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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!