Are you Exercising or Training?

This piece was written for TriNews in February 2005

Quite rightly triathletes have a reputation for being fit.  Triathlon is a training dominated sport and if you don’t like training you’ll probably find other things more rewarding.  For all that we have in common, however, triathletes cover a broad spectrum.

Whether you see yourself in one of these categories or not it makes sense to understand and structure your training.  In the BTA Handbook I wrote about the Principles of Conditioning – the fundamental ways in which your body adapts to the things that it does.  What you do in training will have a big effect on what you do in your races.  An understanding of this effect will help you to get the most out of both your training and your racing – whatever it is that you want from them.

To go back to those Principles for a moment remember that creating a small overload can lead to a small progression.  I say ‘can’ and not ‘will’ because the adaptation only occurs when the overload is removed (i.e. during recovery) and that whilst a small overload can lead to a small progression a large overload will probably not lead to a large progression.  A large overload will probably lead to injury or illness – followed by a long recovery period.

One way to prevent too much overload is to keep it under control.  It’s helpful to consider overload in three dimensions:

Frequency, Intensity, Time makes for a handy and appropriate acronym.

Frequency and Time are pretty obvious concepts and often the ones that you have least control over.  Understanding Intensity, however, is one of things that transforms ‘exercise’ into ‘training’.

The cardio-vascular adaptation process is very responsive to intensity.  This is because the way that the body works at different intensities is quite different.  I’m going to describe a very simplified model which works well in practice and doesn’t require an A-level in chemistry to understand.

In order to operate your body has to get stored fuel to your muscles.  It has to provide the fuel at the rate that the muscles demand it and does so using different methods: a slow one, a medium one and a fast one.  There is a fourth which we might call ‘instant’ but that doesn’t figure much in triathlon.

If you try a training session where you start slow gradually speed up you’ll feel your body ‘change gear’ as each of these mechanisms kicks in.  The mechanisms are not mutually exclusive – all three are actually working all of the time providing different proportions of the whole energy requirement – but you will find that where you cross from slow to medium your breathing pattern changes and where you cross from medium to fast the burning in your muscles starts to become painful.  These two transition points, or thresholds, are fundamental to the training and adaptation process.

Coaches, across all sports, need a means of describing the different points in this process – especially those points where the energy systems change.  You’ll often hear or read references to training zones, percentage heart rates, percentages of VO2Max, lactate levels, lactate and anaerobic thresholds, OBLA* and something called ‘perceived exertion’.  If you are serious about your training these will be part of your everyday language.

I think of the change points as the chattering threshold and the painful threshold – then I don’t need a heart rate monitor or a calculator or a laboratory to tell me where they are!

An effective cardiovascular training programme should include:

The balance of training at different intensities determines how your body adapts. 

Here are a few final observations:

If you are simply exercising to keep fit training in the middle ground is fine, but if you are training to improve performance BEWARE OF THE MIDDLE GROUND! 

Doing all of your training in the middle ground will turn you into a one hour, one speed wonder – someone who goes fairly fast for about an hour and then blows up!



Tim Williams - February 2005


* OBLA = Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation

** Power in this context translates directly to the speed that you cover the ground.



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