Aerobic training, it either works, or it doesn't...

Aerobic training, it either works, or it doesn't...

There are many theories of how to best train for endurance sports. Some people prefer low intensity and greater volume, others prefer high intensity intervals and each has their own merits and arguments. What’s interesting about triathlon is the fact that we have 3 different endurance sports and people can take a completely different approach to each of them.

This isn’t a topic widely discussed, but it is worth some consideration and thought. If you’re training for triathlon events, then your training will largely be geared towards aerobic endurance for swimming, cycling and running, this is more the case as the events get longer. Swimming 3.8k is by definition an aerobic endurance event, cycling 112 miles is an aerobic endurance event and running a marathon is also an aerobic endurance event. You then add the 3 things together on race day for what is, in it’s simplest form, a 10-17 hour aerobic endurance event.

Whilst the 3 disciplines can all be classed as ‘aerobic endurance’, there are differences in physiology between them. There is more of an element of strength or ‘force production’ required for cycling and swimming, compared to running. On a bike, if you want to go fast, you have to push the ‘big gears’ and to do that requires an element of force production. The same can be said for swimming, you have to apply force to the water and drag your body forwards, against a great deal of resistance. Doing cycling intervals in a ‘big gear’ or using ‘hand paddles’ in the pool are pretty much the same thing. They increase resistance, slow down the movement and increase the stress on the muscles. 

In essence, all 3 disciplines are primarily ‘aerobic endurance’ with an additional requirement for muscular force in swimming and cycling. If that's the case, then training should be pretty similar for all of them (with a few tweaks to account for the muscular force in swim and bike). What's interesting is how triathletes can often follow 3 completely different theories, when they approach each sport: 

  1. Swimming is all technique, so drills are the most important thing!
  2. Cycling is all about 20 minute power output and higher intensity intervals, I prefer quality over quantity! 
  3. Zone 2 running has done wonders for my running, I've got quicker since I slowed down and did more miles at a slower pace! 

Above is an example of something I've heard many times, with regards to how athletes approach triathlon training. Only in the sport of triathlon would someone have 3 completely different approaches to 3 aerobic sports. 

What on earth are you going on about... 

Let me try to explain. The 80:20 principle is popular concept amongst endurance athletes, it simply means that no more than 20% of your training should be high intensity and the remaining 80% should be easy/steady aerobic work (in reality, for many athletes the intensity work probably accounts for much less than 20%, therefore 90:10 would be a better gauge). The concept of doing smaller amounts of work at a very high intensity and the rest at a low intensity, is often referred to as a 'polarised approach', as it's either very easy or very hard, there's no middle area. 

If you as a coach or athlete think the 80:20 is the way forwards, then it should be applied across the board for all 3 disciplines. That means at least 80% of your swimming, cycling and running should be low intensity and no more than 20% should be high intensity. Either 80:20 works for endurance sports... or it doesn't. If that's the principle you follow, then you should see the pattern across training for all 3 triathlon disciplines.

Whilst 80:20 is a common concept, it's important to understand that the percentages change depending upon your time of year. In winter, your training split may be 95:5 and in summer it may shift to 80:20. It's also MORE polarised in winter and LESS polarised in summer, in terms of intensities. Here's a practical example of how that would look IN WINTER. 

1. 5-10% of you swim sets are focus on maximal 25m speed, the remainder is lower intensity aerobic volume. 

2. 5-10% of your cycle sessions are based on maximal 10-30 second out put, the remainder is lower intensity aerobic volume.

3. 5-10% of your run sessions are based on maximal 10-30 second speed (bit tricky this one due to injury risk) and the remainder is lower intensity aerobic volume. 

*Consider someone who cycles 5 hours a week in winter and follows a very polarised approach. If 10% of their training was 'maximal' and 90% of their training was easy aerobic volume, then they would have to complete 30 minutes of maximal work within the week. That's 60 X 30 seconds or 180 X 10 seconds repetitions at absolute maximal effort. In reality, that's way too much and not manageable. Don't be surprised if your training plan actually works out at 95:5 throughout winter, then drifts closer to 80:20 during spring / summer. 

That doesn’t suit me though…

The thing we also need to consider is that our decisions are often influenced by what personally suit us. So if you really hate doing high intensity running intervals, you may quickly become a fan of easy volume and swear it’s the best way forwards. If you hate long hours in the saddle, it’s easy to convince yourself that short duration and high intensity cycling workouts give you a better return. And if you hate swimming, it’s easy to buy into the theory that ‘swimming is all technique’ and choose to do 1500m worth of drills, then exit the pool. 

In summary...

Swim, bike and run are ‘aerobic endurance’ sports and the training plan should therefore reflect this, with adequate volume at a low to moderate intensity. There should also be small amounts of specific 'strength' work to account for the elements of force production on the bike and in the water, the speed and efficiency element of running and the technical elements of all 3 sports.

The 80:20 works well if you apply it correctly across all sports, but percentages alter based on the time of year. What's key, is that if you believe it's the correct approach, you should see the pattern being followed across all 3 of the triathlon disciplines. If you believe it works... then it works for all aerobic sports. 

We offer triathlon coaching for £40 per month, which includes sports science testing every 8 weeks, you can read more HERE

We also offer VO2 and lactate testing services to assess your fitness and accurately calculate training zones, you can read more HERE

Marc Laithwaite is a level 3 qualified coach, who has been coaching endurance sports for the last 22 years. He is a former sports science lecturer of 12 years and spent 2 years with the British Cycling team as a bloods analyst. He has worked with British Triathlon Coach Education as a coach educator and spent 5 years as head coach of the NW Regional Triathlon Talent Squad. He’s also a former national age group triathlon champion, European duathlon champion and Ironman age group winner.