There has really never been a time in my endurance sports “career” where I have not been training under Chris Carmichael’s methodology. When I first started training, I had online coaching through Carmichael Training Systems (CTS). I’m sure Chris himself never interacted with me and has no idea I even exist. But for a year or so, that’s how I got ready for races. The cost ended up being more than I wanted to pay. Even at $25/month — a veritable steal in the coaching biz — I felt like I could use that money more wisely.
So for two years or so, I used Joe Friel’s “Mountain Biker’s Training Bible.” In reality, I was constantly translating Friel’s intervals and workouts into CTS equivalents. When determining the intensity for each effort, I still used the CTS Field Test rather than the test outlined in the Training Bible. I used Friel’s progressions and periodizations and got some reasonable results.
A couple of years ago, two things happened that dramatically changed my cycling. One was losing about 25 pounds of excess weight. The other was picking up a copy of The Time-Crunched Cyclist. It promised good results in fewer hours a week than I was currently spending on the bike (which my wife liked immensely). I used it to successfully prepare for the longest mountain bike races I’d ever done and then had my best cyclocross season ever. The next year, I targeted the 2011 Keweenaw Chain Drive using the TCTP and went from finishing somewhere in the top 25% to almost top 10 overall and nabbed my first age group podium. (The full write-up is here.) Let me be clear here: I believe in this program, wholeheartedly.
When I committed to a summer of triathlon, I didn’t look any farther than “The Time-Crunched Triathlete” for training plans. People talked about Friel’s books again, especially “Your First Triathlon“, but I didn’t care. I had experienced such good results from the TCTP for cycling, I imagined I could earn similar results from the triathlon plan. And as you’ll see, I believe I did.
The basic idea behind the TCTP (both the cycling and triathlon versions) is well-documented, but here’s the brief story anyways. The classic periodization plan for athletic performance is well-known. By structuring your training to gradually increase the load on your body and mixing it with appropriate recovery time, your body adapts to the training load and you get faster, stronger or whatever. By tapering off a week or so before your goal event, your body has adapted (hopefully) as much as it is able, but you are reducing the training load. You then have less fatigue and more available resources when you start your race. You can usually hold this peak for a little while before you need to scale back the training and repeat the whole thing. The TCTP adheres to this notion, but at warp speed. You go from recovery to race-ready in 9 weeks.
Professional athletes and those with a lot of free time on their hands put in 20+ hours of training a week and for recreational racers, plans like “The Mountain Biker’s Training Bible” simply scaled down the workouts to fit your available time. I can attest that I was putting in more hours and not really getting that much faster in that model. The TCTP is different in that it focuses mainly on high-intensity efforts, which lead to faster adaptation. The obvious problem here is that you can’t head out the door and do 3 hours of max effort — not without collapsing and not being able to ride again for several days. Therefore, the workouts are short. The time your body is at a peak performance is similarly short and then you need a couple months to get back into peak condition again, starting with a couple weeks of rest and light, unstructured training.
So that’s the basic deal: low-volume, high-intensity workouts leading to short, but intense, periods of peak condition. Frankly, it was a bargain I was willing to live with.
There are adaptations to the original TCTP to make it appropriate for triathlon. Some of them are surprising. In many plans, the intense running intervals are scheduled very late in the program, in the last few weeks before the race. Why? You just can’t do as many max efforts in a high-impact sport. It would wreck you. The number of max effort intervals in the cycling workout are reduced. Swim workouts spend a surprising amount of time on form, arguing that an 8-week plan isn’t going to dramatically change your strength in the water. You’re more likely to see benefits from better form in the water. Finally, pretty much every scheduled workout is a brick. Sometimes they make sense: swim-bike, bike-run. Other times they almost seem non-sensical: run-swim, swim-run. You realize quickly that the stranger bricks make sure that you occasionally go into a running session fresh, and indeed, go into each discipline fresh at least once a week.
It’s not week-on-week practicing your transitions though. I would finish a swim in the pool, shower, change into my cycling stuff and 10 minutes might have passed. And that’s the plan.
The book lays out plans for Intermediate and Advanced sprint-distance triathlons, Intermediate and Advanced Olympic-distance events and even lays out a 70.3 Half-Ironman plan. The difference in the last one is that it’s not about being truly competitive, but simply giving you the fitness to finish strong. The distances of my main race were a 800 m swim, a 40 km bike and a 8 km run. That’s a sprint-distance swim, but Olympic-distance bike and not-quite Olympic-distance run. I picked the Advanced Sprint program, even though I had never done a triathlon before and my goal race was closer to Olympic distance. I didn’t care to put in as much training time as the Olympic plans required, especially the length of the swim workouts.
To get ready, I did two sessions of the the prescribed Recovery workouts. In between iterations of the “normal” training, Carmichael gives you a program to keep your skills fresh and not lost overall base fitness. I had never swam properly before (you know, breathing out into the water, wearing goggles and all that), but the 8 weeks of Recovery was enough to get me a base set of skills to work with.
The results, to my mind, are astounding. Having basically no previous triathlon experience, I was 28/165 at my goal race and completed all 3 disciplines with the times I would have been able to do them if I had started each one fresh. Two weeks later I finished 35/280 and nearly grabbed an age-group podium. Looking at my split times, it’s clear I’m cashing in on years of cycling experience, but it turns out that I’m no slouch at running either. (Usain Bolt has nothing to fear from me, nor does your average 7-minute miler, but the point stands.) Even my swimming improved markedly over the plan. Rather than coming out of the water in 19 minutes, I would have finished closer to 24 minutes without training.
I cannot really add anything to the caveats from the book. These plans are only good to get you ready for your average Sprint (1.5 hour) or Olympic (2-2.5 hour) event. You’ll peak out for a goal event, can hold that fitness for a couple of weeks, then need 2-4 weeks to recover and 8 weeks to build back up. You can certainly race anytime you want but will not be at your best for the whole tri season. But which do you want more: a long season full of mediocre results or a few goal events with great results? And if you’re really thinking 70.3, you need to accept that you’re not going to be super-competitive. The plan is just about finishing strong. Competitive 70.3 athletes need more base fitness than you can get in 6-8 training hours per week.
I’ve never trained for triathlon any other way than with this program, but given the results and a life that revolves more around my family, work and church more than training, I wouldn’t consider training with anything else. Highly recommended.