My approach to triathlon training
The race I’m training for, an Ironman, consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run. Pros will average around 9 hours and 20 minutes to the finish line, but I’m an age group triathlete. That means that just finishing the race is often enough; finishing in the top third of my age group would be a great day.
During each race, I try to ignore the hundreds of younger and fitter racers flying by. I’m just trying to keep up with the other guys in M30-34; you can tell who they are by the color-coded swim caps and the conspicuous 30-something numbers written on their calves in magic marker. For us, the race will last a little over 12 hours, during which time we will burn 8,000 calories and eat 4,000 calories of Clif Bar, Hammer Gels, Perpetuem liquid nutrition, bananas, potatoes, oranges, Gatorade’s, and flat Cokes — whatever our stomachs will tolerate.
My first step into triathlon was to learn how to swim: I paid a coach on Craigslist $100 to come to the wading pool in my apartment complex and show me the basics of the freestyle swim stroke. That was two and a half years ago — the summer of 2012 — and a few weeks before my first triathlon: a sprint-distance race aptly called “Tri 4 Fun”. I chose it because of it’s atypically short 400 meter swim course. A competent swimmer can easily swim that in under 8 minutes. On race day, I managed to swim the first 100 yards with something resembling a freestyle stroke and finished the last 300 yards with a sidestroke/doggy-paddle for a total swim time of 16 minutes. And I loved it.
Golden Gate Triathlon club runs a training program for triathlon newbies called TAG, so I joined and began preparing for an end of the season olympic-distance race (1500M swim, 25-mile bike, 10K run). I finished the Santa Cruz Triathlon 43rd of 62 in my age group, but just under my 3:00:00 goal time at 2:56:24.
The next day, my training partner and I registered for Ironman Coeur d’Alene 2013.
In addition to marking the beginning of my quest to become an Ironman, the Fall of 2012 was memorable because that’s when I joined 42Floors. When I’d started triathlon a few months earlier, I was still enjoying funemployment following the struggles of Leaky.com, so I had plenty of time for mid-day bike rides and trips to UCSF for pool time.
Once I ramped up at 42Floors, my training dropped off a cliff. After logging almost no hours from October through December, I started 2013 with the resolution to invest 6 months of solid training leading up to my Ironman at the end of June.
That resolution led to the first of eleven training principles that have made training fun and sustainable for me (YMMV):
1. Set SMART intermediate goals
Since my big race was in late June, I decided to run a half-Ironman near the middle of training season as a check-in. The SMART mnemonic is a helpful reminder that goals should be specific, measurable, a… (fluff letter), realistic, and time-bound. So, my goal was to finish the Wildflower race with a time of 7:00:00 or better.
Fresh with the zeal bestowed by a New Year’s resolution, I began January training in earnest. But by mid-February I was lagging: it was too cold to go swimming, work was busy at 42Floors, my friends were going skiing, etc. When Wildflower race day rolled around, I felt only medium-prepared and finished the race 186th of 297 in my age group with a time of 6:56:54. The bike segment had been rough and, although I’d hit my 7:00:00 goal, I had just seven weeks remaining before my Ironman — a race that would be twice as long and vastly more punishing. At seven hours for my half-Ironman, I could expect a fourteen and half hour full Ironman time — that is, if I executed perfectly with no mishaps. The cutoff time for Ironman is 17 hours so if I blew up somewhere along the marathon, I wouldn’t have much of a time cushion for walking the remainder.
I’ll never know if I would have finished my first Ironman attempt. Ten days before the race, I was doing butterfly pullups at a CrossFit class with the 42Floors crew when something gave way in my lower back. An MRI at Saint Francis confirmed that the disc supporting my L5 vertebrae in place was permanently damaged. I’ll spare you more whining about chronic back injuries; many people compete in Ironman with worse. Nevertheless, I couldn’t run for at least three months so my race season was over.
The silver lining of not being able to run was that I got motived to ride. At 112 miles, the bike portion of the Ironman is the longest and most critical part of the race. 42Floors directly helped me establish my next two training principles:
2. Put some skin in the game and (3.) find someone to train with
42Floors operates in 100-day cycles punctuated by off-site “workcations” where we take the whole company up to a house in Tahoe for three days and hash out any big issues and plan what we’re going to do the next 100 days. In addition to picking three company-wide goals that everyone will contribute to, we also pick “personal personal goals”.
Personal personal goals are voluntary but almost everyone does it. You participate by contributing $200 dollars to a pool. At the end of the 100 days, everyone who hits their goal gets to split the pool. Plus 42Floors throws in a $200 kicker. The amount of “skin” in the game isn’t the important part — the motivation comes from the peer pressure of making a public commitment to something and being held accountable. The money just ensures that people will keep tabs on you.
For my goal, I decided to ride 1,300 miles between July 16 and October 23, 100 miles a week. After hearing my goal, my coworker Emily suggested I start riding with her husband, Nathan, an engineer at Weebly. Nathan is a beast. I can’t keep up with him at all when he wants to go fast. Over that fall, we’d get up early on Tuesdays and Thursdays and race up all the hills around San Francisco.
With 100 miles a week as the goal and my pride on the line, I needed all the mileage I could get. That motivated me to:
4. Stop driving
Once I got used to riding in heavy traffic, I replaced my driving habit with a riding habit. My morning commute often consists of riding up Twin Peaks and over to Golden Gate Park, then out to the ocean, where I turn around and ride in to work — 17 miles and 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
As an aside, my much-modified Jeep now spends 29 days a month collecting dust in a parking lot so I’m meeting a guy later today to sign the sale paperwork.
Since I wanted every mile to count toward my goal, I needed to track every ride, which led me to:
5. Strava everything
Strava is the best companion app a triathlete can have. It has all of the mapping and logging capabilities of Runtastic, MapMyRide, etc. plus unparalleled leaderboards.
Those leaderboards are the key.
Remember that screenshot of the Hawk Hill segment? My previous best on that route was a 9:03 and I’d been pushing plenty hard that time. That day when I hit a 7:56 time happened because I was racing and the guy I was racing, Lokesh, wasn’t even there. Lokesh had hit his goal time of 8:30 on that Strava hill segment a few weeks back and I was just trying to beat him.
Once you start tracking your progress, it’s easy to:
6. Treat your key workouts like a race, even if it’s against yourself
When I’m on a long solo ride, I try to find a competitive goal that I can work into the ride. If I’m feeling solid but not especially perky, I’ll shoot for a fast door to door time and cut out the normal pit stops. If I’m feeling strong, I’ll try to set a personal record on one of the climbs or get down in the drops and time trial the straight bike path section.
By the October 23 deadline, I’d hit my 1,300 mileage goal and started thinking forward to 2014. More than three months had passed since my injury and I could run short distances again. That fact gave me hope that I could still finish an Ironman so I registered for Ironman Lake Tahoe for September 2014.
Looking back over my 2013 season, I’d averaged only 24 hours a month or 6 hours a week of training. That’s well below the 12-14 hours a week I knew I needed for 2014. So, I went looking for a way to double my hours:
7. Spend money to save time
I don’t buy expensive aero racing gear as a rule, but I gave myself a big budget for gadgets or services that free up my time so that I can spend it training.
Fortunately, 42Floors had a shower put in at our new office — thank you! They’ve done everything possible to let me build a routine wherein I waste the minimum in “transition time”. Now that I run or ride to and from work almost every day, I’ve reclaimed all of my weekly commute time and turned it into training time. I keep a supply of three pairs of jeans, ten t-shirts, plus all the odds and ends in a file cabinet under my desk. So when I wake up in the morning, I don’t shave, brush my teeth, or doing anything except throw on my workout gear. I do my workout/commute and then get ready for the day at work. With enough extra pairs of shoes, flip belts for carrying phones and keys, and headphones stored in both places, you don’t have to expend any mental energy figuring out if you’ll have the right gear in the right place.
Over the course of the early 2014 season, I put these principle to work by joining another training group and targeting Wildflower again as my intermediate goal; this time with a target finish of 6:30:00. The more intensive training routine paid off and I finished 76th of 209 in my age group with a time of 6:06:19.
I was delighted and settled in for another five months of training before Ironman Lake Tahoe. Although I fell off the bandwagon a couple of times along the way, by September 13, with ten days to go, I felt strong and was targeting a 12:00:00 finish. Several people in my training group were up in Truckee with me getting some last-minute altitude training when we started to smell smoke.
The King Fire blazed to its peak over the next week and by race day we knew that, barring a 180-degree shift in wind direction to blow away the smoke, there was little chance the race would go on. Nevertheless, we woke up at 4am to ride to the start line at the beach and squeeze into our wetsuits. Five minutes before the starting cannon, the race was canceled.
It took a few days for the disappointment to melt away, then I decided to use the remainder of 2014 the same way I’d used the end of 2013 — to get a lot faster on the bike.
My performance had started to plateau, a fact that I attributed to my ad hoc, “what should I do tomorrow” approach to training, so I decided to:
8. Make an explicit daily training calendar
I researched a half-dozen in-person and online coaching programs, and chose one that fit my budget. A veteran Ironman coach gave me a questionnaire about my race history, future goals, and realistic training capabilities and spent half an hour on the phone discussing it. He used that information to customize a series of 13-week training plans that were appropriate to my skills and goals and delivered them as a set of detailed daily workout instructions for every day from October 15th, 2014 through September, 20, 2015 — the date of the next Ironman Lake Tahoe.
Within the second week of this new, highly structured approach to training, I began to:
9. Apply an ROI approach to training
Training time is not interchangeable. It’s possible to build more fitness in an hour of intense, structured training than in three hours of “junk miles”. My coach encouraged me to approach each workout with the question, “How can I get the most out of this hour?”
The inevitable answer is often, “Work really fucking hard for an hour.”
Thinking about return on investment and applying it’s implications to my workout schedule solidified my routine:
- Monday is rest day
- Tuesday and Thursday are morning high-intensity intervals
- Wednesday and Friday are morning sub-threshold workouts
- Saturday is a long ride
- Sunday is a medium ride, followed by a long run
Over the preceding two years, I’d taken the budget approach to training by using a heart rate monitor to gauge my effort level. For example, I knew that I could hold 145bpm for 10+ hours, 170bpm for 90 minutes, and 192bpm for 2 minutes. There are two problems with heart rate-based training, however:
- External variables
Lag means that it takes a while for your heart rate to adjust to match your energy output. That makes it harder to do interval training. External variables are worse. Is it warm out? Adjust your bpm. Did you have caffeine recently? Adjust your bpm. You get the idea.
So, I bit the bullet:
10. Buy an indoor trainer and a power meter
Over the last three months, I’ve been doing a lot of interval training — riding and running at max speed, recovering, then repeating. They hurt. But they’re shorter now, so I can get through them. And I’m getting faster.
Now that I can see exactly how many watts of power I’m producing at any point, I don’t sandbag, whether indoors or on the road. It also helps that my trainer automatically increases the resistance if I start to slack off my target wattage.
11. Surround yourself with supportive people
My girlfriend goes running with me now and then; for Christmas she got me a reverse present: she signed up for the HITS sprint-distance triathlon and swimming lessons so that I could have a training partner.
My team at 42Floors has never complained when I’m gone for training, when I sit around the office all stinky without showering, or when I get long-winded about training, the way I am right now. If you’d like to help people find great office space, we’re hiring.
With four months to go until my next race, another half-Ironman, I’m targeting a 5:30 finish, which should be enough to squeeze into the top third in my age group. After that, Ironman Lake Tahoe. In the mean time, Lokesh posted a 7-second lead over me on Twin Peaks so I’ll be trying to catch him.