Photo courtesy of Ian Matteson, Analog Strikes Back

Ed. Note: January has almost closed, which means that races such as Oceanside 70.3 are little over two months away already. For those of you whose aspirations sit a little later in the season, it's still base training season, and we follow up last week's excellent piece on FatMax training with your editor's deeply subjective approach to the early season: consistency, frequency, and fun.

Hey! You survived your offseason. Nice work. Haven’t taken your off-season yet? Go back and read the first part of this series: Why you Need an Offseason (Even a Short One!). Once you’ve hit the goals of that slice of your training year (rest, enthusiasm, acute training load almost to zero) it’s time to turn your attention to the first part of the year, which I call Foundation Training. One issue with teaching in general, and endurance training specifically, is that few standards in vocabulary exist throughout the particular subculture. What I call “foundation” someone else might call “base.” What I call “base” someone else may call “early season.” The issue truly gets thorny once we begin discussing training intensity (I’m looking at you “tempo,” you chameleon), but as with any issue of nomenclature, the goal of any piece of writing that aims to educate and edify is to move past the labels and provide understandable frameworks so we all can move forward productively. It matters little that I call something foundation that someone else calls base—we both can probably agree that this type of training returns a resting athlete to motion safely, setting him or her up for a productive remainder of the season.

Photo courtesy of Ian Matteson, Analog Strikes Back

OK, credibility lift out of the way, what does a season look like, anyway? Well, I like simplicity, and I think a season consists of at most two macrocycles that each include most of the following phases (the second yearly macrocycle most likely omits the phase we’re going to talk about today). Those phases are:

  1. Foundation—checking and preparing the engine
  2. Base Training—building the engine
  3. Pre-competition—sharpening the engine
  4. Competition—maintaining and improving the engine's economy
  5. Transition—mid-season break or offseason

Depending on your particular level and your goals, the competition phase may be short or quite long, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Today we’re going to talk about part one, the Foundation Period. Some coaches may include this period in their Base Training. That’s fine, and I can understand why they would do that. I separate them because the Foundation Period carries with it more flexibility than the Base Training, allowing athletes to train as they feel on a given day, provided they hit their weekly targets in terms of number of workouts and volume of training. It is a more unstructured period that allows the athlete to discover his or her ideal, repeatable, and sustainable weekly structure of training, something that will become crucial in the heavier Base Training period.

Frequency, Consistency, Fun

When you’re starting back up (or starting out for the first time) your primary goal is frequency—that is, the number of times you can engage each discipline over the course of your training microcycle. For some people this is the seven-day week, but for others it may be as short as four days and as many as ten. Let’s stick with a seven-day week for simplicity, and you can extrapolate in either direction, depending on your needs. I think 11 sessions per week is a good number for the vast majority of athletes, broken down as follows:

  • Three sessions of your strongest discipline
  • Three sessions of your second strongest discipline
  • Four sessions of your weakest discipline (for 90% of triathletes, this is the swim)
  • One strength and mobility session (two is better, but we can hit that in the base period, when you're making more time for your training)

OK, now the question that’s already on your mind: how long should each session be? Here’s the trick about the foundation period: as long as its longer than 20 minutes, it doesn’t matter. Remember, the first goal here is frequency, which we’ve already established. The second goal is consistency, and to achieve that goal, the workouts must excite and engage you, rather than daunt you. Since an athlete’s weakest discipline is most likely the swim, here’s how you decide how long those are: as long as you can swim while still enjoying yourself (and making it over the 20-minute time boundary). So if that means four 20-minute swims during this period, I’ll take it, as long as the athlete is enjoying him or herself in the water. If that’s too much time in the pool, it may be time to consider duathlon, or…checkers. For me, the run has always been my weakest sport, so here is what my foundation week looks like:

  • Bike (or skate ski): three one-and-a-half to two-hour sessions
  • Swim: three one hour swims, totally around 10k per week
  • Run: four runs: one 30-minute, one 45-minute, one 25-minute, and one 60-minute
  • Strength (another weakness): one 45-minute session, outlined at the bottom of this article

What if your enthusiasm is through the roof, and you want to do four-hour rides and 15-mile runs right off the bat? Remember, again, that our second goal is consistency, both now and later in the year, and starting off aggressively only leads to burnout later. Here are some limits I would impose upon my more gung-ho athletes.

  • Bike: no longer than 90 minutes on the weekdays, and up to three hours of easy riding on the weekend (but only one of those)
  • Run: no longer than 45 minutes on the weekdays, and up to 90 minutes on the weekend (but only one of those)
  • Swim: no longer than 60 minutes, with a possible exception of up to 90 minutes if I’ve got a real swimmer on my hands

Finally, our third goal is fun, and to most athletes this means their weekly dose of intensity. Intensity is enjoyable, because most people are drawn to this sport in order to go fast and to feel fast. Intensity also feels hard (well, it is hard), and many athletes correlate that feeling with improvement and with the endorphins that hard exercise releases into our bodies and brains. The problem with intensity is that it is tiring, and we want to be careful with anything that makes us fast in February but jaded in June. What’s the upper limit on intensity during this period, and just what constitutes intensity? This is a far more nuanced topic than I can get through here, but the whole point of an article such as this one is to avoid complexity, so here goes. First of all, how intense? There are many ways to calculate intensity, but many studies show again and again that an athlete’s own rating of “hard” correlates closes to his or her second lactate threshold. If you’re a numbers person, “hard” usually shows up at seven out of ten on the standard rating of perceived exertion scale (RPE) or 15 and higher on the more useable 6-20 Borg scale of perceived exertion. For each sport, limit yourself to no more than ten minutes per seven-day microcycle at or above 7/10 or 15/20.

How Long and What Order?

I would suggest 30 days of this style of training, which is enough to ease you back into the sport, give you a chance to reconnect with your training partners (which is probably the most important part of this period), and touch some of those higher intensity windows. At the end of those thirty days, you’ll be able to look at your training log, and you’ll be surprised at how much training time you’ve racked up, with ideally little logistical effort or stress. In terms of when the workouts fall during the week? I don’t really care. As long as you’re hitting the number of workouts required, you can put them in whenever they work. At the end of thirty days, look at your log for patterns—this is most likely your regular sustainable training calendar, arrived at organically based off of your schedule—not an arbitrary decision imposed upon you by your coach. For me, here’s what my sustainable foundation week looks like:

  • Monday: strength, 30-40’ run (Mondays are usually my second-busiest day of the week, and this is about all I can get in)
  • Tuesday: 60’ swim, 90’ ride
  • Wednesday: 45-60’ run, 60’ ride
  • Thursday: 60 minute swim, 90’ ride
  • Friday: 60-90’ swim (Fridays are my busiest day of the week, spent all day on the phone talking with athletes, and all that is possible is an early morning swim)
  • Saturday: 90-180’ ride or skate ski, 25’ run
  • Sunday: 60-90’ run, 60’ recovery spin

Once you’ve settled into your schedule over the course of a month, you and your coach can simply begin to turn the dials of duration and intensity as the year progresses and your fitness builds, all while sticking to the skeleton you’ve established here in the foundation period. The goal is to make training habitual and easy to begin (if you start a workout, you’re likely to finish it), and routine goes most of the way to achieving that goal.

Keep the Strength Simple

I’m not a strength coach, but I’ve had the privilege of working with many great physical therapists and conditioning coaches over the years. Strength work in the foundation period focuses on improving durability of connective tissue and waking up dormant or unused muscle fibers. Coordination is key, as movement quality in your strength sessions will make for improved movement quality in your swimming, cycling, and running. Every session you do should have a warmup, some lower leg pushing actions, some lower leg and upper body pulling actions, and some work designed to improve your core’s ability to limit rotation during action. Here is a sample session, below, with links to videos where pertinent and explanations.