Routine training

In search of a life/work/training equilibrium

For the majority of amateur endurance athletes, finding an effective balance between the desire to train hard (and the necessary time this requires) and all the other aspects of life that impose responsibilities upon is – perhaps – the hardest part of our sport. Work, family, friends; pool times, track club times, train times; wind, rain, snow. It’s tough. We look, listen and read with awe- no, with downright jealousy as the pros build entire days, weeks and months around their training. How we’d love to be full-time athletes: wake up; hit the pool; breakfast; out on the bike; lunch; rest; gym; rest; run; eat; sleep. How good would that be?

In 2009 I was fortunate enough to spend 7 months doing just that. Well, I didn’t quite reach the ‘4 sessions a day’ level…but I did manage regular multi-session days and to build almost every day around my training. Having been a mildly obsessed marathoner for 3 years, I was used to training daily. But transitioning into triathlon was made substantially easier by having ample time to plan and perform. I loved it. I think at one point I even convinced myself I was a full-time triathlete!

7.45pm, Wednesday Jan 13th 2010: “I’m sorry, er… the pool shuts at 8pm tonight. Er, yeah so the brochure is wrong yeah. And the website too. Yeah, 8pm tonight and 9pm…no wait, 9.30pm Monday to Wednesday, and then it’s different on the other days [pointing to the incorrect brochure]. And also the pool is half-closed on Monday and Tuesday for lessons and a club. Yeah.” Okay – I think – don’t get mad. I abandon the pool and head home; a hasty mental re-jig dominates my mind.

10.20pm, Wednesday Jan 13th 2010: I step off the treadmill – drenched in sweat – and towel down the machine, still clutching my iPod which ran out of battery 25mins ago. I peer outside as the heavy snow continues to fall in ever deepening flurries. Upstairs I lay on my mat and stretch out leg muscles that have spent 2 hours running. This sucks. I’m three days into my return to working life and already I hate it. 1h15 journey, each way (adverse weather conditions add to this). No time for dinner. 9 weekly training sessions, not including gym work. I’d honestly forgotten what this was like.

10pm, Tuesday 19th Jan 2010: I’ve decided this can’t continue; I need a routine. Outside – even – of work and social life, a triathlete still has to contend with pool and track availability, as well as locations to bike; and this challenge is magnified for those that live in big cities.

After careful perusal of leisure centre times, I’ve formulated what I hope is an easy, accessible and reliable routine.   The logic is that with a set routine I leave nothing to chance. When my coach sends me my 6-weekly blocks I know how to plan. When I have track work I know I can access a track. When a long and difficult swim set is called for I know I have the pool time and space. Naturally flexibility is required for when something crops up – that’s life – but with a routine (and easy options for modifications) I should have no problems getting it done.

Clearly a routine is no substitute for actual time. But having had unlimited time, I have a new-found appreciation for what all of us amateurs sign up to when we become endurance athletes. It’s extreme, and it takes real commitment, motivation and devotion. But if we can manage this, we can manage a little Ironman!

So let’s see how this works. Of course that does just leaves the snow!

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Triathlon training: a typical week

Compared to my last two years of marathon running, this year’s training has been something of an experiment. For my second, third and fourth marathons (Berlin 07, Paris and Amsterdam 08) I followed Mike Gratton plans religiously with barely a session missed. This regimental approach improved my distance running substantially, bringing my marathon time down by 40 minutes and my half marathon best to 1h33 over twelve months. But the transition to triathlon required something different.

From January I committed to a long ride every weekend, and morning swims of gradually increasing length twice weekly. However, to ensure successful completion of the London Marathon I maintained 5-6 runs per week, modifying Gratton’s plan.  This worked, with further PBs over the half and marathon. A typical week looked like this:

Mon: run (1hr steady). Tue am: swim (30-40min). Tue pm: run (intervals or 1hr steady). Wed: run (1-1.5hr steady). Thu am: swim (30min). Thu pm: run (tempo, intervals or 1hr steady). Fri: run (45mins easy). Sat: bike (3-5hr). Sun: run (2hr steady).

After London I scaled back the running, increased the frequency of cycling and increased the time spent swimming. The bike was the real focus, culminating in the series of three sportives. Rest and recovery was key after a tough first four months to 2009. An integral part of this is psychological recovery: entering a new phase of training for a major endurance event requires total commitment, enthusiasm and mental strength. Without giving the mind and body adequate recovery neither will be ready to get the most from the training. I typically take 3 weeks active rest after spring marathons and 5 weeks in the Autumn. Part 2 went well and my cycling improved nicely.

Part 3 of my training experiment started last week after returning from holiday and recovering from a strained neck/back. Although I have two triathlons to aim at, these are design for experience and as such I’m not aiming to ‘peak’ through extensive tapering. Last week looked like this:

Mon: run (1hr steady). Tue: swim (40min cold water). Wed: swim (1hr, 3k). Thu: run (1hr steady). Fri: bike (3h45, 64 miles).

Unfortunately a good friend’s stag do got in the way of Sat/Sun – a life outside of training is clearly important, but I try to fit things around social commitments generally. Early morning runs, or cycling to the location of a get-together work well for example. However, I expect to add another swim and bike to this, and if staying healthy a further run and bike.

For the Ironman I’m going to follow a structured plan created by an expert. But for now it’s about learning to manage three disciplines and – so far – my 2009 training experimentation has worked. I feel great on the bike, increasingly confident in the pool and am maintaining the benefits from two years of running and 5 marathons!