You may have discovered a comfortable and achievable pattern for your triathlon training, but are ready to step it up a notch. How can you go about this?
There are a few different ways to phrase it, but they boil down to investing time, effort, or money.
The first step is to take a critical look at your current training program. If you don't have one, fix this. A training program is designed to improve your performance within a medium to long term time horizon. An exercise routine is a routine that helps you stay in shape, but doesn't consider long term performance improvement.
There's nothing wrong with engaging in a regular exercise routine. Doing so puts you ahead of 51% of the US population. But, the goals here are to keep you healthy and reasonably fit. You certainly can race in triathlon, open water swimming, or other events with a good routine.
But after a few months or years of this routine, your performance will plateau. You need to change it up with focused, specific training.
You can read a few books, hire a personal coach, find a well reviewed online training plan, or copy your buddy's program. The time/money you put into improving your personal plan is going to be closely correlated to the end result. Reading a bunch of good books and articles takes time. Hiring a good coach costs money. The answer for you is somewhere in there.
Within a well constructed endurance training program, there are some key rules to follow.
1) Plan the entire overview of the season first. So you know where you are, where you want to go, and how you're going to get there. There are a lot of different ways to achieve success. Some are minor variations while others are polemic opposites.
2) Build your endurance base with steady/moderate sessions. If this is established, move on to step three.
3) Engage in supplemental strength/core training and flexibility training. The primary reason for these is to help prevent injury. I know a lot of endurance athletes who poo-poo strength training and stretching. I also know a lot of chronically or permanently injured athletes.
4) Schedule your week or training block around key workouts that help you achieve the current goal within the program - with your eye on the long term goal. This focus will change throughout a season and throughout multiple seasons. If you've just finished a big bike block of training, chances are it's time to move to some other focus. And so on.
5) Plan your recovery days and weeks in a sensible manner. Virtually everyone should have planned recovery days. If you're over 40, you definitely need to take at least one if not two easy days per week. Easy doesn't mean you have to sit on your bottom. Just keep the effort low.
6) Stay on top of your nutrition, hydration, and sleep. These impact your daily life, your recovery time, and your ability to sustain a high workload of training.
7) Eat a recovery meal within 30-45 minutes of finishing your harder workouts. The post-workout refueling window starts to close after one hour.
8) Set interim goals, join training groups, and find local races that can help you keep the training fresh and enjoyable.
9) Listen to your body. Pushing through discomfort is one thing. Pushing through pain is a different beast.
In general, increasing your effort/duration by 10% a week and dropping back every 3-4 weeks is a safe approach. However, you need to be careful of increasing duration and intensity on a straight upward slope. Adding a one hour easy ride increases your weekly effort by about 'X'. Running twenty minutes hard also increases your weekly effort by about 'X'. Tools like Trainingpeaks can help you keep a handle on this.
10) Remember to have fun and take sensible breaks. If your training plan becomes a job, you might wind up firing yourself. :-)
Marty Gaal, CSCS, is a USA Triathlon coach who lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Marty has been coaching endurance athletes since 2002. You can read more about OSB coaching services at www.osbmultisport.com.
One Step Beyond is the producer of the Powerstroke®: Speed through force and form freestyle technique DVD, intended to help new to intermediate triathlon swimmers become faster and more powerful in the water.