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Building the Second Half of the Endurance Season
Elite coach, Matt Dixon, weighs in on how to thrive – and not fatigue – in the back half of the race calendar.
By Matt Dixon, coach and founder of Purple Patch Fitness
There are many articles written that rightly focus on setting up a successful season of racing, or how to effectively plan your seasonal progression, yet few focus on nailing performance in the back half of a season.
Let’s change that.
We are currently transitioning past the midway point of the global triathlon calendar and most of the largest races loom ahead. How do you maximize performance in the key second half of the season, and avoid many of the pitfalls that leave so many athletes hanging by a thread of fatigue when they should be thriving instead? Let’s find out.
Global Performance Evolution
Before diving into late-season dynamics, it is important that you acquaint or refresh yourself with my global lens of performance improvement. In weaving an athlete’s program we always aim to master key components that include achieving great consistency of highly specific training that is progressed over time.
These are the magic words:
We anchor our athlete’s mindset in these - and they become our framework to make decisions, build and execute programs and ultimately find success. On top of this platform is a simple observation, one that I have seen consistently, across all levels of athlete from world class to enthusiast, over many, many years. It is that:
Whenever we are successful in building a specific and sustainable endurance training program, that includes fully integrated strength and conditioning program, incorporates adequate recovery (including sleep) and has a backbone of appropriate nutrition - then the athlete accelerates. Every time.
We must not forget these thoughts as we think about the specifics of the back half of a season.
Season Planning: Setting Up the Second Half
If you have followed prior articles you will be familiar with how I view seasonal planning:
|Nov to Mar||Apr to Jul||Jul to Oct|
|Phase||Post Season||Pre Season||Race Specific||Race Specific Two|
|Coaching Mindset||Athlete Evolution||Ramp to Mid-Season Key Race(s)||Ramp to Late-Season Key Race(s)|
Your entire season should be set up to achieve two things:
- Allow global athlete evolution and improvement — which can enable year-over-year progression.
- Set yourself up for your best performances at key races in each year.
If your progression is sound, at the end of last season you would have developed a post-season phase of training that consists of globally lower physical stress and is preparatory in nature. This enables skill development and lower physical load to strengthen tendons, muscles and ligaments for the upcoming hard work ahead.
The progression from here would be the building block work of what we call “pre-season”. The training in this block includes plenty of strength-endurance and hill-based work, as well as a surprising amount of higher intensity work. It is tough, but a far cry from the race-specific training that arrives as you prep for your key races.
These two initial phases assist in global athlete evolution and allow scope to strengthen the natural strengths of the athlete, but also address and improve weaknesses. As the warmer weather arrives, most athletes have time to include two cycles of race-specific training — the first for a peak in the midseason; the second as a build for the back half of the season — the focus of this piece.
In order to be highly successful in the second half of the season, we must avoid getting stale and fatigued from the prior months training.
If you’re training through the end of last year into the early months of this year, and up to this point been exactly the same throughout, then there is a high chance you have little room to grow.
Monotony is a killer, and not a catalyst for performance gains. Athletes that simply train from race-to-race throughout the season often face this challenge, never having the insight or the courage to train systems and sessions that deviate from race-specific intensity.
Success in the second half is built off arriving at the second half still emotionally and physically fresh — without a massive accumulation of race-specific work.
The Supporting Habits
Beyond the planning of the second half of the season, by the time you arrive in the later months it is critical that the supporting habits bubble up in the psyche as critical components to nail down.
It cannot be overstated how important these habits are in maximizing training yield, but also the importance of arriving fresh and ready to maximize performance when it counts - race day. The most important elements include:
- Strength and Conditioning: This pillar is often a casualty of the late season, but skip it at your peril. While it should take a backseat, it cannot disappear.
Early in the year the focus of strength training is to improve movement patterns, synchronization and genuine strength gains. In the second half of the season we no longer aim for improvements in strength. Instead, the purpose focuses on a more therapeutic role.
The mission is to maintain strength gains achieved earlier in the season, maintain and improve joint health and mobility as the endurance training rigors increase, and add a little explosive (recruitment) work into the sessions to assist in bridging the work in the gym to the specificity of your endurance activity.
- Sleep: Too many athletes begin to compromise on sleep in pursuit of more and more training — after all the big races are coming! This is a mistake. Sleep is your primary recovery tool, and adding more hours of training won’t be positive if it compromises this performance catalyst.
- Fueling: As training focus goes up a curious phenomenon occasionally takes place, athletes forget to fuel. Whether it is a byproduct of cramming more training in, or absentmindedness from training focus, post-workout fueling drops off. This creates under-recovery, poor performance and a host of other issues.
- Under Eating: The emphasis on race-specific training, as well as warmer weather longer rides and runs, often includes additional hours of training. It is startling how many athletes fail to increase total caloric consumption in line with increased expenditure of the race-specific training.
The second half of the year isn’t the time to go on a diet or try to minimize caloric replenishment to get to race weight. Eat well and create a platform of health. Your body will thank you.
- Nail the Basics: Avoid the pitfall of getting lured by the supposed magic gains of new tools, supplements or additions. Equipment changes, magic fuels or recovery boots are not going to be the building block of success.
I prefer athletes to stick to the basics, and avoid making new additions in the second part of the year. Be patent and make any changes far away from key competitions — in post-season.
Great performances arrive from familiarity, not from additions.
Keep things simple, and avoid loading more and more training at the consequence of stripping supporting habits. Your second half performances will be the product of a season of progressive training or more, not from some magic addition.
Arriving Fit n’ Fresh
The final question I often receive is how to find peak performance on race day. Working with the assumption you have progressed throughout the season sensibly, and embraced your supporting habits, the “taper” for a longer endurance event should be much more simple than people make it.
In fact, too many coaches and athletes overplay the taper, falling into the trap of aligning IRONMAN preparation too closely with classic tapers for events in swimming, track and field, etc. There are a few simple rules to follow before hitting the start line at a longer distance endurance event:
- Maintain Rhythm: Don’t make a massive change in the rhythm of your training in the final weeks. Aim to keep the flow the same and have a familiar pattern to your training. Of course, the global load of the training will drop a little, but your fitness leading up to the race should be familiar.
- Cleanse: To provide real freshness to the familiar pattern of training ahead, I encourage many athletes to have a real clean-out and freshen-up three to four weeks prior to a key race.
This can be two to four days of very, and I mean very, easy training.
This little break will often leave you feeling a little flat and lethargic, but will dissipate quickly as you lead into the last partial cycle of training into the race. With these two pieces of the preparation in place, many are surprised at the amount of training we prescribe in race week, but it helps avoid fitness loss while staying familiar with the work coming in the race ahead.
- Don’t Mess it Up: Align with above, and keep your eating habits the same. Don’t start shifting eating habits, adding supplements, hyper-hydrating or all the other things that promise some form of peak gains, yet simply end up acting as another change for the body to respond to. Clear your mind and maintain eating patterns, type and timing.
- Feel Good: It is much more important to set up intervals as progressively building in the final week or two of before the race. This gives you the leeway to follow a feel good pattern of training. If you feel good, you can edge a little stronger (without searching for validation of readiness).
If you are carrying a little fatigue, you can simply build to what feels good without guilt. I don’t judge readiness of performance from these sessions, but want to avoid forcing a specific intensity.
A “taper” in long distance endurance is very different that shorter races.
I would prefer the race be viewed as simply a really, really hard training session. In many ways, that’s what it is.
A great race is stringing together a great swimming, cycling and running session. Do that and you have a wonderful race performance. This is different than peaking for some 1-, 2- or 4-minute swimming or running race — so don’t take the same mindset.
Embrace the second half of the season. All the good stuff is ahead, just don’t lose your mind or get distracted by thinking you need to do a whole bunch of things differently. You can keep things simple and retain the mission of arriving fit n’ fresh.
Matt Dixon is a world-class triathlon coach, former professional triathlete, elite swimmer and exercise physiologist. His Purple Patch coaching community is based in San Francisco, but his athletes span the globe.
His professional triathlon squad has amassed more than 300 Professional wins and podiums in IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 races, including the 2016 World Champion. He has qualified more than 250 athletes to the Hawaii IRONMAN World Championships, with multiple Age Group World Champions, but he is equally known for his groundbreaking work successfully creating performance in sport and life for time-starved individuals. He guides many leading CEOs of major companies, including well known tech industry leaders.
Matt is the author of the Well Built Triathlete, as well as the new Fast Track Triathlete, an IRONMAN U Master coach, global hydration advisor for Camelbak and a much sought performance expert and speaker.