Triathlon and the Effort Pyramid

December 29th 2017

By Matt Hill
Categories: Triathlon Training

Triathlon and the Effort Pyramid

Triathletes are endurance athletes

Any activity lasting more than a few minutes is physiologically an endurance activity. Even a sprint triathlon is very much an endurance event. Therefore, to perform well, training should focus on developing an efficient aerobic system.

The ONLY way to develop this aerobic, fat burning, energy system is to train at a low intensity and this may mean having to slow down initially. Low intensity training may not seem worth doing but it provides a multitude of benefits that all combine to make you into a fitter, healthier and faster athlete.

Aerobic training reduces stress on your body, both physically and hormonally whereas the more common approach to perform a lot of high intensity (anaerobic) training, is highly stressful. This is why interval sessions requires more recovery time compared to completing longer workouts at a lower intensity.

This is not to say low intensity training must be the only type of training you complete, but it should constitute the majority; for a novice it could (should) be the primary and only focus.

Aerobic vs Anaerobic Energy Sources

For a workout to be truly aerobic, you should be able to train for a long period of time, feel good during and after the session, not feel fatigue or soreness and be able to nose breathe or talk in full sentences. Aerobic training conditions your body to burn fat for fuel (to become more “fat adapted”), which is ideal for keeping you fuelled and racing long distances.

Training anaerobically uses sugar (stored glycogen) as fuel, this is because the intensity is higher, and fat cannot be converted to energy fast enough. This ultimately leads to the infamous “bonk” or “hitting wall” and a craving for sweet food. Bonking is often experienced in races when you really don´t need it to happen!

Unfortunately, intervals, high intensity sessions are seen the be “real” training whereas easy training is “boring” and not effective. Believe this and stay where you are; embrace low intensity training and you will soon see, and feel, the benfits.

Aerobic Training

Most athletes need to be more disciplined in their training and reduce their intensity to ensure they remain aerobic. We all tend to become comfortable at an intensity that is too high – not hard but not easy and this is inhibits the aerobic training effects.

This lack discipline in effort control, and ego, lead athletes to overreaching and training anaerobically (at threshold / race pace), even when it should be feeling really comfortable, or EASY.

Intensity Pyramid

There are various methods for determining what EASY should be. One of the easiest ways is to use your nose – zip your mouth up when cycling or running and nose breathe only. This forces you to slow and work at your body’s aerobic level. Alternatively, a simple heart rate monitor can be used to help monitor/gauge effort.

Learning patience and discipline is hard but if you have, and follow, a training process you can trust in you can accept that to slow down it is only mental strength, not physical, that is required.

The key to progression is to build a big aerobic base. This means training at low intensity. Doing so facilitates a broader spectrum of training intensities and a higher peak performance. Think of training as the development of your fitness pyramid; the bigger the base, the higher your peak fitness.

Negating base training limits overall development and narrows your training range. Intentionally or accidently, athletes spend too much time in the middle training zone, around threshold pace. This sacrifices base building while continually fatiguing the body. The continual MEDIUM effort fatigues the body and prevents higher / HARD efforts ever being reached – narrowing the body’s performance range.


Correct base training and lack of base training

Skipping aerobic training effectively shrinks your performance potential and WILL ultimately lead to injury or illness.

One Speed Syndrome

How often have you heard the comment “I only have one speed”?

This is often true for these individuals as they consistently train too hard and so continually fatige their body and never fresh enough to reach their true higher potential. This manifests itself in  number of ways. A season often goes something like: good early season results, a levelling off (or fall) in performance, mid-late season injury or illness and an overall poor season, especially in their main races that are mid-late season.

The lack of an aerobic base, while adding a lot of higher intensity training, makes for an unstable foundation. This unstable foundation results in “one-speed” declining race performance – overtraining.

Learn to go slow so you can go fast! This is known as polarised training – working at polar opposites – EASY is easy, HARD is hard, with little time spent in the middle.

Graphs into Shapes

For simplicity and visual demonstration, transferring data from the tables above into shapes (below), triangle and diamonds, it becomes easier to see what happens to your.

The large left triangle demonstrates a correct amount of time spent in the lower intensity levels, allowing for a taller peak (performance). The middle, narrow based, triangle illustrates poor time allocation of training intensity – spending a small amount of time at low intensity levels, resulting in a lower peak.

The diamond represents too much high intensity training and results in fitness being severely limited and “unstable”.

Training intensity distribution

Establishing Training Levels

To set your training levels you need to find your current maximal heart rate. There are various methods of testing using different parameters; we use heart rate only (not power, pace, etc). We also only prescribe data goals on the bike; swim and run training is performed using perceived exertion.

The results of the test are used to set a range of training levels/zones that can be aligned with perceived efforts levels – VERY EASY, EASY, MEDIUM and HARD.

Reality Check

A re-calibration of effort perception is often needed when training with the new levels. What was previously perceived to be EASY is actually quite a bit harder (MEDIUM or higher). We see this all the time!

Athletes with the patience and discipline to stick to this new “EASY” will progress quickly.

Working truly EASY then allows you to work harder / faster. It is obvious if you think about it; if you are recovered and fresh from working EASY, you can reach a higher “HARD”.

Combine the EASY with the HARD and expect to see your performance climb!

Impatient athletes never see the continued progression they desire. They return to training at an intensity that is not “EASY” and fall back into the one speed sysndrome!

Polarising your training will boost your performance, wellbeing, health and longevity in the sport.


Physiologically, and simplistically, performing something aerobically means “burning fat with oxygen” and anaerobic means “burning sugars without oxygen”.

For experience triathletes (with 3+ years of efficient training), a ratio of 80% aerobic to 20% anaerobic is ideal. However, for less experienced triathletes a 90% to 10% split or even 100% aerobic can be the most beneficial!

Whilst most athletes grasp the concept of EASY training, not many commit to it. They quote all the literature associated with aerobic training and don’t practice what they preach.

EASY training, once mastered, makes training much more enjoyable, is much less stressful and, above everything else, essential to performance gains!