High-Intensity Triathlon Training Without Overexertion

With the amount of triathlon information that has mushroomed in recent years, it can be daunting if you’re just starting out to determine the right mix of training for your circumstances, goals and training history—or lack thereof.

How often should I train? How do I balance my training across the three sports? These are common questions to which there are many different answers, but one of the more controversial questions has always been: How hard should I train?

Here are a few basic principles you can apply to your training to ensure that you can incorporate regular high-intensity workouts into your training while avoiding the performance plateaus that come from training too hard.

First let’s define what we mean by hard training. There are many ways of interpreting training as being hard or intense; your aerobic effort is only one of these. You can train hard in a different system than your aerobic system in most of your training sessions without risking the high recovery demands of long-term aerobic overload.

A great example of an all-out training session that is not aerobically demanding is the cycling session mentioned in last month’s article. A set of maximum-resistance, short efforts on a spin bike or turbo trainer is an all-out effort when performed correctly, which means completing each interval at 100 percent muscular effort against a resistance so high that you cannot generate a cadence higher than 45 rpm (give or take 5 rpm). Make sure you are thoroughly warmed up, have built up to this workout, are positioned correctly and have no nagging knee injuries.

In this session, the demanding effort is short enough (less than one minute) and the recovery long enough (at least equal to your work effort) that your accumulated aerobic fatigue by the end of the workout is very small. Also, the muscular fatigue you generate during the session means that by the end of the training session your legs will be too tired to push your aerobic system into an unhealthy training level.

Similarly, if you’re at the end of what you consider a long training ride, your perceived exertion might feel hard even though your heart rate might be quite low. Assuming you have fueled and paced yourself correctly, at this stage in a ride you can safely push yourself to a higher level and even an all-out effort without risking much aerobic overload. Because of the accumulated muscular and aerobic fatigue from the long effort, your body is simply too tired to push you to potentially limiting levels of exertion.

Note that in both of these examples you don’t need to monitor your heart rate. The resistance in the first session is the cap on your ability to drive yourself to too-high levels of exertion. In the endurance session, your overall accumulated fatigue limits your ability to train at potentially damaging levels of exertion.

In fact, viewing your effort from the perspective of training zones is not only irrelevant but detrimental in terms of making the most effective use of your training time. Normal fluctuating levels of fatigue in your daily life will challenge your perception of effort at times, but as long as you are putting in the correct efforts in these sessions, using resistance or duration to induce fatigue, you have ensured that you won’t overexert.

Likewise, your specific level of ability doesn’t matter. Both of these sessions are suitable for athletes of all ability levels once you have eased into a training schedule and developed the skills and strength needed to tolerate higher resistance and maintain your form under increasing levels of fatigue and thus avoid injury.

The above examples apply to efforts that do not qualify as being aerobically intense. Let’s take it a step further: What do you do if you want to train intensely without adding volume or increasing resistance? How do you ensure against going too hard for too long and avoid the recovery demands of overdoing it? For example, the above questions might apply to a weekly cycling time trial or race-pace effort on the run.

The key to avoiding overexertion while still benefiting from higher training intensities is the same as in the examples above: Build some pre-emptive fatigue into your workout and cap the duration of the intense effort.

There are many ways to do this. First, keep in mind that your effort is a training effort and your goal is not to set a new best time. Your goal is to achieve race levels of exertion. If you’re planning on doing a cycling time trial in the evening, schedule the session the day after a longer endurance-oriented effort. Your legs should still be somewhat tired, so you have limited your ability to drive yourself deep into the red zone.

Also make sure you are thoroughly warmed up by including at least 30 minutes of warm-up time before your time trial effort. A thorough warm-up includes some short efforts to spike your heart rate to the main session exertion level without prolonging your exposure. In other words, there is no aerobic load from the warm-up efforts. You are simply bringing your high-end systems online and slightly fatiguing yourself before the all-out time trial effort.

Remember always to keep your race-pace efforts shorter than race distance. If you’re training for an Olympic-distance triathlon, keep your time-trial training effort to 20 to 30 minutes, or 20K. By avoiding race effort over race distance, you ensure that you never need race-level recovery time during training.

The traditional negative split is another way for you to safely integrate high-intensity efforts into your training. For example, you can include a weekly run session that progresses in three or four stages from an easy warm-up effort to a full-blown 10K race-pace effort.

As your resilience improves you can increase the length of each stage from five minutes to as long as 20 minutes. With up to 40 minutes of running in your legs by the time you reach your 10K effort, your body will be too tired to push 10K intensity for that distance.

The result is that while you expose your body to race levels of exertion, you protect yourself from race levels of fatigue and recovery needs by structuring your training session so that you cannot push that hard for that long. Your muscular fatigue protects you from aerobic overexertion without needing a heart rate monitor to compromise training effort.

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