This is the third of a four-part series on how to train in the early part of your season which I call Base 1. You can read my previous posts on workout frequency and duration if you haven't seen them. That will give you a better perspective before starting into this post.
This series of posts assumes that your first race is still in the neighborhood of 6 months in the future. The training is essentially the same regardless of sport or even of the distance or type of race (crit, road race, ITT, 5km, 10km, half marathon, marathon, sprint tri, Olympic tri, half-Ironman, Ironman). Generally, it doesn't matter what sort of event you are training for, the intensity is quite similar at this early stage of training. Aerobic fitness is an underlying ability for endurance athletes of all types. So with that in mind, here are my thoughts on training intensity for Base 1.
Intensity. I’ve said this so many times here that I’m reluctant to say it again. I’m sure you are starting to get the message if you follow this blog. The bottom line of one’s training strategy is that the workouts should gradually become more race-like as the season progresses. So the reverse side is that when you are several months out from your first A race the training may well be quite unlike the race, especially in terms of intensity. I generally interpret this to mean that the workouts are done at a lower intensity than that anticipated in the race. Of course, with very long, steady-state events such as Ironman triathlons race intensity for most is zone 2. So in that regard an Ironman triathlete does not therefore have to spend the entire Base 1 period in zone 1. Instead there will be quite a bit of zone 2 now.
In fact, regardless of the sport, I have those I train spend a considerable amount of their training time in zone 2. Throughout the Base period, but especially in Base 1 and 2 (3-4 weeks each) I have the athletes do weekly workouts in zone 2 and I watch to see how well matched their power and heart rate (cycling) or pace and heart rate (running) are. I call this “decoupling.” I’m looking to see if they can generally do increasingly longer workouts in zone 2 with minimal decoupling. This is described in a previous post here. When it becomes apparent that they can do such workouts with ease then they are ready to advance to somewhat more challenging training in Base 3.
When it comes to measuring intensity I therefore require those I coach to have a heart rate monitor, power meter (cycling), and/or speed-distance device such as a GPS or accelerometer (running). For cycling I rely much more heavily on power than heart rate for nearly all workouts. The exception is recovery workouts. These may be done either by perceived exertion or heart rate. Speed-distance devices are not as reliable and accurate as power meters so many of the running workouts I assign are based on heart rate. Running intervals done near and above the upper threshold are more likely to be based on pace, however.
I don’t believe that anaerobic training (that done at a higher intensity than lactate/anaerobic/functional threshold) is necessarily counterproductive in the early Base period as many coaches seem to believe. I say “believe” here because I’ve never come across any research which addresses this issue. However, I don’t have anyone train at such a high intensity load in Base 1. It only takes a few weeks, perhaps 6 to 12, to achieve a very high level of anaerobic fitness. So to start doing such training with six months to go until one’s first A-priority race means that such fitness would have to be maintained for months on end. A half a year or more of VO2 max intervals is a good way to burnout an athlete, and for no good reason.
Check back in a few days and I’ll get down to real nitty-gritty with early Base period workouts with examples.