High Intensity Training Part 2

In my past blog I spoke about high intensity training for triathletes. What it is, why it should be done and the benefits you get from doing it.  The link to that blog is here

In part 2 I’ll talk about how it can be applied in a program and the different types of sessions across swim, bike and run.   As I mentioned in the previous blog, high intensity training for triathletes is contextual and that the application for the athlete is dependent on several factors.

These include the experience of the athlete, their goal training event, what type of responder they are to different types of training stimulus, injuries, current fitness, and their life away from training. Whilst the principles and science of high intensity training does not change the level of volume, intensity and recovery for each athlete can be quite different.

Despite the differences applied to individual athletes, similar outcomes can be achieved depending on how the session is performed. My job as a coach is to be able to apply the science specifically to the athlete.  And the more I know about the athlete the better. If you are a self-coached athlete, then the more you can understand how your body adapts to training the better.

How hard, how long and how much recovery:

By breaking high intensity training into intervals with recovery in between it exposes your body to a higher intensity for longer compared to doing one single session.  And it is this exposure to the high intensity we need to get the adaptations.  The more experienced the athlete the more intensity they can absorb.

Initially we need to decide what is the goal of the session.  Once we know that then we can determine the level of intensity. For example, if you want to improve your Vo2 max which is your maximum oxygen uptake delivered to the working muscle then you need to perform the intervals at 85-95% of your maximum heart rate.

These sessions are physically and mentally very hard and take a lot out of you.  They also improve muscular endurance and mentally when you get through a session like this it will give you more confidence to endure discomfort.  Which is essentially what racing is, enduring discomfort!

A typical Vo2 max session for the bike and run is 4 x 6 x 4-6 minutes with 3-5 minutes easy recovery in between.  A more experienced athlete might do 6 x 6 minutes while a beginner level athlete might do 4 x 4 minutes. Both achieving a similar outcome but by modifying the duration and recovery the athlete is working at their appropriate level.

For swimming, a Vo2 max session would be 15-25 x 100m holding best average pace for each and taking 30-45 seconds rest after each 100. The rest in the pool is shorter as your heart rate does not get as high compared to bike and run meaning your recovery will also be quicker.  A more experienced athlete would do 25 x 100m and with a shorter recovery while a less experienced athlete might do 15 with a longer recovery.

If your goal was to improve your threshold levels, then performing intervals at 80-85% of your maximum heart rate is the best range.  These intervals are typically longer and can be anywhere from 5-20 minutes. The recovery will also be shorter, typically half to three quarters of the interval length and the benefits of this are they improve your economy.  A better economy allows you to perform at a higher percentage of your Vo2 max. These intervals don’t fatigue you as much as the higher intensity Vo2 max intervals.

Threshold sessions are typically used more for long course athletes, however they are beneficial for all distances of races and all levels of athletes. The challenge is being able to gage the intensity for a longer period so you can maintain an even speed through out.

A threshold example for the run would be 2-3 x 10 min @ half marathon race pace intensity with 5-10 min easy jog recovery in between.  A bike threshold session could be 2-4 x 15 min @ 70.3 race pace intensity with 5-15 min recovery in between. As discussed, modifying duration and recovery allows you to adapt to the specific athlete.

In the pool a typical threshold session is 4-8 x 200-400m with pull and paddles at the intensity you would race a standard distances triathlon of 1500m at. The recovery would be short of 30-45 seconds and by using pull buoy and paddles it adds a strength element to it.  More experienced athletes can hold pace over 400m and perform up to 8-10 repeats while beginner level athletes might only do 4 x 200m and take closer to 45 seconds to 1 minute recovery.

If your goal is to improve top end speed and nuero-muscular power, then the intervals need to very short such 10-30 seconds and close to 90-95% of maximum heart rate.  Conversely the recovery should be longer and can be 3-5 minutes long depending on the athlete.  These types of sessions are extremely beneficial for all levels of athlete and all distances as they help to improve muscular power and improve fatigue resistance.

An example swim session could be 8 -12 x 25m with 2-3 minute recovery in between. On the bike 8-12 x 15-30 seconds with 3-4 minute easy recovery in between and the run could be 4-6 x 100m hill sprints with a 4-5 min recovery in between.  Generally, I am not a fan of triathletes doing flat out high intensity running due to the increased risk of injury however hill sprints and using the gradient of the hill reduces the ability to run at a higher speed, but it still delivers the benefits.

There are so many ways you can modify high intensity training sessions for triathletes. Like the old saying goes, “there are many ways to skin a cat.”  I keep going back to the athlete in front of me and working out specifically what type of session will suit them best on any particular day.

How many high intensity sessions per week?

I might sound like a broken record, but this again depends on the athlete.  If they are an intensity responder meaning they respond well to that type of training, then you might do 4 to even 6 high intensity sessions per week.  Typically, such an athlete would be training more for shorter distance events and not long course.

However, I have coached athletes towards Ironman events where they would do close to 50% of their overall training volume at a high intensity level.  My experience is the less overall training volume an athlete is doing the more intensity and the higher the volume the less intensity.

Again, experience has shown me that if you can perform 2-4 high intensity sessions per week then that is something that can be maintained week to week.  It could be 1 swim, 1 bike, 1 run but I also like to do high intensity brick sessions of swim to run, swim to bike and bike to run as often as possible. Though they can also have a high training cost and can take longer to recover from.

I like to follow a basic formula of stress plus rest equals growth.  If you perform a high intensity training session, then you need to rest and recover from that session.  That recovery is through things such as sleep, adequate nutrition, easy training and minimizing stress. If you place high intensity training sessions too close together then you compromise the body’s ability to absorb the training and it can lead to injury, burnout, and decreased performance.

Most age group triathletes need 24-48 hours between high intensity training sessions. However, that does depend on the type of session.  High intensity swim sessions do not develop as much fatigue compared to run sessions.

You can do high intensity sessions 12 hours apart providing you take the appropriate amount of recovery after the second session. And it is that recovery that is the key.  My experience is that athletes often under recover rather than overtrain.

High intensity training is an essential part of all athletes training programs.  Done correctly it will deliver fantastic benefits.

About Mark

Mark is one of Australia's most experienced and knowledgeable triathlon coaches. With over 25 years experience coaching at all levels from kids, youth, adult and elite professional athletes across the World. He loves seeing people change their lives through triathlon.

Leave a Comment