – putting in too much effort in ‘easy’ sessions and then not having enough in reserve to go hard in key workouts.
As we become older our physical powers diminish more quickly when we stop. For example, a 55-year-old cyclist will lose fitness faster than a 30-year-old if they both stop training for a defined period. With this in mind, the ageing athlete should think seriously about keeping consistency in their programme – along with strength and resistance work – not just for performance, but for health.
Training consistently for triathlon should typically include a mixture of all three disciplines with some consideration to strength and conditioning too. While there will always be areas of triathlon that you will focus on more than others – for example, you could be away on a cycling holiday – retaining at least one session of swim, bike and run in your programme every week will put you in good stead.
Triathlon training often means spending more time cycling than running or swimming for two reasons. Firstly, the greatest chunk of triathlon is the bike leg. Secondly, unless you crash there’s less chance of being injured on the bike than when running. While swimming is also low impact, cycling is typically easier to access for most of us.
There is a logical argument to consistently train your weaknesses in triathlon. It’s sound advice, particularly if you have technical flaws you need to address, including being competent and therefore safe in the water and on the bike. However, don’t neglect your strengths. Excelling at one discipline in triathlon can provide a confidence boost and give a knock-on effect to your overall performance, rather than punishing yourself because you feel as if you’re slogging away struggling to improve your weakest discipline.
Training improvements come from providing our body with a stimulus and then recovering and adapting. It might seem logical that a bigger workout would provide more stimuli. While this is true to an extent, it also brings added risk of injury and burnout. If you are so sore or tired after a session that you cannot – or don’t have the motivation – to train in the days afterwards, progress can be stymied. More consistent, patient training negates much of this risk.
You could use a heart-rate monitor (chest straps are typically more accurate than wrist monitors) to help you keep your training at low intensity. A simple alternative is to practice nose breathing. When cycling and running, if you can consistently breathe in and out through your nose and don’t feel the need to gulp air through your mouth then you are keeping your sessions easy.
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