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UNDERSTANDING YOUR
ENDURANCE LAB TRIATHLON PLAN

Be sure to read Intensity Guidelines for Triathlon and Understanding Your TrainingPeaks.com Structured Workout Plan after reading this article.

 

A training plan is only as good as its execution. Even the best training plan won’t help you much if you don’t understand it. This document offers guidelines and tips to help you get the most out of the triathlon training plans.

ANATOMY OF A WORKOUT

Each workout has three basic elements. The first two are duration/distance (how long the workout is) and intensity (how fast the workout is). The third is structure, which is how the workout is divided into segments of various lengths and intensities.

 

The workout descriptions you see in the training schedules provide duration/distance, intensity, and structure information in a condensed format. Let’s look at a cycling example:

CYCLING CRUISE INTERVAL

5 minutes Z1, 20 minutes Z2, 3 x (5 minutes Z4/3 minutes Z1) 5 minutes Z2, 6 minutes Z1

 

We chose this example because it has a fairly complex structure. Nevertheless, it’s not at all difficult to decode and follow. The workout has three segments: a warm-up, an interval set, and a cool-down.

 

“5 minutes in Z1, 20 minutes in Z2,” is the warm-up segment. You’ll execute this part by cycling easily for 5 minutes at Zone 1 intensity and then for 20 more minutes at Zone 2 intensity.

 

“3 x (5 minutes in Z4/3 minutes in Z1)” is the interval segment. Cycle for 5 minutes in Zone 3, then slow down and cycle for 3 minutes in Zone 1, and repeat this sequence a total of three times.

 

“5 minutes Z2, 6 minutes Z1” is the cool-down segment. As in the warm-up, you’ll execute it by cycling easily for 5 minutes at Zone 2 intensity, then finishing for 6 minutes in Zone 1 (the final 6 minutes make the workout exactly 1 hour).

 

 There is an almost infinite variety of workout structures, but if you understand how to interpret and apply the example we just covered, you can do the same with any other workout. Let’s now take a look at a swimming example:

SWIMMING SPEED PLAY

 

250m Z1, 500m Z2, 5 x (50m  Z6/20" rest) 500m Z2, 250m Z1

 

 Like the cycling example, the swim workouts will generally follow the same format of warm-up, interval, and cooldown. Unlike most of the cycling and running workouts, however, the swim workouts will be based on distance, not time.

 

“250m Z1, 500m Z2” is the warm-up segment, which also doubles as your drill segment for swimming. Note that while all the swim workouts are measured in yards, you can swap yards for meters without compromising the overall integrity of the plan.

 

The interval segment of “5 x (50m  Z6/20" rest)” means you will swim for 50m in Zone 6, followed by 20 seconds’ rest, and repeat this sequence five times.

 

Finally, “500m Z2, 250m Z1” is, of course, your cooldown and drill segment.

 

Note that you have the flexibility to perform the workout at any point within the zone. For example, if the workout segment calls for Zone 1, and your Zone 1 heart rate is 115 to 129 bpm, you can perform the segment anywhere within that range. Continually performing workout segments at the upper end of a zone does not always lead to superior results. Sometimes appropriate recovery requires performing Zone 1 and 2 segments at the low end of the range. It is also best to perform moderate and high intervals consistently rather than intensely. Performing 5 intervals at mid-Zone 3 is preferred to performing 5 intervals at every point in Zone 3. Only when you are well-recovered and can perform intervals consistently is it recommended to execute the segment at the high end of the zone.

 

SWIMMING IN YARDS OR METERS

 

While the swim workouts default to measuring the workout in meters, it's easy to perform them in yards with one of four options.

 

The easiest way is to change your pool size directly in the TrainingPeaks workout card.

Our free Workout Library includes all the swim workouts in 50-meter, 25-meter, and 25-yard options, all ready to be downloaded to your compatible device.

 

Our Endurance Lab Team subscriptions provide access to all 300+ swim workouts in both yards and meters format natively within TrainingPeaks.

 

In a pinch, the swim workouts can be performed in yards even if the workout calls for meters, you will just be swimming 10% less than the plan calls for. This does not impact the balanced ratios, and a deviation of 10% will not negatively impact the overall triathlon plan.

 

Please note that If your TrainingPeaks account settings are too imperial then the meters workout will be automatically converted to the precise yardage distance on the workout card. This is not practical when it comes to pool swimming, so we recommend opening the workout card to see the intervals and total meters distance for each workout.

GETTING TO KNOW YOUR ZONES

Perhaps the trickiest part of executing the workouts that are prescribed in a training plan is running at the right intensity in each segment. You will find complete guidelines for using our seven-zone intensity scale in our Intensity Guidelines. But simply reading these guidelines alone won’t enable you to fully master the skill of running in the right zones. A certain amount of experience is also required.

 

Don’t worry: It doesn’t take long to develop a feel for the various zones, so that, for example, when you start a 3-minute interval in Zone 4, you can settle into the right effort level even before your device confirms that you’re in the correct zone. Here are some specific tips for mastering each zone:

 

Zone 1

Zone 1 is a very low intensity. Staying within it usually requires that you actively hold yourself back to a pace that’s slower than your natural running pace. The common exception is when a Zone 1 recovery jog follows a tiring high-intensity effort. The important thing to understand is that it’s almost impossible to go too slow when you’re aiming for Zone 1, whereas it’s very easy and all too common to go too fast.

 

Zone 2

Zone 2 is fairly broad. You might wonder, “Where exactly within this zone should I be?” As a general rule, we encourage runners to go by feel. If you feel strong, run near the top end of Zone 2. If you feel tired or sluggish, go ahead and allow yourself to run near the bottom end.

 

Zone 3

Zone 3 is given a letter name instead of a numerical name because it is generally avoided in training. It’s more of a gap between Zone 2 and 4 than a zone unto itself. Zone 3 represents the “moderate-intensity rut” that most runners get stuck in without realizing it before they adopt the polarized balanced method and learn to slow down in their easy runs and long runs. However, Zone 3 does overlap with race intensity for many runners at the half-marathon and marathon distance. For this reason, many of our Run plans include Steady State Runs, Half-Marathon Pace Runs, and/or Marathon Pace Runs that target Zone X. This zone is also targeted briefly in some Fartlek Runs and Progression Runs.

 

Zone 4

Zone 4 corresponds to lactate threshold intensity. Thinking in “threshold” terms can help you find this zone and stay in it by feeling. The feeling of running in Zone 4 is often described as “comfortably hard,” or as the fastest speed that still feels relaxed. When you perform a Zone 4 effort, imagine there’s a cliff edge in front of you that represents the feeling of strain that accompanies faster speeds. Always stay one or two steps back from this precipice when training in Zone 4.

 

Zone 5

Like Zone 3, Zone 5 is more of a gap between zones than a one unto itself. It’s a little too fast for threshold workouts, which target Zone 4, and a little too slow for high-intensity interval workouts, which offer more fitness bang for your workout buck when done in Zones 5 and 6.

 

Zone 6

Mastering this zone is a matter of connecting the pace, power, and/or heart rate numbers that define the zone with what it feels like to run at that pace, power, or heart rate so that you can reliably start each Zone 6 effort at the right intensity. If you mess it up the first few times, either going too slow or too fast, don’t sweat it. Getting it wrong today is the best way to get it right tomorrow.

 

Zone 7

Zone 7 is almost always used in interval workouts, including Hill Repetitions Runs. This intensity zone ranges from the highest speed you can sustain for a few minutes to a full sprint. So how fast should you run Zone 7 efforts? Tailor your pace to the specific format of the workout. The rule of thumb here is to run closer to the bottom end of Zone 7 when these efforts are longer and closer to the top end when the intervals are shorter. For example, if a workout asks you to run a bunch of 1-minute intervals in Zone 7, you’ll want to control your pace so that you can run all of the intervals at the same speed without slowing down. But if a workout prescribes a set of 20-second intervals, you’ll want to run them as relaxed sprints.

 

When using heart rate to measure intensity, you’ll soon discover that your BMP takes 1 to 2 minutes to “catch up.” As a result, you’ll often not reach the heart rate target during very brief Zone 6 or 7 intervals. Pace and Power are more reliable methods to measure those high intensities. 

 

CADENCE

Unless otherwise specified in the workout, we recommend that your cadence remain at 90 rpm +/- 5 for all zones, on the bike and the run, with the slightly lower cadence allowed for Zone 4+ and 90 or higher for Zone 1-2. There is no need to ever exceed 95 rpm, but if your next race is expected to include significant hills, simulating an rpm of 75-85 is recommended.

 

TWO AND THREE-A-DAYS

 

Some days have two workouts scheduled on the same day. On days with both a bike and run scheduled on the same day, it is not intended to be a brick workout (running immediately after the bike) unless specified otherwise. All days with both a bike and run should be done separately in the AM and then PM, or at least as far apart as possible, and in the order they are listed in your training calendar. If the bike and run must be combined, it is recommended to perform the workout with the most intensity first. Later in your plan, you will see BRO and BR workouts which guide optional and recommended brick workouts. When the two workouts in a day are a swim and another workout, it is recommended to swim first (to not swim while fatigued and compromise form). The swim and second workout do not have to be done AM and PM and can be done back-to-back.

 

 If you have added a Strength Plan to your primary plan, you may see 3 workouts scheduled in a day. If so, the strength session can be moved to any other day of the week as long as there is at least one day between strength workouts (Monday and Wednesday, but not Monday and Tuesday, for example). If you must keep the strength workouts on the same day as the bike and run workouts, perform the strength session last, if possible.

 

Whether two or three workouts in a day, the order is not critical. Don't worry if you can't perform the workouts in the order recommended above. It's better to get all workouts in, in any order, than to miss one altogether.

 

PERFECTION IS OVERRATED

 

While it’s important to execute workouts as they were intended to be done, it is not necessary that you execute every workout perfectly, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up when a given workout is not done to the letter. If the 2-hour ride on your schedule for today ends up being 1:57:30, no big deal.

 

There’s a well-known story about a legendary running coach who always had his athletes run 187-meter hill repetitions. Another coach who admired this legendary coach emailed him to ask about this very precise distance. “Why 187 meters?” he asked, assuming there must be some deep physiological rationale for it. But the legendary coach came back with this answer: “Why 187 meters? Because that’s how long the hill closest to our training camp is!”

 

 Keep this story in mind as you execute your training plan. As with horseshoes and hand grenades, close is good enough.

 

THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING TO YOUR BODY

 

There are some times when executing the workouts in your training plan to the very letter is a bad idea. For example, if you get three intervals into a nine-interval workout and you feel terrible, you should probably stop, or replace the remaining intervals with an easy jog. A helpful guideline to follow is this: If your interval pace or power is >3% less than it was in the previous interval, terminate the interval set and complete the remaining time in Zone 1 or 2. Similarly, if you wake up one morning with a sore foot that hurts even to walk on, you should not run that day.

 

 A training plan is an attempt to predict the future. The many workouts that comprise a training plan represent what you should do if everything goes perfectly—that is if there are no days when you feel lousy or have an alarming sore spot. But things seldom go perfectly through a training plan. It’s important that you listen to your body at every step of the process and make adjustments as necessary based on what your body is telling you.

 

WHAT IF YOU MISS WORKOUTS?

 

Things happen. Busy days at work, visitors, snowstorms, tendonitis, the flu. What should you do if you miss one or more workouts due to one of these factors, or for some other reason?

 

The answer is that it depends very much on the specific cause and context of the interruption. As a rule of thumb, it's best not to try to “make up” missed workouts. If you miss just one or two and you’re healthy, just pick up the schedule where you are. If you miss a bunch of workouts—especially for reasons of injury or illness—you should take at least a few days to ease gently back into training before you return to the schedule. And there may come a point where you’ve missed too much training to ever be able to safely return to the training plan. At that point, you just need to hit the “reset” button and start a new plan when you’re ready.

GLOSSARY OF WORKOUT CODES

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