"Training In the Middle" Expanded

I learned a lot of useful lessons in 2015. One of the most fundamental and overarching lessons was about “training in the middle.” I spoke on this topic at length in THIS blog post, written after Kona.  In 2014 I focused mainly on 70.3s and because the event is significantly shorter and faster than the Ironman, it was only natural that I focused on doing shorter and faster intervals in practice. With little focus on the Ironman distance in practice, I was able to put together a decent bike-run at the swim cancelled Ironman Florida at the end of 2014 (313w for a 4:12 180km bike on a very windy day, and a 2:44 marathon). With the confidence and motivation gained from Ironman Florida I decided to focus on the full Ironman distance in 2015. The Ironman is significantly longer than the 70.3, and because of this I had a lot of internal insecurity with continuing to employ the training methodology which had worked well for the 70.3 and Ironman Florida (shorter and faster intervals).

I will use the bike as an example. In the beginning of the season I was still practicing a short and fast approach to interval training. My first A-Race of the season was Oceanside 70.3, so I had no insecurity with continuing this approach. There I had probably the best ride of my career. I came out of the water with over a 4 minute and 30 second deficit to the leaders, and caught them by 37 miles. After this race my next A-Race was Ironman Texas. Slowly, insecurity began creeping in. “How am I going to ride a good 180km bike by only doing 10-15 minute hard intervals?” was one of the thoughts that reverberated around in my head. Over time, 15 minutes became 30 minutes, then an hour and then eventually 4 straight hours- hard! The logic was “if 15 minutes is good, 30 minutes will be better, and 4 hours will be even better!”

In the beginning you can get away with this style of training. If you have been practicing a “short and fast” approach prior to this point, and have pushed your upper limits very high, then you might be able to get away with it for a considerable amount of time. But eventually it will catch up with you and things will go down hill. Oceanside 70.3 was my best ride of the season, and Kona (my AAA+ Race) was the worst ride of the season (and worse than about 10 rides I had done in practice of comparable duration). The spread between those two races was under seven months.

A logical question is “what catches up with you?” So far, I see three areas of deterioration:

  1. Long, hard, continuous intervals are MASSIVELY taxing. Do one or two workouts incorporating these intervals every now and then and you might not see too much damage. Do them week in and week out, and they are crippling. On the obvious side, doing MASSIVELY taxing workouts regularly will make you physically very tired. But just as crippling is the mental exhaustion incurred during these workouts. I would almost go as far as to say the mental exhaustion is more debilitating than the physical exhaustion. I think most will agree that if you are mentally fresh and motivated, you can push through a massive amount of physical exhaustion. On the other hand, if you are mentally very exhausted, even the lightest bit of physical exertion feels astronomical.
  1. The fact of the matter is that the longer the duration, the less power you can produce (or the slower you will run). The world record for the 5km in running is about 2:31/km. The world record for the marathon (42.2km of running) is about 2:55/km. Usain Bolt’s 100m world record was run at a pace of under 1:40/km. If you extend the duration of an interval you have no choice but to reduce the pace or wattage. The duration of intervals utilized is often a byproduct of the race distance you are training for. For example, it is hard to see any logic in someone training to run a fast 5km, by doing 10km repeats. Where things get cloudy is in ultra-distance events like Ironman. In Ironman training you might be able to justify to yourself that doing 10km repeats will have value for your run. But there comes a point where the benefit of increasing the interval duration is outweighed by the cost of decreasing the speed or power. The longer you go, the more you “gravitate towards the middle.” The less time you spend at paces and wattages corresponding to the Lactate Threshold, Vo2Max and beyond, the lower those corresponding paces and wattages become. The lower those corresponding paces and wattages become, the closer they will be to race pace. The closer they are to race pace, the higher your perceived exertion at constant race pace becomes. As perceived exertion progressively goes up, you will have no choice but to slow down. This may be one contributing factor in why you see some individuals in the pro field start off as great 70.3 racers, and then as they become “Ironman Specialists,” they become worse and worse at the 70.3.
  1. The faster you run or bike, the tighter you become. I don’t mean tight in a literal sense, though there is some tightening in this sense as well. I mean it in more of a “tightening up of inefficiencies” sense. If you don’t believe me, record yourself jogging and then running hard. You will look a lot “cleaner” and “tighter” while running hard. The slower you run or bike, the sloppier you can be, and the sloppier you will be (the body chooses laziness any opportunity it gets). The less time you spend on the short, high end of the interval spectrum, the less time you spend ingraining efficient, clean, tight running or biking into your muscle memory, and the more inefficient you will become. Don’t believe me? This effect is so profound that I bet you will agree with me after just one little test. Do an adequate run warmup and then run 1km at 5km race pace. Then do five 200m repeats with a fair amount of recovery in between each. Do them a touch under all-out sprinting. Then do another 1km at 5km race pace. The second time round everything will feel a lot tighter, efficient and in control- because you had to be in order to run as fast as you did in the 200s. That form may fade quickly in the beginning, but with repetition it will be imprinted deeper and deeper into your muscle memory, spreading across all paces and durations.

That’s enough for now. I am nearly about to get off the plane in Panama for this weekend’s Pan American Pro Championship. In the next post on this topic I will go into the details of what I was doing in 2015 and the changes I have made in 2016.