Training… It either works or it doesn’t?

There are many theories of how to best train for endurance sports. Some people prefer low intensity and greater volume, others prefer high intensity intervals and each has their own merits and arguments. What’s interesting about triathlon is the fact that we have 3 different endurance sports and people can take a completely different approach to each of them.

This isn’t a topic widely discussed, but it is worth some consideration and thought. If you’re training for triathlon events, then your training will largely be geared towards aerobic endurance for swimming, cycling and running, this is more the case as the events get longer. Swimming 3.8k is by definition an aerobic endurance event, cycling 112 miles is an aerobic endurance event and running a marathon is also an aerobic endurance event. You then add the 3 things together on race day for what is, in it’s simplest form, a 10-17 hour aerobic endurance event.

Whilst the 3 disciplines can all be classed as ‘aerobic endurance’, there are differences in physiology between them. By simply looking at the differences in physique between elite swimmers, cyclists and runners, you can immediately get some clues. Visually, the runners are generally the leanest and carry less muscle bulk. By comparison, cyclists are more likely to be more muscular in the legs and swimmers will generally be more muscular in all areas.

It’s fair to assume from the physiques that there is more of an element of strength or ‘force production’ required for cycling and swimming, compared to running. On a bike, if you want to go fast, you have to push the ‘big gears’ and to do that requires an element of force production. The same can be said for swimming, you have to apply force to the water and drag your body forwards, against a great deal of resistance. Doing cycling intervals in a ‘big gear’ or using ‘hand paddles’ in the pool are pretty much the same thing. They increase resistance, slow down the movement and increase the stress on the muscles.

The physiques of long distance runners are somewhat different. In reality, the only force required is that to lift the weight of your own leg, so a marathon runner won’t have the same size quads that you’ll find on an elite time trial cyclist. To run quickly, there are other elements to consider and the way we bounce off the floor, related to tendon stiffness, has a big impact on speed and economy. So there is still an important element of ‘force production’ but it’s more related to tendons specifically rather than the strength in your quads!

If it’s true that all 3 disciplines are ‘aerobic endurance’ with varying requirements of muscular force, then training should be pretty similar for all of them (with a few tweaks to account for the muscular force). So it’s interesting when athletes and coaches adopt a completely different approach for each of the 3 disciplines.

  1. Swimming is all technique, volume is garbage
  2. Cycling is all about 20 minute power output and higher intensity intervals
  3. Maffetone formula has done wonders for my running
  4. I find the 80:20 formula the best!

Above are 4 common examples of things you might hear from a triathlete, completely different approaches to 3 different sports. The thing to consider here is that the swim, cycle and run elements of the triathlon, as I stated above, are ‘aerobic endurance’ with some differences in muscular / tendon force. So a single approach should either work for all 3 disciplines, or it shouldn’t work for any of them…

Let’s take Maffetone as an example. If you don’t know what Maffetone is, it’s a formula to calculate aerobic threshold and you then run lots of long slow miles at a relatively low intensity to build your aerobic base, encourage fat burning… yada yada yada…. Lot’s of triathletes use it (because they all love a good formula) and many swear that they’re running faster than ever as a consequence, because they slowed down and did less high intensity running. It is simply, lots of easy miles at conversation pace.

So… here’s the thing. If Maffetone works for your running, then it should also work for your cycling and swimming. If low intensity / higher volume Maffetone is the best way to improve ‘aerobic endurance’ then it’s not just limited to running. Surely you should apply the same theory to swim and bike? It either works… or it doesn’t… and if it works, then to some extent it should work for all disciplines.

By contract, if you spend all your time on Zwift doing high intensity work as you feel that gives you the biggest return, then in theory, you should also apply that to your swimming and running. If you feel that’s the best process to follow to enhance your aerobic endurance, then it should work for everything.

Swimming 3.8k is an aerobic endurance sport and not only do you need to swim for a significant period of time, you need to finish feeling fresh. So use your common sense, what kind of swimming will improve your aerobic endurance? Will 1500m worth of drills achieve that goal?

Applying the principle across the board…

80:20 is a popular principle amongst endurance athletes, it simply means that no more than 20% of your training should be high intensity (although in reality, the intensity work probably accounts for much less than 20%) and the remaining 80% should be easy/steady aerobic work. What’s interesting, is that when you talk about 80:20 or doing larger amounts of aerobic work with smaller amounts of intensity, coaches and athletes alike will nod their heads in agreement that this is indeed the way forwards. Yet these same coaches and athletes will spend most of their time in the pool swimming above race pace and most of their time on Zwift for months on end, doing nothing but high intensity work.

If you think 80:20 is the way forwards, then it should be applied across the board. That means 80% of your swimming, cycling and running should be low intensity and 20% (at most) should be high intensity. That should be applied across all disciplines, so as an example, a 3000m swim set would have no more than 600m of high intensity work.

That doesn’t suit me though…

The thing we also need to consider is that our decisions are often influenced by what personally suit us. So if you really hate doing high intensity running intervals, you may quickly become a fan of Maffetone and swear it’s the best way forwards. If you hate long hours in the saddle, it’s easy to convince yourself that short duration and high intensity cycling workouts on Zwift give you a better return. And if you hate swimming, it’s easy to buy into the theory that ‘swimming is all technique’ and choose to do 1500m worth of drills, then get out of the pool. There is also the commercial element to consider, as we all know that ‘shortcuts sell’. It’s Zwift’s job to make you think that 3 x 40 minutes sessions a week indoors is ‘training smarter’ and it’s easy to understand why a coaching advert which states ‘smash your Ironman on only 3 hours a week’ will always look attractive. As with many things, there’s often a motive.

My thoughts on this are pretty simple. Swim, bike and run are ‘aerobic endurance’ sports and the training plan should therefore reflect this, with adequate volume at a low to moderate intensity. There should also be small amounts of specific work to account for the elements of force production on the bike and in the water, the speed and efficiency element of running and the technical elements of all 3 sports. The 80:20 works pretty well if you apply it correctly across all sports, but despite publicly agreeing with the concept, few people actually adhere to it.

For the last 50 years, elite athletes have been doing the same thing. They do a large amount of volume at an easy to moderate intensity, plus other key foundation work. Then they add higher intensity work at the right time, in the correct amounts to reach a peak. Whether it’s swim, cycle or run, the process is generally the same, with some differences in specifics.

Training is pretty simple, but maybe that’s the problem, maybe it’s just too simple. In this day and age, maybe it needs to be more complex, more difficult, involve more data and be more technical for it to be attractive? Because surely something so simple can’t work?

Marc Laithwaite is a level 3 qualified coach, who has been coaching endurance sports for the last 22 years. He is a former sports science lecturer of 12 years and spent 2 years with the British Cycling team as a bloods analyst. He has worked with British Triathlon Coach Education as a coach educator and spent 5 years as head coach of the NW Regional Triathlon Talent Squad. He’s also a former national age group triathlon champion, European duathlon champion and Ironman age group winner.

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