Triathlon Training Q & A Series with Elite Triathlete and Coach, Morgan Chaffin: Question #1

Thanks for joining us!  In the coming weeks, a series of questions about triathlong training will be answered by Morgan. Morgan is an SPT sponsored athlete, elite triathlete, triathlon coach, masters swim coach, and a lecturer at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

Here we kick off with Question #1!

Q: When working on running speed and distance, do you start at the pace you want to run the full distance at, do you increase your speed as you reach certain distances like 5k, 10k, etc., or do you reach your max distance at a slower pace, then build your speed? Does that make sense? I guess that could apply to all 3 parts of triathlons.

Answer: Let’s use a half marathon as an example. First, I would highly recommend that an athlete perform a pace test. There are a number to choose from, but a common test is a 30-minute effort, where the athlete, runs at their best effort for 30 minutes.  This helps to establish a lactate threshold pace or heart rate (HR). For the purpose of your question, I will refer to it as “pace”. Once you get an average test pace, percentages are calculated to establish different zones, from Zone 1, a recovery effort to Z5, a maximal effort. Zone 2 is an aerobic based effort. When an individual is in Z2 they should be able to hold a conversation and the effort should feel comfortable. Z1 and Z2 are important because they allow for recovery and aid in building strength, durability, and endurance capacity. Capillaries, responsible for transporting oxygen are also developed with training in the aerobic zones. Zone 3 is often referred to as the “gray area”. There can be cross over between aerobic and anaerobic in this zone. I often refer to it as tempo. In Z3, an athlete is working “comfortably hard”. With ample conditioning, this zone should be able to be maintained for an hour. In Z3, you should be able to speak, but not in complete sentences.

Everyone likes race pace sets! This brings us to Zone 4. In this zone, breathing is labored, muscles are burning, and hydrogen ions are accumulating. You need to be a well condition, highly trained athlete to sustain this effort for long periods of time. I typically have the athletes I work with doing shorter intervals (5-20 minutes) when it comes to zone 4. Zone 5, is an all-out maximal effort that can only be sustained for seconds and/or short bursts.  Typically, this zone is only reached when athletes are training for explosive types of events requiring anaerobic conditioning.

By using these different zones, you can establish workouts to build aerobic and anaerobic capacity. Just remember, all zones are equally important. The best answer to your question is that it’s important to first develop aerobic capacity, which includes a lot of base runs in Z1 and Z2.  These help prepare the body for more stressful runs as you move towards race pace goals. Further down the road, fartlek, tempo, and intervals sets should be structured into the plan. In these workouts, mainly Z3 and Z4 are focused upon. A coach can use these types of workouts to hit target paces during workouts without running the full race distance at the goal pace. As these workouts are added to a program sufficient runs in Z1 and Z2 should still be present in the plan. Strenuous running should never be the bulk of any running program. Too much intensity can lead to breakdown and injury.  An athlete training for a half marathon should reach their race distance before competition. I also suggest their longer runs be approximately 30-45 seconds slower than their goal pace.

The answer to your original question, is really that all three, pacing, increasing tempo, and building endurance and strength, are essential for a top performance. 

Stay tuned for more questions and answers about triathlon training in the coming weeks from Elite Triathlete and Coach, Morgan Chaffin.

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