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We’re roughly two months into the new year and for most of us, our training and racing goals have already been developed and set in collaboration with our respective T:Zero coaches. Training Peaks is probably looking nice and green too – rolling hills for days.
But this isn't always the case...
It would’ve been easy to write yet another generic article on tips for getting back on the training wagon when the wheels have fallen off. But indeed, when you take the time to stop and consider loss of motivation, these superficial measures aren’t going to tackle the real problem.
The real problem is an ill-defined ‘why’.
Your why is not the result. Your why is the reason you’re striving for the result in the first place.
Take the following (quite common) example:
Result: Cross the finish line in my first Ironman
Why: To push myself beyond what I am (seemingly) capable of (mentally and physically); to see if I can make it.
Before tackling your why, of course you must first set the huge goal; one so big it scares the [insert expletive here] out of you.
Think back to your first Ironman (or first ever triathlon, irrespective of distance). Your why driving you to get up and train every morning, without fail, is the fact that you’re not quite sure if you’ll even be able to do it. Your why is clear. It’s highly likely you’re genuinely scared. You’re “all in”.
Fast forward down the track, with a few more races under your belt, and perhaps your why is not so clear anymore. Why are you here again? What are you trying to achieve? A better time? Is that motivation enough? This is a big reason why athletes often find it difficult to revert to compete at lesser distances and remain enthusiastic about it, once they’ve finished an Ironman. Sure, there’s always a performance factor – the desire to do better – to race faster – but is that enough to get you out of bed before dawn, every morning?
Without a very clear understanding of the reason you’ve committed to doing a race, your journey will be a struggle. And the destination (should you make it)? Not so sweet. Realistically, if you’re dragging your heels out of bed, or continually hitting the snooze button, your drive isn’t strong enough.
Conversely, if you are unreservedly clear on your why, you won’t struggle to find that motivation to get up in the dark and train. Sure, you might be tired, but you’ll still get up and get it done. There would be absolutely no argument in your brain about whether you should be doing it.
For any athlete who truly wants to get the most out of their journey, it’s vitally important they have a clearly defined why and then continue to revisit it, reassess it, ask the question often and write it down. Mental strength is such a huge component of endurance racing, and the why factor is arguably the biggest mental hurdle of all. Once you’ve overcome it; once your why is clear, so becomes your path.
Recognising that your why can change throughout your journey, and your ability to be open to that change, is also important to consider.
Take this coaching example of an athlete in her mid-50’s, with minimal endurance history. Her why was to see if she could finish an Ironman. Her coach got her swim and bike to a standard whereby she could walk the entire marathon and still cross the finish line in under 17 hours. Four months out from race day he told her she didn’t need to do any more running. Confused, she asked him for an explanation. The athlete was still projecting her original why, but when strategically challenged by her coach to re-evaluate, she realised her why had changed. She now wanted to run the whole marathon and see what she was truly capable of.
Certainly, this story is not unique. The desire to discover one’s ultimate capabilities is what attracts so many athletes to endurance racing in the first place.
“Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” ― David McCullough Jr.
For many athletes, it’s not until the finish line that they realise it was never about crossing that line, but it was about the journey in the lead up to race day. In endurance racing, the most enjoyment comes from the grind of that journey and to be successful as an endurance athlete, you need to get solace and fulfilment from that grind. The early morning wake ups, runs in the pouring rain, solo hours on the bike, missed work drinks and everything in between – that’s the real deal. If you have a very clear understanding of your why, you’ll be able to look back on these experiences and the journey as a whole with warm nostalgia instead of complete resentment. If your why is clear, then the reward comes from the journey itself.
So what about metric gains? Aren’t they important too? In short, yes, they absolutely are. However, if your motivation is fuelled purely by a desire for metric gains, then the journey isn’t going to be enjoyable and you’re not going to get the most out of it either. Reflecting on a range of T:Zero athletes from years past, those who have seen the most improvement in metric gains over a short period of time are those who in their souls have embraced the grind of the journey. So, when they arrived at the start line, the result didn’t really matter. Whilst they wanted a good outing, regardless of the outcome on race day, they’d already won. Finishing the race within their perceived achievable timeframe was just the cherry on top. The finish line? It was just the view.
Throughout your triathlon journey (as is true in life itself) it’s important to take a step back and keep perspective along the way. Think about your journey not as yourself as an individual, toiling away alone, but rather a collaborative effort – family and friends, your workplace, coach and so forth – all these people are supporting and encouraging you; helping and willing you forward. They are your personal ‘A-team’. Stepping back and realising you’re just one part of a bigger picture to which so many people are contributing (and making sacrifices for) helps to remove the “woe is me” factor, allowing you to focus on the task at hand with absolute clarity. If you’re not prepared to put in the effort and your why is not clear, then you’re not only wasting your own time, but the time of your support crew too.
Anyone can find a coach or an online program to get them (in questionable forms of readiness) to the start line of an Ironman. But if you can find a coach who really instills in you the understanding that it is so much more than crossing a finish line, encourages you to revel in the journey; one that will expose your greatest weaknesses and push your physical and mental limits beyond what you ever thought possible? Then you’ve hit the jackpot.
So, if you happen to find yourself on Struggle Street or hitting ‘snooze’ far too often, instead of searching for a superficial fix, take some time to sit down and reconsider what’s ultimately driving you.
Remember, it’s okay for your why to change. It’s good to continually reassess your motivations throughout your journey. But if you’re not prepared to have these conversations with yourself and put some effort into your mental game, then come the finish line (if you even make it there), crossing it may very well leave you feeling unfulfilled and longing, wishing you enjoyed that journey more and perhaps wondering why you didn’t.
Feel free to share your ‘why’ with us in the comments below, we’d love to know! What drives you?
Us "A-Type" triathlete personalities tend to regularly get caught in the weeds of what we are doing. We find it hard to take a step back and look at things from a global perspective. We get so entrenched in the process and engulfed in the finer details, that we forget about the big picture of what triathlon, and in particular, long course triathlon or endurance activities longer than 4-5 hours, is all about. What are the majority of us missing you ask? A ‘bullet proof aerobic base’ - thanks for asking.
Time and time again, one of the biggest oversights I see, is athletes being way too keen to go hard or more often than not, a bit harder than easy. More is better and faster is icing right!? Well, yes and no, and… it depends. It depends on how good your aerobic capacity is to begin with.
What’s with this aerobic base/capacity business and why is it so important?
Let’s take a few steps back here and get a solid grounding to build on.
To begin with, in general, let’s say it takes roughly six weeks to strengthen a muscle (give or take). Add to this is takes roughly 210 days (6-7 months) to build connective tissue (properly) and you have yourself some grounding principles to work with at the basic physiological level. Of course, everyone is coming from different starting points, but as rule of thumb, this is pretty good stuff for a coach and athlete to remember. Layer on aerobic fitness and general adaptations to your cardiovascular system (heart and lungs etc) and you have the building blocks (amongst other things) for endurance. Marry all this with the golden rule of building fitness “CONSISTENCY” and then with the good old trusty 10% rule whereby you stick to adding about 10% of volume or intensity per week, and you have yourself a solid recipe base. As you develop in experience and knowledge, so too will the intricacies that lie within the customised (we hope) coaching and program you are following. 1%ers are for later on in the journey once the base is set.
First and foremost, the most important thing you can do as an athlete is make sure your aerobic base is functioning at max capacity. How do I do this? Through consistency, frequency and strategically getting your volume to a point where it is sustainably maxed out for you, your present level of experience and ability, and of course, to what extent your current lifestyle allows in terms of time available to train. How long will this take? Well how long is a piece of string really!? No two individuals are alike and thus, why would we put a timeline on it. However, generally speaking, if you are being 90%+ consistent with the training laid out for you, you should see gains in fitness every couple of phases 8-12 weeks sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. Also remember, the fitter and more experienced you are, the smaller the gains and harder these are to come by. Throw in the general consensus that it takes 3-5 years of consistent endurance training and racing to really discover what you are capable of on to all, and you have yourself quite the patient process to look forward to.
What does building an aerobic base look like?
In my world and understanding, to build an aerobic base means to do the majority of your training at a very easy effort. In terms of zones (once you’ve got these set correctly) in a five zone model, you want to be spending most of your time in zones 1 and 2; in a three zone model you will be under ventilatory threshold 1 (zone 1); or good old RPE scale would have you at very easy to easy and being able to complete a ‘talk test’ whereby you can maintain a solid conversation with a training buddy (or imaginary friend) - basically be able to talk a full sentence without getting puffed out. There you have the predominant intensity for setting the scene towards building your aerobic base.
Does this mean all I have to do is get around doing all this easy stuff?
Not at all, there is a time and place for bringing in intensity, and during the base phase, this is very much included in a highly polarised approach*(predominantly). During the ‘base phase’ of any build towards a goal race, intensity is generally limited to short bursts of intensity (intensity being anything above zone 3 / tempo). When thinking about what intensity comes into an athlete’s program during a base phase, I like to think about efficiency first and foremost. Efforts are generally kept very short, under 60 seconds, and with plenty of recovery (2-4 minutes) between so as to make sure HR does not stay elevated for prolonged periods. More often than not, this might include a handful of 15-30 second strides to a strong/steady effort whilst running; 15-60” builds to a strong effort on the bike; and 25-50m builds in the pool interspersed with passive and active recovery.
As the athlete progresses their aerobic base, so too does the intensity and duration of intervals used, as does the percentage of intensity distribution across an athlete’s weekly loading.
*Polarised training is where we spend the bulk of time in the lower intensities eg. zones 1 & 2; under VT1 or ‘going easy’ and we spend the rest of the time up in z4 with very sparing amounts in z5. When we do any intensity, it is generally perceived that we avoid spending much if any time at all in zone 3 otherwise known as the grey zone**. In a nutshell, we go easy or we go fast/hard.
*Grey zone training, an athlete’s biggest nemesis, particularly in the base phase of a build. Zone 3, affectionately called the grey zone is a kind of no man’s land. It’s too hard to be easy and too easy to be hard, so the benefits of spending any time there are neglegible, especially during a base phase. One of the major things we tend to find is athletes spending way too much time in zone 3 when they’re meant to be going easy in zones 1 or 2. What this effectively does is increase the amount of fatigue and loading (stress) on an athlete when for the same or better physiological benefits, you could be running a whole lot easier. To rephrase, you can pretty well get the same aerobic/metabolic benefits, if not more, running in zones 1 and 2, but for less tax and overall fatigue. There’s a time and place for some zone 3/grey zone work, but this is usually better spent as we get nearer races and need to spend some time becoming accustomed to race pace efforts. For the most part though, during the base phase, it is commonly agreed upon in the science world, that we are better off keeping things to a more polarised model.
As mentioned earlier, the extent to how detailed things get and need to be, depends entirely on the individual athlete. For a relative beginner, the most important aspects are consistency, frequency, and volume of training. For intermediate and highly experienced athletes, the addition of intensity together with consistency and volume becomes important.
There you have it. The good old analogy of building a house still rings loud and true when it comes to triathlon… you can’t add all the fancy stuff on top of a loose mound of unstable dirt, so why would you go smashing out loads of intensity without laying down a good, honest layer or ten of aerobic strength - at the end of an ironman or ultra run, it’s not the intensity you’ll be wishing you had more of, it’s working on developing an aerobic engine like Crowie Alexander or Courtney Dewaulter ;-) So, rather than getting caught up in the weeds of it all and not seeing the forest for the trees, take it easy, be consistent and ask yourself, is my aerobic base honestly as good as it could be? The usual answer is - it could always be better ;-)
At T:Zero, our coaches are on a journey of growth and discovery. Whilst we, like you, come from various backgrounds and levels of experience, we work hard to provide each and every athlete with the best customised programs possible. We have the foundation, the knowledge, the skill base, the humility and the confidence necessary to learn and flourish- just like you and your endurance journey.
There are definitely no magic bullets in this sport, and for that matter, no ‘magic’ coaches with secret recipes either. It’s important your coach has the experience, knowledge, and skill-set necessary to work with the individual and ‘read’ a person, but we will touch on how we at T:Zero do this another time. My only advice here around coaches is beware of the coach that says they have the magic recipe and all the answers. If you’re looking for a magic pill to short cut your journey, you ain’t going to find it.
Enquire now and join us on the upwards curve to endurance success.
By Head Coach Scotty Farrell
An amazing collection of training and racing advice from the T:Zero Multisport coaches- with the occasional guest blogger! Read this blog to help you live your potential!