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Zachary Britton {August 2011}

"The Training Diaries" is a monthly series of posts by Zachary Britton, a DC Tri Club member who was a participant in the New Triathlete Program in 2007 and is currently attempting to qualify for the Olympics. Read the previous entry.


I won in Nantucket this past weekend, which felt good after a few years of injury and frustration. There is still a lot of room for improvement but it felt good to win. Other than that, as far as training and racing goes, my life is fairly simply. I am just laying the foundation for success in years to come. I would thus rather talk about a debate going on in the triathlon world.

The Role of Science

There is an ongoing debate in triathlon community about the role of science in training. The debate can be broken down into two things: how to structure training and how to measure exertion. The debate is interesting because both camps have produced world-class athletes.

In the science camp, the training plans are generally more structured and the workouts are geared towards specific heart rate zones determined through testing. By contrast, in the non-science camp, training plans are less structured and the training levels are determined through perceived exertion. There are valid criticisms to each approach.

First, the scientific community is rightly criticized for relying too heavily on periodization. Basically, although periodization makes sense—it ensures that the athlete has the right combination of stress and recovery built into his training program—it is difficult to know exactly how much stress and how much recovery each athlete needs. Reason being, each athlete’s body responds differently to training.

Second, the non-scientific community is rightly criticized for being too unstructured. Without a set structure the build-up to each race tends to be very different from race to race. In other words, although an athlete may have a good race result, she will often have a hard time recreating the training that produced that result.

To me, using a combination of each approach works best because each approach offers things the other does not. To illustrate, in an Olympic distance race I have a pacing sweet spot. It is above my anaerobic threshold but below my VO2max.

As the season progresses, however, the spot changes (in short, my anaerobic threshold gets pushed closer to my VO2max). Therefore, because the pace is constantly changing it makes sense to intuitively learn to feel this sweet spot rather than undergo testing before each race, which would be impractical. In other words, it makes sense to take an unscientific approach to this part of racing.

However, even if I have a good sense of this spot it can be hard to keep exertion levels steady through feel alone—small fluctuations in heart rate, power or pace are almost imperceptible. This is problematic. Over the course of a race these fluctuations can impact performance. I therefore find it helpful to pair the intuitive feel of the sweet spot with a device such as a heart rate monitor, power meter or GPS watch, which can measure these fluctuations. Basically, these scientific devices can measure what my intuition cannot and can help me race better.


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