Triathletes over Fifty: Staying Healthy & Injury-free

Due to a large number of questions from my athletes who are aging up into their 50s or older, I am undertaking a series called “Tri over Fifty”. Each article will discuss a different aspect of participating in our wonderful sport for those fifty years of age and older.

Is it safe for athletes over fifty to train for triathlons?

The answer is almost certainly a resounding “Yes”. However, let’s discuss some of the benefits and risks of this type of training. The benefits of physical activity in aging are well demonstrated and include improved cardiovascular, pulmonary and muscular systems, as well as improved brain function.?1? While aerobic fitness doesn’t improve cognitive ability in people without any difficulties, there is a definite relationship between those with regular, habitual physical activity such as masters athletes.?2? But along with the benefits of regular physical activity come risks, such as injuries from either overtraining, acute trauma and cardiovascular events. ?3?

Why 50? Well, to start with, I just joined this decade of life, so I can identify with the many challenges that come with it. Some are common to younger decades as well such as family commitments, caring for kids who may still live at home and being in prime earning years of your job. However, others have more in common with the decades to come, such as problems with arthritis, menopause, andropause, development/arrival of chronic health problems such as heart disease or cancer. Fifty marks a point in our lives when we may no longer feel youthful, but we are far from old age.

The most recent question I received was from a 54-year-old athlete, Dan B., who asked: “How can I remain injury-free at 54 years old while training for triathlons?” Without knowing more about Dan’s specific background, I am going to make some assumptions for this series.

  • You’re interested in maintaining an active lifestyle whether it’s in triathlon or another sport
  • You’re worried about the best and healthiest way to train, given your lofty goals
  • You’re tolerance for certain activity levels or recovery strategies is narrower than it used to be
  • You’ve been training for triathlon at least since your 40s, and have noticed changes in your body
  • You’ve had previous, minor injuries that may be nagging or take longer and longer to recover from

In this article, I want to discuss the most important of these three first…issues related to the heart.

Is Triathlon Training Healthy for the Heart?

Exercise and regular activity are some of the best prescriptions a physician could write for her patients! In this modern world of a pill for every problem, you’d need a dozen or more different pills to even come close to the benefits of exercise, and it still wouldn’t be close. People who are routinely active have up to 50% fewer cardiac events in middle life than their sedentary comparisons. ?4?

Some additional benefits include decreased depression and anxiety, lowered risk of dementia, stronger bones, fewer falls, lowered blood pressure, better lipid profile, fewer strokes, lowered risk of multiple types of cancer and more. Feel free to download the infographic here and share, or print it out and use it as a reminder of why you should exercise.

Infographic showing the benefits of exericse.

Cardiovascular Issues from Endurance Training

The benefits of exercise on the heart are well known. The heart accommodates and adapts to the demands we place on it in the same way our muscles adapt as we lift weights. Initially, there is some minor damage, and after recovery, the muscle rebuilds and repairs itself to be stronger and able to handle more stress. Some adaptations are normal and beneficial like the ones we already discussed. But others may be harmful and lead to sudden death, chronic abnormal heartbeats, or inability to pump blood adequately.

The amount of endurance training that leads to abnormal heart problems is still not completely known, but there does seem to be a sweet spot of about 20-30 minutes of moderate activity daily (ie a 15 minute/mile jog or walk, cycling at 15-20mph).?5? Triathletes, marathoners and other endurance athletes often train 5-10 times more than these beneficial durations. Below I list several different types of abnormal adaptations from an abundance of endurance exercise. These fall into three categories of issues related to muscle tissue, blood flow, and electrical conduction.

Problems with Blood Flow

  • Sudden blockage of an already narrowed artery causing a heart attack or leading to cardiac arrest
  • Already narrowed arteries which may cause angina. Often early signs of angina are ignored or unrecognized.

Problems with Muscle Tissue:

  • Thickening of muscle fibers causing blockage of blood flow (Hypertrophic Obstructive Cardiomyopathy)
  • Scarring of muscle tissue causing myocardial fibrosis
  • Stretching of muscle tissue causing cardiomyopathy or atrial fibrillation

Problems with the Electrical Conducting System of the Heart

  • Atrial Fibrillation, often chronic, that may contribute to fatigue or cause strokes
  • Ventricular Fibrillation caused by a heart attack. This results in complete collapse and loss of consciousness called a Cardiac Arrest, which is often deadly…more often than not.

Risks of Sudden Cardiac Death in Triathletes

Two case series articles have been published that sought to gather and categorize deaths occurring in triathletes. One was published a few years ago and at that time was the most comprehensive article dealing with the topic.

In the US, all identifiable deaths during USA Triathlon races between the years 1985 and 2006 were analyzed. The overall risk was 1.74 per 100 000 (2.40 in men and 0.74 in women). The rate did not seem to differ based on the type of event. Most of these deaths occurred during the swim leg. At autopsy, nearly half had cardiac-related abnormalities such as narrowed arteries or an enlarged heart.?6?

In February of 2020, a similar case series was published in the UK that looked at triathlon related deaths between the years The overall risk of triathlon-related deaths in the UK was 0.5 per 100,000 participants. Of these half were thought to be due to pre-existing cardiac conditions.?7?

The risk of dying during a triathlon due to a heart-related condition is not zero but it’s fairly low. Nevertheless, age is a risk factor for developing heart disease. If you have not had a cardiac evaluation by your primary care doctor, please make an appointment as soon as possible. Screening tests may include an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG), an echocardiogram or an exercise stress test. If you have anyone in your family that has ever had heart disease make sure your physician knows this as well, as it increases your own risk.

Silent heart disease in athletes has been the cause of death in two personal friends of mine, and a third friend was successfully resuscitated after a bicycle ride. All had been healthy & active their entire lives, and their endurance activities most likely prolonged their lifespan. So please don’t let the fact that you’ve been active stop you from getting a checkup and screening with your physician.

Thank you so much for reading this far. Next up in my “Tri over Fifty” series, I’ll discuss the muscle-related side effect of aging called sarcopenia, and again will discuss the benefits of triathlon training in combatting this monster.

Bibligraphy

  1. 1.
    Young J, Angevaren M, Rusted J, Tabet N. Aerobic exercise to improve cognitive function in older people without known cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(4):CD005381. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005381.pub4
  2. 2.
    Schott N, Krull K. Stability of Lifestyle Behavior – The Answer to Successful Cognitive Aging? A Comparison of Nuns, Monks, Master Athletes and Non-active Older Adults. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1347. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01347
  3. 3.
    Franklin B, Fern A, Voytas J. Training principles for elite senior athletes. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2004;3(3):173-179. doi:10.1249/00149619-200406000-00014
  4. 4.
    Sharma S, Merghani A, Mont L. Exercise and the heart: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Eur Heart J. 2015;36(23):1445-1453. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehv090
  5. 5.
    Merghani A, Malhotra A, Sharma S. The U-shaped relationship between exercise and cardiac morbidity. Trends Cardiovasc Med. 2016;26(3):232-240. doi:10.1016/j.tcm.2015.06.005
  6. 6.
    Harris K, Creswell L, Haas T, et al. Death and Cardiac Arrest in U.S. Triathlon Participants, 1985 to 2016: A Case Series. Ann Intern Med. 2017;167(8):529-535. doi:10.7326/M17-0847
  7. 7.
    Windsor J, Newman J, Sheppard M. Cardiovascular Disease and Triathlon-Related Deaths in the United Kingdom. Wilderness Environ Med. February 2020. doi:10.1016/j.wem.2019.11.002

The best Freestyle Kicking Pattern for Triathletes

Underwater view of a man swimming in a pool

“The design is finished not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”

Kicking has Multiple Functions in the Freestyle Swim

The kick can help rotate the body, create forward movement, and provide lift in the back end. Each swimmer needs to understand how their kick is fitting in to their stroke, what benefit it’s giving them and how they can improve it. Some folks will use kicking to keep the back end up, while in the mean time they are pushing down on the front of the water with their stroke. If they were to fix the front end, the back end could be repurposed and the same energy used would help them go faster. Yet in many swim squads, as long as the athlete is doing a continuous or 6 beat kick the coach is happy, and hopes over time they’ll get better at it.

Kick Removed equals the popular “band swimming” drill

If you take the above quote to the extreme and “take away” all the leg movements you’re left with the ever popular “band” swimming or no kick swimming, which helps teach swimmer how to quiet the legs, create good balance in the front half and identify the core muscles better.

Progress from there to 2 beat kicking which adds additional rotational component and not a lot of lift.  A 4 beat may provide more lift and compensate for balance asymmetries at various stroke points (sun yang uses a 4 beat on his breathing cycle) and often a 2 beat on non -breathing for example.

Progressing again, a well timed 6 beat kick provides rotation as well as propulsion. Each step also uses more energy and is less efficient when comparing energy spent for forward movement produced. Having the technical ability to choose your kick strategically based on energy management as well as swim speed in a triathlon is a high level goal for any triathlete.

How much Energy should Triathletes spend in the Swim?

No one suggests that a triathlete should go all out on the bike portion of a tri, or that their best tri run split should be equal to their best standalone run split. Yet many swim-centric triathlon or masters coaches will suggest swimming with a 6 beat kick during a triathlon.  This inconsistency in energy expenditure is baffling.

So why the inconsistency in suggesting a 6 beat or flutter kick…  is it best for a triathlete because it will result in the best speed ? It may be faster when done well…but also uses more energy than a 2 beat kick. If a triathlete needs to manage energy across 3 sports, why not use kick timing as an energy management strategy and opt for a 2 beat kick more often?

Why not spend time developing both a 2 and a 6 so you have choices? After all, you train in more than one bike gear too, right?

Triathletes Should get Confident with Multiple Patterns for Maximum Choices while Racing.

It seems like the same coaches who advise against a 2 Beat Kick are also gung-ho for the “band” swimming drill.  In this drill an elastic band is placed around the ankles to remove the kick, and force the athlete to focus on balance and the front end of the stroke.  I think it’s also an excellent drill…especially when it can be done as a no-kick drill withOUT the band! Learnign to control the legs adequately and keep them closely streamlined without having a restricting band, also teaches the swimmer how to control the legs while kicking in any pattern.

If the kick is a progression of frequency from no kicking to a rapid flutter kick, then a 2, 4 & 6 beat kick all fall along this spectrum.   It’s incongrunent to prescribe band drills but proscribe the two beat kick.    Practice all types and expand your options while getting faster as well.

Some examples of Elite Swimmers & Their Kicks…

Here’s a fast female with a 2 beat kick from what I can tell… honesty with a tempo that fast I don’t know how she’d fit in 4 or 6 beats.  This is the incomparable Janet Evans, a 5’0″ powerhouse champion.

 

Here is Katie Ledecky, World Record Holder in the 1500m at her performance in the 2015 World championship.  This is a great video to wtach because she displays a variety of kick patterns including 2, 4 & 6 beat.  her 4 beat kick is an asymmetric 1-3 kick, which means it resembles a 2 Beat kick on one half of the body and a 6  beat kick on the other half.   Take a look and let me know what you see…

Here’s a great one of Katie Ledecky & Simone Manuel competing in the 200m race.  Simone Manuel who I have written about before, is racing at the long end of her competitive ability, and Katie Ledecky is racing at the short end.   Who do you think will win? Both are using 6 beat kicks here the entire way as far as I can tell.    This shows that the distance can help determine the kick pattern.  In the 1500m Ledecky kicks less often.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

What are your thoughts on the best kick timing for triathletes?

Image by <a href=”https://pixabay.com/users/tpsdave-12019/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=79592″>David Mark</a> from <a href=”https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=79592″>Pixabay</a>

10 Questions to Ask When Interviewing a Triathlon Coach

Choosing a triathlon coach is daunting whether it is your first time or your fifth. Knowing what questions to ask is hard when you’re not even sure what you are looking for.

Use these questions as a guide not only for interviewing a coach, but also to ask yourself if you are considering self-coaching.

  1. Where can I read or hear about examples of your past coaching? Experienced coaches will have a ready list of past clients, write-ups on their own websites and often the athletes will write their own race reports that give credit to their coach.  Don’t get enamored by coaches of celebrity triathletes. There are only so many Chef Gordons, Apolo Anton Ohnos or Hines Wards to be coached.   There are hundreds of thousands of athletes you many have never heard of who have been coached by excellent age group coaches. 
  2. Who is your favorite triathlon coach and why? The answer can reveal a lot about the coach’s training style and philosophy. It’s probably that they aspire to coach in a similar way to the coaches that they admire. 
  3. What training technologies do you use and why?   There are so many new technologies out on the market today, and you can’t expect to be an expert in all of them.  Coaches, however, tend to either stick with their tried and true technologies or be early adopters of new gear and gadgets.   You’ll want to make sure that your personality matches your coach’s use of tools and gadgets. And if you’ve invested a lot of time and dollars into a power meter, for example, you’ll want to make sure your coach is comfortable and experienced using it for her clients as well. 
  4. How will you optimize my training for my goal race?   There are a handful of common methods to plan a season, and then dozens if not infinite ways to manipulate basic training ideas.   Some elements of optimization don’t change from person to person, such as the principals of frequency, intensity, specificity, progressive overload.  However, there are a number of ways those elements are combined and emphasized during the season is one thing that makes a certain coaching style unique. 
  5. What kind of experience do you have for my *unique situation*?   This can be any kind of unique situation.   A medical condition like diabetes or a history of a heart attack or pacemaker,  a cancer survivor or even current cancer treatment, recent or remote surgery, limb amputation, visual loss, hearing loss… the list goes on and on.   If you have a unique situation that you think may disqualify you from being a triathlete, think again. I guarantee there is a coach who has worked with someone like you before.  And if not, coaches are trained in how to modify training, bikes, swim workouts, etc to accommodate special people. Find out if your potential coach has experience or has connections to another coach who does. 


Getting comfortable interviewing a potential coach is vital for you to choose the right coach for you. You’ll receive 5 MORE questions to ask when interviewing a triathlon coach by downloading our 2-page infographic “10 Questions to Ask When Interviewing a Triathlon Coach” and have it immediately delivered to your email inbox.

What are some good VO2 Max Workouts?

Triathlete Cornering on Bike Course at Pittsburgh Triathlon

VO2 max is typically achieved in an all-out effort of 3-8 minutes depending on your genetics and fitness. Outstanding athletes may be able to hold their true VO2 max for a full 8 minutes, but most people cannot.

The whole idea of interval work (at any intensity) is to use shorter sets with rests to add up to a total of more work that you would otherwise, be able to do as a continuous effort. You can reach your VO2 max after about 30 seconds of starting an interval at the appropriate intensity, but after you stop or slow down, our oxygen needs diminish and your heart rate slows, and you are no longer at your VO2 max. When you start your next interval, your “bucket” has only partially emptied depending on the intensity of your rest interval (how low your HR or Power or Vo2 drops during the rest)…which determines how far you need to fill the bucket up again to be back at your Vo2 Max.

So if the goal is to get as much work in as possible at VO2 max
efforts, you can see how shorter, more intense rest intervals would
let you reach your VO2 max effort more quickly once you re-start a
given interval.

So if the goal is to get as much work in as possible at VO2 max
efforts, you can see how shorter, more intense rest intervals would
let you reach your VO2 max effort more quickly once you re-start a
given interval.

So the next question is how long should the intervals be?

Tabata intervals (10 sec max, 20 sec rest) will hit a component of VO2
eventually, but they are really best for anaerobic conditioning.
Billat’s intervals (30 at vo2 max-30 at “rest”) are great for an
introduction to VO2 max efforts for either newbies, or early in the
season, with little worry for injury. In addition, her work has shown
that after a 4-6 week block of VO2 interval work, only 2-3 minutes of
VO2 work per week are required to sustain your gains before they drop
off to far. So you can cycle your VO2 work early in the season and
see some benefits, taper them off in the spring time and resume them
prior to or during race season. Of course, if you can tolerate the
longer intervals (2, 3, 5 minutes or more) at your VO2 max power, you
will pack in the most time at VO2 max.

Finally, about what power to do your intervals at…since by
definition, your 5 minute power is going to be close to your VO2 max
effort (and could only be confirmed with expired gas testing in a
lab), you might as well use that 5 minute power as your target power
for your VO2 intervals.

There’s no right or wrong as long as you are applying physiology
appropriately. The most important part is to have a plan to follow
and be able to measure your progress. Ways of measuring your progress
could be to do a block of VO2 intervals for 4-6 weeks as part of your
regular training with a progression that makes sense, and then measure
either your all out 5 min power again, OR hold your 465W and see how
long you can hold it after the training block.

So if the goal is to get as much work in as possible at VO2 max
efforts, you can see how shorter, more intense rest intervals would
let you reach your VO2 max effort more quickly once you re-start a
given interval.

So the next question is how long should the intervals be?

Tabata intervals (10-sec max, 20-sec rest) will hit a component of VO2
eventually, but they are really best for anaerobic conditioning.
Billat’s intervals (30 at vo2 max-30 at “rest”) are great for an
introduction to VO2 max efforts for either newbies, or early in the
season, with little worry for injury. In addition, her work has shown
that after a 4-6 week block of VO2 interval work, only 2-3 minutes of
VO2 work per week are required to sustain your gains before they drop
off to far. So you can cycle your VO2 work early in the season and
see some benefits, taper them off in the springtime and resume them
prior to or during race season. Of course, if you can tolerate the
longer intervals (2, 3, 5 minutes or more) at your VO2 max power, you
will pack in the most time at VO2 max.

Finally, about what power to do your intervals at…since by
definition, your 5-minute power is going to be close to your VO2 max
effort (and could only be confirmed with expired gas testing in a
lab), you might as well use that 5-minute power as your target power
for your VO2 intervals.

There’s no right or wrong as long as you are applying physiology
appropriately. The most important part is to have a plan to follow
and be able to measure your progress. Ways of measuring your progress
could be to do a block of VO2 intervals for 4-6 weeks as part of your
regular training with a progression that makes sense, and then measure
either your all-out 5 min power again OR hold your 465W and see how
long you can hold it after the training block.

I hope that gives you some more ideas on how to design integrate VO2 max sets into your training.

This article originally appeared on my retired blog, exercisephysiologyMD.com in January of 2009

5 Ways to Become a Better Hill Climber – Bike Training

Make Climbing Hills fun by training specifically for your race or adventure!

Image by moerschy from Pixabay

Recently an athlete asked me the following question:

I’ve noticed that I can pretty much keep up with people on rides. Except when we hit a hill, I hit a wall.  Thank god my descending skills are great otherwise I wouldn’t catch up with the pack!

Any recommendations in terms of training for climbs?  I would like to work on those at least once a week.

Here is my answer:

You can do several things to train for climbs.

#1 More Overall Power equals Better Climbing

The first is to climb, climb, climb!  Climbing is all about strength to weight (or power to weight) ratio.  So the more overall power you have the better you will do on climbs.  Thus any sort of training that raises your threshold will help with climbing (sweet spot, threshold, VO2).

#2 Climbing Short Fast Hills

Shorter climbs are frequently about anaerobic efforts and the ability to recover from them quickly.  Especially in Pittsburgh most hills are only a few minutes long or shorter.  This taps into anaerobic energy stores.  So doing hill “sprints” at various lengths from 30 seconds up to 3 minutes with FULL RECOVERY will add an aspect of fitness.

#3 Training to Recover from Short Efforts

As far as recovery from hill-climbing, doing sprints with short recovery will help you learn to “tolerate” lactic acid and keep riding when your legs are cooked. So you can craft a number of different workouts to improve at hills.


#4 Overall Leg Strength Work (Bodyweight Training)

I think it is also beneficial to work on sheer muscular strength with bike-specific leg work in a weight room or with body weight.  Lunges, Bulgarian split squats (rear leg up on a chair, other leg forward, squat down and up, step-ups, deadlifts, one-legged deadlifts, etc).

#5  Develop a Solid Core for Climbing 

Don’t forget solid core work.  When climbing the upper body often comes into play and without a strong core to transmit energy and stabilize the upper & lower body with one another, you’ll just be a floppy noodle on the bike.  Sue’s “Core and More” exercises are great for this. (She also covered the good leg work).

Mixing it all together

I would do core 2-3 times per week, bodyweight leg strength 1-2 times a week, even progressing to some plyometrics, and finally at least one day a week focusing on on the bike climbing and strength work, with at least one long hilly ride on the weekend.

That’s enough workout ideas to keep you busy for a while. Finally, I’ve talked to many cyclists who simply say that “one day” they were suddenly good climbers.  It comes as the years of riding add up and you get stronger and more efficient. Unfortunately, there is no fast way to become a better climber, but if you are consistent in your training you will get there!

This article was original published on my retired blog excersice physiology, MD on March 18, 2009

The Myth of Hypoxic Breathing

Baby (and Adult) Humans cannot breathe underwater

This is a response to a forum post over on Beginner Triathlete about so-called “Hypoxic Breathing” swim drills, and originally appeared on my retired blog, exercisephysiologymd.com on January 17th, 2007

I’m a huge proponent of using terms that accurately reflect the underlying physical changes that occur on a biochemical level when training for triathlon swimming. The words I use as a coach transmit meaning to the athlete that may help reinforce what the benefit is.

That’s why the term “Hypoxic Breathing” does not belong in a swim or triathlon coach’s lexicon. If you ask swimmers, triathletes and many coaches what hypoxic breathing drills are, they’ll respond with answers like:

  • Holding your breath
  • Swimming Underwater (as far as you can)
  • Swimming a length while minimizing breathing
  • Swimming with increasing time between breaths, eg. every 3, every 5 or every 7 strokes

I want to address the first two responses primarily, but principals apply to the latter 2 answers as well.

Firstly, holding your breath prevents CO2 from escaping your lungs. Our body is constantly consuming oxygen and producing CO2 as a waste product. The CO2 builds up much faster than the oxygen is consumed, and needs to be released through the lungs. Holding your breathing causes the CO2 level to build up in your bloodstream. So these sets should really be called “Hypercarbic” sets. “Hyper-” meaning elevated and “-carbic” relating to the carbon dioxide level.

The build-up of Co2 in the lungs while holding your breath stimulates the brainstem and diaphragm to breath. This is the sensation you feel when you hold your breath without exhaling. The lungs start to burn and the urge to breath is irresistible. Breathing is usually involuntary, meaning we don’t think about it and when not thinking about it, don’t have control over it. Our brainstem, spinal cord, and diaphragm will keep the bellows moving no matter what.

But when we voluntarily decide to hold our breath, we are overriding the built-in mechanisms. We can continue to override those mechanisms even when the urge to breath crops up. When trying to stay under the water for a long time, some swimmers and divers will hyperventilate first, in order to lower the CO2 level and delay the urge to breathe. This means that the oxygen in your bloodstream drops lower and lower while the CO2 level takes longer to build up.

However, people have died doing these drills. There is no physiologic benefit from doing them. The name is a misnomer. If you want to swim uninterrupted without worrying about breathing, use a snorkel. The benefit of using a snorkel is that you don’t have to break form when breathing, and can focus on other parts of your swim stroke comes from not having your form break down when you roll (or don’t roll, or lift your head, or claw your way to the surface) to take a breath.

A far, far better solution is to have someone work with you to learn how to breathe properly. The number of strokes you take per breath is irrelevant. There is no right number. You need what you need. The body’s need for oxygen consumption and getting rid of carbon dioxide is dependent upon how much energy you are using and in what form you are using it (aerobic/anaerobic, etc). When I start my swim warmup, I will frequently swim 7 to 9 strokes without breathing only because I am swimming smoothly, I have not gotten my oxygen consumption up by working hard, I am not generating a lot of waste products due to the low effort. When I have the urge to breathe, I breathe. When I am doing long endurance sprints, I may breathe every 2 strokes. When I am rested and doing a single 25-yard sprint, yes, I can do it with no breaths. But not because I am forcing myself to do it. It is because 15-20 seconds of maximum effort requires little oxygen.

A novice swimmer who uses all the energy they have just to stay on the surface of the water will need to breathe every stroke because of the amount of energy they are using.

Do not play with the basic needs of your body.

There is a mantra in Emergency Medical Services:

Air goes in and out,
Blood goes round and round
Pink is good and blue is bad.

That’s all an EMT, Paramedic or Emergency Medicine nurse or physician needs to know in order to resuscitate a patient. If it’s good enough for these professionals, it’s good enough for the recreational swimmer.

Air goes in and out.

Don’t forget it.

Practice it daily. Frequently. You’ll get really good at it.

Running Threshold Field Test 20 Minute Protocol & Calculator

woman running towards camera on a dirt road with a race number, smiling

This is one of several articles describing different testing protocols for running.   These tests are appropriate for triathlete as well as for runners.   This test is for determining your estimated Threshold Heart Rate.   If you’d like to determine your threshold running paces, visit the Running Pace Training Zone Calculator.    Or return to our main Training Calculators Page

20 Minute Protocol for Running Threshold Heart Rate

This is a twenty-minute field test protocol used to determine your “threshold heart rate” and pace.  Knowing your threshold heart rate will help you both plan workouts as well as to measure progress in your training.

Field Test Warmup

A good running warmup serves several purposes in both training as well as racing.   Your muscles need time to both warm-up physically as well as “wake up” neurologically.   When you start an activity, your body recruits only the smallest amount of muscle to get the job done.  Why? Because you are an efficient human being! The body only uses as much energy as needed to get a task done without wasting energy.  In order to run your best and fastest, you need to keep stimulating the muscles involved in running with a good warmup.   Your brain and nervous system will recruit more and more muscle groups in order to spread the workload.  By recruiting more muscles you can run faster and determine your true abilities.

Suggested Run Warmup: 5-10 minutes brisk walking with muscle activation drills.  5-10 minutes easy jogging, with three twenty-second strides thrown in, 2-3 minute recovery between strides. Be sure to take a minimum three-minute recovery before beginning the test, so your muscles can recruit the energy systems needed.

  • Begin 20-minute effort at the maximum sustainable effort.
  • If needed start slightly below what you think you can sustain, but continue increasing effort without going harder than you can sustain for the duration of the test. You should finish knowing you gave it everything you had.
  • Your estimated  Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR) is 95% of your 20-minute average heart rate for the test.
  • 15 minutes easy cool down with stretching

Now you can do some simple math to determine heart rate training zones, either relative to your LTHR, or as a percentage. These zones are starting points.  Each test will have some variation as heart rates can vary from day to day depending on several factors. Taking 95% of your 20-minute average HR is just an estimate for your “true” threshold heart rate which could be determined with a 60-minute time trial.

As long as you maintain the same conditions from test to test, the 20-minute test is excellent for maintaining your current heart rate zones and measuring progress from test to test throughout the season.  Record in your training logs your 20-minute heart rate average, the total distance covered for the test and the average speed of the test.

The heart rate is used to determine training zones, and the average speed and distance are used to measure progress from test to test.

Calculating your Heart Rate Zones
Zone % LTHR Easy Math
Level 1 (Recovery Zone) 0-68% < LTHR – 35 beats
Level 2 (Endurance) 69-83% 25 – 35 beats below LTHR
Level 3 (Tempo) 84-94% 15 beats below LTHR up to LTHR
Level 4 (Threshold) 95-105% Tested LTHR from time trial
Level 5 (VO2) >106% 5-10 beats above LTHR

Additional Run Testing Resources

5K Running Field Test
A 5k race or field test is a fantastic way to regularly check your current fitness, training paces  and heart rate zones.  After you test, be sure to use our Running Pace Training Zone Calculator to determine your training zones.

Steel City’s Running Pace Training Zone Calculator
Our own running pace training zone calculator uses well established physiologic principals and a logarithmic regression that accounts for human fatigue rates.  What’s that mean? It’s among the most accurate training pace estimators available on the internet.

McMillan Training Zone Calculator
While we enjoy using our own calculator for customized training plans, in a quick pinch the McMillan Training Zone Calculator is one of the best out there.   Like ours, Greg McMillan’s calculator is based on human physiology, and also accounts for variations in muscle fiber type (sprinter vs endurance). Have fun with this one!

Running World Pace Calculator
Running World gets our vote for one of the top calculators because they use the same reference material that we do!   it’s laid out so that you can enter 2 different previous race times to get your estimated goal race pace.  This one is Steel City Approved!

References

 Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Triathlete’s Training Bible, Joe Friel

Training and Racing with a Power Meter, Hunter Allen & Andy Coggan

Dr. Phil Skiba, personal communication

Dr. Skiba’s great book:

Freestyle Swim Coaching for Efficiency & Speed

Efficient Triathlon Swimming  Philosophy

Transform Your Skills

After

Before

IMG_5745

Swim coaching manuals from the early 1900s up through the mid 1990s and later have traditionally focused on drills that include kickboards, pullbouys and high volumes swimming as a means to improve.   Coaches who learned to swim during this time period are now in their 40s & 50s and responsible for coaching youth, high school and collegiate athletes, as well as mentoring younger coaches.  That’s why you hear of “traditional instruction” as opposed to more modern and efficient swim instruction.   Coach Terry Laughlin of Total Immersion brought more modern skills to the lay public through his swim camps and books on self coaching.  Inspired by Bill Boomer, new ideas of learning to float and be supported by the water, rather than struggling to stay on the surface, became common place.  Efficiency in swimming skyrocketed when these balance, posture and streamlining ideas began to spread beyond coach boomer’s personal contacts.

By breaking down swim skills into small manageable components and then reassembling, your swimming stroke can be transformed into one that is smooth, enjoyable and faster than you have experienced.   The secrets of speed already lie within your own body and our job is to help you experience and understand how to apply this in your swimming.

Learn to Make Swimming your Favorite Activity

Most swimmers contact me because they want to swim faster…or they want to enjoy swimming more in order to pursue healthy physical activity. Whether you’re a rockstar triathlete or a retiring school teacher or any where on the spectrum of swim speed, you’ll learn to enjoy the PROCESS of learning to swim better.   We make swimming a mindful activity that infuses you with energy, helps you escape from the daily buzz and stress of your life, and incorporates whole body movements in a non-impactful, endurance and stress-reducing pursuit.  AND you’ll swim faster as a result.

 

Make Swimming The Best Part of Your Training Day

SuzSwimCoronadoMany triathletes and exercisers dread the process of getting up for the gym, getting ready, changing and going to do a ‘work out’ for any variety of reasons.  Maybe you’re nodding your head right about now?

By focusing on the process of swimming and getting your mind in the right place to practice gentle movements you’ll find yourself more energized as you learn to swim better.

Through this regular practice you’ll not only become a better and faster freestyle swimmer, but you’ll also begin looking forward to the pool as the best part of your training day.

 

Who Should Take  Swim Lessons from Steel City Endurance?

Triathletes of all levels

From learn to swim and complete your first triathlon, to crossing the finish line to qualify for Kona, both beginner AND elite triathletes can make improvements to their swim.  For the elite athlete, the basic laws of hydrodynamics can get challenging to manage as your speed and skills improve. It seems counter-intutiive, but to maintain progress and get faster at swimming, you need an experienced eye to help show you what you can’t feel or see on your own.

Adult Learn-to-swimmers

Steel City Endurance has a very non-intimidating approach that will ease you ito the water at your own learning speed, helping you gain confidence for your next trip to the beach or snorkeling vacation you’ve always dreamed of.  Improving your relationship with the water helps you be more confident AND safer around any water activity.

Masters Swimmers & Swim for Health

You’ll find yourself passing your old lanemates wondering what you’ve done differently and looking to YOU for instruction once you learn the fundamental mistakes that are holding you back.   If you’ve got joint arthritis or need to swim for your cardiovascular health, being able to swim easily and without stressing your neck, shoulders and back is vital for you to continue a healthy lifestyle with swimming.

Sign up the Lessons or Clinics that are Right for You

suzSwimUWPrivate Lessons

Sign up for one on one or small group lessons.  A minimum of three one-hour, or six half-hour lessons are recommended to allow you to completely transform your stroke for beginner, intermediate and fearful swimmers.

Included is video evaluation above and below water, with expert stroke analysis.  Technique development tailored to your current level of ability, clear instructions on how to structure your practice before your next less. Lessons are 55 minutes long.

Bring a Buddy

Sign up with a swimming buddy to improve your ability to practice proper swimming between lessons and on your own.  Learn what to look for in your parters form so you and your buddy can self-critique when swimming without an instructor.  Minimum lesson length is 1 hour.

Swimming Lessons for a Fast & Efficient Stroke

Lessons with Coach Suzanne Atkinson

Private (1) Buddy (2)
Single Lesson (55min) $85/$75  Add $30/$25 per person
Three Lesson Package $225/$210 (savings $30) Add $75/$65 per person (save $45)

Discounted prices apply to current members of any USA Triathlon Club:   $10 discount on all swimming lessons, $15 discount on packages of 3.

 

Stop Working Out in order to Build Confidence in Racing

Stop Working Out and Practice Instead

4 male triathletes running and diving into the ocean

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

 

Is Training by Heart Rate Better than Training by Effort?

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

Henry Ford Quote - Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently

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 heart 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

Chris McCormack - Triathlete running up stadium steps

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.

Finding your Blind Spots – Improving your Triathlon in the Offseason

Finding your Blind Spots – Improving your Triathlon in the Offseason

IMG_6786Last 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?