Train Smarter, Not Harder

Becoming a better triathlete is not about finding more time to train, it's about using the time you do have to greater effect


Posted: 18 November 2009

Monday: three-hour bike ride; 90-minutes weights; 40-minute swim. Tuesday: 60-minute swim; 90-minute run. Wednesday: two-hour bike ride; 60-minute swim. That might be the start of the training week for a professional triathlete. But they don't have a life, and you do. With three sports to juggle, as well as a full-time job and maybe a family, training for triathlon is a compromise between training you know you should do, and the training you know you can do.  But that doesn't mean you can't improve when time is limited.

Training smart

Plenty of triathletes with full-time jobs and families have gone on to achieve great things in endurance sport. James Gilfillan, for instance, is a busy town planner for Poole Council in Dorset. He was second at last year's Ironman UK 70.3 and is hoping for a top-five finish at the full Ironman this year. Or family-man Eamonn Deane, who is the reigning 24-hour Cycle Time Trial National Champion and has this to say: "In the early 1990s I wanted to win the national long-distance triathlon championships, and decided to take three months unpaid leave from work so that I could train full-time. I ended up finishing tenth. I had a terrible race, and was exhausted from beginning to end. I had overdone my training in those three months. I was in great shape before I took time off work.  If I had stayed at work for those three months and trained sensibly I could have won it."

There are plenty of busy people who do manage to train and race to their full potential. They all have one thing in common. They cut out the junk, and concentrate on quality training. To borrow a phrase from the music industry, their training is 'all killer and no filler'. Quality training means you know the reason behind every training session; you are not just training for training's sake.  

Quality training also has a plan behind it, so that the training progresses over time and includes recovery time. Junk training is where you do the same sessions week in week out with no overall plan or progression. You put in junk miles because you can fit them in, not because they are specific to your goals. They fatigue you, but have no meaningful benefit. Remember this: it is not about finding more time to train, but using the time you do have to greater effect.

Question time

To help determine whether you are making the most of your time, ask yourself these questions next time you train:
• Is this session going to improve a specific weakness?
• Is this session specific to the race I am targeting?
• Is this session going to benefit me or wear me out?
• Is this training session part of a broader plan?
• Have I progressed with this training session over the weeks?
If the answers are mostly no, then you are not making the most of the time you have. It's a good idea to think about ways to improve the quality of your training, and remind yourself that quality training is considerably more satisfying than junk mileage. Triathletes who know the reasons and rational behind each session are going to be more motivated to complete them.

Keep it personal

Time-effective training does not mean that you need to do every session at maximum intensity. It means that your training should be dependent on your strengths and weaknesses, and the type of race you are targeting. Training that doesn't fulfil these criteria should be avoided, unless you have spare time and energy.  

For example, if you are training for an Olympic-distance race you may benefit from a regular two- to three-hour steady ride at the weekends. However, three additional weekly rides of one hour at a steady pace might make you feel better, but they are probably not an effective use of time. They may just add to fatigue, waste your time and not produce any meaningful physiological benefits. You would be better served doing, for example, two back-to-back 15-minute efforts at your 25-mile time trial pace, or some other planned session that is specific to your Olympic-distance triathlon.

It is also important to acknowledge the difference between busy, and very busy.  Some triathletes barely have any time to train and just avoiding junk miles is not enough. If this sounds like you, super-effective short sessions of less than an hour are an effective way to train.

High intensity

Max Baldock, a chef and top cycle time-triallist based in Bournemouth doesn't have time for long rides but is still at the top of his game. "As a chef, I can train for less than an hour or not at all. I focus on high-intensity training sessions, often on the turbo-trainer, and race once or twice a week throughout the summer," he explains. "I am always competitive with the best cyclists in the area, some of whom ride four times my weekly mileage. By the time they come to race, many of them are tired, whereas I always feel fresh."

Time-efficient triathlon training can make you a better athlete in the longer term. It forces you to think about the importance of each session, and encourages you to scrap the junk miles. Limited training time can also reduce the likelihood of injury through over-training, giving you the consistency you need to keep improving year on year. If you are so busy that you only have a few hours to spare each week, the news is not all bad: a few high-intensity sessions and regular racing help to ensure that you compete well even with a hectic lifestyle.

Time-efficient swimming

The 2K time-efficient swim session

The beauty of this session is that it minimises the time you spend standing at the end of the lane, yet still allows you enough recovery time. Also, the warm-up and warm-down form part of the main set, keeping things simple and making the most of the time you have available.

• 200m front crawl (personal best pace (PB) + 20 seconds)
• 50m easy backstroke
• 200m front crawl with pull buoy (PB pace + 20 seconds)
• 50m easy breaststroke 45-seconds rest
• 200m front crawl (PB pace + 10 seconds)
• 50m easy backstroke
• 200m front crawl with a pull buoy (PB pace + 10 seconds)
• 50m easy breaststroke 45-seconds rest
• 200m front crawl (PB pace + 5 seconds)
• 50m easy backstroke
• 200m front crawl with a pull buoy (PB pace + 5 seconds)
• 50m easy breastroke 45-seconds rest
• 200m front crawl (PB pace + 15 seconds)
• 50m easy backstroke
• 200m front crawl with a pull buoy (PB pace + 15 seconds)
• 50m easy breaststroke

Time-efficient cycling

The tempo turbo session

This time-saving indoor bike session is aimed at improving lactate threshold, without over-tiring you. It should be progressed every month by increasing the duration of each repetition by five minutes, or increasing the wattage by five to 10 watts (if you happen to have a power meter). The benefits of this session apply equally to both short- and long-distance athletes.

53-minutes continuous cycling as follows:
• 10-minutes warm up at 60-70 per cent of your maximum heart rate (calculate this at www.runnersworld.co.uk/heartrate)
• 15 minutes at 80-85 per cent of your maximum heart rate
• 3-minutes easy spin
• 15 minutes at 80-85 per cent of your maximum heart rate
• 10-minutes warm down at 60-70 per cent of your maximum heart rate

Time-efficient running

The acceleration run

This acceleration run increases in speed, culminating with a pace just above that of your target race-pace. The idea is to progress each week by increasing the distance or speed of each increment. This session has many of the benefits of a steady tempo run but allows the body to gradually warm up, which reduces fatigue and injury risk. You can measure the increments in speed or heart rate. In this example, heart-rate is used.

Acceleration run for sprint-distance tri

25 minutes continuous running as follows:
• 5 minutes at 30 beats per minute below 5K race pace OR 5 minutes steady
• 5 minutes at 20 beats per minute below 5K race pace OR 5 minutes at marathon pace  
• 5 minutes at 10 beats per minute below 5K race pace OR 5 minutes at half-marathon pace
• 5 minutes at 3 beats per minute above 5K race pace OR 5 minutes just above 5K pace
• 5-minutes easy jog

Acceleration run for Olympic-distance tri

40 minutes continuous running as follows:
• 7 minutes at 36 beats per minute below 10K race pace OR 7 minutes easy
• 7 minutes at 27 beats per minute below 10K race pace OR 7 minutes steady
• 7 minutes at 18 beats per minute below 10K race pace OR 7 minutes at marathon pace
• 7 minutes at 9 beats per minute below 10K race pace OR 7 minutes at half-marathon pace
• 7 minutes at 3 beats per minute above 10K race pace OR 7 minutes just above 10K pace
• 5-minutes easy jog

Acceleration run for middle-distance tri

55 minutes continuous running as follows:
• 10 minutes at 28 beats per minute below half-marathon race pace OR 10 minutes easy
• 10 minutes at 21 beats per minute below half-marathon race pace OR 10 minutes steady
• 10 minutes at 14 beats per minute below half-marathon race pace OR 10 minutes at marathon pace
• 10 minutes at 7 beats per minute below half-marathon race pace OR 10 minutes at half-marathon pace
• 10 minutes at 3 beats per minute above half-marathon race pace OR 10 minutes faster than half-marathon pace
• 5-minutes easy jog

Acceleration run for long-distance tri

1 hour 23 minutes continuous running as follows:
• 13 minutes at 25 beats per minute below marathon race pace OR 13 minutes easy
• 13 minutes at 20 beats per minute below marathon race pace OR 13 minutes steady
• 13 minutes at 15 beats per minute below marathon race pace OR 13 minutes steady
• 13 minutes at 10 beats per minute below marathon race pace OR 13 minutes steady to
marathon pace
• 13 minutes at 5 beats per minute below marathon race pace OR 13 minutes just below marathon pace
• 13 minutes at 3 beats per minute above marathon race pace OR 13 minutes above marathon pace
• 5 minutes easy jog

Five top tips for time efficiency

1 Divide your time

Cycle at weekends, run and swim in the week. In most cases you are more likely to improve your cycling by doing two high-quality rides at the weekend. Trying to cram too much in mid-week is a sure-fire way to reduce quality. Instead focus on running and swimming when you have less time during the week.

2 Coach class

It takes some triathletes years to learn this simple fact: your swimming won't improve without technique coaching. Those who receive regular stroke analysis enjoy their swimming more because they keep on improving. If you do not have access to regular coaching, paying for one or two video-coaching sessions per year is a worthy alternative.

3 Sweat the small stuff

Shave minutes off your triathlon times by improvements in non-training areas. These include transition skills, pace judgement, nutrition, technique in all three disciplines and mental preparation. You might improve faster by learning more than you do from training. A few hours a week reading is time well spent.

4 A second opinion

A coach has one benefit over you - objectivity.  Effective coaches see the bigger picture, whereas triathletes can become bogged down in day-to-day worries. An experienced and eager coach can help you cut the junk, keep the quality and maximise your training time.

5 Quality not quantity

There are no prizes for clocking the most training time per week. Six high-quality, well thought out sessions per week are better than 10 that are unplanned, rushed and fatigued.


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