If you’ve ever watched beginning tennis players, you might have noticed the lengths to which they will go to avoid using the backhand stroke. They expend valuable energy doing everything within their power to run themselves into a position to hit a forehand because they lack confidence in their backhand. In tennis, this practice is referred to as “running around your backhand”. It’s no different in triathlon. Most triathletes enter the sport with greater experience in one discipline, and running seems to be the gateway activity more often than swimming or cycling. Because we tend to gravitate towards activities in which we excel, tri newbies will usually seek out opportunities to participate in their strongest discipline and avoiding activities in which they perceive themselves as inferior. Failing to address a weakness early in training will result in the athlete arriving at a dead-end on the road to progressive improvement. Every athlete enters the sport with at least one weakness, or limiter, which must be addressed for improvement to occur.
One of the athletes that I coach was telling me about a local triathlete that he described as being a very poor swimmer, an average cyclist, and an above average runner. When my athlete suggested to him that learning to properly swim for triathlon could greatly improve overall performance, the athlete responded that he wasn’t going to waste time on swimming next season and was going to focus his efforts on becoming an even faster runner to offset his weakness in the water. Employing this strategy would be the triathlon equivalent of running around your backhand. By the end of the tennis match, you struggle to even hit the forehand proficiently due to the excess energy previously expended to avoid the backhand.
Triathlon is one sport comprised of three interrelated disciplines, your inefficiencies in one discipline will affect your performance in others.
Triathlon is one sport, not three
Training must be structured so that all three disciplines interact to facilitate maximum fitness gains, while at the same time promoting optimal recovery between workouts. Every athlete enters the sport with at least one limiter. Professional, elite, and top age group athletes may have limiters, but they are still highly proficient in each discipline. They do whatever it takes to eliminate their limiters, with the knowledge that they may only improve enough to minimize the damage done by competitors who look to exploit their weaknesses.
Athletes who train for triathlon as one sport not only improve performance in their weakest discipline by addressing their limiters, the increased efficiency also allows them to redirect previously wasted energy to their stronger disciplines. For example, improved efficiency on the swim results in fresher legs on the bike. Stronger bike fitness combined with a more aerodynamic position will result in fresher legs for the run. Everything that you do in one discipline will impact what you do in the others.
When Swimming is Your Limiter
The predominant limiter for triathletes is the swim because the sport is so technical, and most middle-age adults with jobs and families can’t commit the necessary time required to become proficient at using the traditional mainstream swim techniques. Even if they did have the time, the return on investment is relatively small in comparison to the time requirements for such minimal gains. They simply accept being weak swimmers and register for triathlons that are wetsuit legal and/or include a current-assisted swim. Another option is to increase swim volume and continue to use the same inefficient form. The problem with this is that although you may experience a slight fitness bump from the extra time in the pool, you will also continue to reinforce weak swim form. Since most athletes only have a limited amount of training time, the extra time dedicated to swim volume detracts from the time that may be spent working on the bike and run.
Biking As A Limiter
Improvement on the bike is another matter altogether. Unlike swimming and running, athletes can buy speed on the bike. Aerodynamic carbon-fibre bikes, lightweight wheels, and aero helmets are purchased by athletes under the assumption that it is possible to shave minutes off Ironman and 70.3 race times without exerting any additional physical effort. What they don’t realize is that these technical innovations were designed by engineers for athletes who have maximized gains through training and proper bike position, and are searching for the extra seconds or minutes that only technology can provide. Fortunately for equipment manufacturers, the middle and back-of-the-pack triathletes are looking for these types of shortcuts to speed in lieu of training to improve their bike prowess. Is there anything more ridiculous than someone sitting up on a ten-thousand-dollar bike with a disc wheel, while wearing an aero helmet and riding 14 mph? Save yourself thousands of dollars and just learn to train and ride the bike properly for triathlon. As with the swim, some will attempt to improve bike fitness simply by increasing their training volume. Again, you may experience a slight fitness bump due to the increased volume, but you are reinforcing inefficient form and detracting from the time that you could have been swimming or running.
Let’s say you came from a swimming or biking background and the run is your limiter. You avoid addressing the issue by packing on lots of extra pool time, or time in the saddle to offset your running weakness. The problem with running in Ironman or 70.3 races is that you begin the run already tired. Those athletes who are stronger swimmers and bikers have the luxury of being less fatigued if they pace properly in their stronger disciplines. Spending inordinate amounts of valuable training time learning to run like a runner will not address the specific task of running in long-distance triathlon. Neither will perform run technique drills designed for short and middle-distance runners. Your run success isn’t based simply on your run volume. It’s also dependent on swimming and biking proficiency, and how those workouts are structured to have crossover training effects on your run. The form that you will use in a long-distance triathlon will in no way resemble the perfect running technique taught by the experts for decades. Long distance triathlon running is not about going fast, it ‘s about going slow. Why would you train to race fast if you know with certainty that you will be running slow for the entire event?
If you are going to address you run limiter do so in a manner that is specific to the needs of the events for which you plan to race.
Fixing Your Weaknesses
How do you address your limiter without sacrificing the gains that you have made in the other disciplines? Obviously, you need to increase the quality time spent on your limiter to improve, but the trick is to do so without increasing your total training volume, while at the same time dedicating quality time to the other disciplines. The answer is a stimulus plan.
Stimulus plans are designed to focus more quality training time on your limiter, but not at the expense of the other disciplines. The plans are followed for a brief period, and then you return to normal training with improved skills and newfound confidence. Most coaches use stimulus plans in the off-season, pre-season, or just prior to an important training block.
If you want to be a well-rounded triathlete, make the choice right now to stop running around your backhand and incorporate a stimulus plan into your early season training. If you want something bad enough and are willing to do whatever it takes to get it, the possibilities are unlimited.
Me at my Hilton Head Training Camp, South Carolina, on February 16 to 17.