The Base Phase

January is upon us, hopefully you’ve taken a break since your last triathlon, followed the suggestions I made in Off-Season Training, and are now wondering how to get started on this year’s training plan. brick wallThe time between now and 2-3 months before your “A” race is the time to focus on building/rebuilding your aerobic base, your strength base (if you haven’t already been doing that), and move into the Base Phase, to get started on some focused and structured training.

It’s important to differentiate between the different training phases in your yearly plan, as each phase is designed to focus on a specific area of your fitness. The unfocused phase, i.e., winter, is just as important as the other phases, to allow our bodies to recover from a long season of training. The Base Phase prepares you for the Build Phase, as you can’t build speed on a weak aerobic base, while the Build Phase puts the final edge on your fitness prior to your first big race of the season.

Now that you’ve had time to rest (and eat and drink and watch too much football or reality TV), your body in a somewhat reduced level of fitness, you want to ease back into your training schedule the first 3-4 weeks to remind your body and mind what it means to be back in training mode. You don’t want to rush this, yet every year you see somebody that disappears for a few months and then reappears after the New Year and comes out guns a blazing with the group like they had never left. Hopefully the worst thing that happens is they wind up with a bruised ego and a quick realization that they can’t hang with the same group at the same pace and they notch it back until their fitness returns. The worst thing that happens is they get injured, then pissed, feeling like they wasted all that down time and now they have to wait to recover some more.

So the main focus of this phase is to add the volume needed to easily complete the distance for triathlon you’re focusing on, primarily done in heart rate zones 2 and 3. Seasoned athletes, i.e., those with more than a couple years of consistent yearlong training, will need less time building the endurance needed to cover the distance, while newer athletes’ bodies will need more time to adapt. It’s not just that you’re not used to training longer, but that the physiological changes your body is going through in response to the stress of the increased training volume takes time.

Something else to think about during this phase is that if you’re moving up in distance you have to plan on how much fluid to drink and how many calories you need to take on for the race. It takes time to practice this, find out what works and more importantly, what doesn’t work, to get your body used to taking on more water and fuel for the longer races. This is a common mistake, not understanding that this is the fourth leg of long distance triathlons, and without practicing your drinking and eating you can easily derail your race. If you haven’t done a race longer than 1.5-2 hours, then even moving up to an Olympic distance race means that you need start thinking about your hydration, fueling, and race pace, else you won’t be able to maintain a consistent level of effort for the whole race.

Let me profile two athletes training for their first Olympic distance tri to emphasize this point. Both have raced multiple sprint tris before, have done some longer bike rides and a few 5k and 10k runs, but without any focused training plans.

Athlete number one, Bill, is focused on just training to the distance and then working on his speed, not trying to over-train, thinking this is the way to go. His training looks like this:

  • Four weeks of increased training distances until he could swim 1500m, bike 25 miles, and run 6 miles
  • Four weeks trying to train harder every week in each sport, without increasing the distances
  • Four weeks focusing on bike to run bricks and practicing transitions
  • He typically swam twice a week, one mile each time, biked 25 miles one day and one hour another day, and ran twice a week for 6 miles, another day for 5 miles.

Athlete number two, Jim, takes a different approach, training long first and then adding speed when he felt his body was ready. His training looks like this:

  • Two four-week base training blocks, increasing the distance in each sport the first three weeks, then taking a recovery week, before moving into the next block
  • Two four-week build training blocks, maintaining volume in the first block while increasing intensity in one sport a week in each of the first three weeks, then taking a recovery week. In the second block he reduced his training volume 10-15%, while focusing on race specific training, race pacing, bike to run bricks, and transitions
  • He typically swam twice a week for an hour, biked 2-2.5 hours once a week and 25 miles another day, while doing one long run a week, his longest out to 1.25 hours, some tempo work, and then brick runs the last six weeks.

Each athlete was satisfied with their training and expected to do well, but only one of them met their pre-race goals. A post-race analysis revealed the following:

  • Bill started the swim out strong and kept it up, beating his time goal by 30 seconds, flying through T1
  • Jim started his swim out cautiously, building to his pace after 400-500m and then maintained the effort, finishing 30 seconds slower than his goal time, controlling his pace through T1
  • Bill’s bike started out fast, buoyed by his strong swim, but after 10-12 miles the effort to maintain the pace started to show. He pushed hard through 20 miles, his pace dropping while his HR crept up 5-10 beats above his training levels. He suffered the last 5 miles of the ride, slowing even more as his legs tied up. He came into T2 two minutes slower than his goal time, now focused on trying to regain lost time
  • Jim’s bike started out well as he held back a couple of miles to settle into a rhythm before upping the pace. He felt strong through 20 miles, HR right about where he hoped, and finished feeling good, 30 seconds faster than his goal. He moved through T2 confidently
  • Bill’s run started out fast as he immediately moved to match his training pace, while his HR was already above his AT. After one mile his HR was what he typically saw during a 5k run and he was starting to tie up, as he tried to maintain his pace, but was already running 30 seconds a mile slower than expected. This trend continued for the run as he walked through the last two aid stations, his finish run time was five minutes slower than expected
  • Jim’s run started well, he took a mile to find his pace, his HR settled in and he held this through five miles until he started to slow, still finishing one minute ahead of his goal time

Bill’s final thoughts were that he didn’t train hard enough and that he would train to go faster next time, not yet realizing that his body wasn’t properly prepared for the speed work without a long enough endurance training base. He lacked muscular endurance, the ability to maintain his speed and effort for the duration of the race, even though he thought by training really hard he could just fight through and finish as planned.

Jim on the other hand was very happy to have beaten his expected time, already thinking that if he maintained his long endurance base the whole year he could probably do more speed work in the future, and that he could drop 5-10 minutes on his next race.

Of course this is just one scenario, but one I have seen repeatedly and one that I might have stumbled upon myself when I was just starting out. Athletes like Bill will continue to push speed over distance until something happens in their training and they can’t train as hard but can still train long, or something happens during a race and they have to pace themselves until they start the run where they go out and have a PR day. Does the light finally go on over their head and they realize that training longer was the key, or that better pacing was the key, or will they continue to ignore the obvious?

When I think back over the many years I’ve raced, my best years stick out because I was training long and racing short, not focusing on speed, but more on over-distance training and my limiters, muscular endurance. One year while training for a half Ironman triathlon I “trained through” an Olympic distance race and matched my previous best time, with virtually no speed work. After the half Ironman I morphed into a marathon training program, raced a long course triathlon beforehand and once again matched a previous time. The common thread was training longer, having a stronger endurance base than I normally would have built for the next race, and then being able to maintain a very high level of speed throughout each event, without fading.

If you build a proper base, whether it takes 2-3 four-week training blocks or 3-6 months, and then bring in the higher intensity training on top of this, I believe you will find your fitness improving, your consistency in your racing improving, while also being less injury prone from not trying to go too hard too soon. Focus on your base training for now to prepare yourself for the more intense training in the build phase, and you will have a more successful race in the future.

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