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The 4 Key Ingredients for a Successful Triathlon Training Plan

Taren Gesell

In this episode, Triathlon Taren breaks down (in great detail) the four key elements of a successful triathlon training plan!

Podcast Transcript

What's up trainiacs, Triathlon Taren here, your favorite coach. Well, pseudo coach and today's guest is me, with the release of Team Trainiac. I thought that it would be good to start talking a little bit about how I believe people should be training for triathlon and this kind of gives you a little bit of a glimpse of how the Team Trainiac training platform is created. What are the principles of training that we've incorporated into that, that I believe allow it to be a really revolutionary thing in the triathlon industry that satisfies a niche that is specifically meant for the age group triathlete who wants to confidently race a triathlon, be at a sprint an Olympic, half Ironman and Ironman distance race, But they're not necessarily looking for elite world class coaching and hammering out 15, 20, 25 hour weeks.

Sure, granted, everyone wants performance. We all want to look better when we put on our jammers in our speedos, we want to look good in Lycra. We want to be as fast as we possibly can. But we also want to enjoy the sport and I think that that niche ... Well, I mean, I can call it a niche but it really is, I think the meat of our sport. Whereas so many triathletes are underserved right now because I think the existing offerings of triathlon coaching are in a few buckets that don't reflect the vast majority of triathletes out there. And those buckets are athletes that are looking for absolute peak physical fitness, one on one coaching, full-time coaching that is two, three, four up to $1500 for a one on one full-time coach. Some people aren't looking for that kind of price tag or that type of interaction with a coach.

The next bucket is the group based local triathlon coaching in a team environment. And some people just don't have the schedule that allows for that. Then that just leaves everyone else to do it on their own, essentially. That is actually about 60% of the triathlon entries. 60% of the people that step up to a race in a triathlon are typically self coach, going at it alone. And there has to be a huge amount of the people in that group. We know for this for a fact because this is what we hear in the comments and when we speak to age group triathletes out there that it's not that they don't want leadership and guidance and to be surrounded by a team. It's just that there's no way to do it.
So that's why we've created the Team Trainiac training platform to pull a lot of the benefits of one on one coaching but do that without the cost. Pull a lot of the benefits of group environment training like with a local triathlon team, but without the time commitment of having to spend your nights or your weekends on somebody else's schedule. And we think the Team Trainiac is going to provide that option for a lot of the people out there that just aren't served by what the existing options are out there. So we talk about what we are going to provide in Team Trainiac training platform through this podcast. So let's get into it.

It's a new year, we're talking January 2019, and everyone is thinking about new goals. Maybe you're thinking about your first triathlon. Maybe you're thinking about doing your six triathlon. But in most cases the goal is the same for everyone and it's trying to be a better version of themselves. Now I want you to picture the absolute most best, badass you that you can possibly imagine. think about how you look in your jammers and your speedos. Think about how you look coming across the finish line. Think about how fast you feel, how confident you feel. Think about ripping around a course on a bike, and just destroying people's legs as you leave them in the dust. Think about swimming really confidently and knowing exactly how to tackle the course. Think about finishing a race fast and confidently and owning that course and going through all of the training confidently and consistently, without injury, without slogging through it. Think about enjoying the entire process of training, having fun with your friends, having fun with the training and performing well on race day.

Unfortunately, what we find is that most people never actually achieve that, that typically, a triathlete will get into the sport when they've made a life change and then lose a few pounds and in the first few years get a little bit fitter, little bit more confident, quite a bit more fulfilled in life, because that's just what triathlon does. And then somewhere around the second or third year in the sport, most triathletes tend to hit a plateau. They stop losing weight, they stop getting any faster, they stop feeling like they're really enjoying the training because the excitement of all those early gains that they experienced in the first few years all of a sudden go away. And then they're left to be in the bubble of most triathletes that experience this year after year but they don't get any faster they don't lose any more weight they're say skinny fat. They are a fit fat, they're putting in work hours after hours, week upon week but then when they would go to a race a lot of triathletes aren't getting anything faster year after year, and they're not seeing any of those gains. And they're sure in the sport because they like the lifestyle, but we all want to see what our body is capable of and when we hit that plateau, we aren't actually achieving our biggest, baddest, best, most badass self.

So why is this happening? Well, number one, this is happening regardless of whether people are doing it on their own or if they have a coach or if they are actually with a local tri club. And the reason for this is, typically because of the study showing time and time again, athletes are training with a poorly designed training plan. When athletes have a coach and they're experiencing this, they are actually doing this for one of two reasons. One of these two reasons is that, you might Have a good coach. But it's hard to follow a properly designed training plan. Or what's actually more common is that there is a break between what science knows, what we know for a fact, what studies show and what coaches and triathlon teams do. And what we're going to get into in this podcast, is what the science and the studies show are the right ways to train. What are the key components of a successful triathlon training plan?

So here are some questions that you should ask yourself to decide and figure out. Are you actually incorporating the proper aspect of a successful triathlon training plan that's going to allow you to be that most badass you that you can possibly be? Have you ever felt like you are slugging through your workouts, going through the motions, showing up to a workout in the morning and not feeling very motivated to do it, or feeling like your muscles are tired and and they're not ready to push, they're not really anxious and motivated to get out there to that next workout? Have you ever spent an entire year doing all the training but not actually got any fitter or faster? Your pants fit the same, your shirts fit the same you haven't lost any weight you haven't got any faster and you haven't p-bead from your previous races? Have you spent an entire season dealing with multiple injuries or sicknesses? This is really really common.

If you feel like you've got weight to lose despite being very active, maybe you are training five, six, seven days a week but you still don't look like Sebastian Kienle and Lionel Sanders and Jan Frodeno with the six pack abs, then it's likely that you are falling into what I call low ROTC training, low return on time training. The time that you spend training is not generating a lot of return. Before we get into what a properly designed triathlon training program actually features, we've got to take a step back and look at a few of the more global challenges that we experience as triathletes.
What I did was I started thinking about what are the most common questions that we get from triathletes? What are the most common things that I see when I go to a race that I see is common to the back half of the racers out there, the racers that do want to get faster and see what they're capable of. But what are the things that are holding them back from actually being that most badass self? Then I looked at what were the lead dominoes? If you follow Tim Ferriss, instead of looking at those 20 things, or 25 things roughly that I came up with that are the biggest limiters to age group triathletes, I looked at, okay, what are the few things, the small handful of things that if we fix these few things, it's going to cascade into taking care of the other 15 to 20 things that are holding athletes back? What I came up with, were these five limiters.

Those five things are your weight, your overall health, the swim, strength endurance, and confidence to finish the race. Let's get into each one of those.
Your weight, think about that most badass self that you were thinking of at the start of this chat. That individual is probably a lot more ripped than you are right now. So what we want to do is get you closer to that self and we can do that, it's very, very easy to do that. The studies, the science is all out there for how to do that and do it in a healthy way. That's the key. We want to bring down your weight so you can feel more fulfilled, you can be more confident, you're happier with yourself. You can look in the mirror and think about how proud you are from where you were, and where you are now. That also has an effect on being a better triathlete, or whether it's a Spartan Race or a half marathon or a marathon or cycling race or to a lesser extent swimming, because fitness has a lesser impact on swimming. But if you are more fit, if you are happier with yourself, if you weigh a little bit less, but you're a healthy weight, it's going to cascade into being a better athlete overall, being a better athlete overall makes us a better triathlete.

Health. So we talk about health as overall health, not fitness. There's a difference between fitness and health. And there's a couple stories that we can point to. This year in 2018 when Jan Frodeno was likely the fittest triathlete in the world relative to his distance and completing the half Ironman World Championships in a time of 3:36 on a fairly slow course he was probably the fittest triathlete in the world. That might be the best performance that's ever happened in the triathlon landscape, and might ever happen. That was such an incredible performance. Couple weeks later, he's diagnosed with a stress fracture. So he was very fit, but it wasn't necessarily very healthy.  We can look back at my story in 2017, at the end of 2016, I completed my first half Ironman in a time of 4:46:46. I was very happy with this, I wanted to all of a sudden become much more fit and see what I was capable of, see if I could get down to a 4:30-ish kind of time. So I hired a coach and this coach was very, very talented athlete, very knowledge coach but fell into the bucket of typical triathlon training that most athletes go through. That is the low ROT training. So in 2017 I ended up actually training more than I ever have, feeling like I had trained harder than I ever have. Theoretically, I should have been fitter than I ever have, be able to go and do times that are faster than 4:46:46. But what happens, only go on and I underperform throughout the entire season, because while I was building fitness, I was losing health all the time because of the low ROT low return on time training.
And this is pervasive throughout the entire industry. This isn't just Jan Frodeno. This isn't just me and going through the Ironman University coaching certification. There was a part where I was reading it and in the text it said 60% of your athletes will experience an injury or illness throughout just about every season, moving on. I was like, "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! So you mean to tell me that this traditional style of training is going to fail our athletes more often than it succeeds?" I think that that is a complete failure of the coaching approach that most athletes are subjected to. Because I can make you plenty fast. I can give you all the workouts to make you fast, get you to the race and perform really well. Every single one of you has that in you. But I can't do that if I make you sick, if I make you injured, or if you have a stress personal relationship, family life or I'm stressing your work commitments by giving you too much to do, beating you down too much and you're not enjoying it.

So the swim, I want to tell you a story that I just experienced, it was just a couple days ago. I think this is really common for why triathletes struggle so much with the swim. I was doing my swim, I follow the Tower 26 swim program, which is very triathlete specific swimming that accounts for the unique needs of triathletes. The fact that we're older, the fact that we only train two, three, four times a week in the pool, and not 12 times a week. The fact that we didn't grow up with a lifetime of swimming as youth athletes, developing those neuromuscular connections and movement patterns that we can develop as a kid while we are very elastic, and resistant to injury. So I was doing my work of the Tower 26 swim program, which are highly recommend.
Meanwhile, there were a couple of age group triathletes that I knew in the lane next to me getting coached by a former elite swimmer. And what she was doing was she was treading water, but she was on her stomach with her heels right at the surface of the water, and her head completely out of the water, looking up at the athletes saying, "This is what you want to achieve for balance. This is what you need to work on. We're going to do this drill." And I looked at that and I went, "Oh my god!. This is a very well known local triathlon swimming coach giving 50 and 60 year olds a drill that they physically can't do." So she grew up as a swimmer being able to develop these flexible movement patterns and the body awareness in the water that took years and years and anywhere from 10 to 14 swims a week and she's prescribing the same things to do to these athletes that are only swimming twice a week that aren't nearly as flexible as her.

So think about this, I want you to go into the pool and try this next time. See if you can go onto your stomach. Get your heels at the surface of the water, lightly tread water with your hands and see if you can get your chin all the way out of the water and hold it up and do that comfortably. You're probably not going to be able to, because you don't have the upper body flexibility and that muscle development that she was able to develop as a kid. You don't have the body awareness in the water to tighten up that core and keep those heels at the surface of the water. You don't have the feel for the water enough to lightly tread water with your hands enough to keep your body upright and close to the surface of the water and your neck. Because we sit at a desk all day as age group triathletes, it isn't flexible enough to crane our neck upwards and get that chin out of the water.
Meanwhile, this coach is giving a prescription that is very, very common, and these athletes were struggling, absolutely struggling, drowning could not go into the deep end, could not actually move a foot with this drill and the coach just said, "You just have to work on it." I think that is a reason why so many age group triathletes struggle year, after year, after year because a lot of triathlons swim coaches don't know proper prescription for triathlon swimming. They end up getting a prescription for swimming that is often based on swimmers. A lot of ex swimmers who grew up as swimmers think that because they are able to do something, because they were able to do something just as kids, that everyone should be able to do something adults, of course, they'll have no problem doing these movements because I could do it as a kid is what they think.

Meanwhile, we run as triathletes, so we are stiff, beyond belief in our lower limbs, we work at desk jobs. Typically we sit down, we have a lifetime of being hunched over. That's just modern day. This is normal. It's nothing to be ashamed of. I'm sitting right now, as most people probably are, while they're listening to this, and our physiology does not allow us to actually train and perform the movements, as a swimmer, we have to train as a triathlete because that's what we are, we are triathletes. So the swim is something that people struggle with year after year.
The fourth thing is that people lack strength, endurance. Often one of the first things that people say when they think about getting into triathlon, or would like to do a triathlon, but one of the biggest impediments is that they think, I could never exercise for that long. The very first hunting 10s of thousands of years ago, before man even had tools, before we even picked up a rock to throw it at a rabbit to hunt that rabbit. The first hunting was persistence hunting. This is running down an animal, and just outlasting them. So on the African plains humans would run down an animal and because we are actually running machines, we are endurance machines, we can breathe out of our mouths while we're running. Most animals can't, we are upright, we are balanced, we are able to continuously go for miles and miles and miles, while animals have to close their mouths typically to breathe. They can't breathe and run at the same time, so they can run for short periods of time. But when us humans keep running, and keep running, and keep running, what we're doing is we're gradually overheating the animal and over the course of hours or maybe an entire day, eventually that animal overheats falls down and we have persisted longer than that animal was able to go.

So we are built to go very, very far for very, very long periods of time. But the problem is that athletes and coaches perform a training plan that instead of building your body's natural ability to go very long, they go through training plans that beat you down and don't allow your body the ability to rest, recover and improve itself. In addition to that strength training has also been an afterthought, and it's almost been taboo in the endurance world, thinking that if you strength trained and you built up your strength and endurance your body's ability to perform a task repetitively, under stress, for long periods of time that strength training would actually be a detriment you, that you would get muscular and bulky and lose flexibility and you wouldn't be able to actually perform well. But here the word strength endurance I say that is critical to actually have strength training in your plan. That's why I call it strength endurance, not just endurance training.

Finally, the last impediment is confidence. Athletes do need to respect the distance. These distances are long. We aren't really meant to come from modern day offices into doing Ironmans, it's very difficult for us to do. Our body is naturally able to do it if we have the right training, it's a hard thing to do. So we need to respect the distance but you also need to know that you can own the distance and that you will own the distance. So when you get to a race, you don't have those nerves and that cortisol and those stress hormones in your body that is actually taking energy out of your body and potentially going to lead to you cramping up having digestive issues, having a bad race experience. I call this being more in control of the race than it is of you.
So what are the key global aspects of an effective triathlon training plan? Well, number one, we have to keep you healthy. We got to keep the injury free, sickness free. Your health, family and work relationships all need to be in balance. We need to optimize fat burning and muscle maintenance, not necessarily muscle growth, but maintaining your muscle. So we don't just want you to lose weight. We want you to burn fat and maintain muscle. We want you to be that bad ass self that is muscular with abs and nice big shoulders and strong lats and a strong body getting across that finish line, looking good. We need to optimize your time, we're looking for the highest return on time methods that we can.

One example is Sami Inkinen and if you research him, you look up him, he is a age group runner up in his classification in the Ironman World Championships. He is an age group winner at the Half Ironman World Championships. He's a multiple overall amateur winner in huge races such as Wildflower and Sami only trained 10 hours a week, 10 hours a week, even for an Ironman race. But Sami was diligent about getting the absolute most out of every single minute that he trained. So instead of having to train 12, 15, 20, 25 hours a week, we want to look at the methods that allow us to get the highest return on time that we possibly can. We also need to show you that you are capable of doing so much more than you thought you possibly could. Roger Bannister was the first athlete to break the four minute mile going 3:59:59 I believe it was, just barely squeaking under that four-minute mile. Meanwhile, scientists all thought that it was physically impossible for humans to do, but in his training, one of the things that he credits to actually being able to break that four-minute mile is visualizing himself every single day, crossing the finish line, looking at the clock and seeing 3:59 on it.
Finally, you have to enjoy your triathlon training. It should never feel like a slog. It should never feel like you're constantly hurt. Battling sickness, battling injury, just to get to that start line and go, "I can't wait for this race to be over so I can get back to real life." Whether we finish first overall as an amateur or last overall as an amateur or 600th overall, as an amateur, we're all making the same amount of money at this. We're all getting the same thing out of it, if we do it properly, we can enjoy it and perform well and that's what we're looking for for you.

So what are the key aspects of a properly designed triathlon training plan? Well, I've come up with for things that anchor the Team Trainiac training platform. And I think that these four things I selected because they satisfy every one of those global needs, they're going to keep you healthy. They're going to optimize fat burning and muscle maintenance. They're going to optimize your time, they're going to show you that you're capable of doing so much more than you thought you could and you're going to be able to enjoy it. The first thing is 80/20. One study of professional swimmers found that 77% of their training volume over the course of a year was at a really, really low intensity. Another study of Olympic marathon trials runners found that they spent 78% of their training time in aerobics zones again, really low intensity. Elite Kenyan runners were found to spend 85% of their time well below threshold, these are all just different words that say a really, really low intensity.

What is a really low intensity? We'll get into that. But think extremely easy, so easy that if you did it, you would feel guilty about how easy it is. Meanwhile, amateur athletes spend very, very little time in these low training zones. A huge amount of moderate intensity is what most age group triathletes do and very little in high intensity. There's a study done in 1993 by Arizona State University. It showed that recreational runners when left to their own devices would spend roughly 46% of their time. Remember, we're looking at somewhere around 80 four elite runners. So these recreational runners at Arizona State University spent only 46% of their time in low intensity zones, another 46% of their time in moderate intensity zones, and only 8% in high intensity zones.
Remember that not 46, eight with 46 in moderate. We're looking at 80% in low intensity and 20% in high intensity. The reason for this 80/20 breakdown is that we need to spend a huge amount of time repeating emotion with really good form. It's hard to have good form when we start getting into slightly difficult intensities. When we start getting into that, okay, all right, this is a little bit hard intensity and we start grinding it out, to end up just getting through it. It's very easy to spend a huge amount of time repeating emotion with really good form. We're talking this 80% of time in low intensity zones. When we're doing that over and over and over, we're creating the neuromuscular connections to repeat emotion with really good form for a long period of time.
This 80% also improves your aerobic capacity, your heart and lungs ability to be strong and pump blood really strongly and forcefully throughout our body so that we can get blood into the muscles and actually perform these tasks for long periods of time. When you exercise at lower intensities, you can also easily go longer. If I were to say to you, all right, go out and do a four-hour ride to train for this half Ironman. And you're going to do it at a fairly difficult intensity, but not really difficult. That's going to blow you up but fairly difficult. Well you're going to get to hour one, maybe two and you're going to be smashed, you're not going to want to go for those final two hours. But if I said to you go out and do that four-hour ride and I want it to be casual.

I want you to be able to talk to your friends who are riding with you and stop at a coffee shop along the way and stop for a piece stop on the side of the road and halfway through make sure you can stop and get yourself a little bit of nutrition at the corner store, you can go for hours and hours and hours on end. And these really long over distance rides that are actually longer than what you're going to do in a race, they provide a huge benefit because all of a sudden, you're going to get to the race, you're going to be like, "Well, I've just got to race for three hours on the bike, well I did a four-hour race few weeks ago, no problem, I got this. It's going to build up your confidence and it's actually going to build your body's aerobic ability to pump blood for that long.
You also get a training effect without a huge cost. Remember what I'm talking about with return on time. These low intensity zones provide a good return on time, a good ROT. The cost physiologically of these easier efforts is quite low, but the return is really high. It also keeps you fresh enough so that when you want to go hard, you actually can, that's where the 20 comes in. One study tested athletes doing 80/20 verses athletes that were doing a larger amount of moderate intensity, something more like 60/20/20. 60% in low intensity, 20% in moderate intensity, 20% in high intensity. But what they found was that the athletes who were doing this 60/20/20 couldn't even spend more than about 8% of the time in high intensity because they had spent so much time in moderate intensity. So they were really beat down and by the time they were told, "All right now you've got to go hard and actually do some high intensity that's going to make you faster, stronger." They weren't even able to do it.

80/20 also optimizes fat burning, really low aerobic intensity work. These easy 80% kind of training volumes, they are really good at burning fat while it's happening. It's low in heart rate, low intensity aerobic training. 20%, the really intense stuff burns a ton of fat and the up to 48 hours after training. Whereas moderate intensity does not do that. And we're going to do an entire podcast about the power of 80/20 training and another podcast about proper zone training. Getting into zones, that's the second aspect of a properly designed triathlon training plan. I use a five-zone system, keep it really simple, easy to remember, it's the same for your bike, it's the same for your run. Zone one, very, very easy, easy, easy stuff. We are talking less than 60% of your max heart rate, easy. This is like your walking pace. This is easy, warm up pace, this is just getting some blood into the muscles, this is an effort in between really hard intervals during a workout or your cool down. You want to spend somewhere around 20 to 30% of your total training time and this is zone one.

Zone Two, this is more like 60 to 75% thereabouts of your maximum heart rate. And you want to spend somewhere around 50 to 60% of your training time in this zone. This is the meat and potatoes zone. This is your aerobic conditioning zone. It's hard enough that you get a really big aerobic response without a huge amount of cost on your body. So you can go for hours and hours and days and days. It's going to keep you fresh. It's going to keep you injury free. It's going to build your aerobic system, it's going to increase the threshold pace, you're going to be able to run faster at lower heart rates, or at the same heart rate or at the same perceived exertions. Your heart rate is going to be lower because you're going to be building yourself as a really efficient athlete.

Zone Three, this is low ROT training. This is low return on time. Basically this is a race effort only. We do some training and Team Trainiac at race pace, because you've got to develop the ability and the awareness of what race pace is. But we don't want to spend a ton of time in zone three. A lot of people refer to it as gray area training, a black hole training, garbage mile training. All of these descriptors of, this zone three, don't really paint it out to be a very pretty picture. But this is where triathletes spend most of their time because it's hard enough that they feel like they're doing something or, "Hey, I'm out here I'm doing something, I'm building some fitness."
But fact of the matter is that zone three is not hard enough to actually make you faster, make you stronger and it's too hard to keep you fresh and it's actually out of your aerobic intensity zones. So you're not actually burning a ton of fat, you're not actually really improving your cardiovascular system. So you're doing this training time, after time, after time, digging a hole time, after time, after time, meanwhile not making yourself faster. This is the number one culprit to triathletes showing up to a race, not looking like a triathlete looking like somebody that you would see walking around the mall with a little bit of a paunch, feeling a little bit tired, just wanting to get to the race because they've done too much training in zone three. And this is pervasive across all disciplines, across all distances across many, many triathletes. This is the 46% in that study were left to their own devices. The Arizona State University found that recreational runners spent 46% of their time in moderate intensity zones. And this time is why you have so many triathletes coming year after year, not getting any faster and digging themselves a hole potentially getting injured, potentially getting sick. It's the reason for that 60% injury rate, that Ironman U talks about.

Zone Four. This is where it starts getting quite difficult. You can maybe only hold this for three to 10 minutes at a time, but you want to spend about 10 to 15% of your training in this zone. If you're looking at doing a half Ironman or an Ironman, it's close to that 15%. If you are doing a sprinter in Olympic, it's closer 10%. Whereas zone five, these are the maximal efforts, these are the 22nd two three-minute kind of efforts. Really, really hard intensity kind of stuff. You want to spend about five to 10% of your training time in this zone five. Only about 5% if you're doing a half Ironman or an Ironman closer 10% if you're doing a sprinter in Olympic.

Referring to the return on time. How do all of these zones relate to that return on time? Well, zones one and two are good a return on time, they're a low cost to your body but, they're a high return on fitness, just takes a little bit of time. Zones four and five, good return on time, high cost to the body, very, very difficult on the body, but really high return on investment. Zones four and five make you faster, make you stronger, burn a ton of fat and it doesn't take much time. Zone three, that gray area, that low ROT zone low return on time zone, is low return on time because it's not fast enough to make you fast or make you strong, but it's also not very slow, so it doesn't make you a aerobically fit and it is a huge cost on the body. Just the difference of about five beats per minute in a heart rate going from say, in my case, 139 beats a minute to 145 beats a minute, is a huge difference in the tax on my neuromuscular system. So got to be really careful to stay out of that zone three.

The third principle of an effective training plan is the 20, it is the 20% in that 80/20. It's hit high intensity interval training. Or some people would think of it more as SHIT, super high intensity interval training. One study that's the basis for the title of the book; The One Minute Workout, did a study comparing two different groups. The first group did 50 minutes of moderate intensity exercise three times a week. This is exercise that is in the low ROT zone three. While the second group did just 10 minutes of exercise three times a week, but within that 10 minutes, there was a total of one minute at super high intensity training and over the course of those six maximal efforts, they completed one minute at really, really hard efforts. After 12 weeks, the improvements for both groups were identical.
So here's one group that is reflective of most triathletes out there that are spending hours and hours doing moderate intensity training. But to get the same benefit, all you need to do is work out fairly hard for even just a total of three minutes a week. It's pretty remarkable, isn't it? This is what the 20 in the 80/20 refers to. When it says go hard. This means hard. Not a little bit hard, not moderately hard. Not, "Ooh, ooh I think I'm building up a little bit of lactic acid. Ooh, I'm breathing a little bit heavy." No this is hard. That also means however, that when you go into the 80%, it has to be very easy. It has to be zones, one and two, very low taxing on the body so that when you have to do that 20% that hard stuff, it's not in zone three, it's in zones four and five, really hard stuff.

Why does this work? When you need to compare a total of three minutes of weekly intensity against 150 minutes of weekly moderate intensity? Why is it the same? Well, there are a few reasons. Number one, is it increases the mitochondrial density. Mitochondria are essentially think of them as the energy producers in our muscles. While zones one and two in that 80% increase the central fitness, your heart and lungs, the cardiovascular fitness required to go long for a long period of time. The 20% increases peripheral fitness increased, it increases the fitness in your limbs. It allows your limbs to actually process the oxygen and use it and turn it into energy really efficiently. If you just did low intensity training, you develop a really strong heart and lungs, but you wouldn't really be able to access all of that energy in the form of oxygen in your limbs. If you just did really high intensity training, you might be able to actually perform fairly well in a sprint but cardiovascularly, you wouldn't have that endurance, you wouldn't have the endurance part of the strength endurance.

So doing 80/20, having both zones one and two for the cardiovascular central fitness and zones four and five for the peripheral fitness that gets you the strength endurance. Not just endurance, not just strength, but strength endurance, so that you can perform the same task over and over, under load at fast paces for a long period of time and not break down. Another benefit to hit training is that high intensity burns more fat after a workout through a process called post exercise oxygen consumption. While low intensity zones one and two, you'll see this on treadmills and exercise machines at the gym that they'll say, well, you want to be under a very easy heart rate cap to burn fat. Well, you can actually do the exact opposite. You can go incredibly intense and your body goes into oxygen debt and that oxygen debt that it needs to end up picking up after the workout can burn fat and increase your metabolism for up to 48 hours after a workout.

The hit training is also hard enough to make you stronger and faster, whereas zone three it's not quite hard enough. But zones four and five is very hard. This is your maximal effort and the closer you get to your maximal effort. The more in the next workout your body will have adapted and said, "Holy smokes! If this person is going to do that to me, I better get faster, I better get stronger, I better lose some weight, I better build some muscle." Finally, super high intensity training also releases hormones. This is both for men and women. This is great for counter balancing the hormone suppressing effects of endurance training. Endurance training is really hard on your body and that's why you have these skinny, fat people that don't look good in their triathlon kits, jiggling over the finish line. And that's why a lot of triathletes out there aren't actually reaching that most badass self that they want to achieve because their hormones are out of whack, and you need proper hormone balance to start shedding fat and building muscle. Hit and training does that.

This relates to the last part of an effective training plan, is strength training. Ultra endurance events aren't about raw speed. A five K race, even a half marathon, it tends to be just about raw speed. All you're doing is you are racing, your outright racing. Ultra endurance events, basically anything two hours or longer, this is an Olympic, a half Ironman and an Ironman, these are hour events. It's about who slows down the least. It's about how many athletes can you pass in the last one to two hours of a race. This is where strength endurance comes in. This is making sure that your body can perform that repetitive motion under, stress at speed and intensity consistently without slowing down or physically breaking down.

This is accomplished by strength endurance, and strength endurance is critical. We accomplish this by building sports specific strength. So this is being able to push high wattages, high tension on the chain really grinding out on a bike. This is running heels while you are running, recruiting tons and tons of muscle groups, not just the surface level muscles required to run. And finally, this is actual strength. This is what you would think about when you go to a gym and you see people doing squats or deadlifts or kettlebell swings, or anything like that that is actually building strength. The thing is that with traditional triathlon training programs, they don't place a big amount of importance on strength, period. Sports specific strength isn't really looked at by a lot of triathletes. Do you see many triathletes doing stretch cords before they get into the pool and adding a little bit of strength to their upper body before that swim? Do you see many triathletes veering outside of the 80 to 100 cadence that takes away from the strength aspect of cycling and places the entire load on your cardiovascular system? No.

Do you see many triathletes going out there doing 50-meter sprints, doing hill sprints? No. They typically go out and they do the same moderate intensity, low return on investment training time, after time, after time. Instead of doing sports specific strength. This is doing stretch cords before the gym in the pool. This is doing hill sprints, running very short, intense bursts, maybe just eight seconds, eight times on a treadmill. This is doing low cadence work on the bike. The nice thing about this is that it's high return on time, so you can have very short workouts that make you really, really strong. Traditional strength is about avoiding functional breakdown. This is about getting into that half Ironman or that full Ironman and not having to shuffle across the finish line because your back hurts or your knee hurts or your lower back got sore on the bike and all of a sudden you stiffened up on the run. This is about avoiding functionally breaking down and not being able to hold proper form.

Traditional strength is about increasing your power to weight ratio. This is about being stronger, while weighing less. And if you can be stronger, but weigh less, think about pushing yourself off the ground for the 30 to 40,000 steps that a full marathon takes. If you're stronger and you don't have as much weight to push off the ground, how much quicker are you going to go? How much easier is it going to be on your body? Strength is immensely important. And finally, strength training increases that hormone production that we talk about, make it easier to shed fat, build muscle, have a higher metabolism so that when we do eat more around the holidays like it is right now you don't have to worry as much about weight gain.
So with these four things; 80/20 training, proper use of the zone system, high intensity training and strength training. Let's go back to those global requirements that I laid out for effective triathlon training. We got to keep you healthy. Strength training is tremendously healthy. It allows you to have that nice hormone production so that you are balanced, you are healthy, you are functionally fit, you're not just fit from the standpoint of running not just fit from the standpoint of cardiovascular really fit, you are strong, you are healthy, you're able to lift something and not worry about it pulling a muscle. Hit training, it's going to burn some fat, it keeps you nice and healthy and it really, it improves you as an athlete and as a human being because every time you do really high intense intervals, your body says, "Holy smokes. This was so hard I got to get faster, I got to get better, I got to get stronger, I got to be a better person."

Proper zone training, absolutely keeps you healthy related to that 80/20, it makes sure that we are spending a huge amount of time recovering and only a small amount of time going really intense. What about weight management? Well like I said, we are able to burn a ton of fat by spending 80% of our time in low fat burning intensities, and then burn a ton of fat and speed up our metabolism with the 20% that gets us into that super high intensity. And then with hit training and strength training, the hormone balance ends up building up our muscle density and builds up our metabolism so we can stay nice and lean. And this doesn't mean you have to be on the cover of Men's Fitness or, or a fitness model just ripped, I mean we all want to get to that I'd love to get to that someday. But this just means being a more fit version of ourself.

Optimizing time. Well, if we're spending almost all of our time at high return on time activities in zones one, two, four and five, there isn't going to be time wasted. So the amount of training that we do is going to provide a huge benefit. And whether we're doing four hours a week of training, or 15 hours a week of training, we're going to get the most out of it because we aren't spending time in that low return on in time, junk mile gray area zone. This is going to then build your confidence. I tell you, if you go and you complete a four hour ride when you didn't think that you could, that's going to build a huge amount of confidence. If you go and you do a 30-minute high intensity, interval session on the bike, that scared you before you got on it, but you ended up completing it, it's going to really increase your mental ability to suffer through those hard efforts because you're going to know that you got through things that you didn't think that you could and you are going to get to the start line.

Meanwhile, everyone out there is nervous. We're all going to be nervous. It's part of the sport. But you're going to get to the start line knowing that if I got through this training, which, wasn't necessarily that hard, because it either was that a low intensity for a really long period of time, or it was at a really high intensity, but it didn't last for that long, you are going to know that you are going to be able to complete that race without question, and you are going to own that race more than it owns you. Finally, you're going to be able to enjoy it. Those long endurance rides in low intensity zones. You can go with your buddies, your pals, turn it into a coffee ride, stop along the way, you can chat along the way, you're not going to feel beat down all the time.
The short super intense workouts, these have been shown in study after study that because they are more intense and they're more challenging, you actually are more mentally engaged and you enjoy it a lot more, you're not slogging through it. So you're going to stay healthy, you're going to have your weight managed, you're going to optimize your time, you're going to build your confidence, you're going to enjoy it. And when you get to that race, it's just a matter of going through the process and knocking it out of the park, knowing that you are one step one race, several training sessions closer to being that most badass self that you envisioned when we first started talking. And that is what Team Trainiac is all about. It's not about just being another training option with the same old science, it's about using all of the things that science is finding out to optimize the time that we spend on this so we can have more fun doing it and be that better version of ourselves that we all aspire to be.

So here are some parameters and resources, some key takeaways that I want you to take from this chat. One person asked me during the series of virtual training camps that we just recently held, "What is the breakdown that you would recommend for triathlon training?" And of course the answer is, it depends. But I hate giving the answer it depends. So I said, "About 50% of the time on the bike, 25% on the swim, 15% on the run and 10% on strength." If you are fairly injury prone, which a lot of triathletes are, switch around that strength on the run so you've only got about 10% on the run. You can even do some things to keep that running, like some water running, like some cross country skiing, like some skate skiing or flatland, rollerblading that is similar to cross country skiing, because the bike really helps with the run, swimming really helps with the run, strength really helps with the run. So if you ended up even switching that, you're doing 90% of your training, not running, but doing activities that actually do help running and only about 10% of your time in that really corrosive injury prone running.
Next thing is to review your training data. If you track your training data on Garmin Connect or TrainingPeaks, or I think it's called Elevate for Strava, a free version basically of TrainingPeaks or plugs into Strava, review your training and ensure that you are somewhere close to that 80/20. Also, ask yourself those questions that I asked you from the beginning. Do you feel like you're slogging through workouts? Have you ever spent a year doing triathlon training but not actually got fitter or faster? have you spent a season dealing with multiple injuries or sicknesses? Do you feel like you've got weight to lose despite being very active? If you've answered yes to one or several of those which a lot of triathletes do, you probably fall into low return on time training.
Next resource Team Trainiac, check it out. If you are listening to this very, very early in January. It's probably not available to the public yet, but you can go to and it's likely going to be late January early February that we open it up to everyone out there in the world. Before we open it up to the public, we want to make sure that we have the capacity to serve everyone really well because well, it is team based training, and we use algorithms and software to make sure that all of these key aspects of triathlon training are automated and taken care of for you. We also do have an aspect to it that is one on one training if you want. And that is if you want to get a video analysis of your swim, if you want to book a one on one call, because you just want a little bit more a few times throughout the year. You can do that, and I've got to make sure that we've got the capacity to serve that before we open it up to the world.

If you want to do some of the zone training that we talked about go to This is a guideline for how to properly use those zones and you can YouTube search triathlon taren heart rate test. And this is a guided ramp test that I have on YouTube that is going to guide you through the heart rate test and then how you actually use the automated calculators that are all included, if you just enter that email address at for that free system.

Some of the books that you can use, I mentioned a bunch of studies and a lot of these studies are in the books. I don't like just linking to studies because then you have to go and do work and start fishing through them. But these books have a lot of the studies already included with the perspective of what do these studies actually mean? An 80/20 book just came out, the One Minute Workout is a great book, Primal Endurance is a good book. If you take out some of the kind of the zealot test nature of the primal movement, there are very good principles in that. And there's an article, a series of articles and podcast by Ben Greenfield and I will put links to 80/20, the One-Minute Workout, Primal Endurance, and Ben Greenfield, all in the show notes for this podcast, which will be on And what I'll do is I will actually link to all of these that and you'll be able to hear this podcast and see some of the notes and resources for where you can go and start doing some of this training for yourself, if you don't actually want to join Team Trainiac where it's all set out for you.

So I hope that this gives you some clarity about what the key aspects of triathlon training in a proper fashion actually are. I don't want you to go out there and have another season, if you are one of those individuals that didn't get any faster, that wants to shed weight but can't and is struggling with how to actually perform triathlon training. These are the key aspects that you need to think about as you're creating your plan. And these are the key aspects that I'm thinking about when we created Team Trainiac that I hope are going to help hundreds if not thousands of trainiacs out there. So good luck in 2019 trainiacs, I will catch you in the next podcast. Thanks for listening.

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Taren Gesell
Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MOTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.

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