Base Training for Triathletes
By Neal Henderson, MS, CSCS
There is one sure-fire way to improve your performance: Build a good aerobic base. What you do in the off-season will have more impact on your performance than what kind of intervals you do in the last weeks before an event.
XTERRA and triathlon are predominately aerobic endurance contests.
There are dozens of specific skills required to race well but your biggest limiting factor will be your aerobic endurance. Some basic exercise physiology. We’ve all heard the term ‘VO2 Max’ in the context of some superhuman athletes like Lance Armstrong. Fitness can be measured by the volume of oxygen you can consume while exercising at your maximum capacity.
VO2 measures your highest rate of aerobic energy production, using oxygen to break down carbohydrate and fat to generate energy for muscles.
VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen in milliliters one can use in one minute per kilogram of body weight. Individuals with high VO2 max perform better than those with low VO2 max. If you compare VO2 max of a group of well-trained athletes, there is usually little correlation between VO2 max and endurance. A lot of what makes an athlete is genetic.
A low VO2 max does not mean that you can’t perform well.
Derek Clayton (former world record holder in the marathon at 2:08) is the perfect example of a great athlete a VO2 max lower than many of his competitors.
For elite athletes, a high VO2 max is like having a membership card to the endurance athlete’s club – but it won’t win you any races.
A more useful approach is to measure your VO2 at a physiology lab over time. This can give you valuable feedback regarding your training and how it is impacting your overall aerobic capacity. In elite athletes, we see a 5-8% increase in VO2 max from early season to late season.
For novice exercisers, there can be a 30% increase in VO2 max over the course of months. After a couple of months, though, this steep rise will level out. Your body has an amazing capability to adapt, but you need to continually overload (or over-stress) your body for this to occur. The problem is determining how much stress you need, and how much time you need to recover.
To determine how much training you can handle, you should keep a training log.
In a season, or series of seasons, find the biggest week of training in terms of hours/week. Then, see how your performance is in the weeks following. If you performed well, then you can probably tolerate this level again… maybe even a up to about 10% more. If you were overly tired, injured, or sick after your biggest week then you might need to cut back a little.
The goal of your training in the off season is to slowly increase the volume (hours/week) of training while keeping the overall intensity low. Heart rate is an excellent indirect measure of aerobic intensity. Working out at a specific heart rate during your base training is an effective way of monitoring your fitness.
Neal Henderson is a PowerBar sponsored XTERRA Pro athlete, and is the Coordinator of Sport Sciences at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine in Boulder, CO.
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