Go Slow To Get Faster
At the beginning of his triathlon career, Rich Roll trained the same way he’d trained as a competitive swimmer 25 years earlier—pushing hard in every single workout. After an initial period of improvement, Roll’s fitness development stagnated, so he hired triathlon coach Chris Hauth, who taught Roll another approach: high volume at mostly low intensities. Roll attributes everything he’s achieved since then to this method.
The Magic of Zone 2
Under Hauth’s guidance, Roll does the majority of his training in Zone 2 (or Z2) of the commonly used five-zone heart rate training system. This is a moderate intensity, and a step below the “gray zone” intensity that most triathletes hit day after day without really thinking about it.
As he explains in Finding Ultra, “Do it long enough and Z2 training will lead to an increase in aerobic threshold—the maximum level of intensity at which the body continues to process oxygen and fat for fuel.” By contrast, gray-zone training, he explains, “exceeds [what] is required to properly develop the aerobic engine, yet falls short of the intensity necessary to significantly improve speed or increase anaerobic threshold.”
A Five-Year Plan
Despite taking up triathlon at age 40, Roll was significantly fitter and faster five years later at age 45. He credits the patient, step-by-step developmental process he’s undertaken under Hauth’s guidance for his continuing improvement. “There’s only so much performance gain that your body is going to be able to actualize in a year, no matter who you are,” Roll says. Always train a little more lightly than you think you could this year so you can take another step forward next year.
The Winner Slows Least
According to Roll, one of the most important lessons Chris Hauth taught him was that the winner of any given triathlon is not the fastest competitor, but the competitor who slows down the least. In other words, endurance is more important than speed, and endurance comes from going long.
Roll believes that you don’t have to be an ultradistance triathlete like him to benefit from doing very long, slow swims, rides, and runs. “Even a sprint triathlon is still an endurance event,” he says.
Progress by the Numbers
When Roll first started “going slow to get faster” under Hauth’s tutelage, he was skeptical. What got him to buy into the method was the undeniable improvement he saw in performance metrics, such as watts and pace. “I grew to love the numbers,” he writes in his book.
Based on this experience, Roll encourages all triathletes to track relevant data to ensure the training process is actually working.