Part one of this series gave you a lot of tools to begin to think about planning your training program.
If you haven’t read it, click on the link above and you can catch up. It’ll open in a new window and when you’re done you can come right back here for Part 2. Since Part 1 has helped you determine (among other things):
- when you should start training
- how much training to begin with
- how to progress your training volume
- when you should begin speed work
- when and how to rest
In order to help you to be your own coach, I want to cover more of the basic principles of training and more of the nuts and bolts of actually writing the day to day schedule.
Sketching out the Broad Strokes
When I write a program I will first set the general framework of the entire month. I like to write a goal down for each week to remind me of what the focus should be. Then I transpose the client’s weekly responsibilities onto the plan — like when they have to coach their daughter’s soccer game, any days they might be out of town and unable to workout, or days when they have that late meeting at work. This allows me to then rough in the type of workout for each day. Here’s an example of this for a cycling client of mine: This isn’t the time to determine the length of each workout — don’t worry about that right now. Just focus on working around work and family conflicts and get your key workouts down on certain days. I will do this for an entire month-long program — I take into account where I want this athlete to be at the end of the month — I determine the focus for the month.
Then I write the goals which are my focus for each week. This makes it much easier to structure individual days. It can be over-whelming to think about filling in an entire month all at once, but by breaking it down step by step the program begins to write itself.
Starting from scratch – when you’re doing 0-2 workouts a week
When you’re just beginning, whether you’re starting from absolute zero or not, determining how much to do is much the same thing as determine what to do. Meaning that since you’re just starting out, you’re not likely to begin any complex interval work or have to plan any intricate recovery, and the workouts tend to be brief and simple so schedule writing is fairly simple.
The first few weeks of any program is about physical accommodation….getting your body used to your chosen activity (be it running, biking or swimming), but more importantly it’s about scheduling accommodation — setting your routine or habit of exercise.
Most athletes fail because they don’t set a realistic goal of accommodation for their schedule. Most of us are time-strapped individuals in our daily life as it is, and trying to throw in five or six workouts a week on top of that is a recipe for disaster. We’re taught to expect a lot from ourselves so I understand the impetus to dive headlong into a full training schedule, but research even shows that you’ll have more success by beginning with simpler expectations — just try for two or three workouts if you are starting from zero. If you’re already doing three workouts a week, don’t shoot for six, aim for adding just one, and then adding another 2 weeks later.
With a running-only program, often you won’t be jumping right into 5 or 6 days per week running, and certainly not any speed work. Between two and four runs of a duration that’s easy on your body depending on fitness (anywhere from 20 – 45 minutes long) is all you need to worry about.
A bike-centric schedule initially could be somewhat similar….two to four rides of moderate duration (most riders who are nearly beginners will still be able to tolerate 40 to 75 minutes) in each of the first 2-4 weeks is likely all you’l need to get started.
Triathlon is at once more complex and simpler. More complex because because now there are three sports to contend with. Simpler because you still only have as much time as you have and we still have to apply the concept of scheduling accommodation and start simply. With tris it can be a bit of a crapshoot on where to start. You could focus on the sport that requires the most physical accommodation — running — or perhaps the one you need to improve upon the most. This focus on a weakness is part of how we cycle out training, or spending periods of time to work on a particular element of our fitness, which we’ll delve into more in just a bit.
One month in – when you’re already doing 3 or 4 workouts a week
If you have a little fitness under your belt then you can get a bit more creative with your planning and begin to make some larger effects on your fitness. Since at this point you’ve already made your training a habit by working it in progressively to your week, we can scale the workouts you’re already doing to work on efficiency and/or endurance.
In run-only training it’s in your best interest to begin slowly with longer and faster workouts. I like to have clients begin with gentle intervals and progress to some threshold level efforts. I have a complete breakdown of how to progressively add speed into your regimen here. It’ll give a you a step-by-step progression over the course of a four week period on adding intervals to your training diet. A typical training week in this second month of training might look something like: Monday – off, light stretching or yoga
Tuesday – easy 30-40 minute run, no intensity, just keep you effort relaxed and even
Wednesday – off
Thursday – 40 minute Fartlek run with 2-minute efforts at 80% max heart rate, followed by 3-minute rests, repeat for 4 cycles; include a 10-minute warmup and warmdown to bookend the run
Friday – off
Saturday – 55-65 minute long run, all easy pace; keep your effort relaxed, no intensity
Sunday – 40 minute easy run; in the middle of the run include 3-5 repeats of Strides just to get your legs turning over
The focus in this sample week is to maintain workout frequency (4 times per week) and begin to add a little distance and a little speed — Fartleks and Striders should be very relaxed speed efforts which is why I use them in beginning speed work, but this sample week for some may be too advanced and should be done more toward the end of the second month. That’s why I encourage you to look at the entire progression I have in my previous article.
Most importantly is the use of rest and recovery. I began the week with a day off — this is just personal preference since I find a lot of clients have hectic Mondays as they get back into the work week — and staggered workouts between days off. You can think of this as the Hard-Easy approach, and it’s probably the simplest way to schedule your training. Have a workout one day, and then back off the next. In the future, as your fitness improves, an “off” day may still include a workout, just an easier one which is called active recovery, but for now we can stick to days off.
For bike-only training, adding in more intensity sooner is much easier because there is significantly less impact on our body when we run versus when we bike. The plan could be fairly simple like: Monday – Off
Tuesday – 60-90 minute ride all easy relaxed pace, no intensity
Wednesday – off
Thursday – 60-75 minutes, after a 15-minute warmup then do Threshold Intervals, 3 repeats of 6-minutes each with 5-minute rest between each; warmdown 15 minutes
Friday – OFF
Saturday – 90-120 minutes total, no intensity, all easy relaxed pace
Sunday – 60-75 minutes total, after 15 minutes of warmup, then do Threshold Intervals 5-minutes long each, do 2 of them with a 5-minute rest between them. Rest of the ride should be relaxed and easy.
When you click on the explanatory link for Threshold Intervals above, though, you’ll notice that there’s an entire progression there for speed work on the bike. We could keep it simple as above, but on the bike we have a particular opportunity to kick our Central Nervous System (CNS) into over-drive which can accelerate our fitness like a Formula1 car going 0-60.
By making use of some powerful intervals called Muscle Endurance we can jumpstart our training on the bike. You can read more about them here, in my previous article about interval progressions on the bike, but the short version is that they are like weight-lifting on the bike and they get the CNS to recruit more muscle fibers to work. You might be surprised to know that we don’t use our entire muscle when we pedal (or run) at most efforts, so if we can convince the body to use more of the muscle then there is the potential for a much higher power output.
Muscle Endurance intervals look very much like Threshold intervals in duration and rest cycles, and when using a power meter we tend to be fairly close in power output for each — Muscle Endurance will often be right around Threshold power but it can also be as much as 10% higher. The main difference is the cadence — Muscle Endurance are done at only 50-60 rpms and the force on the pedal is very high — again think weight-lifting. By using these intervals once a week we could easily get a big boost in power and set ourselves up to make better use of intervals later in the program. These shouldn’t be taken lightly, though. Make sure you have a good bike fit and just test them out to see how your body tolerates them. Because of the high torque characteristics of these intervals they can put extra stress on joints.
There are always so many choices in triathlon that picking the right one can be overwhelming and the second month of training is no different. As I mentioned in my previous article, making your weaknesses a focus is always a safe bet, so if you need to be more powerful on the bike then you might lean on more intervals on the bike.
Short course triathlons (anything Olympic distance or shorter) don’t require a huge time commitment to finish — you can get there by doing 4-6 workouts a week. If you did one swim, two bike, and two run workouts a week, you could get by.
To really race these shorter distances or to move up in distance it requires more time — anywhere from 6-12 workouts a week. Many 70.3 or 140.6 athletes will do two workouts most days. To work up to that point, of course we need to make progress with our scheduling accommodation since most people won’t be able to magically find time for nearly a dozen workouts a week starting from zero.
Many new triathletes will start with 3-6 workouts a week in order to just finish short course races and over 6 months or a year build up their training repertoire so that they can tolerate 8-10 workouts a week to begin racing faster and moving up in distance. As a new triathlete it will still be in your best interest to include some faster workouts even in the second month of training. Because running speed work is tougher to recover from, those workouts will be kept low key, but significant progress can be made on the bike. A sample week from the second month might look like: Monday – OFF
Tuesday – Bike ride for 65-85 minutes with Threshold Intervals 3 repeats of 6-minutes each with 5-minute rest between each, in the middle of the ride. After the bike, transition to running shoes and jog for 8-10 minutes
Wednesday – Swim, easy 1000-1500 meters, mostly working on form
Thursday – Run 45 minutes total with 3-4 Strides in the middle of the run
Friday – OFF
Saturday – Run 50-60 minutes total, no intensity, stay relaxed and run easy
Sunday – Bike Ride 100-150 minutes total, no intensity, keep the pace slow and relaxed. After the ride do another transition run of 10-15 minutes.
Notice that this involves 5 workouts for the week, but I’ve used a shortcut to help you get even more done without a huge outlay of time. On both of the cycling days I’ve included a very short run at the end. Making use of this very short bike-run workout is key since getting familiar with running off the bike is critical, but this short run isn’t long enough to require extra recovery. It is long enough to get you past the awkward phase of the bike to run transition, since it’s the first 15 minutes where your running form feels forced, and practicing this over and over again makes you better and getting your run legs under you more quickly.
Another thing you may notice was the lack of definition in the swim day in the program above. This is a personal belief of mine about swimming, that unless someone is an experienced swimmer and they are already very efficient in the water I generally won’t prescribe swimming intervals. Swimming is so technique intensive that when you’re form is poor, all swimming intervals will do is ingrain your poor form habits into your stroke. Form work and focusing on being relaxed in the water is critical until you can move through the water efficiently. But this is an article for another day.
Just like the bike-only and run-only programs, the Hard-Easy protocol is followed. Triathlon training is even more difficult to recover well from since there are three sports to continually improve at, it can be tempting to over do it and sacrifice proper rest. Making sure to use some form of Hard-Easy training is necessary. One key is to strategically use the swim days as a break for the legs from running and biking. This way we can still get something done (i.e. getting better at the swim leg) while letting the legs get a little rest.
This should give you a head start at writing the first two months of any program. You can use the same simple calender template I use for my athletes just by Clicking Here. To learn more about this Template, check out a brief article I wrote that goes over the features and layout of this simple, powerful device.
He lives with his wife and two kids and runs multiple businesses in Grand Junction, Colorado.