The #1 Training Mistake

People ask what’s the one thing I can do to improve my times and I tell them that the number one mistake that most triathletes make is training too hard on easy days and too easy on hard days. Simply put, each workout is designed to train either your aerobic or anaerobic system, so you train within a specified heart rate training zone. The mistake is that people tend to train down a zone on their really hard days and up a zone on their easy days, which changes the focus of the workout. Let me profile a set of athletes to help explain.

Athlete Training Method
Brian Trains by feel, Perceived Exertion (PE)
Lee Uses a Heart Rate Monitor (HRM), knows his HR training zones
Steve Uses a HRM with GPS, prefers to run to a certain pace

Each athlete is training for an Olympic distance triathlon and runs about an 8:00/mile pace in a triathlon. They did two run workouts one week; one was a threshold workout and the other was an LSD (Long Slow Distance), over-distance run. The results of their threshold workout were as follows:

Threshold Workout Results – about 50 minutes
Brian – 15 min. warm up (WU), easy pace
– ran a few Strides, built to moderate pace
– ran 6x800m (1/2/ mi.) at a hard pace, but not a very hard pace as planned
– instead of a cool down he ran another 2×800 at a moderate pace because he didn’t feel tired
Lee – 15 min. WU, Zone 2 (Z2)
– ran a few Strides, built to Z4
– ran 6x800m in Z4, but not in Z5 as planned
– instead of a cool down he ran another 1600m in Z3 because he didn’t feel tired
Steve – 15 min. WU, 9:15-9:30 pace
– ran a few Strides, built to 7:45 pace
– ran 6x800m, 7:20-7:30 pace, but not at 6:40-7:00 pace as planned
– ran a cool down mile, started at 8:00 pace, finished at 7:45 pace, still felt good

At first pass, nothing seems wrong with these results, until you see that they didn’t push either their PE into the very hard effort level or their HR into Zone 5, the focus of the workout, to train their anaerobic threshold, AT; they were running using primarily their aerobic system, not their anaerobic system. Because of this their AT will either not increase or only increase slightly because of this workout. To be able to swim, bike, and run faster, you need to raise your AT so you can go faster longer. The workout these three athletes did leads to plateaus in an athlete’s training, even though they think they’re training hard enough.

Note, if you’re not all that familiar with using a HRM and heart rate training zones, I refer you to Joe Friel, the author of the Triathlete’s Training Bible and many other sports related books, as one of the best references. Google “Joe Friel, heart rate zones” for more information, or better yet, read his books! I added a Run HR zone chart at the end as an example.

If the athletes looked at their average HR for the workout, they probably thought they got in a good workout, with a high average. For this kind of workout, your average HR isn’t that important. What is important is their average and/or maximum HR was for each of the 8OOm laps they performed, going high enough into zone 5 to be beneficial.

Ultimately they fell into the trap we all fall into, settling into a pace that is in our “comfort” zone, and not the one we were supposed to be running in. The bottom line is that they ran too easy on their hard day.

The results of their LSD workout were as follows:

Athlete LSD Workout Results – about 7 miles
Brian – 15 min. WU, very easy pace
– settles into easy to moderate pace for 40 min., holds moderate pace the last 10 minutes
Lee – 15 min. WU, Z1/2
– settles into Z2/3 HR for 40 min., holds mid Z3 the last 10 minutes
Steve – 15 min. WU, 9:30 pace
– settles into a 8:30-8:40 pace for 30 min., then runs 8:20 pace the last 10 minutes

Again, nothing seems wrong with this workout, until you see that none of the athletes ran easy enough or long enough in what is basically a long recovery run. Their legs were not that tired from their threshold workout as it wasn’t run hard enough. As such they felt good and proceeded to run too fast on an easy, if not, long run. This type of run should be run at “conversation pace”, so that you and your training partners can hold a somewhat clipped but complete sentence conversation. If you can’t do that, then you’re running too fast.

The other issue is classic of athletes that run based on distance alone, and not on time, they didn’t run far enough. They only covered about seven miles, not really the definition of an over-distance run when you’re training for an Olympic distance tri. The idea behind LSD and over-distance runs is to work on muscular endurance, the ability for your body to continue moving, regardless of pace. This seems counterintuitive to many athletes, that running slower and longer is more beneficial than running shorter and faster. To define how long these runs should be, use your expected 10k race time and add 25%. For an 8:00/mile runner, that’s about an hour, while they focused more on distance and came up a little short. This is why they made the second mistake and ran too hard on their easy day.

If you look at these results and understand the subtle difference in what they were trying to do and what they actually did, then you realize that it only takes a bit more focus during your workouts to make an okay training day into a good training day. By paying attention to the purpose or focus of the workout, be it a threshold run or a LSD run, in the end your body will gain the benefits of going hard on the hard days and easy on the easy days. Do that and you can start working on the #2 mistake that triathletes make!

HR Training Zone Chart

Below is an example of a HR training zone chart taken right out of Joe Friel’s book, for an athlete that has done an AT test to determine their anaerobic threshold HR. Based on this number, 162 in this example, the associated HR zones are calculated, as well as their HR range for each zone.  These zones are specified in the athlete’s training plan to define their effort level for each workout. For the examples above where the athletes didn’t train hard enough during the threshold workout, it is that last 5-10% of effort that helps our bodies develop and potentially raise our AT. The same for their LSD run, where they were working out in the intensive endurance zone versus the extensive endurance zone, and didn’t run long and easy enough to develop their aerobic base further.

Run   AT 162 HR Percentage of AT Calculated HR
Run   Zones Low High Low High
1 Active Recovery 70 84 113.4 136.1
2 Extensive   Endurance 85 89 137.7 144.2
3 Intensive   Endurance 90 94 145.8 152.3
4 Threshold   Training 95 99 153.9 160.4
5a Threshold   Training 100 102 162.0 165.2
5b VO2 Max   Intervals 103 106 166.9 171.7
5c Anaerobic   Repetitions 107 110 173.3 178.2

One thought on “The #1 Training Mistake

  1. That was an excellent clear and concise break down Fred! I agree that this is one of the most common mistakes that athletes make and ultimately it limits their potential. Hopefully there are some athletes that use these clear examples and apply it to their training.

    I have found that training by HR can be very effective when the goal is to train your aerobic zones (primarily zone 2) however when doing high intensity anaerobic intervals (zone 5) it is much more valuable to train my pace. Even if you don’t own a GPS, you can determine the pace you should be running and conduct your workout in a controlled environment (like a track). Joe Friel uses the following to set up pace zones:

    Zone 1 Slower than 129% of FTPa
    Zone 2 114% to 129% of FTPa
    Zone 3 106% to 113% of FTPa
    Zone 4 99% to 105% of FTPa
    Zone 5a 97% to 100% of FTPa
    Zone 5b 90% to 96% of FTPa
    Zone 5c Faster than 90% of FTPa

    In order to get the most out of a high intensity session, I have found it beneficial to run intervals within a given workout the same pace. HR will lag significantly during each interval and often by the time your HR is in the correct zone the interval has finished. It’s also very common to see your max HR during the interval each increases as you move throughout the workout.

    I always tell my athletes the goal of a high intensity session is to run each interval at the same pace. By the last interval they should be at close to there “max” effort but should always be able to run one or two more intervals if they “had” to.

    Again, great post! I’m looking forward to more great info in the future!

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