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Key triathlon lessons learned after 4 Ironmans | A tale of a triathlete

A few weeks ago, Polar’s very own Ironman Jyrki Salokorpi shared his story of how he got into triathlon. Now, he continues to inspire us with the lessons he has learned along the way. 

First of all, if you’re serious about triathlon, seriously consider getting a coach. I had a coach for three years and he was an invaluable support in all of these areas, especially planning my training schedule so that all three sports were balanced.

1. Know your heart rate

For me, a heart rate monitor is essential in triathlon training. I know which level of average heart rate I’m able to maintain so when I monitor both my continuous heart rate and my average heart rate during training and racing, I can adjust the speed and intensity accordingly. 

Consider your first races as practice rounds when you get to know and understand your own limits.

When I’m racing, I usually keep my heart rate in zone 3, which for me is around 140-150 (Max HR for me is 183). It’s ok if my heart rate goes up momentarily as long as my average heart rate doesn’t get too high.

The average heart rate you can maintain is different for everyone so consider your first races as practice rounds when you get to know and understand your own limits.

A triathlon coach can help you monitor and learn which heart rate zone you can maintain during an all-out endurance effort.

2. Divide your training into phases

In the beginning of the training season, triathlon training is usually very different from what it is closer to a race. As a rule, all training is planned with your main race in mind.

The first part of the season is all about improving your aerobic fitness, endurance and personal weaknesses. During this period, try to maintain your strengths and improve your weaknesses.

After building the aerobic base, you start to decrease volume and increase intensity. The focus is now on muscular endurance and anaerobic capacity. However, aerobic training needs to continue throughout the season, but less frequently. You need aerobic sessions to maintain your aerobic capacity and serve recovery purposes.

A good aerobic level is the base for tolerating anaerobic training and helps you to recover from tough workouts.

One of the most challenging things for me was that I did not know how my body was going to react to a 10-hour sports performance.

One of the most challenging things for me was that I didn’t know how my body was going to react to a 10-hour sports performance. This is because triathlon training sessions are never as long as the races.

The longest training sessions I did with my coach was 5 hours of cycling. I’ve heard about people who have done almost 10-hour training sessions but that’s rare. Still, a training session is different from what you experience in the race.

In my first race, I had no idea if I could maintain my heart rate in zone 3 so if you’re a triathlon first-timer be prepared for surprises on race day.

3. Leave enough time for recovery

After a 10-hour training session, it’s advisable to rest and let your body recover properly. That’s why triathletes rarely do that long training sessions because the recovery time is so long that you actually lose the benefit of doing such a long session.

Only the race situation pumps up all the adrenaline and gets me into the real “I mean business” competitive mindset.

What I’ve found to be a good practice for me is to do a shorter race before my main race because only the race situation pumps up all the adrenaline and gets me into the real “I mean business” competitive mindset. Without the tickling excitement of a race, it may be difficult to know what it really means for you to give all you’ve got or know for sure how your body (or mind) is going to react in a race.

Before my first Ironman, I did a half-distance triathlon four weeks before but that was too close to my main race : It didn’t leave me enough time to recover and prepare for the Ironman.

Before the last three Ironmans, I raced half-distance six weeks before and I felt like that was a good schedule for me. After a half-distance race, I had a week of recovery, then three weeks of progressive training and two easier weeks when I started tapering and preparing for the main race.

The key is to make sure you have enough time to recover because there’s no point in going into the Ironman exhausted – rest assured the Ironman will be enough to wear you down for a good while!

4. Stick with what you know

You know how people always say “never wear new shoes to a race” and we all think “yeah, yeah, everybody knows that”. Well, I knew it and yet, for some reason, four weeks before my first Ironman I found new running shoes that felt absolutely amazing so I decided to wear them for a shorter race. In the middle of that race, I suddenly felt a penetrating pain on my calf.

Because of the pain I couldn’t run at all for four weeks, and this was right before my first Ironman race! Luckily, I was able to run in the race but I wore an old pair of Asics Kayanos which I knew for a fact were comfortable (although heavy) and didn’t cause any pain.

5. Customize your training

One of the cornerstones of triathlon training is that it needs to be personalized for you. We’re all different and have different strengths and weaknesses, which need to be taken into account in your training plan.

The most challenging part in planning your training is balancing all three sports. As a basic principle, 60% of triathlon training should focus on the bike but if you’re a weak swimmer, you need to train the swim more.

This is where a coach helped me to plan my training to keep all three sports balanced and avoid any of them getting too weak.

That can be an overwhelming puzzle to solve: for example, if I wanted to shave 10 minutes off my swim time, I would have to spend 80% of my training on swimming. This would mean that my strongest sport, cycling, and running would weaken too much and the end result would be slower. This is where a coach helped me to plan my training to keep all three sports balanced and avoid any of them getting too weak.

There are a million ways and opinions so it’s hard to know who and what to trust.

There are a million ways and opinions so it’s hard to know who and what to trust. That’s where a coach steps in. A triathlon coach can help you interpret your sports data and tell you when it’s time to do something differently. I mean, the amount of information and resources out there is endless but how do you choose from all the options available the ones that are best for you?

For example, there’s this kick-ass book called ‘The Triathlete’s Training Bible’ written by Joe Friel. The book is awesome but goes into very in-depth detail to the extent that I had to ask my doctor wife to shed light on some of the terms and concepts discussed in the book.

The book describes thoroughly what happens in the muscles and offers different periodization methods, but without a coach it may be difficult to choose the best method for you.

Don’t go it alone – a triathlon coach is your guide and interpreter

At best, a coach is your guide on your triathlon journey, interpreting when you don’t understand something and getting you through the rough patches on the way. A coach can suggest new, inspiring training sessions that you never would have thought of on your own.

For me, it was a huge help that my coach created my training programs directly on Polar Flow and all I had to worry about was sticking to the programs.

For me, it was a huge help that my coach created my training programs directly on Polar Flow and all I had to worry about was sticking to the programs. It was also a great learning experience on how to communicate my subjective feelings to my coach, which is essential for adjusting the training plan according to individual needs.

When you have your training plans all planned out for you with an easy access to those plans, you’ll have a lot more time and energy for the actual training and you don’t have to spend time questioning if you’re focusing on the right things.

If you’re on your own, reliable training data and analysis are invaluable in monitoring your training load and recovery. The key is to find the ways that work for you and make sure you have enough variation and balance.

Accurate training data with a coach is, of course, the ideal combo for any serious athlete (even if you’re not a pro). When you have a multisport watch that provides you the data you need and an experienced coach who plans your training, interprets your data and tells you what you should keep doing or change, all you have to do is focus on doing.

If you liked this post, don’t forget to share so that others can find it, too.

Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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