Improve Your Base Fitness

To swim, bike and run faster and for longer, you must work on your advanced fitness, but you neglect the basics at your peril


Posted: 19 November 2009
by Steve Lumley

When you reach a certain level of fitness, you may begin to focus on advanced fitness. You may even convince yourself that what is hindering your improvement is an aspect of this advanced fitness. This is a mistake.

Base fitness is the minimum level you must reach to perform well at any distance of triathlon. Improving base fitness is essential if you want to improve your performance. Every athlete must return to base training every year, regardless of his or her experience or ability, and keep it topped up throughout the year.

Base fitness first

Triathletes often don't realise that the advanced fitness components are dependent on base fitness. Strength endurance depends on strength and endurance; anaerobic endurance is dependent on endurance and efficiency, while power depends on a combination of strength and efficiency.

Advanced-fitness components can be relatively quickly developed - in weeks rather than months - whereas base fitness takes much longer to develop. Steady, consistent training at moderate levels of effort forces the body to make small adaptations that add up over time. High-level aerobic fitness comes with years, rather than months, of effort.

The specific base-training phase each year should take between 12 and 24 weeks. In triathlon this should take place in winter and spring. This 'easier' base training develops your aerobic system. If you try to train hard all year round you will compromise your aerobic development, because harder training develops your anaerobic fitness. The goal of base training is to increase the workload that you can sustain aerobically.

Endurance

Improving endurance means that your body becomes more efficient at using fat (the most energy-dense nutrient) for fuel through aerobic energy pathways. The body can never utilise fat quickly enough to provide all the energy you'll need in races, but the more fat you burn, the less of your precious carbohydrates you'll need to use.

Also, you will improve the circulatory abilities of the exercising muscles. This enables more effective delivery of blood, oxygen and fuel, and more efficient removal of waste products.

Endurance-training sessions are aerobic because they are carried out at an intensity below the point at which lactic acid accumulates in the blood, an indication that a significant contribution is being made from the anaerobic energy system. Training intensity therefore needs to be low - around 55-70 per cent of maximum heart rate, or conversational effort (if you can't easily carry on a conversation, the pace is likely to be too high).

The longer the event, the more important it becomes to improve basic endurance. This doesn't mean, however, that triathletes training for a sprint-distance triathlon can afford to neglect their basic endurance.

The long view

The typical endurance session is the long or 'over distance' workout. Tackling sessions longer than race distance, or longer than you are accustomed to, helps you physically and mentally.

One long training session in each discipline per week is plenty. If you are training for a sprint- or standard-distance triathlon, building your long training sessions to twice the race distance is the best approach. If you are preparing for a half-Ironman distance race, aim towards 1.5 times the race distance. More than this and the risk of injury and excessive tiredness far outweigh the small gains available, particularly in running.

Take your time

It's better to have time goals than distance goals for these sessions, to avoid the temptation to race throughout the workout. Build the volume of these sessions steadily throughout the winter and spring.
A good general rule is to progress in increments of no more than 10 per cent each week.

For those targeting a sprint triathlon, your long bike should be built up to between 80 minutes and two hours; for standard distance, two and a half to three hours; and for half-Ironman, from four to five hours. The pace for these rides should feel comfortable, at least to start with. In any ride over 90 minutes or so, you will need to refuel, so take carbohydrate snacks and/or drinks with you.

You should also consider regularly adding a short endurance run off these longer bike sessions to develop the ability to move from biking to running. These do not need to be fast, but should focus on maintaining a relatively high cadence with a low effort - 15-30 minutes for all distances is sufficient.

Build up slowly

Sprint-distance triathletes should aim to make their long run last between 50 and 70 minutes. For a standard-distance event, aim for around 90 minutes, and those training for a half-Ironman should aim for two and a quarter hours. Have an easy recovery week every three or four weeks.

Generally, the most suitable training mode for basic endurance training is continuous, steady exercise lasting at least 30 minutes. The exception to this is usually swimming, in which endurance sessions can be broken down into shorter swims with recovery intervals. A little recovery can also help to maintain good stroke mechanics during longer swim sets.

One aerobic-endurance swim set you can introduce when training for a sprint-distance tri is 1000m (or 1200m, as you improve) broken into shorter swims with rest intervals, but with a short recovery (10 to 15 seconds of recovery per 100m).

For example:
> 10 x 100m, 15 seconds recovery
> 5 x 200m, 30 seconds recovery
> 4 x 300m, 60 seconds recovery

Those aiming to race standard distance or half-Ironman distance should follow the same guidelines in a longer set, to give a total swim distance of 2000-2500m.

For example:
> 20-25 x 100m, 15 seconds recovery
> 12-16 x 150m, 20 seconds recovery
> 8-10 x 250m, 30 seconds recovery
> 5-6 x 400m, 60 seconds recovery

Try to keep a consistent swim stroke. As you progress, reduce rest intervals before increasing pace.

Strength

In swimming, strength overcomes the resistance that the water offers to the hands and body; on the bike it involves applying force to the pedals to overcome air resistance, friction and gravity; and in running it refers to applying force to the ground.

Specific strength training involves providing a force overload using actions that closely, or exactly copy those used in the sport. Examples are swimming with hand paddles or a drag belt, over-geared riding, and riding and running hills.

Specific sessions

All or parts of the swim sessions above can be completed with hand paddles to develop specific strength. Start by alternating between paddles and no paddles and build up to completing the whole set with paddles. Paddles present a larger surface area to the water during the stroke, requiring slightly more force to be applied to the water throughout the stroke. If you are relatively new to swimming stick to smaller paddles and increase the size of paddle as your base fitness and specific strength improve.

Test yourself

A simple way to develop specific strength on the bike and run is to ride or run on hilly routes. Your effort levels will naturally rise as you climb, but aim to keep that effort relatively low and maintain the conversational pace. On the bike try to stay in the saddle as much as you can to build hip strength.

Specific strength can also be developed by over-gearing. This involves selecting a gear that forces a cadence that's lower than normal, thus requiring more force to be produced with each pedal stroke.

Over-geared work can be done as part of a long endurance workout by selecting a gear that is one or two gears harder than you would normally choose. You should be riding at a cadence of around 70rpm and on a reasonably flat course. If you are new to riding and this type of training, start with 10-15 minutes total over-geared work, broken into shorter periods with recovery intervals of easy spinning (easy riding at a comfortably high cadence).

For example:
> 2 minutes over-geared with 2-3 minutes recovery spin. Repeat five times

More experienced riders can progress to something more testing:          
> 4 minutes over-geared with 5 minutes recovery spin. Repeat eight times

If you're an experienced cyclist and are free from knee injuries, you can add more forceful over-gearing workouts after a few weeks of base training. Do these after a warm-up. This type of session involves efforts of between one and five minutes, with an equal recovery interval, on a relatively steep hill at a cadence of around 50rpm. The session can also be done on a turbo trainer with a high resistance. If you are new to this, start with three to five minutes of total over-gearing, progressing to 12-15 minutes of work over six to eight weeks, such as four minutes over-gearing, with three minutes recovery, carried out three times.

During these sessions focus on keeping the upper body still and relaxed, with a loose grip on the bars, and staying firm in the core region.

Efficiency

Improving efficiency will enable you to swim, bike or run for longer with less energy expenditure.
Practising an appropriate range of drills should improve stroke mechanics and coordination. One simple drill that can improve swim coordination and efficiency is short distances of fast but relaxed swimming incorporated into a longer session. Keep the distance to 10-12 metres, or 6-10 strokes, swimming fast, with plenty of recovery. 

For example:
> 6-10 x 50 metres with 10 metres swimming as fast as possible - try to stay relaxed. The remainder of the drill is easy swimming

On the bike, single-leg riding can help to improve pedalling efficiency. Single-leg cycling helps you to learn how to pedal in complete circles, as the other leg can't help you to overcome the dead spots in the pedal stroke. These are the places where you make the transition from pushing down on the pedals to pulling up, and from pulling up to going over the top and pushing down.

Velvet revolutions

When doing one-legged drills aim for a smooth revolution with controlled pressure throughout, then transfer this to the spinning. The suggested cadences are just that - start with a cadence that you can manage comfortably for the time set and progress from there.

You can also work on your pedalling coordination on the turbo trainer, using high-speed spinning drills - short intervals in a relatively easy gear at a higher cadence than you are used to.

The session below combines single-leg pedalling and high-speed spinning drills:

Warm-up:
>10-15 minutes progressive spin

Main set:
> 10 minutes one-legged drills as:
> 30 seconds right leg
> 30 seconds left leg
> 60 seconds both legs

Repeat this part of the session five times. The target cadence in week one is 70rpm for the single-leg drill and 90rpm for both legs, increasing by five rpm each week for five weeks. Then move on to the spin part of the session, repeating it twice or three times a session and increasing by five rpm each week for five weeks:
> 5 minutes spin at 90rpm
> 1 minute easy
> 3 minutes spin at 100rpm
> 1 minute easy
> 1 minute spin at 110rpm
> Warm-down, five minutes easy

As with swimming, there are dozens of running drills designed to isolate and improve different aspects of the running action. However, for most runners, particularly triathletes, increasing run cadence (number of steps per minute) is a relatively simple way of improving running efficiency. Try the following sessions to develop cadence and efficiency.

You can do these session outside or on a treadmill set at zero per cent gradient. You may initially find it slightly easier to maintain the higher cadences on a slight downward slope. For the main set the speed should be comfortably fast, no harder. The emphasis is on correct cadence not speed. Select the starting cadence according to your current ability - if 90 (for each leg) is quite comfortable then start there, if not, start lower.

Begin with:
> 10 minutes progressive warm-up, followed by:
> 5 x 30 seconds cadence of 90 with 30 seconds rest
> 5 x 30 seconds cadence of 95 with 30 seconds rest    
> 5 x 30 seconds cadence of 100 with 30 seconds rest
> 5 x 30 seconds cadence of 105 with 30 seconds rest
> 10 minutes continuous run at highest comfortable cadence

When you feel ready, progress to:

> 5 x 1 minute cadence of 90 with 30 seconds rest
> 5 x 1 minute cadence of 95 with 30 seconds rest
> 5 x 1 minute cadence of 100 with 30 seconds rest

It may seem counterintuitive to slow down in the short term, but the simple truth is that base training fitness must be maintained if you want to make real progress with higher intensity sessions.


Base Fitness

• Endurance: this is the ability to resist fatigue
• Strength: the ability to overcome resistance
• Efficiency: the effectiveness of your swim stroke, pedalling action or running technique

Advanced Fitness

• Strength endurance: the ability of a muscle to perform at its best time after time
• Anaerobic endurance: the ability of your muscles to perform in the absence of oxygen at an intense rate for short periods
• Power: this refers to your ability to apply force quickly (a sprint start, for example – this aspect is less important for triathletes and other endurance athletes)

Aerobic Fitness

The ability to perform activities at a medium level of intensity for a long period. Activities that raise the heart rate and keep it raised for an extended period will improve the body’s ability to take in and use oxygen.

Anaerobic Fitness

This refers to shorter bursts of high-intensity, explosive activity. With anaerobic activity, you work at such an intensity that your body cannot provide you with enough oxygen and so you need to use stored fuel (glycogen) for energy. Anerobic training improves your ability to use glycogen and to recover from such actions.


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