The goal for anyone that is trying to maximize their training time is to determine how they can get the most out of each session. Most likely a working person is limited on the amount of time that can be reserved for training, so intuitively this would suggest going hard at every workout and your effort will be rewarded with a better performance. This may prove true for an athlete new to exercising, however after the athlete has plateaued this eventually proves not to be true.
Using the 3X3 weekly training method as part of an annual Periodization Plan is a straight forward concept to create a season training schedule. Simply rotating three distinctly different sports to ensure that you are adequately trained for them on an individual basis is relatively easy. The difficult part is making it work with an end result of doing an event that combines all three into a single session come race day.
Periodization training has several key standards that must be followed in order to maximize performance and continue to build an overall endurance base. These seasonal phases include: Base, Build, Intensity, Peak and Recovery. Within this construct is what I have termed “the 3x3 weekly training method”. The thought, if executed properly calls for a minimum of three sessions in each discipline during a weekly (7 day) timeframe. Specifically, an athlete would do a short (intense), medium (tempo) and long (sustained) effort in each sport, each week. To build fitness to a higher level, the athlete would add additional sessions to the plan depending on near-term and long-term goals. This provides the overview of the season but does not give the specifics of what makes up a workout. I will address how to develop your 3X3 week and plug it into the Periodization Plan for the entire year.
The three (or more) swim workouts that you do each week should allow for some base work that would include longer sets to build endurance and shorter sessions that focus faster arm turnover and a quick kick. The distance that you accumulate for the week will be dependent upon the race distance that you plan to compete at. Typically someone doing sprints and Olympic Distance racing cover 2000 to 3,000 yards/meters per session or 1.5 to 2X the actual race swim distance. Additionally since it is a non-impact sport training more does not usually lead to an overuse injury. Ironically in triathlon, the swim is the least time spent on race day but proves to be extremely taxing for the athletes that do not have a swim background.
For the majority of participants, competitive swimming is new to them and is often what they spend the least time training for. This is especially true if they have gravitated to longer race distances. Regardless, more time and consistency will pay big dividends and is especially true for Olympic and sprint distances events where the swim is usually the make-or-break leg for the top participants who make the podium. “If only I could swim better” is often the mantra of many triathletes yet they spend very little time trying to get better. Stay in contact with the water on a year round basis with at least three weekly swims and you will up your game. Total investment of actual exercise time is about 2:30-4:00 hours per week. Compare that to how much an athlete rides or runs and the difference is usually staggering especially when you consider that they can make the most improvement in terms of performance by swimming more. Of course the bike and run are the prominent part of long course racing so the swim is an afterthought. An obstacle for some is that pool time is not easy to find. If you do get to the pool, make the most of it. Get your money’s worth and spend as much time as possible until your form deteriorates. Then do kick drills if you have to. The intangibles of a faster swim allows an athlete to get out of the water sooner and therefore fresher so they can get on with the steady state portions of the race. A faster swim will also put you in a position to be near or with better competitors that will help your pace throughout the remainder of the race.
I found cycling to be the easiest to pick up when I first starting training for triathlon. It also seems to come back easier after a layoff. With a concentrated focus, incremental gains that are proven by the clock (Heart Rate Monitor or Power Meter) can be made in a matter of a few short weeks. For triathlon it’s all about maintaining a threshold of power using an aerodynamic position and maintaining an average speed from after T1 until dismounting at T2. A good ride needs to be followed by a good run and that means being able to run immediately after getting off the bike. Ride too fast and you may be seeing those that you rode by pass you on the run. Ride too slow and you will be chasing your competition for the entire run. Using the 3x3 weekly training method you will want to ensure that you are able to race the Olympic Distance (24.8 M). This will help you pace your longer distance races with a slower effort that will take most people a 2:30-4:00 time period for a Half. Like swimming, cycling is a non-impact sport and allows you to train day in and day out with little time away from the bike. Each session matters and is equally important for a quality race performance. Be sure to include one longer training session (2-4 hours), one intense session (45-60 mins) and one at a tempo (sustained) pace (60-75 mins). If you have the opportunity to commute by bike then you will quickly increase your mileage and time spent on the bike. Make the most of it with fast tempo and surges whenever possible. Break it up and be safe but intense when you can even if it is unstructured. Having toys like a heart rate monitor, power meter or Strava adds to the tracking of your program.
The nice thing about running is that you can practice it at any time almost anywhere. Unlike swimming or cycling there are minimal equipment requirements and the time spent pays off in a big way since it is the culminating portion of a triathlon. Because running is the easiest to accommodate it seems to be the “go to” choice for most triathletes. Of course that makes sense when you can lace up and run from your front door. No driving to a gym, pool or safe riding location. Another big bonus is that there are scheduled running events most every weekend throughout the country regardless of time of year and you can work on running faster than triathlon race pace. Signing up for a longer distance running event will also pay dividends in increasing your running volume during the winter and spring months. Just like cycling, training encompasses the same concept of a three distinct sessions with a longer run (1:15-2:00 hours) and a shorter intense effort (30-45 mins) surrounding one or two tempo (45-60 mins) runs. If you can string a few days together you will see a benefit in endurance that will help at the end of a race. Running on tired legs is a positive in training because it simulates race day even better.
Traditionally combing a bike and a run was termed a “Brick”. However that has morphed into any combination of sessions that are consecutive in nature. Bricks help build endurance because of the time spent with a sustained effort. It also simulates a race environment much better than individual sessions because stamina is such a vital part of the sport. Because running off the bike is so difficult, the bike-run “Brick” has been a mainstay for triathletes. If it is easy than you need to ride or run harder! It should be difficult and is what makes the sport so hard but also so satisfying.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
An issue with doing less than three sessions per week of the 3X3 weekly training method is that doing only two sessions yields a reduction of 1/3 of your weekly training totals. When you add a session in one of the sports it only amounts to an additional 1 /4 of your weekly volume so the key balance of sessions falls at three, hence my 3X3 philosophy. If you have to choose between sessions consider ensuring that you will complete three in each sport before adding to your total sessions in the other sports. With that guideline you can look to add a run session for the most ‘bang for the buck”. Running allows you to accomplish more from a fitness standpoint in a shorter period of time especially if you have to travel to ride your bike or get to a pool.
The next article will provide a 10 day schedule with detailed sessions in all three sports. It will help show how each workout and week build upon each other and make you more fit. For now, start with getting in three sessions per sport, three times per week at a minimum. That’s nine sessions in seven days. One short and intense, one middle distance with medium intensity and also a longer distance session at a comfortable pace so that it can be sustained over the duration of the entire workout. Rotate them so that you don’t have more than a few days off in between each sport and double up sessions in a single day if you are going to be adding sessions above the 3X3 plan. It’s that simple in theory, but hard to put into consistent practice.
By Doug Marocco
Doug is a 9X Hawaii Ironman finisher and a 2X US Age Group National Champion