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During the build phase of training and throughout the race season, going to the running track at least once a week is an excellent means to check your pace, better associate your heart rate with pace and to train with others of greater or lesser ability than you.

During Wes' high school X-country and track, the objective of the runner during track sessions was to go all out and "kill" themselves. Wes carried this mentality into triathlon for years. Eventually, he got to the point where he dreaded going to the track. Wes' philosophy changed in the mid-90s as he trained with other top pros such as Scott Molina and Mark Allen. Their mentality was not to go all out, but to create the endurance and speed needed for triathlon. A rule of thumb Wes followed was at the end of the track session, you should feel like you could do at least one more interval at that pace. This thinking allowed Wes to have a quicker recovery for future workouts and enjoy the track sessions more.

It is rare that we run "all-out" in a triathlon for an extended period. With the exception of Sprint triathlon races for the truly fit and at the pro level, draft legal races, where the bike pace may be even slower than an individual doing a 40 kilometer bike; you need to pace yourself throughout the contest. Even after pacing yourself through the swim and the bike, you will not be completely fresh for the run segment.

The goal of the track workout is to help you achieve a run split that is as close as possible to doing a run that distance on its own. To help determine what intensity you should execute at the track, you need to have a basis for determining your intensity.

Using Intensity in Your Training:

To understand intensity, it is best to have a numerical value placed on it. Otherwise, you will solely base your intensity on your Rate of Perceived Effort (RPE). RPE is one tool to use to gauge intensity; however, using other tools such as heart rate and time helps to narrow the guesswork of defining intensity. Using all three gauges will help to accomplish the goal of having the track workout achieve a specific purpose.

The "heart" of gauging intensity is using your Lactate Threshold (LT). Whenever an athlete exercises at any intensity, even walking, lactic acid (lactate) is being produced. We are constantly recycling lactate. As we increase intensity, lactate production increases. LT is the highest intensity at which an athlete recycles lactate as quickly as it is produced, so that lactate does not accumulate and interfere with muscle contraction. Raising your LT with workouts such as track sessions, enables you to race more effectively at intensities significantly below, at and above LT.

For most triathletes who compete at the half Ironman distance or less, LT training has the best cost (amount of recovery time needed) to benefit (fitness gained) ratio of any type of training. This intensity is high enough to stimulate adaptations which increase speed and endurance, but because lactate is not accumulating, there is minimal damage to the muscles. When exercising above your LT, anaerobically, the duration of exercise is greatly reduced. As much as you want to rely heavily on your LT, even with high tech lab equipment, your LT can never be pinpointed. Doing a self-test such as running a hard effort of thirty minutes for average heart rate can be as accurate as blood work taken in the lab. This is why the combination of RPE, time and LT should be used when at the track.

Training Zones:

Once you have determined your LT, either in the lab or through a time trial, you can incorporate your track workouts' intensities into heart rate zones and your RPE. This assists in having every workout have a purpose. A general rule of thumb for training zones is:

Zone Approximate % of LTHR RPE (1-20)
1. Active Recovery less than 82 9
2. Extensive Endurance 82 - 89 9-11
3. Intensive Endurance 89 - 93 11-12
4. Sub-threshold Training 93 - 100 13-14
5. Threshold Training 100 -102 15-16
5B. VO2max Intervals 102 - 105 17-18
5C. Anaerobic Intervals greater than 105 19-20

Since we are in the build to race phase, most triathlete's track workouts will be in Zones 4-5A. It is recommended to do a LT test once every 4-6 weeks during this period as your LT number can become higher, or even lower, as you become more fit. For instance, a pace that was Zone 5 during the previous build phase eight weeks ago could easily be a Zone 3 effort as the athlete becomes more fit.

How you use intensity:

The intensity of your track workouts depends on your race goals. The longer the race, the less intensity and longer duration of your sessions. The shorter the race, the more intensity is needed, yet recovery (rest interval) becomes more important. Racing success at shorter efforts like sprint and Olympic distance triathlons is all about pushing the ceiling of your LT and then developing the ability to work very close to this limit for extended periods of time.

The Track Itself:

Going to the track allows you to realize what pace you may be going when you are on the trails or the road. All too often, we encounter triathletes who think their easy pace on the road is 8:00 per mile, only to realize they can hardly achieve that pace on the track. The track also inspires and motivates. Sure you see people running on the road, but it is hard to grasp what pace they are running. On the track, what better motivation than to be running on the same oval as a 31 minute 10K runner. It also allows you to analyze other people's running forms in an enclosed environment. Learn from watching the graceful runners on what to do and the poor runners to refrain from doing.

Training with a group, just as swimming with a master's swim squad, is a great way to accomplish a track session. However, don't get caught up in doing someone else's pace, especially if they are running faster than your prescribed pace based on your RPE, time and LT. Keep these training sessions in perspective of your long-term goals. As much fun as it might be at the time, no one will remember your victorious early season track sessions at the race or worse, getting an injury do to overextending yourself.

Ironman and Half Ironman distance racing:

Wes believes if the athlete has a significant base and recovers from long distance training sessions quickly, than he will benefit from doing sessions such as Cruise Intervals. Otherwise, the athlete should do much of their planned higher intensity training sessions at goal race pace. Cruise Intervals can be mile repeats done a bit faster than your average marathon/half marathon (not Ironman/half Ironman distance) pace. This is not easy; however, as long as you don't do the intervals above your LT, you will be able to recover fully for other planned swim, bike and run workouts. The goal, as in all track sessions, is to make the run pace of the race itself seem easy.

Structure: Run intervals are 6 to 12 minutes long.

Intensity: Ironman is Zone 4 or 10 seconds per mile slower than LT pace. Half Ironman is high Zone 4 or 5-10 seconds per mile slower than LT pace.

Recovery: Jog easily for 1/4th the duration of the previous work interval.

Volume: Accumulate 20-60 minutes of work interval time in one weekly workout. Throughout the build phase of 12 weeks, add time each week.

Olympic distance racing:

For this distance, you will want the majority of the track session to be at or just under your LT by a few heart beats. Realize that training just a few beats above your LT for an extended period of even twenty to thirty minutes causes greater muscle damage and requires greater recovery time (post workout) than the same duration at or just below LT. This intensity may not feel that much harder than LT efforts.

Structure: 6 x 800m

Intensity: Building to heart rate zone 5a

Recovery: 400 meter easy jog. As you progress through the build phase, reduce the amount of recovery to 200-300 meters.

Volume: As you become more fit, either add up to two more 800's and/or reduce the recovery jog to 200-300 meters.

Sprint distance racing:

For sprint distance triathlons, you typically will be more fresh coming off of the bike; therefore, closer to a run pace that is to your 5K open run. For this, you will want to train the body above LT as your body will be able to maintain that intensity for the shorter duration of a sprint.

Structure: 8 X 400, recovery jog of five minutes, 6 X 200

Intensity: 5a to 5c by the end of the interval after the first two.

Recovery: Limited rest of 1:00 to 2:00 jog/walk.

Volume: It is not recommended that you increase the number of 400s or 200s. Instead, increase the speed. **Remember, always feel like you could do at least one more after the session is over!

The anytime track session:

Many triathletes are on a time crunch. The track session of 8 X 400's is the most useful track workout for any length of triathlon. What varies is the speed and recovery time of the intervals. For IM distance, a slower pace and less rest is effective. For sprint distance, a faster pace with more rest is beneficial.

Trying to figure out the fine line of too much intensity versus too little intensity as well as the amount of rest interval has perplexed many an athlete. Use all of the indicators to best train at the correct intensity levels dependent on your planned races and the time of your season. Training with a purpose will help you reach your peak performance.


© Wes Hobson Performance Inc.