Fink and Friel seem to be the most talked about training programs in triathlon and Ironman groups. Just put their names into a Facebook search and you’ll find no end of argument and debate. The trouble is, they both require a huge time commitment to get the results they promise.
Could a tailored training program based on real, individual data be a better option? Would it be possible to cut the training time required significantly, while still performing well on race day? I want to find out.
When I completed my first Ironman in Austria 2013, I was very much embedded in the culture. I had the freedom to devote a huge amount of time to my triathlon club. My neighbours were training with me meaning I was rarely out on my own, and I had far fewer responsibilities to get in the way.
My training program ended up being fairly haphazard with little real thought to what my body needed, but with enough hours put in, allowed me to finish in a fairly respectable time of 11:43:01.
Situations change however. Since the 2013 Ironman, I’ve had two children and founded a new company, Yellow Jersey Cycle Insurance. It’s funny how working in cycling can get in the way of actually riding.
The upshot however, has been the opportunity to meet the professionals in our industry. This year I’ll be taking a slightly different approach. It will be out with the guesswork and training for training’s sake, and enlisting the help of hard data and tailored plans to make the most of the little spare time I have.
At the beginning of January, I met with friend of Yellow Jersey, Doctor Garry Palmer and his team at Sports Test for a barrage of testing and planning.
We began our 4 hour session with a sit down consultation to discuss my goals for the year. I’ve signed myself up to compete in Ironman Frankfurt in July, and knowing my fitness isn’t what it used to be has begun to put the fear in me.
Over 40 minutes we discuss the races I’ve done in the past and where I think I am at the moment, to begin building up a picture of me as an athlete. I know I want to perform in Frankfurt at a similar level as I did in Austria, but I also know that’s going to be a tall order.
We moved straight into the least pleasant part of the testing; the body composition analysis.
Those of you who have bumped into us at triathlons have probably had a go on our InBody machine; a set of scales that gives you tingly electric shocks through your feet and hands to measure your lean muscle and fat levels. Unfortunately, this is considered less reliable than the ‘old fashioned’ method; pulling folds of skin and fat I didn’t know I had and measuring them with callipers. I won’t be sharing any photos of that!
Of course, the sports test people work hard to make sure you feel comfortable and relaxed, but this didn’t stop me feeling like I’d been abducted and made the subject in some bizarre experiment.
I took my own bike with me, and watched as it was strapped into their rolling road. The up side of course, is this is the bike I’ll be training and racing on.
The rolling road itself was a great piece of kit. If we could justify having one in the office we would. With the forks strapped into a stand at the front, the back wheel sits on something in between a turbo and a set of rollers, with a suspension system supporting the bottom bracket. In terms of the riding experience, it’s the closest an indoor trainer has ever felt to riding on the road.
The test quickly began to feel all the more serious as a mask was pulled down over my mouth and nose, long tubes and wires dangling from the front leading to instruments measuring my oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output.
I’ll admit to feeling a little nervous as I sat on the bike, beginning the first warm-up. A steady increase in effort following a power curve over a five minute period. I’ve attempted vo2 max tests and functional power tests on my own before, following guides out of books and on the internet, and I know they hurt.
To my surprise, it really wasn’t that bad. Through the periods of warm up and rest I began to enjoy myself. The odd feeling of the rolling road, the scientists peering at my data as it appeared on the computer screen besides me.
As the session continued, we entered the ramp test. I looked down at the data coming from the rolling road, trying to follow a steady and continuous increase in power output. The idea is to find your VO2 max level, the point at which your lungs can’t keep up with your muscles anymore and stop providing enough oxygen to burn.
While in the past this has always been based on a fair amount of guess work, with the machines measuring my breathing, the exact moment I pass through this barrier can be pinpointed to the watt.
How long you can hold out for after this point is the truest test of how badass you really are… I didn’t hold out long.
You begin hyperventilating involuntarily, trying to suck in more oxygen. Your muscles, now working in a low oxygen environment begin to fill with lactic acid, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes impossible to carry on.
After a little time to rest, take on fluids and wait for my head to stop spinning, it was on to the run section. This time on a treadmill, we once again measured my oxygen and carbon dioxide levels as the pace was slowly increased, measuring the limits of my performance.
Once all the testing was completed, we sat down for a second consultation where I was taken through the data we had collected. I would be lying if I said I understood the science, but the layman’s explanations seemed to make sense.
By comparing readings for o2 in and co2 out, Dr Gary Palmer was able to show me how much of my energy was coming from fat verses glucose at different power levels. We could see the point beyond which 100% of my energy was coming from glucose, the efficiency with which I was using oxygen at different power levels, and the point after which my muscles just couldn’t use any more.
The result was understanding exactly where I was fitness-wise, and exactly what I would need to do to reach my goals. I could see for myself the areas I needed to improve and the increases in efficiency I needed to make, and from that we began working out a tailored training program.
With six to eight hours per week of focussed training, Dr Palmer believes I should be able to get to the level I want. This would be under two hours per day for most of the time leading up to the race, well within the time I can afford to commit, and a huge reduction on the 18+ hours prescribed by training plans such as Fink and Friel.
His advice is for most of my training to be on the turbo. In a controlled environment, I can ride to a specific power and heart rate and be sure that 80 to 90% of the training I do is in exactly the right zone. The alternative proposed in training programs such as Fink and Friel, while perfectly good for the most part, might only see training within the correct zones for around 50% of the time.
If my training can be focused this precisely on improving my weaknesses using the data we collected in my testing, I can achieve the ‘time crunched’ results I need.
What Sports Test make very clear, is this isn’t about taking shortcuts. This isn’t like one of those sponsored adds; ‘Mommas family secret to shed x pounds in a day and a half’. By understanding your body and what it is capable of, you are better placed to achieve your goals.
Ultimately, we need to wait and see. The idea of cutting 18 hours of training per week to 8 is compelling, and for many of us a real necessity. All I can do is let you know how I get on at Frankfurt.