Thursday, September 25, 2014

Triathlon Training Basics: The Points System

I do my triathlon training using a points system.  I did not invent the system, I found it on slowtwitch, but I’ve been using it since 2008 with good results.  However, it feels like I’m constantly explaining the damned thing, so this post is meant to be the one final, definitive explanation.  From now on any mention of the system will simply link to this article.  
I hope you find this system useful.  But even if you don’t, understanding the system itself will at least help you understand what the Hell I’m talking about whenever I write about triathlon in my own life.  If you follow this blog, that will become a necessity eventually.

Why do we need a system?
The best thing about triathlon is that it’s a different thing every day.  We swim, we bike, and we run, but we also monitor our eating habits and nutrition, we occasionally lift weights or do yoga, and we cross-train.  The upside of this is two-fold.  First, triathlon constantly seems fresh and exciting.  It’s a new challenge every day.  Second, the sport itself is a lot less likely to lead to repetitive use injuries than are any of its subordinate disciplines practiced singly.  This is because you are using your body in a variety of ways over the course of training three disciplines, not in the same way over and over and over again.  You may still get injured, but in general, your body can tolerate a much larger total training volume because that volume is spread out over three different disciplines of fitness.
It is the differences in the three disciplines that necessitate a points system.  
If you swim, bike, or run singly, you can easily track your progress over time by monitoring your yardage or mileage totals.  However, if you do all three disciplines at the same time, monitoring your progress is more challenging.  To meet this challenge, I equivalence all three disciplines in terms of points and then keep track of my total points on a weekly basis.  This is helpful because:
  • Not every day is a hard day.  Some days are recovery days.
  • Not every week is equally balanced.  Some weeks focus on one specific discipline.
  • Having an idea of one’s total point targets allows better planning and time management.
This last point is not to be overlooked.  Perhaps the most significant challenge for adult triathletes is finding or making the time to train.
The Points System
I grant you that this is a rough equivalence, but as one-size-fits-all solutions go, this is the best one I have ever seen for triathlon training.  
It is perhaps worth noting that swimming and running are roughly equivalent in terms of their sustained heart rates during exercise, so it is therefore no surprise that their one-point equivalences take roughly similar amounts of time in training.  For example, swimming 100 yards and running one quarter-mile each take reasonably fit triathletes somewhere between a 1:30 and 2:00, all things being equal.  Granted, most triathletes will prefer one discipline over the other, but this rough equivalence is still useful on a week-to-week basis.  Meanwhile, cyclists tend to have a lower heart rate during sustained periods of exercise, which is why its equivalence—though obviously convenient in absolute terms—generally takes longer on a per-point basis.
This equivalence also makes sense when looked at on a weekly basis.  Consider the following 100-point weeks:
  • 10,000 yards swimming
  • 100 miles cycling
  • 25 miles running
Each of these represents a decent week of training for a given weekend warrior-type working in a single sport, but higher level athletes commonly do much more than this.  For example, I don’t know how many runners are putting in 25 miles every day, but both swimmers and cyclists at the collegiate level put in 100-point days on a consistent basis.
Finally, I should also note that in addition to using this formula on a weekly basis, I also use it—or at least consider it—when planning interval training as well.  For example, 200-yard swimming intervals occupy roughly the same space in swim training as half-mile intervals do on a track.  Both are mid-distance sprints, the kind of thing that require both a hard tempo and a certain ability to pace oneself for the duration of the interval.
The Points System in Practice
One can and should use the points system to plan one’s training.  As a general rule, the following minimum point totals per week are appropriate to the following races:
  • Sprint: 90 to 110 points
  • Olympic: 140 to 160 points
  • Half-Ironman: 200 to 220 points
  • Full Ironman: 300+ points
You can train more than this, of course, and if you want to finish higher than middle-of-the-pack, you will need to, but these values are decent minimum guidelines based on my personal observations.

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