When you begin training with us here at Phazon Triathlon, one of the first things we do is create your Annual Training Plan, or ATP. This is a framework which we use to base your training off of, so you can understand decisions we make and can see how your training will progress over the year. However the acronyms and numbers can be confusing so I wanted to take some time to explain the meaning of all the figures you see to help you better understand and use your ATP.
For this example I will be using an ATP I have just written myself for the 2019 season, here is a screen grab for you.
As you can see, there is a lot of information squeezed into a screen here, so let me talk you through what it all means.
The most attention grabbing part of the screen is the chart at the top with various colours of lines and bars. The most important of these is the big blue shaded area that fills the majority of the screen. this is my CTL, or critical training load, which simply put is how fit I will be at that time of year. I am currently sitting on a figure of 44 and am forecast to hit 99 before IRONMAN UK in July. Notice however that the line is not a straight line, it levels off and even drops at points, this is because I need easy weeks for my body to recover, continually building fitness throughout the year is a sure way to burnout.
The mustard coloured shaded area is my form, this is how race ready I will be, as you can see here it peaks in two periods during the year, for my A races. When we train we add fatigue which impacts on our form, we must lower the training load for our form to increase, a process known as tapering.
Our training load for each week is represented by the vertical bars, these are the TSS targets I have set myself for each week. As I complete each week these will become shaded to tell me whether I have missed, hit, or overshot my target for the week. The blue and yellow dotted lines will also start to move around, these represent my actual fitness and fatigue, I can use this to see whether they are closely corresponding to the shaded areas, and whether I’m on track. As you can see from this screen grab I was slightly below target for my first week of the preparation phase, but I didn’t miss it by much and it will make next to no difference to my performance on race day.
What may confuse those of us new to the sport are the period names at the bottom of the chart, these are preparation, Base 1, Base 2, Base 3, Build 1, Build 2, Peak, Race and Transition.
This is a very relaxed phase of the training, these is much less in the way of structure here, the only really structured work taking place in the gym where we begin the anatomical adaptation phase (more on this later). Why would you have phase of unstructured training you may ask, especially if you’re feeling apprehensive about your event. Triathlon training is tough, it takes a lot of time and energy to train for these events, it takes a toll on the body and the mind in equal measure. With the preparation phase we give new athletes a chance to get their head around working with a coach, and give experienced athletes a chance to wind themselves back to up to full tilt.
The purpose of this period changes depending on your level of experience, if you are a rookie triathlete you will spend this time moving to a more structured programme, focusing on improving aerobic endurance and your speed skills (technique). If however you are an experienced triathlete and are confident in the gym there is a big focus on weights at this stage to build our maximal strength, this allows us to swim, bike and run faster while also preventing injuries. We also use this time to work on our speed skills, primarily our swimming technique.
We continue the theme of building on our endurance and speed skills here, stepping back from the heavy gym work to allow us to focus more on our aerobic endurance and speed skills. Lifting big weights is an effective way to improve your performance, but it has an effect on your ability to swim, bike and run in the following days so is generally consigned to the Base 1 period.
This is the period you will spend most of your time in, for the rookie athlete who may just be looking to get round their event, the rest of the year may be spent in base 3. For those who are looking to build speed we will repeat this phase until we are 8-12 weeks out of our first A race, so depending on when you start your season dictates how many times you will repeat base 3. You will also return to base 3 after an A race if you have enough time, and will return to base 3 if you have more than a few days off of training at any point in the build phase.
This is where we focus almost entirely on muscular endurance work, extending the periods for which you can maintain your threshold and race pace efforts, the exact contents of this phase depend on the distance you are training for, for Ironman athletes it will involve longer workouts set at or around race pace where for short course athletes it will involve much more in the way of speed work. Either way, as we get closer to our race our training must better reflect the demands of race day.
This is simply a repeat of the Build 1, but normally with a slightly higher TSS target, the focus remains on muscular endurance with less time spend on long easy workouts.
This is also known as your taper, the time in the year where we back off of the hard training and allow our body to recover to become race fit. Remember how the orange shaded area (my form) shot up as we approached the races? That’s because I back off training then and my body reaches peak fitness. Training doesn’t make us stronger, anyone who tells you they feel stronger after a long run is telling your porkies, it’s the period after our training where our body repairs itself that we become stronger, a period of peaking (1-2 weeks) ensures our body is well rested and as strong as it can be for race day, you don’t want any lingering fatigue from your training as you line up at the start.
Self explanatory, it’s race week! Very little training, with a focus on intensity one volume to ensure we’re raring to go when we wake up on race day.
This is a period of rest after an A race, where we take a well deserved rest. You can still train at this point, but it should only be for fun. This is a great time to try other sports and just generally enjoy being active.
Going through every phase is a very lengthy process and so can only be achieved two or three times a year. In an ideal world I would have longer between my A races but as Bolton is relatively easy in the season I couldn’t get a warm up 70.3 in any earlier without travelling to the Southern Hemisphere.
This leads us onto B and C priority races, currently I only have one other event on the cards, my club championship 5K race. I want to perform relatively well to take back my title from 2015, but I’ll be in the base period at the time and I can’t afford to take too much time out to prepare for it, so I’ll perhaps do a few 5K specific workouts in the days before, have a rest day on the Saturday, and see where it takes me. As I’m organising some training around it, this makes it a B race. The final category is a C race which is normally a race entered with friends, to gain experience, or just for fun. They are treated just like a hard workout with no preparation beforehand.
So now we’ve prioritised our races, and have split our year up into periods, the next step is setting our training volume, which I set as a TSS value for you. This is where things start to become more personalised, TrainingPeaks has an algorithm which can split the year into periods for you and you can set a target CTL, it will do the maths and hand you an automated ATP.
You may have been doing some reading and heard that a CTL of 95 is recommended for an Ironman, so you put a target CTL of 95 in and get cracking with your training. The problem being that you may be a rookie athlete training for their first Ironman and there is no way you can hit those numbers, either you’ll burn out in the first few weeks or even worse you’ll succumb to complete over training later in the season, sidelining you for the rest of the year. You may also be an athlete who recovers more slowly and your recovery weeks need to be easier than TrainingPeaks’ algorithm allows for. By analysing your training history and asking questions we can start to put target TSS values together for you to ensure your TSS targets are realistic. We don’t work to a target CTL for your A race, we instead start by inputting numbers we believe you can maintain, increase them steadily through the year and see what our final CTL value is. If it’s too low we see how training goes and will consider increasing the volume in the weeks and months that follow.
At this point it is worth remembering that the human body is not a mathematical equation, people have got round Ironman races with far less than 95CTL points, and if that’s all you’re looking to achieve then there’s no need to sacrifice your social life upon the altar of triathlon to hit an arbitrary number. These figures are great for helping us to track progress, but they are not the be all and end all.
CTL is probably the most important number, but what we also need to take into consideration is how we increase the number, and for that the form number is an underrated tool to help us ensure we are making improvements and not stagnating. Your form number can sit in the following brackets:
25+ should only be reached in times of transition, or a total rest from training, or perhaps if an athlete is injured and unable to train.
+5 to +25 is the range many will aim to hit for race day. A higher number isn’t always better as you also lose some frying from your legs, and run the risk of feeling empty on race day.
+5 to -10 is a bit of a great area, and where a lot of untouched athletes will sit, they’re certainly doing some training, but probably not enough to illicit enough of a training response for them to get enough to see significant fitness gains. Athletes will often find themselves in this zone on easy weeks.
-10 to -30 is the optimal zone to sit in for a good training effect, you can’t stay here forever as it’ll start to fatigue you, but this is where the best gains are made.
below -30 is the high risk zone where you run a very real risk of overtraining. If you find yourself on the wrong side of -30 which can happen to the best of us sometimes, you need to lift and coast, reducing volume, perhaps even taking an unplanned rest day if you feel you need it. Spending too much time at this level of fatigue can cause long term problems to both your performance and health.
My CTL is set to peak at 99, which is a good CTL for someone looking to perform well at an Ironman race, however the chances of me reaching that exact number are incredibly slim. I may start the build period and feel I’m having to hold back to hit my weekly targets, in which case I could try kicking everything up by 25 TSS points a week, which would give me a CTL closer to 110. By the same token, I may crash my bike on some ice in February and have a week with little to no training, which means I’ll have to readjust my targets.
This is an important point, your ATP is not set in stone, it’s incredibly rare (possibly unknown) for someone to make it through an entire year hitting every target as life happens. Business trips are sprung on you, your kids may become unwell, your bike may have to wait a long time for essential spares, a lot can get between you and your perfect season of training, but the good thing is that an ATP is pretty flexible. Phases can be reassigned, targets can be adjusted and even your target races changed, the important thing is it ensures that we are both on the same page.
Next up is weekly limiters, this is where the experience of a coach and their knowledge of you as an athlete really comes into play as we make each week specific to you.
Using myself as an example, I can break each sport down into strengths and weaknesses to show how an ATP can be curated to each individual athlete
I know that as an athlete two primary areas are limiting me in the swim, my technique and my force, or more importantly the application of force which is intrinsic with technique. I can comfortably swim well over 4KM so endurance is not a huge concern for me, but enhancing the speed that I can hold for longer durations is important. This year my focus is going to be primarily on technique with an additional focus on force (improved by using paddles), with muscular endurance and endurance taking a backseat for now. As I live in London where the weather is not conclusive to year round open water swimming I swim exclusively in the pool until April/May at the very earliest as the lakes start to open. Therefore my plan is to focus on technique and force work in the pool, before taking to the open water in the spring and applying the gains I have made in the pool into the open water whilst building me endurance to ensure I can still comfortably swim 4K at my improved pace.
I have come to acknowledge in recent months that my aerobic fitness is just not where it should be, and I struggle to replicate my success in short course racing over longer distances, with this in mind my focus throughout most of the year will be on endurance. You may notice that I include some muscular endurance work during the base period which is doesn’t fit in with traditional periodisation. This is because the weather in the UK can be very inconclusive to outdoor riding due to the freezing temperatures and torrential rainstorms we experience, and I don’t have the time to sit on the turbo for three hours every time I want to ride. By introducing muscular endurance work on the turbo this is a way for me to ensure I keep improving when I don’t have enough time to build my endurance. When the weather starts to improve in April/May the focus will shift away from muscular endurance and almost fully towards endurance when I can get regular long rides done on my TT bike out on the open roads. This is known as reverse periodisation, and is a method I have used to great success with my athletes in the past, as it still follows the golden rule of periodisation, the closer you get to race day the closer your training should resemble racing, and when your aim is to ride 180KM, leaving the really long rides to the end of the year makes sense.
My main limiter in running is injury, so the focus is almost entirely on improving force (specifically exercises building my hamstrings/glutes) and endurance runs. I know I have top end speed in spades but struggle over longer distances so the priority is to become injury free to allow me to train for longer at higher speeds. This is achieved by increasing volume and intensity gently, with much less work on speed.
You can see here the adjustments that need to be made to an ATP even for an experienced athlete to make the most out of their training and make it specific to them. The limiters field also includes the ability to schedule tests in advance, ensuring that our threshold values stay consistent and are not outdated, resulting in inefficient training.
The final part of our ATP to decipher is our strength period, there are three options here, anatomical adaptation, maximal strength and strength maintenance. Anatomical adaptation is when we start working in the gym with light weights and a high number of reps, maximal strength is when we start to lower the reps and increase the weight for some high reward strength training. For the rest of the year we focus on strength maintenance which will involve weekly visits to the gym to ensure we do not lose the strength gains we made in the winter.
I hope this has given you the tools you need to understand the importance of having an ATP as well as helping you understand some of the jargon that is attached to your ATP. If you wish to improve your knowledge of periodisation and the way each phase of training contributes to your fitness, I recommend picking up the most recent edition of Joe Friel’s “Triathlete’s Training Bible) which this article was influenced heavily by. If you are interested in having a bespoke ATP made up for you, why not head to our apply page to begin your coaching journey.