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. To perform well, training should develop an efficient aerobic system.

The ONLY way to develop this aerobic, fat burning, energy system is to slow down and train at a low intensity – and this often means slowing down.

Aerobic training also reduces stress on your body, both physically and hormonally. Anaerobic (higher intensity) training is highly stressful, which is why interval sessions requires more recovery time compared to completing a similar length workout at a lower intensity.

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

Aerobic vs Anaerobic Energy Sources

For a workout to be truly aerobic, you should be able to exercise for a long time and you should feel good with no real fatigue or soreness. Aerobic training conditions your body to burn fat for fuel. If you have a craving for sugar or other carbohydrates post training you’ve been in the anaerobic zone!

Training anaerobically uses too much sugar (stored glycogen) as fuel. This can ultimately lead to the lowering of blood sugar and the infamous “bonk” or “wall” – and a craving for sweet food. This same bonk is often felt in races too; going out too hard…

Aerobic Training

In practical terms, most athletes need to reduce training intensity – from an anaerobic / threshold zone, to a pure aerobic zone. Training should feel comfortableEASY!

Intensity Pyramid

There are various methods for determining what EASY should be. A simple heart rate monitor is all that is required to help monitor effort. It often needs some patience and discipline to control effort do what is needed initially.

The key to progression is to build an aerobic base, by training at low intensity. This facilitates a broader spectrum of training intensities and a higher peak performance. Think of a pyramid, the bigger the base, the taller the peak!

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. This continual fatigue prevents higher / HARD efforts ever being reached – narrowing the body’s performance range.

Correct base training and lack of base training

The lack of adequate base training effectively shrinks your performance potential and makes for a risky training / racing journey.

How often have you heard the comment “I only have one speed” – this is true for these individuals. They have been training consistently at too high an intensity. Continually fatiguing their body, meaning it is never fresh enough to reach its true higher potential.

The lack of an aerobic base, while adding a lot of higher intensity training, makes for an unstable foundation. This unstable foundation results in injury, illness, and declining race performances through a season – overtraining.

Graphs into Shapes

For simplicity and visual demonstration, transferring data from the tables above into shapes (below), triangle and diamonds, it can be seen what happens to our body’s training ranges.

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 final image, a diamond, is the actual distribution of time dedicated to the intensity levels of the middle triangle. The range is severely limited and “unstable”.

Training intensity distribution

Establishing Training Levels

An assessment of one’s current maximal heart rate is needed.  There are various methods of testing (we test our athletes on bikes). From the results, a range of training levels/zones and perceived efforts can be established – VERY EASY, EASY, MEDIUM and HARD. Our levels, based on maximum heart rate are common to the majority of coaches:

Reality Check

A re-calibration of effort perception is often needed… Attempting to train against the new levels often highlights that what was previously felt thought to be EASY is 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; As a result, when it comes to doing some harder training they really feel the difference. Due to training at a lower intensity (“EASY”), it will have built their base, reduced fatigue levels, which allows them to reach, and perform at a higher “HARD”. This is then reflected in increases in performance.

Many – impatient – athletes never see the continued progression they desire. They return to training at an intensity that is not “EASY”, which, again, fatigues the body and narrows the training / performance spectrum.

Other important reasons for training EASY more often is to boosts wellbeing, health and longevity in the sport…

Training too often at a MEDIUM or HARD intensity leads to injuries and illness and race results will declining over a season. This is simply overtraining!


Physiologically, and simplistically, aerobic means “fat with oxygen” and anaerobic means “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 is the most beneficial!

Whilst most athletes grasp the concept of EASY training. They also quote “you should be able to hold a conversation” when training aerobically (EASY). This literally means a non-stop, coherent conversation. Not a sentence then a break to regain some composure!

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