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Triathlete Blog

Holding Back

By December 24, 2007June 9th, 2015No Comments

It’s that time of the year when the greatest resistance training we must do as triathletes is holding back.

Holding back as in getting passed, going slow, losing a workout, maybe even getting lapped.

There comes a point where you have to very honestly ask yourself – do I want to win winter workouts or do I want to win a summer race? Do I want to leave your best performance in January or peak in July? You have to ask yourself and if you decide the latter you have to hold back.

Here’s a secret that I’m going to tell. Right now the nation’s top age groupers are not ripping out 5:50 miles on the track nor pushing out 20 minute intervals above their LT or suffering through V02 max repeats or completing bricks entirely in Zone 4. It’s not that they don’t train hard or push themselves – they just do it at the right time of the year.

Which is not now.

Hard workouts are like salt – used sparingly and in moderation it can make something taste great. Hard workouts are so damn fun because they are so damn effective. When used right they make you fast. Spend eight weeks, once a week on the track and I bet you’ll get fast. But it won’t last that long. It can’t. At some point you have to step back. Your body can’t do that week after week without breaking down. Like salt, when used too much hard workouts make you unhealthy. And that’s why they must be done at the right time.

Which again is not now. You see at this time of year those that are committed to training (and ultimately racing) smart are becoming friendly, quite friendly, with Zones 1 – 2. Where do you find this Zones 1 – 2? About 70 – 80 percent of your maximal heart rate. And you’re right – it’s not that hard. That’s the point. In fact, at times to keep your HR there you need to go slow. Walk a hill, back off into the wind, lighten your step up.

It seems like most of us know this, we’ve heard it all before but to actually follow it is where it gets hard. Because it requires holding back. And most athletes have this Pavlovian response to a clock, a group run, a bell, a whistle, a power output on a computer screen – they see a number, they see a competitor and they want to go fast. Doesn’t matter the workout, the time, or what’s in their plan. They want to go fast and they want to go NOW.

And what often happens is you get people spending week after week doing the same runs and rides in Zone 3. The dead zone, the feel good zone, the not easy enough to be easy nor hard enough to be hard zone. The zone in between. The zone that really doesn’t do you much good. This is the core problem of many age groupers out there – they spend all of their time training in this zone and as a result do not make much progress from year to year.


When you train easily in Zones 1 and 2, you train aerobically with much oxygen and burn fuel mostly from your fat stores. Training at lower intensities increases your fat burning ability and decreases your carbohydrate burning ability. Since carbohydrate is the energy required for longer workouts, teaching your body to conserve carbohydrates by way of burning fat for fuel is a very important thing.

Let’s say you were prescribed an “easy” run on Friday maintaining heart rate Zones 1 – 2. Well, you were feeling good and the group was pulling away so you decided to pick up the pace and found yourself in Zone 3. Zone 3 is that feel good zone – the tempo zone, the zone that is not easy enough to be easy but not hard enough to be hard. Now it is true that Zone 3 is mostly an aerobic zone however it is too hard to recruit slow twitch muscle fibers and burn fat. In Zone 3, the body needs more oxygen quicker – and since it takes more oxygen to burn fat rather than carbohydrate, carbohydrate becomes the body’s main fuel source.

Not a big deal, right? Wrong. The problem is that training in Zone 3 actually depletes your carbohydrate stores which consequently requires more time for recovery. If you had stayed in Zones 1 – 2, your body would have actually burned mostly fat, recruited mostly slow twitch fibers and required little recovery time at all. Since your body can only store so much carbohydrate, once it’s gone it needs to be built back up – and that takes time. Not only that but training in Zone 3 recruits some fast twitch muscle fibers. And it takes time for these to recover those to recover as well.

So now what? Well, your easy day just become hard. It became yet another workout for your body to recover from – and we all know that one of the major factors that limits us or holds us back is recovery time. The better you recover the more you can perform key workouts and gain benefit from them. The more time you need to recover, the less time you have for quality workouts required to breakthrough.

While it may have felt “good” to go fast on your easy day, by blowing your zones on your easy day you actually set yourself up for failure on the next hard workout day. Let’s say you blew your zones on Friday before Saturday’s hard run with Zones 4 – 5 intervals. You see, to go hard in Zones 4 – 5, you need to have 100 percent of your carbohydrate stores. Your fast twitch muscle fibers must be rested and ready to go. But when you train in Zone 3 you deplete these stores and fatigue these fibers. So when it’s time to go hard and fast – you can’t. Or you can’t very well.

You can easily see how spending too much time in Zone 3 means you reach a plateau. You are never recovered enough to breakthrough and you don’t recover well over time. Consequently, if spend too much time training there you’ll likely end up injured, overtrained, stale, or turning out the same times year after year – which is probably not on anyone’s 2008 season goals.

I know what you’re thinking – how can you train in Zones 1 – 2 when it’s so slow? Because to get fast you have to slow. To take steps forward you have to step back. You have to forget about pace and let it go. Stop obsessing over the average pace on your Garmin, stop pushing yourself to keep up, quit comparing your times on routes from day to day and for Personal Best’s sake – just follow your zones.

Of course, this is all much easier said than done. Holding back is very hard. It requires complete trust in your training plan, it requires patience, it requires athletic maturity, and vision for what lies ahead. It requires you to control your aggression and override your competitive nature in hopes of being at your best….very far away.

Unfortunately, most athletes never reach their athletic potential because they leave their best workouts in the wrong part of the year. They want to be fast and they want to be fast now. But it doesn’t work that way. If it did, we’d all be fast. But we’re not. The secret is those that are fast exercise patience and self-control. They hold back to get ahead. They do the appropriate work at the appropriate time. They don’t try to get ahead before they are ready. They realize in training there is no such thing as extra credit – or even free speed(work); just poor choices that end up leaving you behind rather than getting you ahead.

Right now you have a choice. It’s the new year. It’s the new you. It’s going to be your best year yet. You’ll never know until you try. And isn’t it worth taking a risk on yourself? Do you want to be good next year or do you want to be great? Do you want to put all of your effort into breaking through or just break down? Do you want to leave your best race on the Saturday fun run or set a personal best later in the year?

It’s really your choice.

Will you come under fire from your friends? Probably. Will you get lapped in your lane? Most likely so. Will you at times feel slower than ever and see now way this approach could make you fast? Yes. And that’s why very few in sport find success. Because it takes a hell of a lot of holding back to get ahead. It means losing about one-hundred workouts in the winter in order for that one summer win. It means accepting delayed gratification instead of instant success.

It’s just a matter of how much it’s worth. Can you hold back for a few months, trust your training and believe in yourself? That is the work that’s hard. That is what it takes for success. Bolting on the track right now – that takes nothing at all – just a bit of foolishness and no common sense. But to be mindful, patient, timely and hold back….now that’s the hard work you need to be doing towards becoming your best.