Double-Check Your Triathlon Training Knowledge

Much has changed in endurance training during the four decades since the first triathlon. Ensure you are current on the new science to help clients enhance performance in a more time-efficient manner.

by Charlie Hoolihan


The idea for the Ironman Triathlon started with a debate over “Who’s more fit—runners, swimmers or cyclists?” Back in 1977, John Collins was a fitness enthusiast and U.S. Navy commander on active duty in Hawaii when he and a few friends got into that argument. Collins suggested settling the matter by combining three popular Hawaiian endurance events—cycling, open-water swimming and a marathon—into a triathlon. In 1978, 15 people competed in the first Ironman (Culp 2016).

As the Ironman’s popularity grew in the years that followed, shorter and more accessible triathlons opened the sport to more recreational athletes. By 2015, more than 2.5 million people competed in triathlons, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, representing a solid marketing niche for personal trainers (SFIA 2016).

The argument survives to this day, but one thing is certain: Triathlons require a lot of training, especially the kind personal trainers provide. A well-informed trainer understands the role of resistance training, core development, increased mobility and high-intensity cardiovascular interval training in endurance sports like triathlons. This article will briefly explore how such training has evolved over the past 40 years—and what today’s fitness professional must know to help amateur endurance athletes enhance their performance in a manner that is both effective and as time-efficient as possible.


Dispelling the Mileage Myth

This is one of the first challenges a trainer may face when working with a new client who seeks to compete in a triathlon or other endurance sports. Though recommendations for gym-focused training techniques have been around since the running boom of the mid-’70s, endurance athletes generally have done most of their training on the road and in the pool. Indeed, 40 years ago, most elite endurance athletes were revered for their lengthy training protocols. Accolades poured in for elite runners’ 120-mile weeks and Tour de France cyclists’ 400- to 500-mile weeks. Professional triathletes trained 4–8 hours a day, and nationally ranked swim teams put in 18,000-meter training days for events between 50 and 1,500 meters.

Fortunately, today’s amateur athletes and their potential trainers need not endure that kind of mileage. In fact, that’s not only old-school, it’s inefficient. Recent research and new coaching practices support the use of advanced fitness modalities that build strength and endurance with far less training time. These include resistance training, plyometrics and high-intensity interval training, all of which improve endurance factors such as work efficiency, VO2max and performance improvements in specific events.

And all of these techniques require a trainer or coach for maximum benefit.

Build Muscle, Boost Work Efficiency

Work efficiency—or work economy, running economy, cycling economy, etc.—is simply the amount of oxygen needed to perform a certain task. Including resistance training in your clients’ program design can ensure stronger muscles and ligaments to provide more structural support, allowing athletes to use less oxygen during endurance events. Experiments with runners, cyclists, cross-country skiers and soccer players indicate significant improvements of 5–12% in work efficiency after basic 8-week strength-training protocols (Sunde 2010).

Subtract Distance, Add Plyometrics

Plyometrics—jumping and other explosive movements previously the domain of speed athletes—also improves running economy and lactate processing. A study substituting sprinter-style plyometrics sessions for 20% of distance-running volume found no falloff of distance event performance when compared with a running-only group (Mikkola et al. 2012). Enhancing your client’s program design with plyometrics, while reducing their weekly distance, may also help reduce the risk of overtraining injuries and burnout.

Cut Training Time, Not Results, With HIIT

The contribution of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to endurance has been investigated extensively, and it is fast becoming an important component of endurance training because of its time-efficient potential. Interval training sessions as short as 20 minutes, twice a week resulted in superior improvements in VO2max compared with traditional endurance workloads 10 times longer. VO2max quantifies the oxygen-to-muscle delivery system (Gibala & McGee 2008).

AFM_Winter_Features_Triathlon2 “Resistance training, plyometrics and HIIT all pro-vide time-saving workouts for amateur athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike—but the high demands require proper management and execution. Staying current on exercise science is critical for trainers.”

AFM_Winter_Features_Triathlon3“Enhancing your clients’ program design with plyometrics, while reducing their weekly running distance, may help reduce the risk of overtraining injuries.”

Why Amateur Athletes Need Fitness Professionals

Staying current on exercise science is critical for trainers, as it enables appropriate planning and successful integration of nontraditional workouts. For example, when using high-intensity intervals to train for endurance, research has determined the importance of paying attention to individual responses between standard high-volume, low-intensity training and low-volume, high-intensity training. No two people respond the same to similar training doses (Astorino & Schubert 2014; Gaskill et al. 1999).

Likewise, resistance training, plyometrics and HIIT all provide time-saving workouts for amateur athletes and fitness enthusiasts, as discussed—but the high demands require proper management and execution. This can present insurmountable challenges for many amateur athletes.

Case in point: Making the switch from traditional endurance training plans to one that incorporates HIIT requires care and knowledge. Traditional endurance training plans call for an 80:20 ratio of longer-but-lower-intensity training to shorter-but-higher-intensity-training. While time-consuming, this lower-intensity training makes fewer psychological demands and makes it easier for amateurs to avoid overtraining, injury and weakening of the immune system (Seiler & Tonnessen 2009). Altering these percentages with HIIT requires more planning and monitoring to evaluate responses to increased loads over shorter time durations. Again, this calls for a coach or trainer well-versed in planning daily, as well as weekly and monthly programming (known as periodization schedules).

Monitoring responses to higher training intensities is critical to understanding when to reduce or increase load. Checking daily resting heart rate (RHR) and heart rate variability (HRV) along with periodic baseline fitness tests enables trainers to apply a more scientific approach to training plans (Hausswirth & Mujika 2013).

AFM_Winter_Features_Triathlon5 “Experiments with cyclists and other endurance athletes indicate significant improvements in work efficiency after basic 8-week strength-training protocols.”

Examples of Programming in Action

Trainers with direct experience in endurance modalities can expand that know-how into sessions with more technical components. Being a former athlete with coaching experience is most helpful, but many successful coaches come into sports like triathlons later in life. Regardless of your personal experience in endurance sports, consider these types of programming when designing a training schedule for clients.

Diversify the Week’s Workouts

A coach or trainer could offer a basic weekly schedule built around the athlete’s individual workouts either separately or concurrently. Two coached workouts per week—one in body weight, core and balance training and one in resistance training—can be paired with an endurance session in running, swimming or cycling. Depending on the trainer’s experience, one or two more technical sessions in swimming or running biomechanics paired with conditioning sets of varying intensities could be added.

These weekday sessions can be valuable lead-ups to an endurance athlete’s longer efforts on weekends. This is especially important for time-challenged people with work and family commitments to balance. The workouts also can provide a more effective and more mentally stimulating 60- to 90-minute training day removed from the grind of roadwork.

Offer Group Training Opportunities

Coordinating group training rides, swimming sessions or track speed sessions for runners can be ways to expand an endurance coaching portfolio. These group sessions provide a greater opportunity for a coach or trainer with a busy schedule to maximize athlete participation. Starting group sessions can be as fundamental as setting aside 2–5 times per week to work on the aforementioned conditioning and technical aspects. The most logical participants in these types of programs would be triathlon beginners interested in getting more fit, or triathlon veterans who are trying to balance in work/life/training. Both populations can benefit greatly from more efficient time management through unique training approaches.

“Coordinating group sessions focused on running, swimming or cycling can provide a greater opportunity for a coach or trainer with a busy schedule to maximize athlete participation.”

Don’t Forget Recovery

Proper recovery techniques are critical to effective workout planning, especially with higher-intensity techniques. This presents opportunities for either one-time workshops or regular group sessions in myofascial release and stretching, combined with science-based education on home recovery modalities such as thermotherapy, compression and others. Here again, athletes need an educated coach or trainer to sift through the research on emerging techniques and summarize the findings on time-honored ones.

Lately we’re seeing a lot of recovery techniques that have little or no scientific backing. This is another area where a good coach/trainer must stay current. For instance, there is little reliable research supporting emerging therapies like kineseotape, cupping or dry needling. Even standard recovery therapies like cold-water immersion and ice packs are being reassessed to figure out how to properly administer them and provide proper benefits (Kietrys et al. 2013; Parreira 2014).

Recent findings indicate “put some ice on it” may not be the panacea we once thought, as growing evidence indicates some of the body’s natural healing properties are slowed if exposed to immediate cryotherapy. While the research is still somewhat unclear as to how to use ice for injury or recovery, this example shows the importance of staying current with research and practice (Stone 2015). To learn more about the science of recovery strategies and modalities, refer to the CEU Corner in this issue.

GET AN IRONMAN® Training Certification

The National Academy of Sports Medicine recently partnered with the Ironman Corporation to include its Ironman Coaching Certification.

The course helps trainers expand their training capabilities with triathlon-specific knowledge. Foundational content in exercise science, strength and conditioning, development of training plans and sports nutrition for endurance athletes are included, and most certified trainers and coaches should be familiar enough with them to get through the course easily.

More triathlon-specific content such as swimming, running and cycling biomechanics and technical aspects may expand a trainer’s knowledge. The information will familiarize trainers who have minimal triathlon experience and help them develop ancillary programming such as resistance training, core and stabilization sessions for triathlon clients.

The online course is complete with videos, interviews with top triathlon coaches and interactive quizzes to test knowledge upon completion of each section of the course.

According to the Ironman website, the course takes approximately 14 hours to complete (1.4 CEUs) and costs $699.


At the Heart of Tri Training

Advanced modalities for endurance athletes, such as those referenced in this article, generate a demand for more professional guidance from educated trainers. Basic certification protocols can provide a skill set to help improve endurance performance. Indeed, the NASM-CPT (certified personal trainer), with its comprehensive training protocols in myofascial release, flexibility and core-balance-plyometrics and multiplanar resistance training, gives trainers the essentials most endurance athletes need. Specializations such as the NASM Performance Enhancement Specialization can provide additional tools for the trainer’s toolkit, enabling further customization in program design.

About the NASM-PES

The NASM Performance Enhancement Specialization has been built to dovetail with the NASM-CPT, enabling trainers to maximize client workout efficiency, ensure safety and effectiveness of training, and reduce the risk of overtraining. Trainers in the PES program will learn to assess cardiorespiratory performance, as well as flexibility, speed and agility of both professional athletes and weekend warriors.

In Module 4, for instance, trainers will learn the proper criteria for conducting a 12 Minute Walk/Run Test to gauge cardiorespiratory fitness and how to use that information to create an appropriate cardio training plan. This module of the course also provides insights into a variety of cardiorespiratory training modalities and methods, including steady state and interval training. It will help the trainer progress clients through the four recommended training stages—aerobic endurance, anaerobic endurance, anaerobic power, and sport-specific training—and understand how to apply scientific concepts to a real-world training program. The NASM-PES Self-Study program is worth 1.9 CEUs ($699), and there's also a live workshop available. To learn more, visit


Putting It Together

Combining a credible personal training certification with practical and scientific advances can open new areas of training in the endurance population. Trainers with a passion for this area of fitness can enhance their skill set and develop new areas of practice. AF

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Meet our experts

AFM_Author_Hoolihan Charlie Hoolihan, is a NASM-certified personal trainer with more than 40 years’ experience training athletes at all distances of competition, from swimming and track sprints to Ironman triathlons. Contact him at

The information provided is without warranty or guarantee and NASM disclaims any liability for decisions you make based on the information. Learn more