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The prep phase sets you up for success

You should break your off-season into three stages - rest, active recovery and prep phase. The prep phase will be different for everyone, but is critical to season success.

— by Kerry Hale

Winter can be a difficult time for triathletes. It’s a time to rest, recover and reassess. However, the concept of slowing down to reenergize doesn’t come easily to many endurance athletes. An undisputed fact of endurance sport is that both your body and mind need a break, and winter seems the logical time to do just that. There’s fact-based and anecdotal evidence that taking such a break will translate into a better and happier athlete. Those who adhere to a suitable end-of-season break typically have greater longevity in the sport and have a higher chance of attaining race goals from year to year by resting, building, peaking and tapering at the appropriate times.

Doing some other activities in the winter can help you recharge and gain motivation.

When it comes to winter triathlon training, variety is as vital as consistency. There’s little need to log endless hours of training in dark, cold and/or wet conditions. Instead, take a complete break from all physical endeavours and enjoy some family/friend time (Total Rest). Then begin moving again, but steer away from the three disciplines of triathlon for a time by incorporating light unstructured workouts of various other fun activities (Active Recovery). Then return to the specific challenges of triathlon and focus on a handful of short, quality workouts each week for several months (Prep Phase). This will set you up for the increased training and race demands of the Spring and Summer, when training hours ramp up as the temperature rises.

Spring training camp in Arizona.

Avoid the temptation to start training too hard too early. By falling into the common trap of hitting hard training too soon, the winter will seem to drag on forever and there’s a very real danger that you’ll be past your peak fitness by the time you race. As athletes, the risk of physical and motivational burnout is real. If the goal is to race in the spring and summer, the optimal time to start ramping up your training is early January. Until then, rest and try different sports. But don’t guilt yourself. Recognize that you can get race fit with four or five months of solid training. More isn’t always better.

Think of the rest-recover-begin training process in three distinct stages.

Total Rest: Immediately after race season, take at least one to two weeks of complete rest with no training whatsoever – longer if required. Eat, drink, sleep, and be merry. Analyzing the race season with a discerning eye is commonplace during this time, but leave it there. A more thorough analysis can wait.  If you really want to exercise during this period, go for some long walks with the family or the dog.

Active Recovery: For the next four – twelve weeks enjoy some light unplanned exercise away from triathlon. This might include winter sports, indoor rowing, hiking, mountain biking or anything else that appeals to you, works up a sweat and doesn’t lead to any injuries. Work out at an easy-moderate intensity and consider taking two full rest days per week during this phase. 

The Prep Phase: Now resume structured and low-volume triathlon training (see plan below), but only lightly for the first four to eight weeks. This phase is designed to provide an easy, gradual return to proper training rather than preparing to race. The weekly volume is 40 to 50 percent of what might be performed later in the year. And most (not all) of the training is at an easy intensity.

The length of the Prep Phase depends on the length of time before your target race. If there are 40 weeks until you’re A race, perform eight or 12 weeks of Prep Phase training. If your target race is in only 24 weeks, you should aim for around four weeks.

At the completion of your Prep Phase, ramp up your training volume and intensity gradually each month with specific race goals in mind so that your fitness continues to build toward you’re a race.

Below is an example of a Prep Phase training plan for a month. It is a generic plan which includes two workouts in each discipline per week. It can be used to train for any distance of triathlon. The idea is to build routine and momentum. This plan opts not to incorporate training based on specified heart rate, wattage or pace guidelines. Instead, the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is utilized as a guide where 1 = extremely easy and 10 = the hardest effort you can possibly maintain for 30 seconds. Training with power, heart rate or a GPS is optional here.

For the swim, consider joining a group. This is the most efficient way to improve, especially if you have a coach poolside offering advice. Contact your local triathlon club or masters swim group, or alternatively, organize to swim with a group of friends for added motivation. Perhaps get a lesson from a professional if required.  

On the bike, there’s a lively midweek indoor workout which can be done at a gym or at home using a turbo trainer or stationary bike. On the weekends – assuming rideable weather – head outdoors and perform an easier ride but longer ride, adding some distance each month.

Young People – women and men – exercising in the gym

The plan includes a 5km race or time-trial each Saturday as speed work sessions. This speed will assist across all distances come race season. The plan includes an active recovery phase in week 4. Feel free to switch days to better fit into your weekly routine.

Three athlete people running outdoors in the winter on an open road.

Week 1:

  • Monday
    • Run: 30 – 45 minutes at a relatively easy intensity RPE = 5
  • Tuesday
    • Swim: 30 – 45 minutes, preferably with a group or club
  • Wednesday
    • Ride: Indoor bike session. 
    • Warm Up: 15 minutes at RPE = 5
    • Main Set: 5×5 mins at RPE = 8 with 3 mins recovery between intervals RPE = 5
    • Warm Down: 5 – 10 mins at RPE = 5
  • Thursday
    • Swim: 30 – 45 minutes
  • Friday
    • Rest Day
  • Saturday
    • Run: 5km run race or time trial
  • Sunday
    • Ride: 1 – 1.5 hours at a steady pace RPE = 6

Week 2:

  • Monday
    • Run: 30 – 45 minutes at a relatively easy intensity RPE = 5
  • Tuesday
    • Swim: 30 – 45 minutes, preferably with a group or club
  • Wednesday
    • Ride: Indoor bike session
    • Warm Up: 15 minutes at RPE = 5
    • Main Set: 9, 8, 7mins all at RPE = 8 with 2 mins recovery at RPE = 5
    • Warm Down: 5 – 10mins at RPE = 5
  • Thursday
    • Swim: 30 – 45 minutes
  • Friday
    • Rest Day
  • Saturday
    • Run: 5km run race or time trial
  • Sunday
    • Ride: 1 hour 45 at a steady pace RPE = 6

Week 3:

  • Monday
    • Run: 50-minutes at RPE = 5
  • Tuesday
    • Swim: 45 minutes
  • Wednesday
    • Ride: Indoor bike session. 
    • Warm Up: 15 minutes at RPE = 5.
    • Main Set: 15 mins at RPE = 8 + with 2 mins recovery at RPE = 5
    • Warm Down: 10 mins at RPE = 5
  • Thursday
    • Swim: 45 minutes
  • Friday
    • Rest Day
  • Saturday
    • Run: 5km run race or time trial
  • Sunday
    • Ride: 2 hours at a steady pace RPE = 6

Week 4: Active recovery week

  • Monday
    • Rest Day
  • Tuesday
    • Swim: 45 minutes
  • Wednesday
    • Brick: Indoor bike and run.
      • Warm Up: Cycle 10 – 15 minutes at RPE = 5
      • Main Set: Cycle 6, 5, 4mins all at 8/10 RPE with a minute rest between
      • Run: 20 mins as (First and last 5 mins at RPE = 6, middle 10 mins at RPE = 8)
  • Thursday
    • Swim: 45 – 50 mins
  • Friday
    • Rest Day
  • Saturday
    • Run: 45 minutes at RPE = 5
  • Sunday
    • Ride: 1 hour 30 at a steady pace RPE = 6. Stop for a coffee and chat.

As mentioned, now that your Prep Phase training is complete, gradually ramp up the training volume and intensity each month to meet the specific demands of your 2019 race season.