Ed. Note—it's that time of year when athletes sketch out all of the races they could possibly attend over the next twelve months, dreaming of results and new PRs. Unfortunately, that list sometimes doesn't get pared down from the initial brainstorm, resulting in burnout, injury, or worse. Jesse Kropelnicki, head coach at QT2 Systems, checks in with his monthly article for us, this time defining race gluttony and how to plan a better year.
by Jesse Kropelnicki
Another triathlon season approaches! Throughout most of the country winter has, hopefully, almost passed us by, and you are turning your attention toward another year of training and racing. In doing so, an effective season and multi-season plan can be your most important consideration for a successful 2018 and beyond. Rather than focusing your primary attention on specific workouts, and other micro-level details, place proper attention on the management and application of longer-term training stress.
For the typical age-group athlete, who doesn’t have to worry about Olympic qualification or the Kona Points Ranking standings, the ability to focus primary attention on long-term progress eliminates many of the complicating factors that professional athletes face — factors that often completely undermine the consistency of their race results. The age-grouper is afforded the luxury of formulating a season and multi-season plan that can focus predominately on long-term progress and consistency, over everything else. The essential ingredients required in this process? Patience and consistency!
So how does the typical age-grouper—beginner or advanced—go about planning a season and the next several seasons, achieving long-term progress and ultimate success in the sport?
Assess Your Limiters
All athletes have limiters, aspects of sport upon which they could improve—the key is to identify and prioritize them. Limiters, whatever they may be, can best be thought of as dials. As limiters are identified and effectively addressed, we’re turning these dials and increasing the athlete’s speed potential. When I meet an athlete for the first time, I immediately begin assessing their limiters. The more dials that I have available, the happier I am, because each dial in conjunction with its magnitude represents more and more future speed potential. As a coach, one of my primary functions is in developing my expertise in finding these dials, and then knowing how and when to turn them.
I encourage all athletes and coaches to sit down before the start of a season and run through each of the five areas of race success (training, nutrition/restoration, fueling, pacing, and mental fitness), to identify limiters and to formulate a plan for each. Actually, write them down, four or five primary limiters for each. This exercise can be eye-opening in that it starts the season by focusing on the major areas from which speed could be best elicited. Be creative! Consider a multi-year perspective to address the more difficult limiters, applying focus to one this year and another next year, with some major outcome-related goal three to four years down the road, such as qualifying for a World Championship or dramatically PR-ing the race distance you find most daunting. The key to long-term progress is to identify and compensate for your limiters; sometimes, however, this approach requires sacrificing Year One for larger success in Year Two. Be patient.
Once you’ve written down your limiters, your next task is to figure out how to compensate for them—how to turn the dials. One other note is that some of the dials need to be timed properly. Body composition is a good example: Arriving at optimal body composition six weeks prior to race day would be detrimental to progress. The dial got turned, but much too early!
Four Essentials for Planning
Here are four critical and common areas for athletes—of all levels—to consider in developing a single- or multi-season plan.
The budgeting of stress is one of the most important concepts in the overall success of any triathlete. Often overlooked by many self-coached athletes, determining acceptable stress is part and parcel to surviving and benefiting from the training of a triathlon season. The following may sound a little bit like basic financial accounting, but in many ways it is. I encourage athletes to approach their workouts, season, and career planning with a total stress budget in mind, consistently expanding the amount of acceptable or “good” stress that they are able to absorb without breaking the bank. As you approach the 2018 season, eager to succeed and take on additional stress by any means necessary, I urge you to take a step back and consider where you fall within your stress budget. Your goal is to keep and maintain a balanced budget, while always pushing on that outer wall, trying to maximize your amount of acceptable stress. While the proper type of stress properly applied typically improves performance, stress outside of the budget hampers progress. Remember, though, that all stress counts, including work/family stress as well as training stress! A well-developed season plan should utilize your maximized acceptable stress budget, and best fill it with good training stress. The following season should expand upon that where logistically possible.
Given the choice between a sprint triathlon and a long-distance event, would you pick the latter any day of the week? Essentially, are you an aerobic- or anaerobic-oriented athlete? If you believe you are an anaerobic athlete, you will benefit most from more aerobic-based training. Sorry, but remember that it’s not about what we want to do. It’s about identifying and turning the appropriate dials. If the idea of an aerobic six-hour ride sounds like a nice way to spend a Saturday, then you are most likely an aerobically natured athlete, who can most benefit from a little heavy breathing!
This is the typical “train to your weaknesses, race to your strengths” approach. The key to long-term progress is in identifying and compensating for these weaknesses. Once you have identified yourself as either aerobic or anaerobic, in nature, you have identified one very big dial, which may be the source of a great deal of potential progress. From a multi-year perspective, if one year has an aerobic focus, it doesn’t mean all that is done is aerobic work. The periodization at this level can be non-linear in nature, meaning no type of training is totally excluded at any point in the season. One approach would be to include more aerobic and strength work in year one versus year two, and more sport-specific strength in year two versus year three.
What’s On The Docket?
Every season plan should include a well-developed race schedule. Races should be scheduled such that they are an appropriate test of an athlete’s fitness AND within the scope of the athlete’s durability on race day. Inherent in this discussion is the age-old question, “How long should I wait, following this race, to do that race?” The answer to this question is dependent upon the athlete’s specific durability, and her ability to recover from the first race. Athletes often hope to hear the standard “four weeks between this and that” answer. Sadly it’s not quite that simple. I have met plenty of newer athletes, with weekly volumes in the six- to 10-hour range, who can race up to three half-distance races, and a few shorter sprints, before they start to suffer some nagging injuries. At the same time, there are countless athletes who train 20 to 25 hours each week, and have done so for several years now, who can race several half-distance races and a couple of full-distance events without any evidence of physical issues. What gives? Durability! Durability developed from training volume and years of experience.
Too many races, too close together, without enough durability interrupts the recovery cycle and therefore undermines long-term progress. This also increases the chance of injury, setting you up for disappointing race performances. Race gluttony: One of triathlon’s deadly sins. One bad race leads to another. That’s two bad races; one to make up for the other! And so it goes, a vicious cycle that eventually leads to injury and/or burnout. At the full distance this can be devastating to an athlete’s career. In a game where training consistency is king, anything that hinders it at a macro-level can be a real game changer for the negative. It is not uncommon for this race gluttony to catch up with athletes a year or two removed from the transgressions. Unfortunately, by then, the issue is typically attributed to some more immediate and transparent cause or inexplicable bad luck.
Get Your Swimsuit Ready!
Body composition is an integral part of a season plan, or multi-year training plan. Many athletes attempt to remain too lean throughout their season, creating added stress, and potentially breaking the stress budget discussed above. It is essential that athletes dovetail their nutrition/body composition with their training. Training and nutritional periodization should work in tandem with one another. Just as you would not want to reach peak fitness six weeks before a key race, the same is true of body composition. Despite this, many athletes rush toward race weight, only to find themselves battling illness and/or injury. Gaining body fat at the end of a season is a good thing, especially when an athlete spent much of the season in a very lean state. This allows a full recovery of the joints, hormonal and immune systems, and also adds a bit of training load as you start back up for the following season.
From a multi-year perspective, many overweight athletes attempt to lose 15 to 20 pounds within a couple of months, for a key race. Although this may be possible, it is not necessarily the best approach to race speed, as drastic diets can often result in additional stress, compromised immunity and loss of strength. Instead, lay out a multi-year plan where the first year is spent shedding 10 pounds, and then allowing a gain of three or four pounds, during the offseason. Then, in the second year, focus on losing another 10 pounds the following year, so on and so forth until appropriate body composition goals are met. This ensures that the athlete remains strong throughout his or her preparations for the big day each season, and is more sustainable over the long-term.
Whether you are a newbie or a seasoned veteran, your ability to methodically lay out your season and four-year plan alike will ultimately lead to improved long-term progress. All larger vision plans take patience to be executed properly, but the rewards are unmatched. As one once said: “A handful of patience is worth more than a bushel of brains.” In this case you will need both, but patience in the sport of triathlon is a virtue that few attain. Those who have are typically perennial World Championship qualifiers.