The same simple principles of training apply to all triathletes, from the Olympic hopeful to the new age-grouper.

Alistair and Jonny Brownlee (Triathlon.org | Delly Carr / ITU)

We’d all love to ‘do a Brownlee’ and lead a race from start to finish; or put in a gutsy break on the bike and still pull off a winning sprint on the run like Helen Jenkins. Genetics and the life choices you’ve already made might have ruled you out of the medals this August, but following the same guiding principles as these top triathletes will bring you close to your own personal goals.

So what are their secrets? Is it a special diet that we should all be following? A superhuman training session we can never hope to emulate? You’ll be pleased to hear that it’s neither of those things. When Triathlon Plus teamed up with Gatorade at this year’s Triathlon Show to bring together Jack Maitland, coach to Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee; Marc Jenkins, coach to Helen Jenkins; and award-winning age-group coach Simon Ward, they agreed that there are some basic training truths that all triathletes need to know.

1. Be consistent

Jack Maitland:  If you’ve got a training session planned that’s part of your programme, and something comes up that makes it difficult to do it, you still make the best possible effort to do that session or something close to it. You don’t let environmental things or other factors get in the way. It’s important to get something done; occasionally you have to let things go but that’s your general principle.

Simon Ward: From an age-group perspective – unless you’re lucky enough to have retired, or won the Lottery and you can train full time – the principle Jack’s talking about is: you have a meeting that’s overrun. You’d planned an hour’s run. You think, ‘I can’t do an hour now so I’m not going to bother doing anything.’ Big mistake. Just do a 20-minute run instead. You can warm up for five minutes, run a bit harder for 10 minutes, cool down for five minutes. It’s not an hour, but it’s better than nothing.

2. Plan to peak

Marc Jenkins: Helen’s 2012 season is aimed at 4 August [the women’s Olympic triathlon event]. Everything on the way to that is just a stepping stone. It’s difficult to have lots of peaks in a year, so we’re fortunate that we’ve only got to plan for one. That’s the great position our athletes are currently in, they’ve hit the targets they need to so they can just aim for 4 August and if they lose every race on the way to that it doesn’t matter.

JM: The men’s Olympic triathlon event is on 7 August. The good thing for us is that for the last two years the London race has happened at about the same time, and we know what we did last year worked.

SW: The important thing about that is we know the date and we know the terrain of the race. We’ve also got a good idea of the climatic conditions. These are all things we can incorporate into our training. You have probably got a series of races you want to do, and if it’s difficult for the elite guys to peak more than twice a year, then for those of us who are mortal it’s even more difficult. You should be thinking about one race in the year where you want to put out your best performance. Do your research and then gear your training around that. If you’re doing Ironman Lanzarote, it’s hilly and hot, so there’s no point training in cold, calm conditions. It doesn’t mean you can’t do other races, but look to learn things from those, not necessarily to beat your mates.

3. Train with gradual overload

JM: If you’re training consistently then you are keeping a good base of fitness all the time, but you need to be overloading to get an adaptation to get better. That could be increasing your volume sometimes; it could be about increasing your intensity and pace of the repetitions. The body’s very good at adapting if the stimulus is gradually increased. If you greatly increase the stimulus, then the body can’t cope with that and it’ll break down. It’s much better to have [the gradual increase] there all the time rather than suddenly deciding, ‘I haven’t picked up my running recently, I’ve got to run well in this race, I’m going to bang on another 20% in training for the next month.’ That’s asking for trouble.

MJ: Our swim approach is quite brutal so we’re aiming for a breakthrough in every single session. The main key is the running, so that’s the session we try and progress every week. Then we progress the long run a little bit and then the turbo sessions which we also try and nudge every 10 days as well.

4. Train all aspects, all year round

SW: In terms of physiology – anaerobic threshold, base endurance, strength, VO2 max – make sure that during the year and on a regular basis, you’re targeting all aspects. If people are racing long, they sometimes forget about high intensity stuff and get into a slow steady plod, and guys that are racing shorter distances think because they’re racing at that level they need to go at that pace all the time.

MJ: Our training will stay the same – we’ll still do our threshold or our VO2 max sessions, but maybe increase the speed at a later date, so as you adapt and you’re able to tolerate more overload, the fitter you get.

JM: I would agree with Marc. We do a lot of sessions, particularly in the pool, where we actually go through all the paces. I ask the athletes to swim 100m in 1:20, 1:15, 1:10 and 1:05, and see if they can actually do that without looking at the clock, feel their different paces and hold good technique at different paces. As we go through the year I change the emphasis between the different paces but they’re all swum all year.

SW: We have a physio clinic at work and there are spikes in certain injuries at certain times of year. For endurance athletes it’s September to October, when they bump up the mileage, and get overuse injuries. In spring when they start going to the track and adding the interval work, they start running faster when they’ve not done it over winter, they get a different type of injury. Perhaps if there was an element of these different types of training all year round, those injury profiles wouldn’t be quite so dramatic.

5. Go for low-hanging fruit

SW: In your training there are things that you could do that will cost nothing other than a few minutes’ effort, yet people ignore those and are looking for the gadget or piece of equipment that’s going to cost them thousands to help them improve. So what simple things can we try to incorporate into our training that cost nothing more than a bit of effort?

MJ: For us it comes down to injury prevention. Helen can have the best bike in the world, but she’s not going anywhere if she’s not injury free. You need to get a programme set up by someone who knows what they’re talking about initially, but every Monday and Friday Helen spends an hour-and-a-half doing her strength and conditioning. You can do that on your own, if you get a good programme from someone.

JM: Watching age-group races, I see people who haven’t got fundamental skills like getting on and off the bike, riding on the drops, or on the tri bars, even on the flat. Any coach could teach you those things inside an hour and give a fairly high percentage of people those simple skills, but you then need to go away and work on them to be able to reproduce them in a race.

SW: For me it’s flexibility. Ten minutes of stretching a night. It’s something that’s very much ignored but that you can do for 10 minutes in front of the television. Remember consistency – 10 minutes every night is better than a yoga session every month.

6. Get your basic nutrition right

MJ  We try to be sensible, eat lots of veg and salad. Leading into a race we wouldn’t eat anything different, we certainly wouldn’t try and overload on carbs. And be familiar with your nutrition; use it in your training for at least a month before your race.

JM  I agree that if you’ve got a good, varied diet, that’s not too extreme, you should be OK. You’ve got nothing to worry about unless you haven’t got the energy to complete the training sessions, or you’re not recovering as well as you think you should be. With Alistair and Jonny, what’s been more important has been the change in how much attention they’ve had to pay to their race nutrition, because they’ve come up from being eight or 10 years old, from just doing a 10-minute Tristar race, when nutrition during the race is just not going to happen, but the step up from sprint to Olympic distance was a significant one for them. They had to be more precise with what they’re taking on board.

SW  There’s a really good book which would be excellent for triathletes called Nancy Clarke’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. There are three words that I remember from that book; wholesomeness, variety, and moderation. Follow the 90% rule: if you eat three meals a day you’ve got 21 meals a week, if you’re eating well for 19 of those you can afford to let your hair down, so Friday night have a takeaway and a beer.

7. Take recovery seriously

MJ: It’s probably the thing we are worst at managing. You put in a rest day and then get there and feel you don’t need it, push through it, but two days later you do need it. So we go 10 or 11 days then take an easy day.

JM: We have an easy week every four weeks, but it depends on the athlete. You can be quite reactive, but you should plan it in. One of the things we discovered is as [the Brownlees] have become senior athletes and the demands on their time outside training have become greater, that has impacted on their recovery. You think, ‘I’m going down to London, we’ll sit on the train all day…’ But it causes problems, because it’s not the same as the recovery you get at home.

SW  As a coach working mostly with age-group athletes, where I don’t see them every day, I can ask how they are feeling and they go ‘yeah great’ but you know they’re probably lying in bed, struggling to pick the phone up. So for me it’s important to build in compulsory rest days. It’s better to have a planned day off, take one and feel more energetic, than don’t take it and wake up with a sore throat a couple of days later.

8. Train your weaknesses, race to your strengths

JM:  People are often not very good at addressing their areas of weakness. They don’t like doing something they’re not very good at. It takes application to get better at certain things; you have to actually go into a session and really think about it. You might have to really fine tune something in your swim stroke or the way you’re running, but that might have really big benefits, if you can make yourself a bit more efficient with every stroke and every stride, so you should work on those things in training. Then when you’re in a race you’ve got the confidence of all the training that you’ve done, and you can use the strengths that you’ve got to put you in a good position.

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