Finding the right balance in the intensity of your triathlon training will make training more enjoyable, lead to greater consistency, and produce better results.
Training Intensity for the Over-50 Triathlete
A few months ago, I listened to separate podcasts with Phil Maffetone and with Coach Parry. Both made the point that senior endurance athletes are more likely overtraining than undertraining or training too easy.
Had you watched me as I listened to these, you would have seen my head nodding in agreement.
Their comments were in line with the results of our 2021 survey of senior triathletes. Respondents to the survey indicated that ‘injury or illness’ is the second greatest challenge for triathlon. Certainly, overtraining is a major contributor to injury and illness.
So, training at the right intensity is something many of us think about. But, how do we get it right?
I hope to answer this question – and hear from you on this subject – through this post.
“Training in its simplest form is a balancing act. [T]he goal is to simultaneously build and develop seemingly opposing forces. In the world of distance running, we need to balance speed versus endurance, strength versus efficiency, and flexibility versus stiffness, to name a few.”Steve Magness in “The Science of Running“, p. 160 (2014).
What Is Meant By Overtraining?
In the two years before adopting the MAF-180 training method, I found myself in a vicious cycle. One day, I would train hard, trying to make up for the last session which I had skipped or shortened. This was typically followed by two or more days of no training to recover from soreness or injury and from excessive fatigue.
Overtraining is caused by training at too high an intensity, one involving more stress than our body can handle given its level of fitness, strength, recovery, and other ‘stuff’ happening during this time. Early symptoms of overtraining include prolonged muscle soreness, laboring to complete routines that would typically be possible, and/or several days of sub-par performance.
Generally, the problem is solved by a few days to a week of low intensity training (walking, slow jogging or biking) and extra rest. However, continued pain or sluggishness with other symptoms, such as insomnia, loss of interest in training, and headaches, is cause for seeing a physician.
Is It Possible To Undertrain?
Yes, it is possible to undertrain, though it is not common.
As a reference, I define ‘undertraining’ as training at a volume and/or intensity that is not sufficient for completing the distances of a multisport event in a reasonable time. For example, if you are competing in an Ironman 140.6 triathlon, you must train for completing the 2.4 mile swim in the allotted time. And, you must have enough energy left to complete the bike and run legs.
Looking at it another way, you will undertrain for an Ironman triathlon if you only train at sprint triathlon distances.
What Is The Right Balance?
This question reminded me of an email discussion I had with Laurent Labbe, a Senior Triathlete who lives halfway around the world from me in Asia.
Laurent told me about a meeting he had with a supplier whose manager was formerly a professional cyclist. During lunch, the two of them, both over the age of 50, discussed the difficulties in finding a group or club with which to train. Both found young people to be too fast and people their age to generally be too slow.
In the end, these two guys agreed that the right balance was to train at a pace that represented a “reasonable effort”.
At the most basic level, the top two keys to achieving the right balance, or “reasonable effort”, in training are:
- Progressing modestly when increasing training stress. In this context, distance, speed, and weight being lifted are all measures of training stress. Here is where the 10% rule of thumb should come into play. The ‘10% rule’ tells us to never increase the level of stress by more than 10% from one session to the next.
- Recovering properly between sessions. Recovery is probably the most under-utilized training tool in our arsenal. It involves rest as well as hydration and nutrition, everything needed to allow our bodies to adapt to and strengthen from the stress applied during the previous training session.
Don’t Ignore Other Sources of Stress That Affect Training Balance
The above two keys to balanced training assume that the major stress during training comes from the intensity of the activity. However, as Steve Magness points out in “The Science of Running“, there are a host of other factors that contribute to total stress.
These additional sources of stress include environmental (ambient temperature, humidity, altitude) and physical (hydration, type and availability of energy sources, sleep quality) factors. Life events such as travel, family and work related issues, and other commitments also add stress.
Put into a mathematical format, balance is:
St = Sr + Se = Rt, where St = Total stress during training Sr = Stress from training routine Se = Stress from external sources Rt = Recovery from total stress after training
How I Have Found The Right Balance
I mentioned earlier about the vicious cycle of overtraining and long recovery that my training had become. Over the past two years, I have found that training with a heart rate monitor in a range defined by the MAF-180 method for the bike and run has forced me to train at a lower intensity. It also corrects for additional stressors during a particular workout.
This more “reasonable effort” has made training more fun. As a result, I train more frequently and have avoided injury caused by overtraining. As the post titled “Training to Train – Building Aerobic Fitness for Senior Triathletes” documents, I have also seen steady improvements in fitness.
Before leaving this question, I have two more suggestions for the 50+ triathlete from my experiences.
First, avoid setting too aggressive a schedule for training for your next race. A related suggestion is to not try making up for lost time should you be forced to temporarily suspend your training for whatever reason.
The Right Balance In Training Is Not Static
The ‘just right’ amount of training will also vary day to day.
Think about these questions:
- How hard did you train yesterday? What amount of muscle damage resulted from this session?
- How well did you rehydrate and refuel after this workout?
- What was the quality of sleep last night?
- What is the weather (temperature, humidity) where you will be training today?
- Did you hear any alarming news this morning?
- How are you feeling today?
The answers to these will help determine how hard you should train on a given day.
The definition of “reasonable effort” also changes over time as you become more fit.
I recall a conversation with Paul Zellner while I was discussing his experience with triathlon. Paul mentioned that he has found it necessary to push himself with age. He said that he felt that he was often training at too easy a level.
Paul is a multiple marathon and Ironman triathlon finisher. He is also currently active in these sports. Therefore, it is not surprising that his definition of “reasonable effort” has changed as his fitness increases.
How To Know If You Are Training ‘Just Right’
There are various ways to monitor your training stress and degree of recovery between sessions. These range from the simple and free to complicated and expensive.
TrainingPeaks, for example, provides users a way to rank their session using feeling (from frowning to smiling face) and a 1 to 10 ranking of perceived exertion. While I am not a fan of these qualitative rankings, they are accessible to everyone. They can also highlight trouble, especially when feeling or perceived exertion suddenly changes.
Resting heart rate is a more quantitative, yet still accessible, measurement. One member of The Villages Triathlon Club told me that he measures his heart rate upon waking each morning. If the measured rate on a particular day is more than 10% above the typical value, he will reduce the intensity of his training for that day.
This approach has support from the author of a post on the ANT+ website titled “By The Numbers – What Your Heart Rate Monitor Is Telling You“. The author writes “If you see a rise of 10 percent or more in your resting heart rate it may indicate that you are fatigued, emotionally stressed or your immune system has been weakened.”
Other Metrics For Training Recovery
If you wish to dig deeper into this subject, you can look at other tests and measurements for assessing the level of recovery. These include:
- Measuring heart rate variability (HRV)
- Measuring ground contact time – uses a foot pod power meter such as one produced by Stryd
- Blood tests for creatine kinase and cortisol levels (generally used for elite and professional athletes)
The first two are available with additional equipment or sensors. However, the latter (blood tests) are most likely beyond the need of amateur athletes.
How Do You Know When You Are Training At The Right Intensity?
What metric or approach do you use to judge if you are training too hard or too easy? Leave your comments below.