I’m often asked as an exercise physiologist and coach how an athlete should graduate back into training after a break, or even worse, I see the mistakes many athletes make. For many triathletes or endurance athletes in Australia, June means a return to training and putting down their first block of training for the upcoming season. For this reason I thought I’d put some insight into how you can ensure the first block of your 2018-19 season is your best, and leaves you ready to handle the increased demands of your subsequent training.
Traditionally we see many endurance athletes avoid any intensity during their first block of training and instead focus on low intensity aerobic work in training Zones 1-2. In general this can be an ok plan as the risk for injury is less at lower intensity, however there are many physiological and strength benefits you miss out on compared to if you included some slightly higher tempo or sweet spot training just below threshold.
As you can see in the table below, zone 2 training does have a large variety of physiological benefits such as increased mitochondria density, increased lactate threshold, increased muscle glycogen storage and inter-conversion of fast twitch type IIb to type IIa muscle fibres (type IIa fibres are more aerobic than type IIb so more beneficial for endurance athletes). However, as you can also see the expected physiological adaptations gained with Zone 2 training is far inferior than Tempo or Sweet Spot training.
The other issue with sticking to just Zone 1 and 2 training, which is highly applicable to running, is that at higher speeds there’s also a higher musculoskeletal requirement which we can use to our advantage. Although at high volumes increased speed can be detrimental if you get the dosage wrong, including higher Tempo or Sweet Spot training can aid towards strength development and enhancing movement kinematics. Together this also allows you to transition faster into future training blocks where a focus will include more race pace efforts, intervals, Fartlek or speed work.
So why do so many athletes still train in Zone 1 and 2? Well the issue is if we train all the time at high intensities, although we might gain superior physiological benefits, the risk for injury increases. However, if we carefully calculate and plan sessions out and combine multiple intensity training throughout the season we can minimise risk across an entire season whilst maximising training adaptations from block 1.
So how should you plan your base? The first thing to do is to start working back from your season goals which will determine what the physiological requirements required to achieve them are. For example, if your goal is to run sub 40min for 10km, we know that the body will need not only be physiologically capable of handling 24sec/100m pace for 10km, but also strong enough to handle both the race and training demands required. One simple way which I recommend is to start including run throughs at the end of easier or zone 2 runs from your first block of training and then increase these into the main set of your sessions. For example, you may want to include a session early on in block 1 such as:
20min zone 2 finishing with 4 x 100m run throughs at 10km goal race pace.
What this will do is condition your body by the end of your first block of training to withstand higher reps or longer intervals at race pace which will no doubt become a focus of future training blocks session. In essence, you’re starting to train your body from day one to become accustomed to the training and racing demands it will be required to handle through a controlled and calculated way which will minimise future injury risk as your transition from one training phase or block to the next.
Other sessions that can be included in training block 1 would be your Tempo and Sweetspot sessions at least once per week. An example for this would be starting off by including 2 x 5min @ Tempo/Sweetspot with 2min recovery and progressing the total time spent at the higher intensity as your training progresses. By the end of block 2 I usually like to have athletes capable of handling either 30min or 2 x 20min at tempo-sweet spot pace as this will really start to maximise improving lactate threshold, increased glycogen storage and increased mitochondria density which will become vitally important as you progress through your training phases and into more high intensity work.
As with all training, it’s best to consult with an expert coach and always remember that a single session won’t make your season as fitness is the sum of the total completed training.
Brodie Gardner has a Masters in Exercise Physiology, Honours in Sports Science and competes as a professional triathlete. He has a long history working with elite athletes and has provided consultation services to numerous Australian sporting associations.