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Coach Paul Duncan: Getting out of the grey zone in training

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Wondering why you aren’t making linear improvements in your triathlon game? Have you ever considered you may be training too hard too often or too easy? If you are just training “by feel”, chances are that you are not getting the maximum benefits possible out of your training sessions.

The key to making improvements in endurance sport is to improve aerobic efficiency while also stimulating muscle adaptation and recruitment. This requires training at a variety of paces.

The biggest mistake that most triathletes make is spending too much time training in the “grey area”. This means spending the majority of training time at the same intensity. That intensity is usually similar to what many would call “moderate” or maybe “tempo”. There is a time and place for this intensity, but many of us tend to use it way too often.

So, what intensity should you train at? Well that depends where you are in your development as an athlete and what part of your season you are in.

Most athletes benefit from spending the majority of their time training at an easy, aerobic intensity (as dictated by your coach), and spending a small amount of time doing very hard and short intervals at close to maximum effort. If you have been training “by feel”, you have likely spent the majority of your training at around 90% of your threshold intensity. If have been training at the same intensity over and over for a significant amount of time, chances are that you are not getting anywhere close to reaching your potential.

Training at a low enough intensity allows for the athlete to gain a large aerobic fitness base and still be able to work the high intensity stuff to stimulate muscle adaptation. It also mitigates risk of burnout leading to major plateaus in training improvement. Overtraining and burnout comes when you spend a large amount of time sitting in that grey area that most consider “moderate”. Your version of moderate is too slow to reap training adaptation rewards, but too hard to increase your aerobic efficiency.

If you are paying attention to how elite triathletes train, you will notice that the majority of them spend very little time in the grey area. They go extremely easy on recovery rides, but when it’s time to go hard, they are very well rested and ready to dig deep. Any good coach will preach this day in and day out, yet most people cant seem to grasp this very simple concept. Go easy on your easy days, and hard on your hard days.

On your next recovery ride, consider actually going easy. There is nothing wrong with pushing 50 to 100 watts on a recovery ride if it means the next day you are going to be able to actually give it 100% on your intervals.
To be sure you are hitting the right targets, I suggest using a heart rate monitor at minimum. Use technology to your advantage. If you don’t have an understanding of how to set your training zones and periodize your training plan, I suggest holding off on buying the next new fancy piece of training gear, instead consider hiring a coach that can teach you these basic principles.

Paul Duncan is a United States Army veteran, triathlon coach, and triathlete racing for Team Every Man Jack. Paul lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.