Monday, March 1, 2010

Ironman: Training Principles

I always found the best approach to learning something as extensive as training for an Ironman is to first understand the principles behind the sport. There are some basic principles I think every triathlete should understand and they are:

1. Principle of Individual Differences

Each athlete will respond to training stimulus differently. Here are just a few reasons why:

* Genetics -- An athlete's genetics plays one the most important roles in determining their true performance capability. For example, assuming two athletes train equally well, the one with superior genetics will likely improve much faster than one with poor genetics.

* Muscle fiber type -- The types of fibers, ie, slow-twitch vs fast-twitch, that make up individual muscles will greatly influence how an athlete will adapt to their training program. For example, an athlete with a higher relative % of slow-twitch fibers will like respond better to a training protocol that involves more volume at low to moderate intensity than one that involves less volume at higher intensity.

* Age -- An athlete's ability to recover will likely be determined by their age. For example, someone who is 22 years old will recover quicker than someone who is 45 years old.

* Time available to train (schedule) -- Some athletes want or can only train ~12 hrs/week while other athletes want or feel the need to train ~20 hrs/week. These groups of athletes will likely achieve an optimal level of stimulus using relatively different protocols in their training.

The importance of this principle is to remind you why you should not look at another athlete's training to justify your own. One of the most common mistakes I see is to look at what a pro triathlete is doing in their training or racing in order to determine what is best for yourself. You see this type of behavior in all aspects of training or racing too. For example, athletes will often determine what is the best aerodynamics for them based on the observation of pro triathletes. The best aerodynamics must also consider your own individual characteristics like flexibility.

2. Principle of Progressive Overload -- Could be considered two separate principles: 1) Progression 2) Overload

The Principle of Overload says that a greater than normal training stress/load should be placed on the body in order for a physiological adaptation to take place. The body will adapt to this stimulus. Once the body has adapted then a change in stimulus is required to continue the improvement. In order for a muscle, which includes the heart, to increase strength, it must be gradually stressed by working against a load greater than it is used to performing. For example, to increase your endurance, muscles must work for a longer period of time or slightly harder for the same period of time than they are used to performing. If this stress is removed or significantly decreased then there will be a decrease in that particular component of fitness.

The Principle of Progression says that there is an optimal level of overload that should be achieved, and an optimal timeframe for this overload to occur. If no overload occurs at all then improvement is unlikely. Overload that is increased too rapidly will result in burnout, injury or muscle damage so training above the target level can definitely be counterproductive.

The Principle of Progression also makes us realize the need for proper rest and recovery. Continual stress on the body and constant overload with result in exhaustion and injury. Periodic overreaching is fine and actually encouraged, to a limited degree, but you should not train hard all of the time. Doing so will lead to overtraining and a great deal of physical and psychological damage will result.

Finding the optimal level of overload for an optimal timeframe is, by far, the most challenging part of your training. This is what I often refer to as "max training load," "max stimulus," or, as I prefer to call it these days, "optimal stimulus." Achieving optimal stimulus on a continual basis is where the devil is in the details. However, it is my opinion that you have no chance whatsoever of achieving peak fitness unless you first understand all of the principles discussed in this article. Once you do then those details become self evident and there is much less likely to be conflict within your training program. Most importantly, you must learn to find what is an optimal stimulus on a weekly basis (or similar timeline). Here's a somewhat over-simplified example: If your body can handily sustain 3 hrs/week of moderate swimming, 12 hrs/week of moderate biking and 5 hrs/week of easy to moderate running then you should not be consistently training at the same intensity levels using a program that reduces those weekly numbers by 40%. You will not improve.

3. Principle of Adaptation

An adaptation refers to changes within our muscles in response to some form of exercise, activity or skill. Some examples of changes that within our muscles when performing aerobic endurance training are: Increase in lactate threshold, increase in mitochondrial enzymes and increase in glycogen storage. By repeating the activity, the body adapts to the stress and the skill becomes easier to perform. Adaptation explains why a beginning athletes are often sore after starting a new routine, but after doing the same exercise for weeks and months the athlete has little, if any, muscle soreness. This also explains the need to vary the training stimulus and continue to apply the Principle of Progressive Overload if continued improvement is desired.

4. Principle of Specificity

The Principle of Specificity simply states that training must go from highly general training to highly specific training. It also implies that to become better at a particular exercise or skill, you must perform that exercise or skill. To be a good cyclist, you must cycle. The point to take away is that a runner should train by running and a swimmer should train by swimming.

Many of us, including myself, have attempted to apply some additional detail to the Principle of Specificity as it pertains to our particular sport. For example, in order to meet the specific demands of an Ironman event, you must consistently train a component of your fitness that addresses your ability to maintain the following:

- the highest pace you are capable of holding for a ~1-hour period on the swim

- the highest level of power you are capable of holding for a 4 to 6-hour period on the bike

- the highest pace your are capable of holding for a ~2-hour period on the run

The hour numbers I quoted above are certainly not set in stone. They just reflect what I feel is a necessary part of your specificity training. Now, again, the protocol you choose in order to address these specificity requirements is highly dependent on a clear understanding of the principles above.

In my next article I will discuss how you should use these principles to establish the framework for your training schedule.

Thanks, Chris


Matt said...

great info, I look forward to the follow up!

On Progressive overload, does it get tricky if your adding different intensity and volume at same time or do you keep to one?

Chris Whyte (aka Lakerfan) said...

Matt, I'll address this question in more detail in a follow up article but I believe the best approach to finding the right balance between intensity and volume is to allow your preferred philosophical approach to guide you.

For example, if you prefer a "raise the left, fill the right" type approach then it makes most sense to focus on adding intensity to achieve an overload during a general prep/base period and then turn your attention toward adding volume during your race-specific/build period. This also aligns well with the requirements under the Specificity Principle. Keep in mind, the reality is that you're going to increase both simultaneously during those two periods of training but an emphasis on one vs the other should be placed as I described above.

capnkirk said...

Good article Chris.

With regards to the part on "The Principle of Progression says that there is an optimal level..." This has always plagued my bike training; trying to figure out how much harder I need to push over a certain period of time(weeks perhaps)in order to push past a plateau in my performance. Usually, I end up paying for going too hard by having to take a few days off for recovery, which in turn ends up cutting into my other time for activities like running. I wish I had a better idea of how much more "progression" is really needed to break these plateau's, but not damage myself needlessly.


Chris Whyte said...

Kirk, this area is clearly the toughest part of your training, ie, finding that balance that achieves optimal stimulus. This is the primary reason why people should hire coaches. I will talk about how to implement some balanced structured blocks in my next article or two. I just didn't want to bite off too much in this first one.

Think about focusing on achieving a specific adaptation (or more likely a range of adaptations) during a block of 6 to 8 weeks. For example, you just went through a nice block of L5 workouts and will now move to focus on L4. Try to surround those intense workouts with some easier stuff too. Look to find little tricks that help you recover quicker. Swimming the morning after a hard ride often does it for me.