The Training Triangle

Training can be observed in a multitude of ways, after all, there’s a lot going on. Cardiovascular, skeletal muscles, nervous system, hormonal, mental, etc. etc. But in terms of the 1,000 foot view of training, there are three basic things that are used and measured in the make up of a workout or plan:

Body –  This is how your body reacts or responds to the stress. The measurement is usually  heart rate, but perceived exertion or “feel” falls under this as well, and other devices are coming on to measure other aspects.

Performance – This is the output. It’s the result of your effort. Running pace, bike power or  bike speed, swim pace are all performance markers. Their numbers are absolute and need no interpretation. You either did it or you didn’t.

Duration – Just as described. How long the activity took. Measured in either time or distance. Short workouts – short duration, long workouts – long duration. Simple enough.

traintriangleIt’s a backbone of thoughtful training and it basically works like this. You move one, keep one static, and measure the third. It’s like a little science experiment every time, and what you adjust and what you measure will vary based on what you want to achieve. So as an example, a person who does a hard run pushing a race pace or goal pace would be keeping the distance static, increasing performance and measuring the body. The goal of the workout would be to see how you handle running at your goal pace. You could flip the equation and keep distance static, increase HR and measure performance. This workout would measure how performance trails off and would be an entirely different workout than the first, but both provide great feedback.

For an Ironman or marathon first timer, the big mover is duration. You want to increase duration and either maintain performance to see it’s effect on your body, or maintain your heart rate and see it’s effect on your performance. Both methods provide great information. Maintaining heart rate is less stressful to the body and allows for quicker recovery, but maintaining performance is also a great way to see how realistic your goals are. If they’re too lofty your body is going to get torched, and if they’re reasonable then you’ll fair quite nicely.  In a build up to race day, especially for first timers, the duration increases and the body (heart rate) is maintained, so that the person’s fitness can adapt to the longer distances with quicker recovery. As the athlete adapts to the distance, then the equation is changed and the (long) duration is maintained while the body or performance is then increased. So you gradually become stronger and more aggressive at a distance that was once only survivable.

For me this is a typically a key thought that goes into every athlete’s training week. Are we acclimating to a new distance? Are we trying to improve aerobic fitness? Are we trying to build speed/strength for given race? Sometimes the results of a previous week tell me a person isn’t ready, and sometimes it says they’re due. Now, there are certainly days in which indicators and measurements are thrown out altogether. But even that has a focus. A TITS ride (Time. In. The. Saddle. Shame on you.) is about consistency in training and neuro-muscular development. So there is no body or performance directive. Other days are needed to snap people out of analyzing every effing step and run with some guts. Other times I am just wanting someone to stop skipping workouts (which sorta brings us back to TITS…this site is gonna get banned at you workplace for that acronym). But this is digging in past the 1000 foot view…

There’s nothing really new or groundbreaking about this. It’s been used for quite a while, just not discussed in this way much these days (Andy Potts discusses it briefly here @ 8min). Training fads come and go, and often times one of the 3 points are discarded. The “quality over quantity” folks tend to disregard duration, The performance folks tend to drop the body indicators, and the body folks often drop performance markers.

So how does it work when you do this? Well it doesn’t really, because you need 3 points of data. Without three, it’s makes little sense. Go X distance and measure performance. But what’s the effort? Is it a race? Recovery? Go X Performance/output and measure heart rate. Against what distance? 20 feet? 40 miles? It just doesn’t work, and still people do it, so here’s your most common types.

The ‘Performance’ trainer: These people fall into a number of categories. They’re usually formula based and love analytics. In other words, there has to be a math equation to ‘take the guess work out of training’. There are lots of running programs out there that take a best time of some distance and extrapolate all kinds of training and predictions from that point. Training solely by power on the bike would be another. By eliminating the body, there is no connection with it. Run at an 8 min pace – doesn’t matter how hard it was or how tired you were, that’s your recovery run. Hold 250 watts – you couldn’t this week? your fitness must be slipping. Of course the reverse is also true. 7:30 pace on the run where your fitness should have had you at 7:15. 250 watts is pretty easy for the hard workout – missed opportunity as you should have been holding 265, but you didn’t know that.

The ‘Feelings’ athlete – These people get too caught up in fast recovery and ‘feeling good’ that they forget to work, and performance is lopped off the triangle. They look at a clock and usually run by feel, but  also can use heart rate. By always staying “comfortable” or even running some hard efforts solely by HR or feel, they pay no attention if it’s actually working. Common in all 3 sports. Runners ‘just run’, cyclists tend to be quick to drift off a group and do their own thing, and swimmers do lots of straight swims, or never change the pace up, regardless of the interval.

The “Quality over Quantity” athlete – This guy (or gal) tends to focus on either performance or heart rate and scraps duration. Every workout is “quality” in an effort to shorten the time it takes to train in a given week. Don’t have time or want to bother with a 60 minute run? No problem, run 30 minutes all out. The proof in getting faster is the speed of your efforts, even if those efforts are 1/30 of the race distance. Like performance guy, injury is a huge problem and Strava is an enabler.

My guess is that we all have little of all the above qualities in us. It happens. But understanding the purpose of your training is important if you care to be successful. If you’ve yet to run 15 miles but are still doing repeat 400’s on the track in your preparation for an Ironman or marathon, you might want to start asking some questions. I get asked questions like this all the time by both those I work with and those I barely know. Like financial investing, if you can’t understand why you’re doing what your doing in a 5 minute conversation, then your coach probably doesn’t really understand it either.

So the next time you get out there, (whether you’re being coached or not) understand the goal of the workout so you know what YOU are trying to achieve. Then go conduct your science experiment. I expect a report on my desk by Monday.

Happy Training.



  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *