What the data says about how we should train for triathlon
Traditional training principles and workouts in distance events often preach the theory that one must first conquer the desired distance and then work toward increasing speed and strength.
This may at first sound good and seem to make sense, but it can be short-sighted, self-defeating, and possibly even injury-inducing.
It can also result in unnecessary and potentially harmful “junk miles” as well as increased training time.
The better strategy is “fast before far and strong before long,” and we’re not just saying that because we like the sound of it. Through analyzing tens of thousands of athlete’s training files using TriDot’s machine learning algorithms, athletes improve more using that approach. In fact, athletes who used TriDot for 18 weeks leading into a 70.3 were guided through a “fast before far, strong before long” approach and improved a whopping 34:58 on their overall time. Those athletes who did not employ that strategy improved just 18:01.
TriDot’s algorithm has “learned” that focusing first on developing strength and speed, and then emphasizing distance, works best for cultivating better performing athletes, and it has become a central tenet of the TriDot philosophy*.
Here are the five primary reasons why a “fast before far” and “strong before long” strategy makes sense for producing better results:
1. Stamina, Not Endurance
While it’s true that by first conquering your desired distance, one attains a mental edge in knowing that the distance can be covered, there is some faulty thinking in this approach.
For starters, the athlete’s training objective should never be to simply survive the distance, but to cover it as quickly and powerfully as possible. It’s the difference between focusing on stamina or endurance. You want to (and should) “finish strong.”
TriDot coach Jared Milam explains, “Endurance is the ability to go for as long as possible at whatever pace is necessary to achieve said longevity. Stamina, on the other hand, is the percentage of threshold power you can maintain during your expected race time.”
Endurance focuses on merely finishing the course. Stamina is about mastering it.
A traditional plan calls for a “base” phase in the early stages of training that involves a lot of Zone 2 work, but that approach isn’t the best way to prepare yourself for your best performance later in the season. The better strategy is to train fast before far and increase your strength and speed so that the distance can be covered with power and proficiency. An athlete's training will contain an optimized mix of high intensity sessions paired with lower intensity sessions and adequate recovery. While most of the training time will still be spent in zone 2, the priority, focus, and training benefit will come from time spent at zones 4 and above. Below is an example of a workout you might do in the early stages of your training that focuses on power and strength-building.
Data suggests that incorporating stamina-building workouts about 2-3 months out from a long-course “A” race is the right timing to optimize your stamina. Here is an example of such a workout:
2. Better Recovery
When focusing on mere miles covered – whether going too fast, too slow, or right on pace – the athlete isn’t prioritizing optimal recovery, which is the foundation of developing strength and speed.
It’s only when the body has had time to recover from the stress of training that it can rebuild itself and grow into an improved physical state.
When one merely concentrates on running a pre-determined, extended distance, the result is often much more stress on the body than was intended or can be handled. This, in turn, results in an extended time needed for recovery.
The athlete doesn’t get stronger and faster just by going longer. More often than not, that behavior tears the body down and the athlete gets slower.
3. Proper Form
Perhaps the greatest casualty in the “first far, then fast” mentality is it often produces poor athletic form. As the body overstresses and is exhausted by the overreached distance, it starts to break down and lose form. The result is poor body mechanics, as the body isn’t as fresh, alert, and responsive as it should be.
TriDot Co-Founder and four-time IRONMAN Jeff Booher cautions athletes to avoid “having too much stress on any day so that they’re recovering and not in a chronic fatigue state.” He adds, “So many of them want to push too far, thinking more is better, and when they’re in that fatigue state, they do most of their running with bad form. So they end up habituating poor form and teaching their body to run slow.”
4. Decreased Training Time
One of the most obvious advantages to the “fast before far” approach versus mile-logging is that it takes less training time. That is a beautiful feature for the many triathletes who also have full-time jobs and families.
“At first, I was skeptical that 11 hours per week would make me faster when before I was training 15+ hours per week,” says Jonathan Haynes, “but after employing a higher quality and lower quantity approach, I actually got faster and I reclaimed my life. I went from feeling constantly stressed for time to having extra bandwidth, which I’ve been able to spend with my wife and kids.”
5. Fewer Injuries
Of course, if you’re spending less time training (and remember, you’ll be stronger, too), you’ll also be less susceptible to injury – the downfall to many an athlete. And the less time you’re recovering from injury, the more time you’ll spend building additional strength and speed.
The five points demonstrated in this blog outline how the data, and therefore TriDot’s training approach, challenges the conventional wisdom in triathlon training.
Fast before far. Strong before long. Believe it, and put it to work… before long.
*It is important to note that under a traditional coaching model, the philosophy comes first and the coach writes the training based on those philosophies. With TriDot, there is a stark contrast: the data dictates the training and when patterns emerge, a philosophy is formed afterwards based on those patterns of truth. The TriDot philosophy is never put back in as an input, but is only used to characterize the training.