When you see an article with a title like this, “16 Weeks to a Half Ironman PR”, for a moment don’t you think that this will be the answer to all your training questions? Then you dive in and start reading the article, you check out the accompanying chart, and if you’re like me, by the time you finish reading the first couple of these you’re confused, bewildered, and wondering who the heck could use this? I wondered who the writer had in mind when they created this plan, that they seem overly complicated, with multiple days of two workouts a day (who has time for that I wondered?), access to a pool morning, noon, and night, any day of the week, and lots of cryptic terms associated with each days workouts, which made it very hard to read. But I kept reading them, hoping that one day maybe I would get it.
I started my long distance triathlon career some 20 years ago, and the amount of information available at the time was a fraction of what is available now, and I wonder if back then they hadn’t “dumbed” the information down enough so that the “average” person could figure it out and actually use the plan in the article. As an engineer by trade I pride myself in being able to figure complicated things out to come up with simple (occasionally elegant…) solutions to problems, so each time I read one of the articles and I came away with the same level of confusion, I finally just stopped reading them, and that’s too bad. I realize now that these “cookie cutter” plans (as a friend of mine likes to call them, stamped out for the masses) are just a starting point for “your” actual plan, but that you still need to do a lot of work to incorporate what the author put down for a plan to your own schedule, life, and capabilities.
But there are still some inherent problems with these plans. First off, they are static, but our training and results are anything but static, so how can a 16 week plan deal with that? What about vacation weeks, tough weeks at work, or sickness? Do you just skip that week in the plan and move ahead? Should you do the week you missed and skip the ones at the end, where you’re supposed to be peaking? What if I’ve plateaued in my training and need to change the plan, how do I do that? What about nutrition and hydration for the longer distance races, where does the plan explain how that works?
So I still wondered, are these plans actually useable, doable, and does anymore really benefit from them? If the article is published in a magazine, usually within two to three months you’ll see in the letters to the editors section from some very thankful athlete, saying how this article helped them to break through their training funk and finally conquer and PR their favorite race, so somebody must be able to use them, why not me?
As time moved on and I raced and finished multiple long course triathlons, the lessons learned started to pile up in my brain and only then did my own training plans and results help me to see how each of these articles actually worked, like I had to reverse engineer it first to understand the plan. Kind of like getting some new electronic gadget and not bothering to read the manual first, poking and pushing buttons and such to get it to do your bidding, and then finally reading the manual to see what you’ve already done.
So I ask the question again, do these articles really help that many people to warrant them being published on a regular basis? I offer the following reasons as to why I say no, they are too generic to apply to most of us and here’s why; there are just too many things you need to know about an athlete before you can even begin to lay out their training plan, like the following:
- How many years have they been racing triathlons and what is their athletic background?
- How did their previous races go and how were their expectations met or not?
- What are their season’s goals?
- What is their current physical state, any injuries, known weaknesses, etc., and are there any areas that need attention?
- What does a typical training week look like and what level of training are they able to commit to?
- Do they incorporate strength training, stretching, yoga, Pilates, etc., into their weekly training?
- What kind of access do they have to a pool, a track, and what’s the local terrain like to plan training rides and runs?
- Do they workout with any groups or is it mostly done solo?
- What do they do for recovery after their hard workouts?
If I wrote you a training plan without this information, how would I even know where to start? How far could you run or ride? When can you get to the pool? What level of athlete do you train with? Etc.
So I think it’s clear that in my mind, these “16 weeks to a PR” training plans are too generic to be useful by most people, would actually require a fair bit of work or experience to be able to incorporate them into our own lives, and in the end are not the route I would prescribe to PR at your next triathlon.
I think the answer lies in either doing your own homework to understand what a proper periodized training plan looks like and can apply those principles to fit into your daily life, reach out to your fellow triathletes and training partners to tap into their own experiences, or connect with a coach to see how they can help you step up your training and reach your goal, however small or large it may be. The time saved by doing this will be rewarded on race day, with a better performance, a more evenly balanced race, and hopefully you can meet or exceed your goal for the day. Leave the cookie cutter plans for someone else to figure out, create a plan where you are the focus, not some generic athlete.