Written By Brian Comly
I signed up for my first triathlon back in 2006 with a mixture of excitement and fear. I put the date on the calendar and worked my butt off swimming, biking, and running for 6 months. Four months in, my endurance drastically improved but I wasn't getting much faster, and I looked sloppy at the end of each workout. So for the remaining two months, I focused on speed, power, and technique. When race day finally arrived, I felt fit but things didn't pan out as I had hoped.
At the end of each leg of the race, my form looked uncoordinated and weak. I struggled to recover over the slightest of hills, and, despite my great endurance, my "kick" at the finish was more of a prayer that I wouldn't get passed. I finished in the top 15% overall but this was in spite of my training plan, not because of it. I learned a lot of lessons that day but most importantly, I learned that my training plan, although very intense, was inefficient and backward.
Thirteen triathlons (and many other events) later, I've optimized my workout plans based on sports science and experience, with great results to show for it. I train less, I no longer get injured, and I outperform my previous race times despite approaching 40 years old (including a second-place age group finish in the Tri the Wildwoods 2 years ago!).
Today, I'll combine my background as an athlete and a data geek to teach you about the first stage of training for a triathlon: the base phase.
Phases of Training
Whether your goal is crossing the finish line in your first triathlon or dominating the field, the best approach you can take to training is through periodization. Periodizing your training divides months of race training into four phases: base phase, build phase, peak phase, and taper. These phases allow you to gradually and purposefully impose specific demands on your body to maximize performance while limiting the risk of plateauing or, worse, injury.
Each of these phases has a specific goal and function based on mounds of data in the field of physiology. The amount of time spent on speedwork, strength, endurance, and technique are the main factors that differentiate one phase from another. This focus allows you to obtain specific skills which build on one another. This week's training is reliant on the performance of the previous week's training, which is reliant on the week prior. This incremental building process is critical, but one of the most important factors is the bottom of the pyramid: the base phase.
Base training, simply put, is meant to lay the base for the training needed later on in the build and peak phases of training. The duration of each phase of training varies based on a variety of things such as fitness level and amount of time prior to the race. The base phase takes a minimum of 4 weeks with the sweet spot around 8-12 weeks. There are three main areas of focus in this phase:
- Building cardiovascular fitness and endurance
- Starting to train the central nervous system (CNS)
- Developing strength
The main objective is to gradually increase your endurance, primarily through low to moderate intensity (Z1 and Z2). This accumulation of aerobic training causes a variety of physiological adaptations such as increasing stroke volume of the heart, improving capillary density, and increasing mitochondrial density. Each of these bodily transformations will improve your health and fitness and get you across that finish line faster.
In addition to building cardiovascular fitness in the base phase, it's important to block out periods of time to improve your technique for each leg of the race. The best time to make changes to your form is when you're going slow for long periods of time; so take advantage of this lower-intensity period. Another area of focus in this stage should be on triathlon-specific strength training (focused on high weights and low reps). This improves your speed, power, efficiency, and the ability to push through the most challenging parts of the race such as the transitions, hills, and the kick at the finish These two areas– technique and strength --are ones that I neglected in my first triathlon. Since then, I've put a focus on form and strength in my base training and the return on investment is incredible.
The majority of workouts in this phase will be spent running, biking, or swimming to improve endurance, but there's a secondary benefit to all of this up-front training: momentum. These workouts are also meant to acclimate your brain to regular training. The consistency you put into this phase of training is essential to creating momentum for the rest of your race training. The dedication to the race in this early phase is where I see the biggest differences in performance when race time arrives. Those who think "I have plenty of time" tend to underperform those who have been braving the cold during their winter runs.
Sample Base Training Week
Here is a sample weekly workout plan for a new triathlete training for a sprint triathlon.
Helpful tips when beginning training
- Listen to your body. The two main risks of training are overtraining and injuries. It's essential to gradually build your strength and endurance, especially through this first phase. Your body will likely send you signals if you're pushing it too much- so listen to it and don't shy away from a rest day if you feel you need it.
- Train with a friend. The winter is no easy time to begin training for a warm weather tri so partner up with a friend for your weekly bike or run to hold each other accountable.
- Cross-train. Athletes tend to be less injury prone when they cross-train, and what better way to use different training modalities than with a sport that requires three of them? Spend time running, biking, and swimming as you're able but add in other types of training like rowers, ellipticals, and yoga.
- Be consistent. It's going to be tough and it's probably going to be boring, but if you do it consistently, it's going to pay off. Set your goals and be consistent with them. It's okay to miss a day here and there but make a promise to yourself to never miss two days in a row.
The most important phase of triathlon training is arguably base training. This is the first phase of training which lasts a minimum of 4 weeks. The focus is on gradually increasing your cardiovascular fitness and endurance while also fine-tuning technique and improving strength. This phase is the foundation on which the rest of your training sits and it sets the tone for the coming months.
About the Author
Brian Comly is a triathlete, occupational therapist, and he runs the blog, MindBodyDad. He has completed many races, including 13 triathlons. He lives in Drexel Hill, PA with his wife and two children.
If you’re interested in hiring Brian as a virtual coach to help with your training plan, please reach out to him at email@example.com.