Here is the thing …when it comes to triathlon and especially long course training, progress is not linear – get used to it. By training hard every week or going longer you will unfortunate as it is, not see constant returns for your efforts.
While consistency remains the king of all triathlon training mantra’s, the ability to understand your body’s capacity to adapt will give you the real edge over your competition (even if your competition is yourself). Being able to slowly – key word, s l o w l y – dig yourself a big fatigue hole and then get yourself out of the hole is very tricky, but an invaluable trick to learn.
Once you have learnt the above neat trick it’s time for the crescendo. Slowly dig yo
urself a big fatigue hole, but this time bury yourself in it! In a fatigued state race hard or ride super long. This is not something many people can get right. It should also not be attempted by athletes with less than three (3) years of continuous training under their belt. Many who attempt this style of training will struggle with the fine balance and injure themselves or get very sick. However, for those that get it right the improvements are off the charts.
Mark Allen, Siri Lindly and Brett Sutton are the coaching royalty who know how to effect this training on their athletes perfectly. Unfortunately they make their money from coaching pro’s so they don’t like explaining their process public. The next best thing we have is our sports best author Joe Friel (and his authoring partners). Joe is a great author and happily explains his processes. A key component of Joe’s plans are his ‘big day training’ sessions.
While a race can work just as well or even, on occasion better, the ‘big day training’ always serves its objectives. The objectives are many, but the top five are:
Learn race pace
Practice race pace under fatigue (this is very different to 1 above)
Practice hydration and nutrition under race conditions
Get the body used to exercising for the entire day
Test race kit
With these objectives in mind the ‘big day training’ goes something like this. Firstly, train hard for the week (or more) leading into the big day training. Treat the day as a race so start your hydration and nutrition a few days before.
Choose a race start time similar to the actual goal race start time – something like 7am. Then work backwards from then to ensure you wake and go through your race morning process including eating at least 2 hours before race start.
Given the objectives are very pace focused. The swim should ideally be in a pool. I am a big fan of getting as much open water swimming as possible, but the big day training is better suited to a pool swim. Start the swim at strictly the designated start time and ensure you have plenty of time for your pre-race rituals.
The swim is a simple 1 hour swim. Any swim that includes a session similar to 1k (2mins slower than GRP), 1k (1min slower than GRP), 1k (at race pace) is what we are aiming for. This session means that you will end up with 3k just 3 mins over race pace, which is fine for today’s purposes. Regardless of whether you swim 2.6km or 4.4km keep your breaks to a minimum and stop swimming after one hour or 8am in our example.
The next step for many is difficult to understand – I will explain further later. For now, take a 90 minute (yes, that’s right an hour and a half) break. First thing is to eat a light nutritious meal. It should be real food. Don’t try and make it race day food like gels and bars. Gels and bars are fine during the training parts of the big day, but the recovery components are all about recovery. You can lie down, stretch, have a sleep, watch your kids sport but relax. Use the last 15 minutes or so to prepare your bike for the next phase.
At 9.30am start your 5 hour bike ride. Regardless of whether you plan to ride for 4:30hrs or 6:30hrs on the actual race day, today in the big day training you will ride for 5 hours. You can do this ride on any course or terrain but obviously the closer to the goal race conditions the better.
For this reason I like to do the ride indoors. The Seac Studio has the specific ride set up so that everyone rides to their correct pace. It also means you can ride with your partner or mates and still ride to your own pace plan.
Yes, it can be a little mind-numbing but so is race day. The focus can then be on hydration, nutrition and assessing how I feel. The latter is very important. Three or four (or more) times an hour you should consciously consider how you feel. In the first hour you should always feel ‘this is easy’ and that should continue at least until hour three. After that everyone is different. But keep assessing yourself. The feedback at days end will be crucial.
Ride your race bike, set your hydration and nutrition on your bike, stay aero as much as you plan to on race day, and keep your stops to an absolute minimum. If possible create the climate of race day (again, why I like indoors). Watching how your heart rate responds to the demands on race day is another valuable outcome from the day. If your HR is higher in the 2nd half compared to the first half by more than a few percent you may require more aerobic endurance work.
After five hours stop riding. I doubt you will have to be told twice. Again, take a 90 minute break. Focus first on eating nutritious real food and recovery. Then rest. More on the importance of this 90 min break later.
The run starts at 4pm in our example. Once again, regardless of your intended race run time you will run for 2 hours. Build to goal race pace in the first kilometre or so. Then, hold it. If your race plan is to start slower for the first 5k and then move to race pace you can practice that on your ‘big day training’. Conversely, if your plan is to hit race pace and hang on for as long as possible today is the day to see what happens.
At the end of the day write down how the day went for you. What was good, what went wrong and what you think needs to be done differently. Consider not only the race day but also the training that needs to be done to correct the problems or issues that occurred.
I mentioned above I would explain the purpose of the 90 minute breaks. Some keen folk might get out of the pool or off the bike and feel great and decide not to stuff around and just go and get it all done quicker. I urge you to have a little patience. One of the main objectives is to practice race pace under fatigue. After 90 minutes your body will not feel like running at all. The mental strength to just start running will be similar to race day. You legs will feel worse than when you first got off the bike. Pushing yourself to run and then pushing again to find race pace is very similar to race day.
The other reason behind the 90 minute recovery is that you get very close to race day fatigue, race day pace and race day effort, but the recovery will be much, much quicker than an actual race. In fact you can and should train the very next day. A good 45min+ recovery jog and a recovery ride or swim are a great way to compound the benefits of the previous day and weeks training. Take a day off the following day by all means.
An actual race day can be used with similar effect. Racing untapered (I think it’s a word) is a great way to develop fitness and when raced correctly can be used to gauge similar outcomes to the ‘big day training’. The boring accountant in me just feels the risk-reward ratio is better for the ‘big day training’ option.
Although the time required is (as the name suggests) big, the benefits are better than repeating the same old training regime each week. One or two ‘big day training’ is all that’s required during your extended build phase. Joe Friel likes them placed 10 and 5 weeks out from race day, but I think somewhere around these weeks that fits with your other key sessions will work just fine.