You can train like a pro. In fact, you can train even better than one.
by Dan Empfield, January 28, 2000
You thought you'd safely escaped Y2K. Not true. Only your computer did. Your Y2k is still in front of you. How'bout let's get through this season without any meltdowns, crashes, or glitches?
Starting today, and throughout next week, we'll show you how pro triathletes approach the training for their season, and how to turn their approach into one that works for you.
I know a guy who gets up at 4:30 every morning, greeted by his Mr. Coffee which, preprogrammed to brew at 4:15, is the closest approximation to anything else awake and functional in his time zone at this time of the morning. He needs no alarm clock. By six he's training, his coffee machine already cleaned, refilled, and set to auto-brew the next day. By 8:30 he's working. And so his life goes.
As it goes for many of you. You may be competitive, meticulous, driven, hyper-organized, in control, and preplanned. I'm sure you've heard that these assets you exude are just those which have brought you the success you've achieved. You've also probably been told that they are the pathologies that keep you from getting that which has so far eluded you. In all likelihood both views are correct. But that's the way you are, and there's no changing it...
...Which is why the way you approach your training is such a paradox. If you were an investment banker and were taking a client public in, say, four months, you'd have a time line drawn up. You'd know you can't get to day-zero without first completing pre-publicity, due diligence, and prospectus mailings, which require writing, editing, graphic design, and on and on. Four months before day-zero you're long past planning, you're well into execution. But you don't train that way, do you?
I don't have to tell you that in January/February (which it now is) you should be doing a specific type of training which is very different than what you'll be doing in June. All that sits somewhere in your subconscious, and when I tell you the proper way to construct a season of training and racing, it'll all be stuff you instinctively know. It's intuitive, and the approach is exactly the same as when you take your client public. But you just never moved the notions of proper training strategy from the corner of your peripheral vision to front-and-center. But since it IS winter and it IS preseason-- unless you're in the Southern Hemisphere-- let's take a week and go over how to plan your season. Lets do it now, while there's plenty of time to do it right.
Many of the pros and top age-group racers I know historically race two mini-seasons during the course of the year. This is partially because of the seasonality of resort locations, where triathlons are frequently held. Just before and just after summer are the "shoulder seasons" for most resort towns: the kind of towns which have beaches in which to swim; and hotels which must be filled. The shoulder seasons are when these towns want triathlons, and this is why many of your favorite races take place when they do. So there are races in May and June, and other races in September and October. This also works well for many of the pros, because it is hard to hold a peak all year long.
So they'll plan to peak for races in May and June, through which they might qualify for a World Championship or the Hawaiian Ironman in September or October. In North America such races are Wildflower, St. Anthony's, St. Croix, Ironman California, and perhaps a national championship that qualifies its participants for worlds. Overseas races like Ironman Australia and Zofingen also fit into this training/racing pattern.
The September/October races youll again peak for are Hawaii, Nice, and perhaps a world championship.
We'll plan your year using this two-seasons-in-one approach:
- Monday we'll start with what you should be doing now through March, and into April.
- Tuesday we'll talk about how youll leverage your early-season training against some real speed, which we'll achieve in April and May.
- Wednesday we'll cover your first-peak racing, and what you should be doing immediately afterward.
- Thursday is the day well discuss how you'll train leading to your late-season peak.
- Friday covers the end of the season races, and perhaps a little fun racing post-season.
Dont do anything dumb to injure yourself over the weekend, because Monday well start planning out how to get you through YOUR Y2K successfully, and without any crashes, glitches, or meltdowns.
MONDAY - WINTER MONTHS
The Germans started wintering in San Diego in the late '80s. Back then nobody had ever heard of Jurgen Zack, and the big cheese was Wolfgang Dittrich. They both showed up in North County to escape the German winter. There were some other occasional Euro-drifters showing up back then as well, including a short-course MOP'er from Belgium named Luc.
We used to laugh at the Germans. They rode 12 miles-an-hour. You couldn't go on a ride with them, you'd be climbing the walls and fidgity within 5 miles. We used to talk a lot of smack back then, and the Germans were the butt of many jokes. Wolfie's comment to all of this was always the same, and became a bit of a mantra for all of us: "We shall see." The undeniable truth to the decade of the '90s, at least as regards long-distance racing, is that We Saw. The Germans clearly "got it." The Americans clearly didn't. But maybe we get it now.
The Germans don't ride as slow as they used to. Yanks and Germans had a sort of detente on that issue somewhere along the way, an unspoken agreement to split the difference, riding at around 15 miles-an-hour. But that's it. No faster. Not for the first month. And although it might not have been hard riding, that doesn't mean it was an easy regimen. It might not have been fast, but it was long. There is Jurgen's loop, for example. It starts and ends on the coast, and hits such cultural landmarks as Dudley's Bakery (just about halfway, where you have precisely five minutes to do whatever it is you need to do or you get left behind). The ride climbs to one-thousand meters above sea level, and it's 120 miles all-told. Jurgen would ride this as many as three times per week. So, then, the point is that the American pros who "did" San Diego were in full-stride in February. The Germans were just warming up. We must grudgingly concede that the Germans knew what the Yanks didn't--that January and February are not August and September--and that being in shape for the season opener in March is not the point. January and February is the time for base miles.
Myself, I think cycling-- of the three disciplines we do-- is the most important for the aerobic base achieved during this time, for a couple of reasons. It is hard to get hurt cycling if you are doing it technically correctly, and so long as you aren't crashing. Cycling is curative. It is non-ballistic, and is not the ache-producing, joint-pounding, muscle-knotting, imbalance-producing activity that running often can be. When you are on the bike you are building an endurance and muscular base that will aid you in all three endurance disciplines in which you are engaged. Also, physiologically, there is no other way to spend four or five hours exercising. You can't do that running or swimming. So you'll build an endurance base which is useful for both of the other two disciplines without damaging yourself.
But you have to make sure you are taking care of yourself properly in these early weeks and months. The most important thing is to be properly positioned on your bike. Later in the week we'll go over a few things with regard to your choice of position, as well as some issues tangential to bike fit (the mount of your cleats, for example). We've got a primer on aero positioning right on this site, by the way. You'll also want to take care to keep your cadence up to somewhere between 80bpm on the very low end to a high of 95bpm.
Pile in the miles. Go for it. Do a President's Day ride. Get a couple of your buddies and go for three days over that weekend, 80 or 100 miles each day. Book a couple of nights in little motels along the way. Get your pals to give you two changes of clothes, and throw one set for each of you into a box, and UPS the box to each of the two hotels. When you get back send out UPS call-tags to the motels to get the clothes back. That's the way we do it. Then you don't have to get your significant other to drive sag (which will only happen once to each unsuspecting rube you sucker into that job). You'll want to do these three- or four-day bike jaunts once every couple of months, by the way, and one way to get this into your schedule is to take your vacation days one at a time, like a Friday every other month or so. It is nigh unto impossible to do an Ironman (which is probably what you want to do, right?) without some really big weeks on the bike. It is impossible to contemplate a 350- or 400-mile bike week if you think of it overlaid on your regular work week. But 300 miles over a three-day-weekend makes a 400-mile week within reach. And this is how you should be spending your pre-season, doing weeks just like this, at a very low level of effort.
I don't believe in doing the same sort of schedule week-in and week-out. I prefer to gang up miles in one event during a week, and a lot of pro athletes approach their training this way. Once a month is enough for your big bike week. Perhaps two-hundred miles, perhaps double that, and if you're a top-level male Ironman pro, perhaps almost triple that. But on that week the running will be almost nil, as will the swimming. On your big run week-- and big depends on what sort of runner you are, a top pro who's been doing it for awhile might do 80 miles, another might do 50-- you will not ride much at all, but you'll perhaps swim quite a bit, since running just doesn't take that long. And, of course, swimming can be another of those therapeutic and healing activities, somewhat ameliorating the damage you do during your runs.
While we're on the subject of swimming, I'd like to remind you of something of which you are probably aware but don't, perhaps, want to allow yourself to admit. These two winter months are low-intensity, as is explained ad-nauseum above. That means your work should be done at under, say, 70% of your max heart rate, in other words, "conversational pace." I make allowances for topographically-generated heart rates above this range: If you are riding along on the flats at 85% of your max, you're cheating; but if you're climbing a hill on your bike, and THAT is what gets you to 85% of your max, it's okay. I'm not sure why that is, but that's my rule, and I'm sticking to it. Back to the swim...
You are possibly on a master's swim team, and that's a good thing. But master's swimmers only swim. That is the beginning and the end of their glory. They aren't going out for a bike or a run afterward. They're quite happy to take you out of your target heart rate. It is impossible to do the "main set" and also keep your pulse below 70% of your max. So realize that during these early winter months you'll have to cool your jets in the pool. Go to the back of the line. Go down a lane. Swim lap-swim if you have to. But resist the urge to duke it out. Well, okay, you can duke it out once a week, maybe. But the other days just do the laps.
I was talking to Tim DeBoom just two weeks before his recent third place finish in Hawaii. He said something which is so very true, it showed insight, and it is to his credit that he realized it. The other years doing Ironman, as he was getting better and finishing higher, were not spent training for Hawaii. They were spent training to be able, finally, TO BE ABLE to train for Hawaii. That is purposefully cumbersome syntax in which I just engaged. It is hard to do the training required to do an Ironman. You CAN'T do Ironman training your first year. You can train to finish it. But you can't train to race it until, perhaps, your fifth year. In his best years Wolfgang Dittrich did his big week three to four weeks prior to the race. That week consisted of 700 miles riding and 80 miles running. But it took him years of Ironman training to build up to that kind of week (which he only did one or two times a year). I remember a couple of years ago calling Ken Glah on the phone at 9PM his time, three weeks before Hawaii. I hoped he wasn't in bed. After many rings he answered the phone, huffing and puffing. Turns out he had just got in from a 17-mile run, immediately following a 130-mile ride.
That's Ironman training. But it's only Ironman training for somebody who's got real endurance talent, who's got the time to train, who's been doing triathlons for 10 years, and Ironman racing for a minimum of 5 years. And it takes a lot of base miles in the early season, many seasons in a row. You're starting now. Doing it right means doing it one step at a time. Today's step is long slow base miles. That's what the Germans will be doing right about now, and we don't laugh at them anymore.
TUESDAY- EARLY SPRING TRAINING
When I talk about high-intensity, I'm talking about workouts in which you achieve a sustained heart rate above 70-75 percent of your maximum heart rate (depending on who you are--some people can exercise a little closer to their max heart rate and still be comfortable). You ought to be careful about how many times a week you engage in this kind of exercise. In the early months of January and February, or later if your season starts later, you ought to keep your high-intensity workouts down to no more than two per week. I'm talking about workouts per week, not days per week. So if you blow your wad in the pool during a master's workout, that's one of your two high-intensity workouts for the week.
On the assumption that you've got eight weeks of base mileage in, perhaps even ten, then, come March and April, you can start doing some anaerobic work, generating a few more mitochondria and getting your bicarbonate buffering system off the bench and into the game. But even after you get to this point, you should not go hog-wild. Keep the number of high-intensity workouts down to no more than five per week.
You might think this sounds like a lot. But hey, I know plenty of pros who do that many high-horsepower workouts in a week without leaving the pool. These are, by the way, the less successful pros, speaking generally. I was recently talking to Roch Frey--whose athletes grace the winner's circle in Hawaii every year, it seems--about just this issue. "I don't let Heather [Fuhr] do the master's workouts more than a couple days a week anymore. Quite often she just swims laps." Roch understands what a lot of athletes don't--that triathletes, in particular, subject their hearts to an awful lot of work. Three rides, four swims and five runs constitute a not-unusual week for age-group racers. That adds up to 12 workouts per week, not including any weight workouts added into the mix. Few top runners will do that many workouts. And that's age-group racing I'm talking about--pro triathletes may do 15 workouts per week. Triathletes can do it because they're changing around the muscles used, and the way they use them. But your heart and endocrine system only know one way to work. So while you can do that amount of work, you can't do it all at a high intensity, or your flame will burn hot and bright, but you'll flame out in a few short weeks or months.
I have this aerobic equivalency system I've been working on for about 15 years, and I think I've got it about as good as it's going to get. It measures the amount of work you're doing per week, and the balance you are, or aren't, achieving per activity. You get one point for every 100 meters you swim and for every mile you ride. You get four points for every mile you run. This is a nice little system because you can refer to it from one year to the next, and each year you should be upping your point totals a little as you get stronger.
A decent age-grouper's good early-season, base-building week might consist of 40 miles of running, 35 miles of cycling, and 10,000 meters of swimming. This is obviously a week when running is predominant. The next week might consist of 175miles of cycling, 10 miles of running, and 4,000 meters of swimming. A third week might be more balanced and include bricks, in which the run follows immediately after the ride, just like a race. Perhaps during this week you ride 100 miles, run 25 miles, and swim 8,000m. We'll talk about the fourth week shortly. But notice that in each of these cases, your weekly point totals are similar--295, 265 and 280 points respectively. You've done some reasonably high run and swim mileage during one of those weeks, you've gotten in a longish bike week as well, and you've also accomplished some nice race-specific brick work. As previously stated, though, once every couple of months you'll want to go over-the-top on your cycling week with some really big miles, and that'll require you to pretend you're Eddy Merckx for a three-day weekend.
That fourth week is a very important one. It's the one that you either do too often or not at all, depending on who you are. It is the rest week. Some people just have a hard time with this week. But it's really important. Even when you keep the number of high-intensity workouts to a minimum, you're still doing the miles, and you need a rest. The rule of thumb for me is, you cut your point total in half. If you've been averaging 240 points per week, this one is 120 points.
My wife has a hard time with the rest week. She is go-go-go. So when she takes a rest week, she just works on other things all day long. She weeds. Mops. Dusts. Replants the entire back yard. Paints a fence. And, of course, if I'm not constantly reminding her of what a rest week is supposed to achieve, she is more beat after her rest week than after her big run week. So rest means rest--it is intended to revive you spiritually and physically. You should be itchin' to go after the week is over. So no stress, no fights, no strife, no 70-hour work-weeks, no binging, no all-nighters, no inviting friends and family for the week. This week is all about rest and renewal. Trade in the rock & roll for the classical this week. Read some John Muir. Stuff like that.
One final word for today: As you round into good basic shape and you start your high-intensity stuff, you should be coming off of your road bike and onto your tri bike for two of your bike rides during the week. That means, of course, that you've been on your road race bike during the early season. I don't think it's mandatory that you do your early season miles on a road bike, but many of the better pros that I know never even see their tri bars until they've been road bike riding for a couple of months. A road bike is a fabulous piece of training equipment, and I would invest in one of these before I invested in any other fancy computerized training stuff (but there IS good fancy computer stuff you'll eventually want to get; more on that tomorrow). When I say a "road race bike" I mean a bike with regular drop bars and no clip-ons. Nothing tri about it. Just the way the roadies ride them. When God invented the road bike he did not make a mistake. These bikes are the perfect early-season, pack-riding, easy-mileage machines. Tri bikes are great, but they are best ridden in the aero position and under some significant amount of power. In other words, I ride my tri bike when I'm going to get up some speed, and I ride my road bike when I'm just pooping along at conversational pace.
WEDNESDAY- LATE SPRING TRAINING
Let us take for granted that youve done all your base miles and turned yourself into a tough, durable, long-distance athlete who can go anywhere, given enough time. Thats great, but how do you get there in a hurry? Do you know what its like to be in a race, on the bike, and somebody goes past you so fast you just cant imagine maintaining that kind of pace? How do you become THAT kind of fast? In the next few paragraphs Im going to tell you.
But first, I have to honor a commitment I made to you a couple of days ago, on the assumption that youve been reading this series every day. One thing about what youll read here-- you need to be warned about this-- youll get a lot of information on what we believe, and it may not be in keeping with conventional thought. If triathlon is a cult offshoot of road cycling (from a road racer's point of view) we are certainly dead center in the middle of that cult, and so are our cultish views. But we are broad-minded, and when we describe how you should mount your cleats on your bike shoes we also include another, more traditional, explanation of how its done.
When I met my wife, JulieAnne White, she was a very good runner but she was unable to get out of her own way on the bike. She was one of those runner-types with runner musculature and without the power to turn those cranks hard. Of course we worked on her position, and while we never had her in the wind tunnel I would guess that we lowered her drag by 10 15% by significantly reducing her frontal profile. But power delivery was the thing we most had to work on.
Within two years of the time we started she became a very respectable cyclist, and in some of her best races it is questionable whether she was a better runner than a cyclist. She is still the only woman ever to break five hours on the Ironman Canada bike course, and also holds the bike course record at Ironman New Zealand (although I believe the older, hillier course has since been changed). While I am happy to brag about my wife-- as any proud husband might be-- I do it simply to illustrate a point, that you can make terrific progress very quickly if you engage in a few specific types of workouts designed to make you a terror on the bike.
So much is done in the early season phase of your training that it was impossible to get it all into a single days installment of this series, and if youll forgive me let us go back to, say, February. While youre doing all these miles, and doing them without breathing awfully hard, I hope (low-intensity, remember?), you might also consider lower-body weight workouts. I recommend this with some trepidation, because engaging in these activities is an easy way to injure yourself. Personally, I like squats, and although I prefer to do them with the free bar, it is not necessary to do them that way. What IS necessary is to remember two absolutely immutable rules: that you only do these with a spotter, and that you do not go below a point where your upper and lower legs form a right angle (if I ever see you in the gym squatting past the right angle Im going to tell you the story about the shot-putter I knew in college, and what happened to him when he once squatted too low, and youll have nightmares for years). The one caveat: If you are really experienced at squats, have strong legs, good knees, and really know what you are doing, and are already used to squatting to a point where your upper leg is parallel to the ground, then keep on doing so if you want.
Do not worry about getting big muscles. Women especially always worry about this and to them I say, "Unless you are shaving your face every day, youre not the sort of person whos going to grow big quads." Second, all the long-distance work youre doing is a signal to your muscles NOT to grow. But the weight workout is a signal to your muscles that they must, while staying small, find a way to get more powerful.
Along with squats I like hamstring curls (do them propped up on your elbows, so that you isolate your hamstrings) and lunges. I wouldnt worry about your calves, they arent doing a whole bunch in the pedal stroke, especially the way I recommend you have your cleats mounted. Your power is going to come from your quads, hamstrings, and gluteals. That said, I'm a big believer in having your calves involved, through maintaining a nice heel drop during your pedal stroke. I'm only saying this because if I don't I'll get letters from some of you, but I'm not going to expound on it, pedal stroke technique is for another day.
There is another way you can accomplish the kind of strength you might otherwise get in the weight room, a technique sometimes used by cyclists, and the favorite method of strength training by Jim Riccitello. It involves finding a steady grade-- for Jimmy about 7%-- and doing 10 or 12 minute intervals, seated, in a real big gear, only turning the gear about 30 rpm. Youre going slowly when you do this workout, and youre not breathing hard (if you are, youre turning it into an aerobic workout, which it isnt, its a strength workout). You shouldnt strain, wiggle in the saddle, and by all means you should stay in the saddle. Youve got to keep your form. If you do so, this is an incredibly sport-specific strength regimen, one used by perhaps the best all-around cyclist in triathlon (and now you know how that little guy develops so much power). But youve got to be careful when you do a workout like this. You MUST be an accomplished cyclist with a lot of miles under you, and with several weeks of base mileage to start the season. This workout asks a lot of your connective tissue.
Next, with some weeks of weight work under our belt, and after two months of distance mileage, we used and abused our Computrainer to achieve a nasty, wicked pedal stroke. Back in 1991 everybody saw the Computrainer as a thing to help you get through the winter without being so boredit was the closest thing to riding on the road if you wanted to ride without leaving your house. But we never saw it that way. For us, it was a speed weapon, and the funny thing is, we never rode it during the winter, we only rode it during the early and late spring, and again in the middle of the summer, when the sun was shining outside and the weather was nice.
But once a week, starting after six weeks of base training, and then twice a week after eight weeks of base training, we were on that thing for a session that included a ten-minute warm-up, 30 minutes of the hardest workout of the week, and 10 minutes of warm-down. Really, the Computrainer was not anything other than a way for us to achieve a precise, reliable, repeatable, method of doing interval training on the bike. While running you can use a track, while swimming you can use a pool, but while cycling youve got to contend with flat tires and road debris, wind, traffic, red lights and stop signs, and you cant simply concentrate on the work you have to perform. On a trainer, you are just thinking about the work, "thinking" your wattage up, "thinking" your heart rate down. You are training yourself into a technique in which you are finding the most conservative, comfortable, restful way to produce more and more power. Racing, this workout teaches you, is not about producing power, it is about producing power at rest. To put it into more dynamic terms, Mark Allen won Ironman and Nice all those times in part because he rode the bike with his heart beating 10 or 15 fewer times per minute than his competitors, because of a very powerful technique that was also comfortable and, you might say, restful. Proper interval training is finding the eye of the storm, it is finding relaxation while going a million miles an hour. But dont be disabused of the fact that these are the most difficult workouts youll do each week.
You do not need a Computrainer to do these workouts. You do need a stationary trainer which can offer a variety of resistance settings through the application of a load generator, basically something that makes it hard to pedal. The Computrainer worked for us because it raised and lowered the load depending on how we programmed it, it did so automatically, and it output watts, speed, heart rate, all the parameters we needed. It was the cadillac of trainers. But you can do it on a Chevy as well.
THURSDAY- EARLY SUMMER TRAINING
Workouts like those described above will get you ready for your first peak, which will occur in and around May and June. Here comes the hard part-- and about only a fourth of the pros show enough restraint to do this, three-fourths dont-- youve got to take a rest.
Its a LONG season, and you cant hold a peak the entire time. If your May/June race includes an Ironman or similar ultra, then especially after that race-- even if youre a pro-- you take at least one week entirely off. And you dont resume your training at full speed when you come back. You should resume it at no more than one-third of your normal mileage the first week training, half the mileage the second week, and two-thirds the mileage the third week back. And then youre ready for a rest week which, as you'll remember, is back to half your normal mileage.
Now, with about month or five weeks of recovery, youre ready to go back to regular training. Look at it as the start of your second "season within a season." The mileage youre going to be doing now is not the same sort of mileage you were doing just before your peak. Youre starting a new season, so its back to what you do in the beginning of a season: low intensity, easy miles.
But there are differences between your early, easy, miles in July versus those same sorts of miles in January. First, you are as fit as a fiddle, and even though you took a few weeks with no, or almost no, training youve regained and retained all your fitness by the time youve finished your third or fourth recovery week. Youre fit enough to race, whether you realize it or not, and in fact there should be no reason why you shouldnt race if you feel so inclined.
That isnt to say you are at your peak, you wont be there again until later in the year. But you shouldnt be afraid to race in-between your peaks. Rather, you should look at those races as opportunities to gain experience, to gain fitness, and to have fun. Lets face it, if a pro athlete only raced during his peak, hed only be racing a couple of times a year. And, if things are going well for you, youll be surprised how well you race in-between your peaks.
I remember talking to Mark Allen just before Mrs. Ts in the late 80s (back then it was the Chicago Sun Times Triathlon). He was doing the race off exclusively long-distance training, and he was nervous about getting embarrassed by a very fit and fast Mike Pigg. But Mark won the race going away, surprising even himself with the ease of his victory. It shouldnt have been a surprise. He was perfectly sane with his training that year, he only raced 8 times, and it was, to this day, the only undefeated season a pro triathlete has ever enjoyed.
July, August, and September training will look exactly like January-through-May training. Except youll do everything in half the time. Two months of base training will become, in your second, truncated season, one month. Six weeks of increasing intensity training will become, in August or September, three weeks of intensity training. Many top athletes nowadays believe it only takes them three weeks to get ready for a race like Hawaii. Luc Van Lierde is reported to have said that. But his three weeks include quite an incredible set of workouts, including, prior to this past Ironman, one session of 100 consecutive motorpaced miles around Fiesta Island in San Diego at 30 miles-per-hour. In retrospect, my wifes best Ironman races have come after an intensive three-week buildup. Less successful races often occurred when she was "better prepared." Of course, three weeks works for such athletes because they have a zillion base miles to draw from.
But Ive seen a lot of pro athletes get to Hawaii so haggard and bored by and with training that theyre almost certain to have a lackluster, unsatisfying race. If you dont catch Hawaii right on your peak its better to catch it on the way to it rather than just past it. The year Greg Welch won Hawaii was a difficult year for him, with a very short season interrupted by illness and injury. Perhaps the diminutive Australian-- who like many of his countrymen made a habit of racing a traditional Northern Hemisphere season and then continuing on to race in Australia-- won Hawaii in part because his injuries made him take so much down time in the months prior to the race. Sometimes less is more.
FRIDAY-- IN CONCLUSION
I am struck by how often, when talking to the top pro coaches and athletes, they emphasize the dangers of doing too much. Sure, there is truth to the idea that more is better, but top pros admit to a feeling, once they've reached a certain level of success, of invincibility. Paul Huddle, former top pro and current top coach, asked Thomas Hellriegel, immediately after he won the Ironman, what he was going to do now. "I'm going to ride higher mileage next year," he said. This is so emblematic of top athletes today. It is to their credit that they have such a well-developed sense of hard work, but it is also a potential danger.
When you've been racing a long time you recognize that the whole process is a continuum. There is no one race that means that much more than another or, at least, their shouldn't be. It's a lifestyle and, as we've all heard, it's the journey that counts. But it bears remembering, and I don't think it can be repeated too often.
Many top Ironman athletes, perhaps most of them, compete in a very hard race the very week following Hawaii-- the Xterra in Maui. They don't get start money, and most of them are so beat from the Ironman they place poorly. You often see athletes-- like Paula Newby-Fraser and Heather Fuhr, finish with the same time, and back a ways. Obviously they've done the race together. They didn't win any money. They did the race because it was fun That's the idea. Remember? It is refreshing when I see athletes go over to Maui and jog through that race for the fun of it. Sometimes I fret that the pros in our sport aren't having enough fun. They'll all, with few exceptions, be done as pro athletes by the time they're 35 or 40 years old. They'll not yet be done with half their lives. They need to enjoy the sport and the lifestyle while they can.
Some of the best times I ever had were in races I did after the race for which I was preparing. I was fit. I didn't have to train much, I just lived off my pre-race fitness. And, of course, if you do an Ironman, that in itself will make you tremendously fit-- if you just sit on your butt and do nothing for a couple of weeks and let the training value of race sink into your bones, that is.
Take a month, or maybe two, completely off after your season. Run a couple of times a week if you want. But that's all. You want your body to remember what it's like to recover. Believe me, when you start training again after a six-week layoff you'll find yourself much fitter than you thought.
There is a view that the body has a certain "memory," and when you stress your body it is precisely this memory that reminds your body what a normal, relaxed, recovered state is. But if you never take any time off, if you don't allow your body to ever come out from under this state of constant stress, eventually your body ceases remembering how to recover. While it is not precisely known what the physiological process is whereby the body falls into this deep, endemic overtraining, many athletes can attest to having been in it.
"The main thing is depression," Huddle said. "When I heard that the sign of overtraining was depression, I said, 'Yeah, that's it, that's me.' But when I stopped, completely stopped, for a few months, it lifted. My body came back, and my depression went away." That's the rationale behind a month or two off when the year is over, with several weeks off in the middle of the season, and a day off per week. You don't want your body to be broken for so long it forgets how to heal itself.
Almost no athlete gets it perfectly right. Many do too much. Many don't do enough. Many are guilty of both sins at the same time. If there is one sin which triathletes are probably most guilty of, it is that they work harder than they need to while running, and not hard enough on their riding, and during their hard rides. But in general the gap between hard and easy days is not large enough, not just in cycling, but in the other activities as well. One top running coach who works with a gaggle of top Kenyans was asked what is wrong with American runners. He replied, "They run their hard runs too easy, and their easy runs too hard." The same can be said for triathletes, quite often.
Hopefully, some of the ideas from this series will help you during your upcoming season. And if you'll remember what I said back in the beginning of these articles, it was that you intuitively know pretty much everything described herein, and you probably knew it before I wrote it. It was sitting on the periphery of your mind. Now I've brought it front and center. I hope you'll find it helpful.