Stop Working Out and Practice Instead
Image: iStock, Triathlete.com
Do you use a power meter or heart rate monitor for every cycling workouts? Do you know your training zones by heart? Do you regularly execute a threshold test set every 4-6 weeks throughout the year as your fitness improves? If so congratulations are in order…or are they?
Executing a workout well often means hitting prescribed training levels such as a target heart rate or power zone. But an even more powerful training skill to master is nailing the effort level without out prescriptive guidelines. Instead of having a pre-determined target to hit, you ride (run/swim) by effort following the guidelines of the workout and tuning in to your body’s response and signals.
- How long can I sustain this effort?
- Can I work at this level of dis-comfort for another 4 minutes without fading?
- Can I repeat this focus level for another three sets of the same activity?
- Is this recovery level easy enough that I can do another hard effort for the next eight minutes?
Nailing the workout intention when using effort alone means you’re in tune with how your body is responding to effort that day. But it takes practice!
Failing is a Step Closer to the End Result
The first time you execute a workout like this, you may, in fact you will fail miserably. You’ll start too hard and won’t complete all the efforts. You’ll finish too easily and not hit the desired intensity. You’ll look at your hear rate tracing after the fact and see a line that looks like the profile of the Hilly Billy Roubeaux instead of even like the Sahara desert. IN other words your efforts were all over the place, rather than steady, even and repeatable.
You’re thinking, “But coach, just give me a power target and I’ll hit it”.
Success in triathlon is not always about hard work. It’s more often about being in tune with your body on a consistent basis and relying on that instinct you’ve developed on race day. Power training is fantastic, but there’s no substitute for your intuition about your own body’s performance.
There’s a recipe for developing this instinct. Given any specific task, complete the workout in a “practice” mode. You’re not trying to build fitness, nail a heart rate zone, get anaerobic, VO2 max-ish, or wherever the effort falls on a physiologic scale.
You’re trying to tune your instincts to hit the intention of the workout. ie “go hard for an hour”, “run easy for exactly 30 minutes”, “execute three evenly paced efforts with 2 minute rest at the maximum of your ability”.
Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Training
It may be hard to see how it’s different to hit a power range for three eight-minute efforts, versus doing the same effort without targets and going just by feel.
The first is “prescriptive”…your efforts are given by your coach or your spreadsheet of training zones. But your spreadsheet doesn’t know your body’s ability on that specific day, and your coach won’t know unless you are in a daily training environment or communicate intensively on a daily basis.
In the second example, the power is “descriptive”. You or your coach look at your power levels, effort or heart rate zones AFTER you complete the workout instead of before or during.
You improve your ability to understand your body while executing a practice session, rather than a workout. While practicing, you’re also developing the specific fitness needed to improve your fitness and master the pace, master the effort and tune into your body.
On race day, it matters less what your power or heart rate targets are…it matters more if you’re operating within your body’s ability to cross the finish line having used your energy wisely and finishing in the fastest time you’re capable of.
Fitness Follows Mastery
Once you master the workout you can learn to push your abilities while still maintaining the practice intentions. Maybe it takes you three ‘practice sessions’ to do an evenly paced 3 x 8 minute effort with 2 minutes rest. “But Coach,” you protest again loudly…”If you’d just give me a target, I can do it right the first time!” Right…but that’s not the point.
Building fitness is easy. Anyone can prescribe hard workouts. Online training simulators like Trainer Road, Zwift and Sufferfest can help you do testing sets, tell you how to crunch the numbers (or do it for you) and give you back more training sets to do. That’s algorithmic.
But coaching is an art and racing well requires practice…not just fitness.
Practice executing specific workouts by listening to your body. Repeat these efforts to do it “better”…more evenly paced within the workout guidelines. See what your heart rate and power were AFTER the effort is done. Are your efforts even or ‘hilly billy’? Is each effort similar to the previous or do they get less intense as you get more fatigued? Or is the first effort even and the second and third efforts ragged?
Practice Perfect the Push Performance
Photo: Nils Nilsen, Triathlete.com
Reread the workout guidelines and see if you executed it well. If you did, congratulations! You now have a baseline. Next time you try it, see if you can push just a little bit more. If the workouts are well designed, you’ll be building the fitness you need, but more importantly, building your reservoir of body sensing, pacing and confidence in racing.
Chris McKormack, two time Ironman World Championship winner, explains this concept well in a blog post called, “Keep it simple“…
“Training is about teaching yourself to understand your boundaries and then slowly pushing those boundaries up. You need to know how to feel those and where they are!
I say go out and try to get in touch with your perceived exertion and your body rhythm at least a few times a week in all the disciplines of our sport. Most of the time in training, especially when I go to a new town, I often test myself by doing the following. I leave the hotel room for a run and check the clock before I leave.
I then say to myself, ok I am going to go and run for 1 hour. When I come back I try and see how close to that hour I actually was. I take no watch with me nor do I set any preconceived pace. I run freely and try and feel my way to understanding just how long I have been running by my surroundings and my pace and effort. Funnily enough, the fitter I get the better I am at getting very close to the hour.“
Ride “Blind” and Benefit
During your next training session, try putting black electrical tape over your power meter or heart rate monitor. Turn off Zwift and Trainer Road and go old school while listening to tunes, or watching a scenic youtube video. Learn to “practice” rather than “workout”. You’ll tap into a new set of skills needed for triathlon speed, success and enjoyment.
Last week I rented a small SUV while I was at the Long Course World Championships in Oklahoma City, OK. Normally I rent compact or economy cars because they’re less expensive and I don’t have a need for a lot of cargo room. But invariably, by the end of my trip my back and neck are tired and sore from the low, molded seats that these cars usually come with. So on the spur of the moment I upgraded to an SUV. My back was really really happy with that decision! But I had two close calls while driving on the highway, trying to switch lanes and noticing that there was a car in my blind spot.
I’m used to the blind spots on my own vehicle, and therefore know where and when to look and for how long before I switch lanes. I was a bit surprised to have this happen twice…once on my right and once on my left in this rental SUV. It didn’t take more than one occurrence though, because as soon as I knew there was a blind spot and where, I knew to look for it before switching lanes.
Improvement Requires some Type of Feedback
Normally in order to locate your blind spots you need some type of external feedback. Hopefully it’s not a car accident that becomes your first warning a car was too close to you. Typically I look in my mirrors, rear view, then side view, then finally I turn my head to check for anyone there…in that blind spot that I’m used to. IN this new car, I had to look further back and for a second longer. But once I knew it was there, it became routine to check and I had no further close calls over the weekend.
Applying “Blind Spot Reduction” to Triathlon Training
How does this story apply to triathlon training? WE all have blind spots in our own preparation for the sport. Whether it’s a fitness blind spot (Doing only long slow distance and no intervals?), possibly a sport balance blind spot (you like running the most, so you skip all your bike rides?), or often a technique or skill blind spot (not sure when to shift gears, or how to smooth out your swim stroke?)
A blind spot means we can’t see it. We need some type of external feedback to identify it. So chances are, unless you train often with a variety of friends, hire a skills or technique coach, or sit down with someone to review your training and preparation you may not know where your blind spots are.
I can guarantee one thing, though…if you can locate them, they will almost automatically improve! Just like my rental SUV story. Once I knew they were there, they became a non-issue.
How to Find your Own Blind Spots (Hint: If you already know about them, it’s not a blind spot!)
If you become aware that you preferentially skip bike rides to go for a trail run, then maybe you’ll be more inclined to get in an extra trainer ride this winter or sign up for a spinning class. Pay for it ahead of time or buy a punch card, and you’ll be more likely to go.
Even if you enjoy swimming and feel skilled, seek out a qualified swim coach in your area, or someone who can do video analysis from good quality submissions…and get some outside feedback on your stroke.
How to Specifically Ask for Outside Help
Take a swim or run clinic. Ride with a different group of people. Join a local tri club’s weekly fitness session. All of these are ways to get objective feedback especially if you ask for it! How do you ask for feedback? Just pick out someone who seems confident and comfortable, or perhaps there is a coach attending and let them know your concerns. Ask questions like:
- Can you watch me shift during these rolling hills and let me know if I’m using my gears appropriately?
- My right shoulder gets sore when I swim longer than 1/2 mile, especially when I am forced to breath left. Can you take a look at what could be contributing?
- I can’t seem to increase my pace when I try to run intervals. Can you let me know if you see anything that could be causing an issue?
You don’t have to know the answers, and you also don’t need to Know what your blind spots are. You only need to be aware that all of us have them. Blind spots are even easier than weak spots to address, because the simple act of becoming aware of them opens up all sorts of avenues to create lasting improvements.
I’d love to hear from you. What kind of blind spots have you discovered in the past? How did you address them?
We have athletes of all experience levels training with our coaches, and sometimes we take for granted how much knowledge triathletes have. There’s no such thing as a question too simple, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that a question that seems basic was once a question we didn’t ahve answers to.
It’s only through familiarity, repetition and surrounding ourselves with training resources daily that common sense triathlon answers become common sense! (more…)
Today I was chatting with one of my athletes getting his post-race recap of the Rev 3 Cedar Point Half distance triathlon. He was thrilled with his performance, his ability to overcome many hardships and mishaps during the race (who hasn’t taken a wrong turn in the heat of a race? ) and was most pleased at how his training consistency has led to a 45 minute improvement in his Half distance since last year.
Yet his training volume is still less than that of his training partner (who remains uncoached). His partner and he used to ride at the same pace and now my athlete (I’ll refer to him as Paul) is so much faster than his friend, that often he “pulls him along” on training rides. His friend (I’ll call him Peter) has been a bit baffled by Paul’s reduced training volume until the results of yesterday’s race in which Paul took 2nd place in his age group.
Why bring this up? It’s not for me to sit here and write that less training time is better for you. It may be , but without knowing what you are currently doing, your recent improvements (or declines or plateaus) and what your goals are, you could need more training, less training or just different training.
Contrast this with another athlete of mine who did the exact same race who is doing not quite twice as much training volume as Paul.
Let’s put some numbers and figures to all of this…
His 4 key Endurance races this year are
- Pittsburgh Marathon 5/4/2014 – DONE
- Eagleman 6/8/2014 – DONE
- Rev 3 Cedar Point Half 9/8/14 – DONE
- IM Arizona 11/16/14 – 8 Weeks to go
That’s a long season and a lot of long racing. He’s got a family and it’s vital that he remain in good health and balanced thorughotu the year. That means that when we can afford to trainig wise, we back way off, allow him to recovery, let fatigue go away and let him spend time with family & work related priorities. Nearing these final 2 races (Rev 3 Cedar Point and IM Arizona) it is becoming more important to get in adequate volume for muscle endurance, while maximizing his speed potential for those distances.
The question is how much is enough? Where’s the threshold of too much training?
There are two (ok, maybe 3) key elements to look at and still keep the formula simple.
- What’s his prior training volume/ training stress been like?
- How much time can he currently commit to training
- How is he feeling physically, emotionally & in relation to his other commitments?
I’ll make this a 2 part writeup and continue the discussion in Part 2. There is a lot ot consider and digest here, and it’s important as a coach and an athlete to keep a holistic approach to training volume and not simply fill all available time with training.
Let me know in the comments what questions have come up so far in reading part 1.
First Time Finisher Training Plans
Week 1, Sprint & International Distance
Week 1 is about getting accustomed to a training routine. In previous issues of Coaching Corner (#1, #2 & #3) I wrote about the “basic week” and how to plan out ideas for training blocks. The great part about being in the “First Time Finisher” category is that you don’t need to dedicate a ton of time towards training. Most of your training time is geared towards accommodation to endurance training and not towards eeking out tiny improvements that take a great deal of time. You’ll find that you are making steady improvement with a simple practice of routine training times.
You don’t have to follow these exact schedules, but do your best to fit in at least 2 workouts or practices in each discipline this week.
A note about safety on the bike: You should be prepared for the most common biking incident which is a flat tire. Carry with you a patch kit, a pump and/or CO2 cartridges. All of this and a small tool set can be stored in a small under-the-seat zippered pouch. I put a business card with my emergency contact information in the pouch as well. Always wear a helmet and carry some type of identification with you. A cell phone is also a great backup safety device that you’ll be glad to have when you need it.
Sprint Distance Plan – Week 1
Week 1 is about 2 1/2 hours of training. The numbers listed for bike & run are total minutes of cycling or running. The Swim specifics are linked below.
|Day of Week
|| 20 min
|| 15 min
|| 30 min
|| 15 min
|| 25 min
|| 50 min
|| 15 min
|| ~500 yd
Run 1: The first run is an easy 20 minute jog. You should keep your effort at a “conversational” level. If you are breathing too hard to say more than a few words at a time, you need to slow down. If you are not able to run for 20 minutes continuously, then alternate running and walking as needed. A 5 minute brisk walk to warm up followed by alternating 2 minutes running & walking five times, followed by a 5 minute cooldown will add up to 20 minutes. Treat yourself to a tall glass of water when you are done!
Run 2: This is a slightly longer run of 25 minutes. If you are following the run/walk plan, continue with 5 minute walking warmup and cool down with 15 minutes of alternating running and walking in between. Try to slowly increase the amount of time you are able to continuously run.
Bike #1: 30 minutes of easy riding. Get used to your bike, change gears frequently to become accustomed to how they work. Practice pedaling fast and slow and note the relationship between your gear selection and how fast or slow you can pedal. Have fun with this ride, see if you can get a friend to come along.
Bike #2: 50 minutes of easy riding. For this ride, focus on staying in a gear that lets you pedal at a cadence of around 90 rpm. You don’t need a fancy bike computer for this, just count the number of pedal revolutions you make in 10 seconds and multiply by six. Fifteen revolutions in six seconds equals 90 revolutions per minute. This may seem difficult at first, but if you practice it will get easier and it will pay off in the long run.
Swim 1: Practice Sprint-A
Swim 2: Practice Sprint-B
Core/Flexibility: I’ve grouped these together but in reality both Core Strength & Flexibility are ultimately key elements of a successful training plan. For just starting out, see if you can incorporate 15 minutes 2 – 3 times per week. I like to do 10-15 minutes of Sun Salutes as soon as I get dressed in the morning before starting other activities. Here is a video of the basic sun salute. Perform 3-4 of these to start your day, and it will take only 10-15 minutes.