Triathlon: The Science for Improving Your Time

Not only can you improve your triathlon  time by working smart, this knowledge will apply to anything having to do with athletic performance of an endurance nature. (Or I hope it will cause I spent some time trying to learn all about it). If you are competitive by nature, as I am, then you might even get a kick out of just improving your own times during workouts that are done alone. Be warned that if you improve too much you have to do more to get the same bang for your buck. But this is good, not bad. For example, I estimate that 7 weeks ago if I swam 1 mile I was burning something like 650 calories and my workout was complete. But because I am improving I now estimate that I burn about 460 calories when I swim that mile and I keep going. The bonus is that I can do it in about 40 minutes which includes breaks, but before it took me nearly 60 minutes.

So the three keys to your time in an endurance event are:

  1. VO2Max
  2. VO2Max is the maximum amount of oxygen you can consume per minute. It is like your peak output for longer periods of exercise. You can go over this level for very short periods of time because you build up oxygen debt. You cannot go more for too long though, we are talking minutes. This idea is often explained with an analogy of “the size of your engine”.  A bigger person has a bigger engine by default, but that person needs more output to move the bigger body, so it is often calculated as volume of oxygen per minute per unit of body weight. This allows for comparison between people easily. The analogy falls apart as you get into the details though because your engine is your muscles, but the engine in the analogy has to do with the lungs and cardiovascular system as well. We are talking about how much oxygen can be fed into the muscles and used. As you grow new capillaries and new muscle tissue and bigger red blood cells and more red blood cells this number can increase. This number is more about genetics and it is not really possible to increase it with specific training it either gets better or doesn’t as you train, but more on this later.

  3. Lactate Threshold
  4. Lactate threshold is where you start to build up lactate in the blood. If it gets too high your body converts it to lactic acid and your muscles burn from having acid in them (state of acidosis) and once there is too much your muscles fatigue and they will fail. The lactate threshold is how high you can go and still keep your blood levels of lactate down. That is you clear it out as it is produced without a buildup. Working out below this level is possible for very long periods of time, this is the level that longer endurance events require you to stay under. You can push at the end to have a strong finish but at the cost of not being able to do it for too long. This is a number where you can make improvements through specific training, but the next item is the low hanging fruit as far as improvements go.

  5. Efficiency or Economy
  6. If you are using the proper form you will use less energy, this is why it is the proper form. The proper form can change based on what you are trying to accomplish. For example, if you are just swimming you will kick more so your legs are just as dead as your arms as you finish, but if you are doing the triathlon, you still kick but will not gain as much from the kick during the swim as you would to save it for biking and running so you are advised to save your legs somewhat (or this is just the excuse that triathletes propagate since they suck at kicking). Or if you are biking you will use a road bike, but in a triathlon you will use a triathlon bike. Part of the difference is the aerodynamic position since you cannot draft in a triathlon, but some is to put your leg in a position that saves the running specific muscles. Efficiency is most easily measured as you exercise at a your lactate threshold and the speed you attain includes your good form or lack thereof. For example, two athletes both excellent runners might run at 12.5 mph at their lactate threshold (think elite marathon runners), but if you stick them on a bike to work at the lactate threshold they might go 22.5 and 26.5 mph because one is a triathlete and the other is not. The pure runner will suck on the bike because he is not efficient. Making improvements here are the easiest. If you burn more calories per lap or mile than the next person, that person will beat you all else being equal. Improvements are made by using the proper form as well as your body adapting to the work. More on the details in my next three posts.

Links to the next three posts will be added as they are posted…

Efficiency / Economy

Lactate Threshold



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