Friday, March 6, 2009

Training for Best Race

I got a long email from an athlete last week. The bottom line was that he wanted to know what he might be missing in his training. He’s got an important race in the spring and wants to make it his best ever. Of course, there is no way I could tell him exactly what to do. Even when I know an athlete quite well this is a challenge. So I pointed out three things he needs to do in order to be aiming his energy and time in the right directions. Here’s what I told him.

1. Know what your limiters are and train so as to improve them while maintaining your strengths. There are lots of things that could be one’s limiters. This guy is a triathlete so I asked him to consider, first of all, the three sports and how good he is at each. Sometimes age group race results tell you this. A good example of this is a triathlete I coach. It was obvious when I first started working with him that swimming was his weakest sport. So I shot video of him and determined that the greatest weakness here was his catch. So we have been working on that for a month. I just got a new video from him this week and he has improved it considerably. There are still flaws but they are minor. Our focus now shifts to his running. This will be a bigger challenge as we need to improve both his technique and his muscular endurance. We’ve been working on the technique for about a month. It’s also coming along quite well. Now we’re ready to get his ME improved. That will take several weeks.

Of course, there’s a lot more to limiters than this. One has to also determine what the course will be like and compare that with weaknesses. For example, if it’s a hilly course and he is a poor climber then this is a limiter. But if it’s a flat course climbing is not a limiter. Wind, cold, heat and humidity can also be limiters. Water conditions (rough, flat, cold) are also possibilities. There are others to consider such as nutrition and inadequate recovery time.

2. Train consistently which means doing workouts so as to avoid injury, illness, burnout and other breakdowns while controlling lifestyle interruptions. If his training is frequently interrupted for two or more days, for whatever reason, he will not make the necessary progress for a top performance. Consistency is the key to success in endurance sport—not super hard workouts. I seldom have athletes do extremely hard sessions, but they always improve. Why? Because I am conservative when it comes to designing training weeks and workouts. If there is a doubt in my mind about what I have just scheduled I downgrade the workout. It’s better to finish workouts doing less than one could have done, rather than whipping yourself. If you had a million-dollar race horse who was a contender for the Triple Crown you’d never push them to the edge of injury and breakdown. You’d be conservative. Why not do the same for yourself?

A good example of this is a woman I have been coaching for three seasons now. She was new to triathlon when I started with her but had a great background in cycling. I knew our biggest challenge for a couple of years would be avoiding injuries from running. Even being very conservative she still had a few minor injuries. But this winter her legs began to toughen and adapt to the stresses of running. Now she is finally doing the workouts we need to do to help her become a top contender in her age group. She’s actually been quite competitive the last two years, but this will be the year.

3. Train increasingly specific as you get closer to the race. In this regard, roadies are probably the worst of any sport I’ve ever coached. They seem to want to race multiple times each week, 52 weeks a year. Many think that’s what training is all about—just hammering with a group. Most fail to grasp the concept of gradually adapting to training stress which becomes increasingly specific to the demands of the sport. Sometimes the best thing for them, at least in the winter months, is to have so much snow on the roads they can’t get outside. That forces them to actually “train,” albeit indoors.

I was asked the other day in an interview if “reverse periodization” was a good idea. What the interviewer meant by this was doing high intensity in the base period, especially when this occurs in the winter when one can’t do long workouts, and then doing high volume in the build period when springs rolls around. I pointed out that periodization is not defined by intensity and volume. It’s defined by specificity. The closer you get to the race, the more like the race training needs to become. If one makes the training less like the race the closer one gets to it the more likely it is that there will be a poor performance.

Trying to decide how to optimize training in the winter when you can’t get outside is far more complex than simply doing intervals in January and long rides in May. It’s actually the subject of an entire other blog which I will do some other day.


At March 6, 2009 5:10 PM , Blogger George Swain said...

Thanks, Joe. As always this is very helpful.

At March 6, 2009 7:28 PM , Blogger GRIESE.JASON.A said...

Just re purchased Mountain Bikers Training Bible to make better sense of what I am doing in LW Training program and much of what I read today was essentially what you just posted, which made me feel really good about re buying the book.

And Point 3 was a firm hand on my shoulder telling me to stay with the program and it will all work out.

Thanks Mr. Friel

At March 7, 2009 10:32 AM , Anonymous Sam said...

In regards to your comments about bike racers. Our weekly Crit series here in SLC is underway this Saturday. Everyone is all geared up. A friend asked if I was going to head out with the club to race. I told him I was still doing Base miles and lower (although ever increasing) intensity.
He looked at me like I was LOCO!
Great Post,

At March 10, 2009 9:07 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love this post. Makes me feel better about my schedule. My team gives me crap because I don't just want to hammer with them all the time. Yet I have program leading to progressive overload.

At March 10, 2009 5:08 PM , Blogger Paul Fleuren said...

Great post Joe,


Do you think peoples limiters in a IM are quite similar and how those limiters are addressed is determined by each individuals strengths and weaknesses?

It's peoples strengths and weaknesses that lead to individualised training programs as apposed to the common limiters most of us a faced with. For example,

Steady state endurance
Race execution


At March 10, 2009 5:35 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Paul--Thanks for your note. Good question. The most common limiters for an IM are typically endurance for the novice/completor and muscular endurance for the experienced/competitor. But bike or run force could also be a limiter if it's a very hilly course. And speed skills will also limit many, primarily those with poor swim skills. Nutritional management is also a major limiter for many.

At March 10, 2009 11:51 PM , Blogger Tom Gal said...

So would reverse periodization apply for an ironman then? You will NOT be doing much intensity in an IM distance race so low intensity would be more specific?

At March 11, 2009 6:08 AM , Blogger Mark said...

With regard to consistency, what can be done if one has two or three built in "rest days" due to work, family etc. For example, I have my kids every other weekend, so I can't do much riding on those days. Go for a run? Do a short intense effort? thanks

At March 11, 2009 12:35 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Tom Gal--Thanks for your note. Periodization is best defined by specificity rather than intensity. In the base period training is general (i.e., low specificity). In the Build period it becomes increasingly specific. So, an IM athlete may do high intensity and low volume training in Base and low intensity, high volume in Build. I hope that makes sense. Let me know if not.

At March 11, 2009 12:39 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Mark--'What if' questions are hard to answer because there are so many possible variables. If you're training for a shorter race such as an Olympic distance tri then, yes, a short intense run would be great. If you are training for an IM and it is Base period then that would also be good (see answer above to Tom Gal's question). But if it is Build and you are training for an IM it isn't nearly as good and won't have much benefit. If you're a cyclist I need to start all over again with variables. :)

At March 12, 2009 12:43 PM , Blogger Janine Jacoby said...

I always gleen a lot of information from your posts that talk about limiters. I have been racing for two seasons, and have had a fair amount of success in my age group. One of my biggest frustrations is that I have a true desire to see what my personal best would be, but other priorities keep me from training at the level I would like. Other women in my age group don't have the same priorities and responsibilities (i.e., work and children), and it's difficult to compete. On the other hand, I must be doing something right regarding limiters, consistency, and specificity to get as far as I have. When you are really time constrained, these become even more important. And if lack of time forces you to nail these, maybe it's a blessing in disguise. Positive spin... :)

As usual, thanks for a great post.

At March 22, 2009 2:49 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am just entering my rest week for my build 2 period. Overall I feel much more fit than in previous years and have really tried to stick with your principles of training. Deep down I feel that I have made pretty signifcant improvements. However, I just finished a group ride to get in a "race type" effort. I did not feel as good as I have in previous years. My thought is that in previous years I only trained about 8-10 hrs week. This year I have been doing more(500 annual hrs) My thought is that in previous years I was acutually pretty rested, but not as fit. Today I was probably more fit, but less rested(i.e. my form was a bit lower). I have also been training for more hilly races and have focused on strength and ME. Not sure if you know the ride around south mauntain, but not exactly a a true test of strength! More of a hammer fest.
Does my thought procces make sense?
Dave from AZ

At March 22, 2009 2:55 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Dave--Yes, there's no doubt that if form is low then you are not likely to race well. A little rest before races should do you well.

At March 23, 2009 6:04 PM , Blogger Sara Cox Landolt said...

My copy of your Triathlete's Training Bible is full of highlighted notes. It's helped me repeatedly. Thanks for this resource as well. I reference Triathlete's Training Bible in my post today on Land of the Lost training.
Thanks for the good info,

At April 5, 2009 1:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


As I get older I find myself enjoying my preperation and training for races more. I do not feel the need to race so much. 4-5 big races a year. Mostly 3 day stages races. I really focus on my limiters. I do not see how I could really do this with more than 2 races a month and I would rather only race once a month. I have found in the past that there is, so much investment in racing that if I do too much it really affects my training routine. I use "race like" workouts and group rides to simulate races during my build and peak periods. Do you think once a month can be enough racing?

At April 5, 2009 3:12 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Anon-Thanks for your note. People are unique when it comes to this matter. Not everyone needs/wants to race frequently to achieve high goals. Most cyclists 'race' way too much.


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