A friend of mine sent me an email a few days ago.
In this email he asked as to whether or not I thought it was possible to make enough improvement over the course of three years to qualify for Kona in 2010.
My first IM in May 2001 was 12:55. My second in November 2003 was 9:20. In addition to his first question, he asked what it took for me to make that progression in the course of 2.5 years.
I responded with the following email.
I'm not quite sure how to answer this question. I can give you the rundown on how I improved, but that might not be the answer as it relates to what will make you improve.
Some basic factors for Long course improvement (In my opinion) would include:
1. Bike Volume. It will need to be quite solid at some point in your life (and you need a good relationship with your bike). Long course athletes typically always make a big jump from this. I like to see all intensities addressed at some point each season; not limited to easy/steady. I prefer fartlek training based on terrain that can address all systems until you are in a specific race prep.
2. Proper run biomechanics coupled with frequent running. I also suggest being a sucker for soft surfaces. I run on soft surfaces all the time with the exception of some sessions specifically designed for eccentric overload (and these run a risk).
3. Adequate technique in the water that allows for conditioning. IOW, stroke can always be worked on; but it initially needs to be_good_enough for fitness improvements. I believe in drills and technique, but training/conditioning is specific to the muscles trained (there is general conditioning carryover from BRing, but not on site at the muscles).
My IM in 2001 was mostly just an adventure for me. I likely trained about 8-12 hours/week, but I generally considered it as exercise/working out since it wasn't many more hours from my days of lifting and cardio w/os. I did about 3-4 rides over 2 hours (total) and I didn't run over 90 minutes from Feb-May (race was in May). I also swam about 2000-4000 yds/week at most and I don't think I swam more than once in May leading up to the race (needed the taper:)
My point is that I might have finished the event a little more quickly had I understood what the hell I was supposed to do. 12:55 may or may not have been an adequate assessment of my fitness at the time, but it was a starting point in any case.
I made some good improvements from may 01 to may 02 and it primarily came from riding my bike.
I simply enjoyed riding 3-5 hours 2-4x/week (usually 10-12 hours/week with the occasional 15).
I didn't have major intentions of improving in my first couple years in triathlon (I just really liked to ride and the swimming and running were part of the gig).
It wasn't until a couple seasons had passed that I started to do what I 'needed' instea of what I wanted (and even that wasn't always addressed adequately because I lacked a consistently objective source).
I don't know how much of my progression can be attributed to what makes-me-me, but I personally believe that the major gains came from my consistent willingness to train as well as my need for social interactions (my friends didn't train and I enjoyed their company. that meant time away from training). I always trained, but I never burned myself out.
I'm also not sure I can assume my path of improvement will work equally with anyone who plugs in the formula.
Frankly I'm sure could have done things "better" (or worse!) and if I were to help someone I would guide them differently that I guided myself. Nevertheless, adventures of self-discovery do have their place.
In the end I would tell you this:
If you want to qualify for Hawaii in 2010 then you have to make sure that you_really_enjoy triathlon.
I'm not really talking about balance in your life (that's another discussion).
I'm talking about what you find to be fun within thise sport.. That does not mean you have to be indifferent to your results. It just means that the process of attaining results is what brings you joy (and not relying on the results themselves to make you happy).
If you can focus on doing fun events and training in the next three years then I imagine you will find yourself with the best level of improvement when Sept 2010 comes around. I don't know that it will be enough for Kona or not, but I imagine it will be your best given the time you have put in leading to that date.
You can work with a three year plan, but keep the focus within the year, month, week, and day.
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I will post some follow up as it comes.