The low point of the triathlon calendar occurs at about this time in February. Last season is a distant memory and my first race is still a long way off, yet I am still having to get out of bed at ungodly times to train. Add to that the fact that any training before 7.00am or after 4.30pm has to be done in the dark and probably in freezing temperatures and you get the picture – it is a slog.
But winter training doesn’t have to be a chore. 2015 will be my third season in triathlon, so this is my third time round the winter training routine. My first winter was just about training and staying fit – what I lacked in structure I made up for in enthusiasm. My second winter was all about the bike. It identified itself very quickly as my weak spot and so I set about changing that. My chosen training regime was all volume and no science. If there was a club ride I was on it. If there wasn’t I was out on my own or with a friend come hell or high water – well we didn’t have hell that winter but I learned to cycle on flooded roads.
The only drawback with this approach was that I didn’t measure anything, so I had no accurate way of knowing if I had improved apart from how it felt. It certainly felt better, but it wasn’t until my first race in early June that I was able to prove it – a bit late if it turned out I hadn’t improved.
So this winter I am taking a completely different approach. Less volume and more science.
The less volume is a deliberate effort to rid myself of the junk miles I did last winter. The science is all about measuring myself on the basis that what you can measure you can improve. It’s the introduction of the numbers that has made winter training such fun this year and it’s the reason I can say with confidence, even at this early stage, that I am improving.
On the bike my measure of choice is power. How many Watts am I producing? And the way I am measuring that is through a cheap, but brilliant, system called TrainerRoad which works with any popular turbo trainer. I blogged about it a month or so ago. The structured workouts have already produced an increase in my power of 15% since November and there is definitely more to come. I have added a vital ingredient to my training, a virtual training buddy in the form of Chris Glover. We have been through exactly the same program together, mostly working out on the same day and the moaning, celebrating and general banter over Facebook Messenger has become an integral part of the process.
In the pool is where I need most help to train. My approach to date has been to pound up and down the pool hoping things get better – they haven’t. This year I am using a geeky sounding measure called “Critical Swim Speed”. It is what a runner would refer to as “Threshold”. It is measured using a simple swimming test that requires no specialist equipment, except obviously a swimming pool. Once you have established it then you train by doing intervals of varying lengths at your CSS and then retest every 4-6 weeks. I am hoping that a combination of CSS training and the technique lessons I had in the Autumn will see my swim times budge from the place where they have been stubbornly stuck for two years.
Which just leaves running. This is the area where I feel most confident and yet where I am making the biggest change to my training. In the past I have relied on speed work combined with a weekly long slow run to get me run fit for long-distance triathlon. My approach probably looks unchanged to any observer but on the long run I am trying a training technique pioneered by a guy called Phil Maffetone and introduced to me by Chris Glover.
Maffetone uses a formula to calculate your ideal endurance training heart rate which will be different depending on your age and current fitness. The magic number for me is 130. On my long runs I am not allowed to let my heart rate go over 130. At first it seemed impossible. I had to keep to about a 10-minute mile which is at least a minute a mile slower than I would normally train on a long slow run.
But that is the crux of Maffetone’s theory. Bashing out lots of modestly brisk miles is neither speed training nor endurance training. It’s training in that no-man’s-land that we know as “junk miles”.
By training at a heart rate of 130 bpm, Maffetone believes that I am conditioning my body to fuel itself with the oxygen I breathe and not eat into my glycogen energy stores that are scarce and quickly burned. As it becomes more efficient it can do more for less which in practical terms means I can run faster for longer. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Just a few weeks in and I have seen my pace improve by 15 seconds per mile at the same heart rate. It seems Mr Maffetone might be onto something.
Whether all the science and numbers produces a better triathlete come next Spring we will have to wait and see. But what they have produced is a really interesting back drop to my training. I feel as motivated as I have at any point in any of the last few winters and that has to be worth something