Three weeks ago I felt a bit guilty. That was at the height of the lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic. While I was living through it along with the rest of the world I was mostly unaffected. In my home state of Arizona there was no restriction on working out outside on your own. So I continued to train just as I had pretty much always done—but even better, in some regards. I was no longer traveling to speak at seminars so my fitness as indicated by CTL was at a two-year high. And while all of the gyms were closed I had created my own gym in the third bay of my garage several years ago. It’s well-stocked and only a 20-second commute. And, of course, working at the computer in my home office, as I do almost every afternoon, was no problem. But I was hearing from athletes on social media and via email that their lives, including their training, were turned upside down. Hence, my guilt. So I decided to do something about it.
I reached out to triathlon clubs in the US and UK to see if I could have a few minutes of their monthly on-line meetings to tell members what they could do to maintain fitness until things began returning to normal. The clubs were very welcoming and set up Zoom sessions for the talks. I did 12 of these mini-clinics over three weeks. The athletes were a real pleasure to talk with. They paid close attention, asked great questions, and were more than cordial. Talking with them was a fun experience.
All I told them were three very basic things they could do to maintain fitness during their lockdowns. The first was to do five days of “easy” training every week. I defined easy as being zone 1 and low-zone 2 using my heart rate zones system. If they could only ride their bikes indoors on trainers then they should do three to five of these rides each week. They could take one to three days totally off from exercise each week, depending on how they normally trained, and those would count as easy days, also. And as soon as they get outside to run most of those workouts should also be easy. They could do two-a-day run-bike sessions if they had done that prior to the lockdown. I also kidded them that they probably wouldn’t do this despite believing I’m right about the fitness advantages. I’ve scheduled these easy workouts for countless athletes I’ve coached over the years but they were almost always reluctant to go easy. It was never an easy “sale.” Everyone thinks that if they make these easy days just a bit on the hard side, like zone 3, then they’ll become more fit and go faster. I explained that wasn’t the case and that they needed to give it a try to see if going easy actually boosted fitness. I offered evidence for this in terms of the improvement in aerobic fitness and race performance in case studies. I also pointed out that they’d come into the hard workout days fresh so those workouts could be truly hard. Just a little too much fatigue from daily zone-3 workouts reduces the quality of a hard session.
The second tip I gave them was to do two “hard” days of training each week. I knew they’d do them as athletes always like challenging workouts. These sessions would be focused on maintaining aerobic capacity (VO2max) and anaerobic threshold fitness. These workouts would also be bike and run—one day for each. These would include something like 6-10 x 30 seconds at an RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) of 9 on a 10-high scale with 30-second recoveries (walking and coasting) after the work intervals. Each session would also include 20 minutes at or just below their anaerobic thresholds (also similar to lactate threshold and functional threshold power or pace). On the 10-point RPE scale this is about a 7. So the workout in each sport would go something like this…
- Warm-up 15-20 minutes.
- 6-10 x 30 seconds at 9 RPE with 30-second recoveries.
- 5 minutes of recovery.
- 4 x 5 minutes at or just below anaerobic threshold (RPE 6-7) with 75-second recoveries.
- Cool down for 5 to 30 minutes.
All of this makes for a workout of about 50 to 90 minutes duration. The shorter duration would be good for running and the longer for cycling.
I suggested four options for the anaerobic threshold intervals. Instead of always doing 4 x 5 minutes they could do 3 x 7 minutes (1:45 recoveries), 2 x 10 minutes (2:30 recoveries), or a steady, non-stop 20 minutes. Of course, the intensity remains the same as the 4 x 5-minute intervals regardless of interval duration.
The last thing I talked with them about was maintaining strength by mostly using body weight with a short session of about 10 to 15 minutes two or three times weekly. Here I suggested three exercises…
- Hip-knee-ankle extensions such as 1-legged squats, or 2-legged squats with the kids sitting on your back (I saw someone do this on social media), or walking up staircases in their houses taking 2 or 3 steps at a time.
- Planks to maintain core strength.
- The swim “catch” using an elastic band for resistance (as illustrated in The Triathlete’s Training Bible, 4thedition).
I explained that the reason for doing strength work was to maintain “force,” a component of power. Power = force x velocity. The greater their muscular force, the greater their potential for high power and, therefore, speed. “Velocity” is just another way of saying “cadence” in swimming, cycling, and running.
The athletes always asked good questions near the ends of these mini-clinics. The most common was when in the week to do the various workouts. I suggested that the hard workout days were the key to getting their training week organized. Those sessions should be separated by two or three days within the week. That could be, for example, Tuesdays and Fridays. The easy workout days (including days off, if any) would be distributed around those two days. But the most important thing was to make sure the training pattern fit their unique lifestyles.
Other common questions had to do with the concerns of aging athletes. It seems most of the older athletes had read my Fast After 50 book. And, of course, when did I think they’d be able to get back to “normal” training and lifestyle. Unfortunately, my crystal ball is being repaired now so they were stuck with my guesses (I’ve been wrong so many times in my life that I don’t even believe my own opinions anymore).
I finished by offering them a free “Pandemic Base Training Plan” in case they wanted to see the whole thing laid out for them in a four-week pattern.
And you know what? When each session was done I still felt kind of guilty because I feared I was enjoying talking with the athletes more than they were listening. Nevertheless, we all got to forget the pandemic for a while and just talk about training. Welcome relief. I sincerely hope they can hang in for the duration of this strange time and not lose their motivation to train and race. All of this will eventually come to an end and sport will still be there for us. We just need to hang on until then.