Get Your Training Mix Right

by Chris McCormack

Training any athlete is not difficult. I am sure you have heard the age old saying “Practice makes perfect.” I call BS on this statement and often argue with people over the ridiculousness of such a vague call. I say, “Perfect Practice makes Perfect” and more so “Perfect practice for the individual makes a perfect performance for that individual.” Getting the mix right for any athletes in our sport is absolutely not one-size-fits-all, but if you can get a basic understanding of where to start individualising the approach, then you are ahead of the game. Perfect the beginning and everything will fall into place.

The key to improvement or success at any level in multisport comes to building a foundation of knowledge about the athlete (whether you’re the coach or the athlete) that will allow you to make those needed incremental improvements towards your set goal. These are not always necessarily physical improvements, yet these tend to be given the most kudos.

Nearly 40 years ago all we had were some basic training tenets and then a long process of trial-and-error, developing fitness and efficiency in the three sports to ensure that the blend is just right. These days the Norwegian training system that produced Olympic champion Kristian Blummenfelt shows integrating sports science, technology, and testing alongside training reveals (with hard numbers) how an individual athlete’s body adapts to training stimuli. They test more than anyone and remove guesswork to finesse and further refine that blend. (My interview with Kristian and his coach Arild Tveiten goes into some detail about this. Listen here.)

For amateurs, they too can have access to all manner of training data. Technology has made it possible to track many things that me and my peers never had access to. Power, fatigue, sleep, calories in and out can all be tracked by a device on your wrist that can feed a program specifically telling you where you are in your training phase. Add in effective benchmark testing, and it has never been easier for athletes to have access to all of their key measurements and indicators of performance that will tell you how you are progressing.

The entire training mix and perfecting this across the entire spectrum of the sport is key, and there are not many sports in the world that have so much complexity and difficulty in perfecting than triathlon. It is an all-body sport, two of the disciplines being non-weight bearing and the final discipline being the most damaging weight-bearing exercise you can put the human body through: running!

Not only this, but in triathlon we endure running in a fatigued state which magnifies any issues that an individual’s body has with the movement and biomechanics of this sport. This is the most important element of planning that needs to be assessed and is so often overlooked by coaches and athletes obsessed with just meeting set training goals that are usually quantitative in nature. This is the biggest mistake I see in most triathlon training plans and is a total disrespect to this basic principle of our sport. Swimming and Biking are basically body easy; running is very hard and will be the foundation for most injuries in our sport.

Cyclists and swimmers can build huge aerobic engines and a massive base of fitness, with relatively small musculoskeletal damage. You just need to massage the muscles of either a swimmer or a cyclist to see the texture of these muscles compared to that of a runner.

When you bring weight under load and the eccentric contractions to a muscle like you do in running and then put huge stress on your skeletal system, the entire game changes. You often see this when cyclists or swimmers switch to running as a form of fitness. They often blow out knees, are prone to stress fractures, or get injured very quickly. This is magnified even more so when they take up triathlon.

They also have a sound level of fitness which immediately gives them the perception that they can do more than their body is ready for. Put simply, they don’t fatigue aerobically and thus do too much work that ultimately tends to break them down skeletally over time. Cyclists tend to blow knees, swimmers more than often get stress fractures (they have had plantar flexion of their ankle for so long that when they hold dorsal flexion in a running state, their shins take a smashing). It’s these new movements and the accumulation of fatigue in the smaller muscles that see these athletes break down time and time again.

There is a perception by many of the single-sport athletes that triathletes are “Jack of all trades, master of none” -- but this is just a complete misconception, especially now watching the short-course athletes on the World Triathlon circuit approximate times achieved by swimmers, cyclists, and runners.

Successful triathletes are masters of perfecting three disciplines in unison with the other. I have watched some of the best single-discipline athletes move across to this sport with high levels of expectation, only to find that being the master of a single sport means sh*t in the multisport world. Perfecting all three is difficult, especially when these disciplines work against each other in their development. The A frame of a swimmer is not good for running. The short hamstrings of cycling and the inward knee action of the pedal stroke, kill running form and shorten hamstrings. The eccentric contractions of running and the muscle damage limit the efficiency in a pedal action. These three sports play against each other, so the mix is everything if you want to be as fast as you can be. Those athletes who come across to this sport and don’t respect this from the onset always end up injured and humbled. It’s a puzzle of perfection and it takes time and commitment to master.

The great Steve Larson came from professional cycling and unlike any other single-discipline athlete was able to make the transition across to some level of success very well at an older age in our sport. No other athlete has been able to do that as well. I spent a lot of time with Steve over the years prior to his death, training together in Bend, Oregon and also in California. Steve was at his best in multisport when he first came across from cycling. He built his fitness first from his bike riding, and then added very sparingly the other two disciplines. He won Ironman Lake Placid on debut and ran a 2:56 marathon off 15 miles a week of running.

After this he tried to address what he perceived as “weaknesses” in his swim and bike, and got his mix wrong. He lost his bike strength, and his run and swim remained unchanged. He ultimately went backwards for a few seasons. I highlighted this fact to him and a light switch went off for Steve. He returned to his old foundation of fitness first – cycling – and then added softly the other two disciplines. His results improved immediately. He went on to have some incredible races with Conrad Stoltz in XTerra events and had some incredible run performances. He finally got his mi” right first and then perfected the blend. Steve had some great success before he retired in our sport.

I think my coaching and conditioning team understood that for me, the basic principle in my triathlon training mix was perfecting my fitness from the run first and building backwards into the non-weight bearing sports in my case. I came from a running background, and I think this was a big plus. We were able to really survive the heavy run volumes as my skeletal system was strong, and by adding swimming and cycling to the mix, our only issues were increased weight (especially from development of quads and glutes from cycling and shoulders in swimming). These reduced our efficiency on the run, but saw us adopt a different approach to our run work, that was more tempo-based. I could use my size to muscle a bike and then, use my tempo (as opposed to speed) to carry me through the run.

Our focus in training at this time was always around brick sessions at a track with leg turnover on the run and stability in the hips. I lowered my knee lift and shortened my stride, which was effective for me and allowed me to maximize my power on the bike. It was limiting in my sprint finish over short-course events, but the trade-off to bike power was worthwhile. Anyway, that’s another story, but part of our puzzle in perfecting our mix that ultimately gave me an injury-free program and a more than 20-year longevity as a professional racer.

The game is about perfecting the mix for each individual. It is up to individuals to be honest with themselves in ascertaining where their weaknesses lie and then be open and committed to making the changes that are needed to improve your overall performance. Remember it is not about single disciplines anymore. Improvement comes by lowering your finish time, and finishing involves completing three disciplines.

Here are 8 quick tips for everyone to take away from this blog. I hope they are of some help:

1: Don’t get caught up in meeting some pre-conceived idea that a certain amount of miles is what is needed to see improvement in any of the disciplines of this sport. Improvement in any of the disciplines within triathlon requires a single attention given to that discipline over time. You then need to build a foundation of work in the other two disciplines around this increase in the other. Never solely focus on one discipline without factoring the other two into your training plan. We are triathletes now and you need to build a body feel around three sports and functionality in these three sports.

2: Recovery is king! Always err on the side of recovery in your training program. Recovery takes many forms, and body maintenance (massage, yoga, etc.), sleep, and rest are imperative to the game and the mix.

3: Guilt attached to any missed session is more harmful than missing the session itself. Guilt is what limits most people in our sport. If you miss a session for any reason, put it behind you and move forward. Don’t play catch up and don’t worry about it. It's done, move on!

4: Training programs do not have to be built around a seven-day schedule. I see many people and coaches build their training programs in seven-day cycles. This is often good for routine, but remember it is not imperative, and mixing things up is key to improving.

5: Identify your weaknesses at the start of your season and then highlight your areas of fragility (injury proneness). When building your program a focus needs to be given to ensuring that this weakness is addressed early in the plan and then constantly addressed throughout the year. Not all weaknesses are physical, and ascertaining the attention directed at a weakness in comparison to the trade-off that is given to the other two disciplines needs to be looked at here. Improvements take time. Be patient!

6: Trust the people who advise you and build your plans. You have to have faith in the people you’re working with, or it is just not worth it. More so, it is your responsibility to give the feedback necessary to ensure that your coaches or team can do the best for you. Don’t buy into other people’s BS. You’re the CEO of your journey in this sport. Be proactive, be open, and listen -- but put faith in the people you have brought on.

7: Brick sessions are a foundation set for every triathlon program, but huge brick sessions are overrated. Bricks are the toughest sessions you can do, and need to be recovered from and set with that in mind. Some people like to do these “head sessions” to convince themselves that they can master the triathlon they are taking part in. Doing this in a brick is not the answer.

When planning your brick sessions, be sure to be aware that these are physically very demanding sessions. Ironman athletes more so tend to over do the brick session component to their training and do way too much. It is the “run” in the brick session that does the most damage,so be careful with it. The faster your running the shorter the run length should be, the longer the bike, the shorter the run session should be. Those are two rules I tend to adopt to some degree. Hope this makes sense.

8: Consistency is the key to any triathlon program, and consistency across three disciplines is the key. Injuries limit your ability to be consistent, so listen to your body. Be flexible with your training plan. A rigid program is not the answer. A program should be built with a skeleton plan, but the fill needs to be flexible and adjusted daily if need be. Flexibility to your consistency is the key.

Chris "Macca" McCormack is a four-time triathlon world champion with the biggest winning percentage in the history of the sport. He is a co-founder and partner in Super League Triathlon, CEO of the Bahrain Endurance 13 team, and founder and executive director of MX Endurance.

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