“How am I supposed to train through the schedule-busting madness of Thanksgiving through New Year’s?” It’s a question I get every year, and the answer depends on what you’re training for. Athletes who are preparing for early-season races need to make structured training a year-round priority, but time-crunched triathletes are often more seasonal when it comes to training—and that’s perfectly OK. Whether it’s the fact your kids are in school through the fall and winter, or the shorter days and colder temperatures, it’s understandable if you need to ratchet down your level of training for a few months.
However, if you’re going to shift the position that training has in your priority list for 1–2 months, it’s also important to shift your training priorities to maintaining the performance level you currently have. You want to be able to pick up where you left off, rather than several steps behind, when you ramp up your training again.
The science of detraining says that there are two primary requirements for preventing an athlete from losing hard-won performance gains: consistency and intensity. You can sacrifice training volume (to an extent, of course), as long as you’re working out consistently and at an intensity high enough to remind your energy systems that they need to be ready to perform at a moment’s notice. If you fulfill these requirements, you may be able to cut your training volume by 50 percent and still retain the vast majority of your aerobic and lactate threshold fitness.
Consistency means you’re not going more than three days without training. This is an important consideration because some athletes fall into a pattern of training only on weekends through busy portions of the year. Even if you pile eight-plus hours of training into your weekends, five days is too long to wait until your next bout of exercise. You achieve progression in training by stressing your body, letting it recover and adapt, and then stressing it again. But when the recovery periods are too long, the training stresses are disconnected and your forward progress grinds to a halt.
Not only should you aim to limit recovery periods to 60–72 hours (48 hours is even better), you also need to do more than just cruise around the neighborhood. You’re going to have to go hard because high-intensity intervals boost performance for all energy systems that contribute to those efforts. In other words, efforts at VO2max stimulate your aerobic, glycolytic and VO2max energy systems. They help retain your base aerobic conditioning, your power/pace at lactate threshold and your capacity for maximal efforts. In contrast, for time-crunched triathletes, low-intensity aerobic “base building” workouts will only retain the lowest level of aerobic conditioning.
What does this look like in training terms? You need to commit to a minimum of three interval workouts per week, and preferably one longer (1.5–2-hour ride or 45–60-minute run) endurance workout as well. You should make sure you get in the pool once per week, but spend the rest of your training time on the bike and on your feet.
This table lays out a progression of high-intensity interval workouts that should be completed in the weeks listed. Ideally you’d allow one day of recovery between interval workouts of this intensity, but since they are short and your overall training volume is so low, it’s OK to do two of these workouts on back-to-back days. I wouldn’t recommend stacking them into three consecutive days, and remember that you should still add one longer endurance workout each week.
VO2 Swim Sets (VOS), Power Intervals (PI) and Fartlek Intervals (FI) are all similar in execution. Whether in the water, on the bike, or on your feet, spend 10–15 seconds accelerating up to your maximal effort level and hold that intensity through the end of the interval. These are very difficult, and the recovery periods between intervals (RBI) are purposely short. With a warm-up, interval set and cool-down, you should be able to complete these workouts in 60 minutes.
Chris Carmichael is the author of The Time-Crunched Triathlete and founder and CEO of Carmichael Training Systems, the official coaching and camps partner of Ironman. Trainright.com