The 'Prep' phase of a phased training program is arguably the most important - I would argue that if planned well, every phase is the most important. Yet it is by far the most overlooked, least understood and most often skipped phase of training, especially by self-coached athletes.
Like most of the other phases of training, the preparatory phase suffers a general misunderstanding by the athletic population. Firstly the name doesn't describe the phase well. Secondly, much of the tri media describe the phase with a slightly different purpose or perspective.
However, the biggest issue facing the poor little Prep Phase is that it is usually allocated just 2-4 weeks at the start of a program. This is when the athlete is usually at peak motivation. They have just entered their goal race and are chaffing at the bit to get started. In their excitement they just want to dive right in and ride to Palm Beach or set a new Strava PR.
Alternatively, the athlete has put off actually planning their program for too long. They figure... I have 30 weeks to my race, I don't need to worry ...and then all of a sudden they have 20 weeks and start to panic. In their panic they skip the Prep Phase thinking it unnecessary or of little value to me because [insert your excuse here]. Chances are the reasoning you gave for skipping this phase are the exact reasons you needed this phase the most.
I am writing this little blog in mid April 2020 in the middle of the Covid-19 lock down. My goal race is 70.3 Port Mac, which has been moved to mid September, about 30 weeks away. Maybe it will be on, maybe it will be cancelled. This is not something that bothers me too much as I do this sport for the training (journey) far more than the racing (destination).
My Prep Phase finished a few weeks ago and I am now transitioning into my Base Phase. These dates and times are quite broad and grey. I don't feel like there needs to be strict end and start date to these phases. I say this often, but seems many triathletes get way too caught up in the jargon the the numbers and think the training we do is science based. Sure there's lots of science, but it is still more art form and that dates and numbers are very relative.
There are three ways to look at or view your Prep Phase, which may help understand the phase a little better and allow you to get the most from your Prep.
1. Gathering your Tools
Using my favorite ironman training program analogy of building the best house possible, the Prep phase is the stage of gathering up the tools required. Before you can lay the foundations (Base Phase) you need to have your tools ready.
These tools can be different for everyone and will often be based on your previous years weakness. If you want to speed up your ironamn or 70.3 run leg you will want to add volume and maybe speed in your later phases, so in your Prep Phase you will need to start by running hills - now - in Prep for later phases.
Strength is something many triathletes lack. Late season injuries will arise due to a lack of strength. However, trying to add strength in the middle of your already flat-out Build or Peak Phase is near impossible. The best time to get your strength groundwork done is - you guessed it - in your Prep Phase.
Similarly, in order to swim or cycle better you will want to work on the efficiency of your arm or pedal stroke during the later Base Phase. So, use the Prep Phase to learn and understand the drills you will use later.
The tools you gather now will determine how good your house will be. If you are missing tools the quality of the house you build will of course be compromised.
2. Learning a New Habit
The other way to look at the Prep Phase is that you are learning new habits. Everyone gets the concept that if something is a habit it is easier to do each day.
Some people, like myself, look at doing 50 pushups before their morning coffee as inconceivable. However, for some this is a habit and they look forward to their 50 pushups first thing when they rise - its their habit.
One of my (many) identified weaknesses coming into this ironman program was my lack of flexibility. My tightness has previously led to injuries and I am determined to correct this weakness. I've never been good at stretching and yoga has never really appealed. But, if I can make yoga a habit then I am a long way towards overcoming my weakness. So, for the past four weeks I have been doing yoga with Nat and the older girls after the younger (more destructive) kids are in bed. Not every night, but about three or four times a week. I now really look forward to this time and think it might be a habit that sticks.
3. The Schedule
I also suggest using the Prep Phase to play or tinker with your schedule. What training can you do when? What sessions can be done together to get better use of your time? Which sessions can you do during your commute (commutraining)? If you do strength in the morning how does it effect your training in the evening? How can I get more sleep? The aim here is to use this time to settle into a schedule or routine that will work for you and your family.
A good (workable) schedule will lead to more consistency and as we know consistency is king. So, if we can get a good schedule in place during the Prep Phase and carry that on through the Base Phase then the battle is nearly won.
Using these three keys to Prep Phase will help you make the most of this time. It may even tempt you to increase the time you spend in the Prep Phase.
Coming out of Coast to Coast in February this year I was pretty smashed up. Lateral shoulder pain, knee pain when I was sitting, and numerous cuts and bruises. I was fit but could not continue. I took a long Recovery Phase of four to six weeks before transitioning into my Prep Phase. Some of my injuries were still hanfing around during the Prep Phase, but the nature of the phase allowed me to get on top of these injuries while I trained and Prep'd my body for the Base Phase.