Off-season efficiency

Now is the time to focus on improving your efficiency across all three disciplines, says Joe Friel. And the key is short, sharp sessions...


It’s still several months before you race seriously again. While it’s tempting to stop exercising altogether, as a keen triathlete what’s more probable is that you’ll spend the winter pushing your limits with intense workouts, which isn’t the best use of your time and energy now.

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There are only three elements of fitness you can train: aerobic capacity – your body’s capacity to transport and utilise oxygen to produce energy; lactate threshold (LT) – how much acid your muscles dump into your bloodstream when working hard and how well your body copes; and economy – how efficiently your body uses fuel.

Assuming you have a good base level of fitness, the risk of working on the first two elements now is that you’ll peak too soon and go into decline, just in time for your first race.  Fuel efficiency, however, takes many months, even years, to peak. It’s this that you need to train now.

You vs the elements

Economy has several components,  but the one to focus your training on now is skill. Increases in skill efficiency have a greater impact on performance as the resistance of the medium increases, with water being the most resistant medium. While biking and running both involve air, it’s more resistant on the bike – the faster you go, the more resistant air becomes. Therefore economy training at this time of year should focus first on swimming, second on biking and last on running. This of course changes if you are a world-class swimmer but a poor runner.


To optimise your winter swim training, undertake short but frequent workouts involving brief, skill-focused intervals.

Swim for about 30mins as many times per week as you can fit it in, doing intervals of no longer than 25m: swim a few 25s starting slowly and gradually increasing speed to warm up. On each fast 25, concentrate on only one movement skill. After each 25, stop at the wall for at least 20secs.

Then start the next fast 25, during which you again concentrate on that one skill only. The best way to identify the skill to work on is with help from a swim coach. Frequent underwater video will confirm your improvement.


Efficiency on the bike primarily comes down to position. A good bike position varies according to many personal variables, such as your flexibility, but how your bike is set up also has to do with the type of triathlons you do. The shorter your ‘A’ race is, the more aggressive your bike position can be, while if you’re training for an Ironman, your bike set-up needs to be relatively relaxed; if it’s too low in the front you’ll frequently come out of  the position to stretch, negating the benefits of being so aerodynamic. See a professional bike fitter now to make sure you’re correctly positioned, even if you did  it last winter on the same bike.


Just because you’re moving relatively slowly as you run doesn’t mean efficiency isn’t important. Few triathletes run with good technique after swimming and biking as fatigue brings out our poor form.

Have a run coach evaluate your technique. As with swimming, do lots of 20sec not-quite-all-out intervals during which you focus on one movement skill. Do this as often as possible. Again, you’re better off doing five, form-focused 20min runs a week (100mins) than two 50min runs.

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So the primary things to do in winter are to get movement skill assessments for the swim and run, get a bike fit and do frequent short, skill-focused workouts. After a few weeks of this you’ll be ready to move back to more serious training, as you start to build aerobic capacity and lactate threshold fitness.