Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Training for Your Half Ironman - Is a Minimalist Approach a Good Idea?

Exploring the pros and cons of training for a Half Iron-distance triathlon with a minimalist approach to training.


An individual recently inquired as to whether it were possible to complete a Half Iron-distance triathlon with minimal training.  Let's first explore the reasons why you might consider this approach to training:

  • Your body (health) is currently compromised.  This reason covers everything from disease to pre-existing injuries.  Individuals with cancer, auto-immune illnesses and arthritis (to name just a few( may necessarily have to reduce their "training load" in order to avoid health set backs.  Individuals with pre-existing injuries, including torn ligaments, degenerative disk disease (and other spinal issues), may need to reduce or alter their training to avoid further injury or pain.
  • You are currently healthy, but are injury prone. (see note below).
  • You don't have an unlimited amount of time to train.  This is a very common reason to consider a reduced training load.  You absolutely must keep balance in your life.
  • You're a healthy, year-round athlete, with some distance under your belt.  Your degree of base training and conditioning is an important element in how much additional training load you and your body can take.
  • You're an experienced athlete at other distances or events, and can call upon your repertoire of "experiences" to get you through an event.
Note:  if you are currently healthy, but consider yourself injury prone, I might suggest that your training plan is not right for you.  A healthy body that trains correctly, should not be getting injured.  Make sure that whatever training plan you have includes strengthening for the major joints, stretching for the major muscles and overall body, and is balanced with regard to the appropriate amount of cardiovascular training.  In other words, your training plan should not be top-heavy with redline workouts.

I am reminded of something I read over a dozen years ago (forgive me, if I butcher the facts, but the gist is accurate).  In the world of sports performance, some high-level weight lifters (I think they were European Olympic level) participated in a study of physical training and mental training.  Weight lifters were assigned to one of 5 groups:
  1. Group One:  did 100% physical training
  2. Group Two:  did 75 % physical training, 25% mental training
  3. Group Three:  did 50% physical training, 50% mental training
  4. Group Four:  did 25% physical training, 75% mental training
  5. Group Five:  did 100% mental training
The group that did the best ultimately, was group Four, indicating that in the sport of weight lifting, "mental strength training" was an integral part of overall training.  Of course, you can't just "mental train" yourself to the finish line, as Group Five fared poorly.  The study showed that you have to have a strong "base" of training.  This could be applied to athletes in many sports.

There's also reports of individuals training for distance events, by simply competing in distance events. An example would be those that run a marathon every month for twelve months.  Those individuals simply use the marathon (race event) as their long run every month, thus are able to keep their weekly mileage minimal whether it's a time constraint or a health issue.  The athlete gains "experience" each month with each marathon. 

A common approach to training


A common approach to training is the Rule of Three:
  1. Workout #1 is long and easy in intensity to build aerobic base.
  2. Workout #2 is medium in distance and intensity to build threshold.
  3. Workout #3 is short and is hard in intensity to build speed.
Thus, if you were training for a triathlon, you would do each of these workouts, in each sport every week.  If you were training for a running race (from 5K to marathon) or other single sport event, you would do the same, possibly adding in another short, recovery run.

There's a saying, when training for distance that "long and slow will just make you slow".  An athlete that does too many long easy runs or long easy bikes will simply become slow. This, as well as the four reasons noted above, are why many people are opting for a minimalist approach to training.

Is it right for you?

The answer is…it depends.

As a coach, I would first ask whether or not you have a strong base of aerobic conditioning.  If the answer is yes,  I would then ask if your body (health) is compromised in any way, or you have significant time constraints.  If the answer is yes, I would finally ask you about your level of experience.  If this describes you, you might be a candidate for a minimalist training plan.

What would a minimalist training plan look like?

For starters, when designing a minimalist training plan, we would look to the following factors:
  • What are the individual's (sport specific) strengths? - A good swimmer can reduce their time in the water to as little as once a week, for the purposes of a triathlon.  A strong cyclist can reduce their time on the bike to one (medium distance, medium intensity) ride a week.  A strong runner, can get away with the same.
  • When a certain type of training induce injury? - For instance, does speed work increase risk of injury, or is it distance (and lots of repetition for the joints)? 
If you start with the Rule of Three approach to training, you're simply going to begin cutting back either frequency, intensity or time (miles) or type of training you do.  The Rule of Three may become a Rule of Two.  Pick which two workouts are the most important to your training.  As a bonus, you don't have to pick the same two workouts every week.  That means, you can have variety, train all the appropriate heart rate zones, minimize risk to your body, AND fit it into your busy schedule. 

Can the Rule of Two become a Rule of One?


The answer is…it depends.

While it is possible to reduce a training plan to one workout in each sport each week, the risk of injury may increase due to the lack of general conditioning, week to week.  Fitness gains will be moderate only and will most likely be in the form of endurance, as the plan progresses and increases in distances.


F x I x T x T

When you multiply frequency, intensity, time and type, you get a measure of the total training load.  Determining the training load that is right for you is an important step in determining whether or not you can reduce your training.  If you reduce your training load, arguably, you're not going to get fitter.  But, reduce your frequency only to increase your time (miles) may produce fitness gains, even once a week.  Reduce your time, and you'll need to increase your intensity to maintain the same load.  Here's an example (using 5 heart rate zones - Heart Zones):

Rule of Two Training Plan for a Half Ironman (sample week, 6 weeks out):

1x Swim 60 min Zone 2 = 120 points
1x Swim 30 min Zone 4 = 120 points
1 x Bike 180 min Zone 2 = 360 points
1 x Bike 60 min Zone 4 = 240 points
1 x Run 75 min Zone 3 = 225 points
1 x Run 30 min Zone 4 = 120 points
Total points = 1,185 points is total training load for the week

Rule of One Training Plan for a Half Ironman (sample week, 6 weeks out):

1 x Swim 60 min Zone 3 = 180 points
1 x Bike 240 min Zone 3 = 720 points
1 x Run 75 min Zone 4 = 300 points
Total points = 1,200 points is total training load for the week

My recommendation, as a coach, for someone who wanted to try a minimalist approach to training for a Half Iron-distance Triathlon, would be to try to stick with a Rule of Two training plan, eliminating one workout in each sport a week, and alternating by sport and by week, the eliminated workout.  Listen to your body and pay attention to training load.  Do it far in advance of your race so that you'll know if the minimalist training plan is working, so that you have time to revise your plan before your race.

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment, or send me an email to kathy@365fitt.com.

365fitt is about training for the event called LIFE, focusing on physical, nutritional and emotional wellness through lifestyle adaptations.  Kathy is also available for personal training and wellness consultations and corporate wellness.  365fitt invites you to participate in a Healthy Active Living trip to incredible destinations.  

Please visit 365fitt for more information.  Live 365fitt!



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