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The Impossible Triangle

In one of my first posts ever on the CMC Facebook page, I talked about why I chose the Penrose Triangle as the logo for CMC. Described by its creator as “impossibility in its purest form,” the Penrose Triangle can exist in two dimensions but not three. I found this to be a telling metaphor for triathlon training: you can write out all the different types of workouts you need to get done in the various disciplines, but when it’s time to fit them all into a 7-day week, you might as well be trying to prove the Riemann Hypothesis.

What’s more, different people like to train differently! I come from a running background, so I like to run more. Coach Laura rides outside in weather that makes me want to curl up with a blanket and a cup of hot cocoa. I coach one athlete for whom 5 – 6 hours per week of training is perfect, and any more than that just doesn’t work within the constraints of his life. I had a friend in college who had run a 4:11 mile in high school and I was shocked to discover that his longest run of the week was only 5 or 6 miles. Different people benefit from different stimuli. It’s my job as a coach to accommodate each athlete’s needs, desires, weaknesses, and strengths, and knead them into each cycle of training.

That said, there has to be a way to corral and codify all of these variables with a unifying set of tenets. I came up with the following:

  • Find the optimal (read: not necessarily maximum) number of hours of training per week that the athlete can handle physically and emotionally without affecting life, work, family, etc. while still leading to improvement

  • Incorporate strength training, yoga, and stretching, even if it’s in small bites

  • Figure out race day nutrition needs and practice them in training

  • Have reliable, convenient recovery nutrition options

  • Aim to improve general nutrition

  • Correct form issues e.g. swim stroke, running form, bike fit

  • Build early season fitness via a particular discipline if that is the athlete’s background and also use this time to address weaknesses with a focus block

Next, bring in the “magic formulas.” Elite triathlon coach Jesse Kropelnicki recommends a buildup of at least two mesocycles leading into an athlete’s “A” race governed by the following ratios:

  • 9/3 ratio of swim yards per week to swim race distance

  • 8/3 ratio of bike miles per week to bike race distance

  • 7/3 ratio of run miles per week to run race distance

Do these work? The results are mixed. If we apply these ratios to the Wyckoff Triathlon, we’d get 2640 yards of swimming, 45 miles of biking, and 12 miles of running per week, or about 5 – 6 hours. Manageable! When I applied them to my preparation for Ironman Maine 70.3 last year, I ran into some limitations. 6336 yards of swimming per week? Doable. 150 miles of biking per week? Whoa, that’s almost 9 hours right there. 30 miles per week of running? Fine for me, but not advisable for the athletes I coach who are managing nagging calf issues or plantar fasciitis. Get ready for a laugh if you apply the ratios to 140.6 training. Jesse himself concedes that they are not practical for that distance, and a different set of rules and ratios kick in.

Sweet, so I can just slap these ratios onto the training of every athlete I coach, right? No way. My biggest weeks of training last summer were in the 13 – 14 hour neighborhood. If I dropped a 13 hour week into TrainingPeaks for my athlete whose sweet spot is half of that, I’d probably have one fewer client the following month! My athletes are people first and foremost. They have kids, they have commutes, they have physical and emotional ceilings on the amount of training they can pull off. What good is it if I load up their TrainingPeaks with “the perfect week of training” if it’s completely unfeasible for them?

So what’s the takeaway? While there are guidelines that can direct the creation of training, each athlete’s individual considerations must prevail. I do almost no copying and pasting in TrainingPeaks when I’m creating everyone’s upcoming week. The “Impossible Triangle” is certainly an appropriate representation of the conundrum of triathlon training, but here’s some more mathematics for you: in the study of surfaces known as topology, a donut and a coffee mug are considered equivalent because a donut can be stretched and deformed into a coffee mug without breaking. I can think of the needs of my various athletes as malleable blobs of Silly Putty, each stretched and deformed differently to achieve the same result: optimal triathlon training.

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