I’ve often been asked what are the two things that make a great triathlete? I always say consistency and effort in training. Of course, possessing a great physiology and mental toughness is an advantage as well, but when it comes to training principles, it is my opinion that Specificity and Progressive Overload are the two that are most important.
What is Specificity and Progressive Overload in training?
Specificity in not only the type of training, that is swimming, cycling and running, but also in the intensity of effort. Progressive Overload is gradually increasing workload volume, intensity, or frequency of training over time.
You probably realise by now that at Trisutto we don’t spend much time on what is not specific to triathlon. Our training routines rotate around those activities that we use when racing, that is lots of swimming, biking and running. Lots of “switching” and “bricks”. Not much stretching, weights, or yoga.
The same could be said for the intensities that we train. While there is the bulk of training at intensities lower than race pace, there is also a prescribed amount at race pace and a smaller amount just above race pace. Rarely do we need to train at maximum intensities.
A good example of this is one of our regular run sessions. I remember discussing with Brett Sutton over 20 years ago, about how he learnt to become a triathlon coach from being a swim coach. His reply was that ‘he knew nothing about biking and running, but just applied the same principles as he had learnt in swimming’. Therefore, his run sets were designed like swim sets, i.e. longer, less intense running with a short recovery. I was taught with running, being a higher intensity activity, the work to rest ratio should be 1:3. Brett just turned that around (3:1) and it soon convinced me that he was on to something that has been a great weapon for coaches who are willing to treat triathlon as one sport and not three separate sports.
Specific overload at Trisutto age group camp in Australia
Specificity and Progressive Overload Training in Action
As an example, let us consider a running workout on the athletics track.
4 x 200m leaving on 1 minute.
Initially doing 4 repeats of this 4 x 200m, and an additional 30 seconds rest between each of these 4 sets. We can add an additional repeat each week, building up to 8 repeats of 4 x 200m. Your 200m pace should be approximately race pace for a 5km running race. Over the weeks, we progressively overload through increasing the volume, while maintaining the same rest periods.
Once this is achieved, we can move from 8 sets of 4 x 200m, to 4 sets of 8 x 200m while still maintaining the 60 second send off for each 200m, and still keeping an additional 30 seconds rest between each of the sets. We do the same number of 200m intervals (32), but have fewer of the 30 seconds rest periods as we are doing them broken into 4 sets, not 8 sets.
From here we could move to 4 sets of 10 x 200m (3.2km total), 2 sets of 25 x 200m, and finally to 1 set of 50 x 200m (10km total) still maintaining the same send off of 1 minute for each 200m.
You will notice in this example that the time base has remained the same (1 minute), however, the specific overload has increased. The number of 200m intervals has increased from 32 to 50. There has been a reduction in the amount of rest in the workout as we moved from 8 repeats with 30 seconds additional rest between each, then to 4 repeats, then to 2 repeats and finally to 50 x 200m without any additional rest periods.
Yes this is a tough workout, but you are progressively overloading as you become fitter. You are also resting after every 200m (the time between finishing one 200m and starting the next one), you are working your cardiovascular system, but not completely exhausting your muscular system, as you would do if you ran the same distance (10km) at that same speed continuously. This allows holding better form, with less injury risk, while being able to train the neuromuscular system at 'race pace' in a planned and progressive approach throughout the whole year.
The same principles can be achieved running 400s or even 800s. It is all about being Specific and Overload.
Trisutto Coach Rob Pickard is a former National Coaching Director and High-Performance Manager of Triathlon Australia, and is based in Australia.