This time of year, most triathletes are winding their seasons down. For the most part, your racing season has ended, and the smart athletes are taking a significant break from training to recharge their bodies for next year. What else can an athlete do during the next few months to improve next year’s performance?
After a transition period of two to four weeks of very light, completely unstructured training, our top priorities should be to increase our muscular strength, improving our technique in all three sports of the triathlon (the swim, bike and run), and maintain our basic endurance.
1. Strength Training
Developing greater muscular strength during the off-season should be a priority for almost every triathlete. Incorporating strength training will improve efficiency in all three sports, improve workout recovery, and reduce the frequency and severity of injuries. Next week’s article will provide details on the optimal off-season strength training program for triathletes.
2. Improve Technique
To perform better next year, most athletes need to make a significant change in technique. Despite what many athletes believe, simply training more than you did this year isn’t really the key to success next year. Many athletes, even advanced ones, should significantly alter technique to perform more efficiently. Right now, early in the off-season, is the optimal time to undertake changes to technique.
During the racing season, the pressure of racing well prevents athletes from successfully making major changes. Adjustments in technique almost always cause a check-mark shaped change in performance. Immediately following the change, performance usually declines in the short term. Mastering a new skill requires time and frequently emphasizes different muscles, which may not be conditioned for optimal performance. After the athlete has had time to fully master the new skill and his muscles have been trained using the new technique, performance improves significantly. Making such a change early in the off-season gives the athlete months to perfect the new techniques before they will be tested in competition.
Making technique changes early in the off-season also decreases the risk of injury. Putting new stresses on the body’s tissues during periods of high volume and/or high intensity training is asking for trouble. This time of year, most endurance athletes have reduced training mileage considerably and training intensity is the lowest of the year. By the time training volume and intensity are increased for pre-season training, the tissues will have adapted to the new techniques.
Many future articles in this series will discuss technique in all three triathlon segments. Following are some basic technique changes that triathletes could begin to learn now to improve next year’s performance.
3. Increase Torso Rotation in Swim Stroke
Efficient swimmers rotate their torsos further and faster than less advanced swimmers. Maximizing torso rotation allows easier breathing, generates much of the power for propulsion, and puts the body in the water in a position to cut through the water instead of lowing through it. More details about swim mechanics will come in future articles in this series, but this off-season, work on rotating your body more on every stroke and you will swim faster and more efficiently.
4. Increasing Cycling Cadence
Watching Lance Armstrong drop his competition so easily at the Tour de France using his high cadence pedaling style, many cyclists and triathletes decided to try increasing cadence for themselves each July. Many of them find that increasing cadence leaves them out of breath instead of in front of their competitors.
Increasing cadence will help improve most athletes’ cycling performance, but to do so requires preparation. Increasing cadence is a long term project. Start now. Once a rider has practiced it, high cadence pedaling will be easier on the legs than grinding in a bigger gear. Regardless, sustained high cadence pedaling requires many hours of practice before it becomes more efficient than pushing a bigger gear. Begin adapting your body to higher cadence riding now by using smaller gears at higher cadence for all your winter riding. Increase gradually and give your legs time to adjust. Purchasing a bike-computer with a cadence function is important as it will allow you to monitor your progress for just a few dollars.
5. Reduce Running Stride Length and Increase Turnover
Most runners ignore technique, but I have found that even elite runners can improve performance significantly by changing to more efficient techniques. In the past month alone, two athletes I coach have won World Championships. Even at their level, we consistently work on perfecting running technique. The benefits are even greater for beginners and intermediates.
Shorter and quicker strides lead to faster running times. Start incorporating these techniques into your running now to allow your legs to learn to run this way efficiently before next season. Shorter strides require less force at push-off and reduce the need for vertical displacement (up and down movement).
Attempting to pull the leg backward faster increases both turnover and stride length. The result is such a high running speed that it will not be sustainable. That is sprinting, not efficient distance running. A better strategy for learning higher turnover running is to concentrate on quick leg recovery. This increases turnover, but allows a slightly shorter stride. Remember that you can decrease stride length by 15% if you increase turnover by 20% and still run faster (and be able to sustain it). Make sure that there is no pause at the completion of the follow through and drive the knee forward quickly.
A metronome is a small electronic device that beeps at whatever speed you set it to. Timing your foot-strike with the beeping can be a great way to monitor turnover and gradually accustom your legs to higher turnover.
More information about running technique is available in my book The Triathlete’s Guide to Run Training or on my video Evolution Running: Run Faster with Fewer Injuries. Both are available at www.EvolutionRunning.com
This off-season, keep volume and intensity low for your swim, bike, and run workouts, but prioritize easy workouts concentrating on developing efficient techniques and strength training workouts. When the season starts next spring you’ll be glad you did.