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How Triathletes Can Use Intensity to Increase Performance

BY Lance Watson

Many triathletes turn to increasing their volume to help them go faster on race day. However, Coach Lance Watson is here to tell you that building speed and power through intensity is the key to a new P.R. Read more to learn why intensity matters and how you can use it to go faster on race day.

Experienced athletes will tell you there is no secret to racing faster. You have to train at the intensity or speed at which you want to race, in order to meet your competition goals. The magic lies in the training. If you want to run six minute miles on race day, you have to achieve this pace or faster in your run workout.

Many long distance athletes feel that in order to go faster they must simply increase volume in their training, rather than adding intensity (speed and power). For newer athletes stepping up to long distance racing, building endurance is a key component of their program. However, for veterans who want to step up their game, intensity is as crucial as volume. For this article, ‘veteran’ assumes that the athlete has been in the sport at least eight to ten years, a duration which provides a solid foundation of sport knowledge, race experience as well as skeletal and muscular development. At this point the athlete can be reasonably confident in cycling three to five hours or running two hours at moderate intensity without resulting deep fatigue.

Muscle Fiber Types

All muscles in the body contain a combination of fast and slow twitch fibers. Slow twitch (or Type 1) fibres are those used for endurance activities as they are more efficient and primarily require oxygen as fuel. Fast twitch (or Type 2) fibers use the anaerobic system and are great for short bursts of energy, but tire quickly. These fast twitch fibers can also be broken down into IIa and IIb where the former are considered intermediate in that they can operate with the aerobic and anaerobic system. Typical individuals have close to a 50 percent composition of both types of muscle fibres; of which the ratio is genetically determined.

Improving physical condition is the result of the controlled overloading, recovery and thus super-compensation of the muscles and cardiovascular system to a training stimulus. By just adding volume you are primarily reinforcing the endurance aspect of muscle composition and typically stressing the Type 1 muscle fibers. If you only train low intensity or long distance endurance you are potentially neglecting 50 percent of your muscle fibers! This is applicable to all sports; swimming, biking and running. You may think that extra power is not needed when racing in a steady state event, but it is your secret weapon and gives you the power to be able to surge to get on a draft in the middle of the swim, put in a short burst of higher intensity when climbing a hill, or to stay in contact with your competition late in a race. Improving top end speed and power will also result in an overall fitness increase.

Using Intensity

How then can you use intensity training to prepare to race faster over long distance? You do this by making speed and power your focus on some training days. Train using power on the bike, and pace in the swim and on the run. To achieve a goal, there is a progression towards adapting the body to maintain the goal pace. For a well-trained athlete, threshold heart rate as a percentage of maximum is not going to change dramatically year to year, but your power and pace can and will from month to month and athletes who train with power and pace will do frequent testing to evaluate gains.

On the bike, increasing your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) should involve both low and higher cadence work– strength and speed. For both types of workouts begin with shorter intervals and equal rest.

After a warm up, ride 4 x 4 minutes at 105 percent FTP at 50 to 60 rpm and 4 minutes rest to build strength. Repeat this workout but at 90 to 100 rpm to build speed. You can gradually increase the length of the intervals either as stand-alone workouts or as part of a longer session. I will often schedule 20 to 60 minute segments within a long ride or run above goal race pace. For instance, to increase threshold endurance while preparing for a 70.3 event, include 2 to 3 intervals of 20 minutes at Olympic distance power with 10 minutes easy in between.

Running will use similar style workouts, with a track or flat trail as optimal venues. Interval repeats such as 10 x 800 with 2 minutes rest, 8 x 1km with 2 minutes or 4 x 1 mile with 3 minutes rest. All should be run at 10 to 15 seconds faster per mile than 10K pace.

Adding these or similar types of intensity workouts to each sport per week within a progressive training plan will ultimately result in faster times for seasoned racers. Intensity is a far more dynamic and stressful session for the body and recovery days and week need to be respected. Work with your coach to set realistic and achievable goals for your triathlon training and racing this year. Using power and pace will give you some fun and rewarding experiences over all three sports!

“Thank you to LifeSport Senior Coach Dan Smith for his contribution to this article”

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About Lance Watson

Lance Watson, LifeSport head coach, has trained many Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 30 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels. 

Contact Coach@LifeSportCoaching.com to tackle your first IRONMAN or to perform at a higher level.

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