How to train for triathlon is a pretty broad topic, but what I want to focus on in this article is training at the right intensity mix. As a triathlon coach, I often encounter athletes who get the intensity mix wrong and end up going backwards or not progressing as they would expect. They often wonder why they are putting in so much effort – giving their heart and soul to training – yet they don’t go faster. The key to going faster is to train slower.
In the early 2000s, a leading exercise physiologist, Stephen Seiler, made an important discovery. Through rigorous analysis of the training methods used by elite athletes, he found that world-class triathletes do approximately 80% of their training at low intensity and the rest at moderate and high intensity. He also found that this wasn’t always the case – Seiler found from historical records that, through a process of trial and error elite coaches and athletes eventually settled on this ‘80/20 rule’ – and triathletes were faster. But why do you need to do such a high proportion of training at low intensity? I can’t go into the science deeply here, but low intensity training allows physiological adaptations such as elevated aerobic capacity and fat burning ability, and allows the body to recover from high intensity work and be ready for the next high intensity workout. Training at less than 80% low intensity simply doesn’t allow you to recover and perform at your best in the hard intervals.
Despite this research, the typical age-group triathlete does less than 70% of his or her training at low intensity (80/20 Triathlon by Matt Fitzgerald). The author of 80/20 Triathlon, Matt Fitzgerald puts this down to a number of possible reasons, one being intensity blindness – many athletes simply don’t know what low intensity means. Thankfully Fitzgerald and many other coaches provide objective measures for this. Fitzgerald talks about intensity in terms of ‘zones’. The zones themselves are based on speed, heart rate, or power and are calculated from field testing. Zones 1 and 2 are low intensity and everything else is moderate to high intensity. Fitzgerald also goes further and describes how moderate intensity zones should be avoided (because they are neither hard enough for strength/speed development, nor easy enough for recovery/endurance development), but I won’t go into it in depth here.
Even when an athlete knows the intensity zones, other factors can still get in the way of them following the 80/20 rule. For example, time and time again I see triathletes prescribed a long low intensity ride, only to find they get caught up in group ride dynamics and go harder than they should. Many athletes find training at low intensity boring – it’s not sexy and it won’t break any Strava records!
So my advice if you want to go progress as a triathlete, is to find a training plan or coach that follows the 80/20 intensity rule, get to know your zones, and have the discipline to follow the process.
Stuart Harsley – Pushys sponsored athlete
Ironman Certified Coach
Triathlon Australia Certified Coach