It's that time of year whentriathletes are nearing their final races of the season and starting to ask themselves, "How can I get faster next year?" I'm going to share with you several off-season lessons I've learned after years of coaching age-group athletes, with the goal of ultimately helping you better coach yourself.
Your Two Roles as a Self-Coached Athlete
- Coach: teach yourself to be faster
- Time Investment Manager: Learn to maximize your training based on the limited number of hours you have to train each week.
It's likely you've heard of the coach role but what is this time investment manager jazz? In our experience it's actually the more important of the two so we'll save that discussion for part II. For now, let's discuss your role as the coach, as it applies to off-season training.
Off-Season Principle #1: Increased speed at shorter distances translates to increased speed at longer distances, assuming you add endurance to that speed at the appropriate time of the season.
For now, let's drop the scientific terms--aerobic this, anaerobic that and lactate threshold something else. The simple fact is that if you make yourself faster at shorter distance, that speed is translated to increased speed at longer distances. This is a fancy way of saying fast equals fast, everywhere and at all distances.
Think about it: You probably know a very fast 5K or 10K runner who can pop out an equally fast half marathon or even a marathon. You may have a roadie friend who, even though he only rides about 40 miles to your 80 plus on a Saturday, can ride circles around you at will. The reason is simple: If you can improve your 10K time from 50 to 45 minutes, you will also drop your half marathon time from 2:00 to 1:50, or your marathon time from 4:10 to 3:55 (just making these numbers up, folks). Yes, before you move from 10K training straight into a marathon, you'll need to do some marathon training first to put some endurance under that speed.
This is even more true on the bike. If your roadie friend spends 4-6 hours per week with his tongue in the spokes trying to hang on to the back of a 27-mph peleton, trust us, he can cruise all day at his 22 mph to your 19 mph. More importantly, no amount of riding 19 mph will magically create the ability to ride 22 mph. If you want to ride fast, you've got to ride fast.
You earn the right to go faster on race day by making yourself a faster athlete in training. The best way for the age grouper to do this is to get faster at shorter distances and then transfer this speed over to longer distances by building endurance. The up-and-comers in the professional Ironman ranks are former short course athletes who are now applying their ludicrous speed to long course events.
OK, but when do you build speed and when do you shift focus to longer distance?
Off-Season Principle #2: Separate Speed from Distance
You've probably heard of base training: By putting in the time early on you earn the right to do the speed training later in your season. Sounds good on paper but let's talk about what I've observed across thousands of age groupers just like you:
- Athlete does a lot of easy to steady aerobic volume, building their base fitness.
- About 8-12 weeks out from their race, the athlete flips the time-to-get-fast switch and begins to do speed work on the bike and run.
- At the same time, the requirements of their goal race, especially Ironman, dictate that the training volume also continues to increase.
- The athlete tries to build their speed at the same time they are building their endurance, and you find them sleeping under their desk at work.
So, there's what you read in a book and there's what you learn when you apply that book stuff to the real world. This build base, then build speed model often falls apart at the Ironman distance. The combination of fast and far is simply not compatible.
The solution: build your speed at a time of year when you have no requirement to also increase your distance...in the off season.
You have no long-distance events on the calendar and therefore no requirement for 3- to 5-hour rides or 2-hour runs. Instead, you can apply all of your efforts to going very, very fast for very short distances. The off season also allows for enough time to recover from those efforts. You exit the off season, in about April, dramatically faster than your last-April self--and your this-April training partners. You then flip the switch to building endurance as you get closer to your goal races. These off-season gains then form the foundation for massive in-season PRs, podium finishes and age-group wins.