Training during the Close Season

This piece was written for TriNews in September 2005

The racing season is over.  There are no triathlons to race in until next April.  Few sports have quite such a long close season. 

Fortunately there are other ways for triathletes to get their ‘fixes’ before Q2/06 – cross-country running, cyclo-cross, swimming and indoor rowing over the winter and then duathlons, road-running and cycle racing in the spring.

And there’s training.

Most triathletes like training so six months of training isn’t really too daunting. The real issues are not the motivation to train but

and, having made it to the start of the season,

Rather than being about getting fit for next year this item is about using the next few months to do useful stuff that won’t push you forward too fast. 

It’s a good idea to keep in mind when you want to race and to be on form next year.  If you have big races in May, June, July and August, and you start training hard at the start of October, or even the start of January, you’ll probably find it hard to maintain your momentum.  On the other hand, of course, you don’t want to do nothing, or to lose all the fitness that you’ve built up already.

It’s important that each of your training sessions has sense of purpose.  A 30 minute session of low intensity running drills might not have the same sense of instant gratification as 5km of threshold intervals but as part of a structured training programme it might make much more sense.

Planning and Phasing your training.  

If you have an outline plan your training always has a purpose.  Each individual session has its place in the ‘whole’.  People often talk about ‘junk miles’ when what they really mean is training without purpose.  The first part of creating your plan is to decide when you want your peak form – i.e. when you are planning to race even if you don’t yet know the specific events.  We’ll call the race period the competition phase.  In the build up to your competition phase there will be a pre-competition phase (pre-comp) of heavy, progressive overload: This is the most demanding period.  Before pre-comp there is a base phase.  With no base phase the pre-comp phase will fizzle and burn out like a cheap firework.  The final phase is the recovery phase.*

The phases combine to form a training cycle:  base, pre-comp, competition, recovery.  The competition phase can last for anything from a single race to a couple of months.  Trying to stretch it out longer is likely to result in a fall-off in performance. A full year can comprise several cycles with several competition phases.

This might sound a bit scientific but it’s really just common sense.   

These four basic phases are enough to give all of your sessions a sense of purpose and a context.  You should always be able to give yourself a good answer to the question “what is the point of doing this session?”

So now that I have put the base phase into context here are some things to think about and work on during the next few months.

Technique & rhythm 

We all seem happy to accept that swimming technique is vital but good cycling and running technique can pay big dividends in speed, economy, injury prevention and sheer enjoyment – all things which lead to better performances. Whatever level you compete at, endurance sport is about racing with fatigue.  As the body and mind fatigue they default to what they know best. Only by training with good form and rhythm will you maintain them under fatigue. 

Drills, in all three disciplines, are an excellent way of developing and then honing technique. 

Developing rhythm comes from maintaining it during training. For running & cycling this means short strides & low gears.  Swimming is a little different as at low intensity the emphasis should be on maintaining stroke length. 

Muscular endurance 

Endurance sport involves the muscles making repeated, small movements.  Each individual movement requires very little strength.  Muscular endurance is developed through adaptation and takes time. 

Cardio-vascular fitness 

Training around the chattering threshold** should form the bulk of cardio-vascular work during the base phase.  Besides allowing you to concentrate on technique and rhythm it’s effective at building up muscular endurance, helps to develop a strong heart, improves your ability to metabolise fat stores for energy, allows you to train for longer, doesn’t leave you exhausted & hungry (so it can be helpful for weight management), strengthens your immune system without leaving you vulnerable and helps to make training a social activity.

General conditioning

Specific work on developing & maintaining core strength and flexibility is useful for all sports and activities.  Regular stretching, pilates, yoga or circuit training helps posture & technique in all three triathlon disciplines, helps to maintain form when fatigued and helps to prevent chronic (overuse) and acute (accidental) injuries.


Muscular strength – the ability to generate a big force – is not a big factor in most endurance sport though, combined with speed (the ability to execute movement patterns quickly), it helps to generate power.  Power, assuming decent technique, translates to speed across the ground or through the water.  Strength and power development are of much more significance to sprinters who work much closer to maximal output.  Discipline-specific strength work, such as swimming with paddles, over-gearing and running uphill are more likely to develop functional strength than lifting weights. 

Planning your training, understanding intensity, thinking about your racing and racing preparation are all things which you can do for yourself with a bit of common sense and some help from books, magazines and the Internet.  Developing good technique on your own, however, is much more difficult as movement patterns and timing are not easily conveyed in words and pictures and instant feedback is important.  Doing drills, stretches, yoga, pilates & weight training with good form is as important as swimming, cycling and running with good form.  Good, regular, hands-on coaching is the key to good technique.


Tim Williams - September 2005



* This article assumes that you are interested in racing and are training for that purpose.  If your training isn’t focused on racing your purpose might simply be ‘maintaining a certain level of fitness’ or reaching a certain ‘training standard’. (Back).

** In one of my previous articles I described the chattering threshold as the intensity at which chattering becomes difficult as breathing gets in the way. (Back)



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