Training for the Toughman Half Triathlon (with a little help from EMS)

For the second year in a row, I will compete in the Toughman Half Triathlon to be held in Croton-on-Hudson, NY on September 11th, 2011. The race is only in its fourth year. Last year, 700 athletes started the race. I didn't know what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised. Taking fourth in my age group and nearly breaking 5 hours was enough to make it one of my "A" races this year. To make certain I have a shot at improving my time this year, I have enlisted the support of pro-triathlete and frequent Xtri contributor, Alex McDonald to review my final plan. I also want to get his advice on how to properly integrate electric muscle stimulation into the training regimen.

First, let me tell you more about the course. Yes, the half triathlon lives up to its name. No part of the course is easy. The swim in the cove of the Hudson is well protected from the currents, but protection ends there. The bike course runs through some of the most scenic, but also hilly sections of Westchester County. My Garmin showed an elevation gain of 3,600 feet over the single 56-mile loop. The run is very interesting through roads and trails around the Croton Dam - but the hills demand 1,600 feet of gain.

Finishing fourth place in my age group at 5:03 cemented this event as one of my "A" races this year. But what will it take to improve this year? The age group competition will only be stiffer. This year, Dr. Rich Izzo, the organizer tells me over 1,000 people will compete in the triathlon. I plan to focus only on my time - I want to finish in under 5 hours with some time to spare.

For the next two months, I plan to focus my training around the specific demands of the race. I also want to learn how to integrate electrical muscle stimulation into my plan. I was recently introduced to this technology through an EMS device built by an Italian company, Globus. Though many elite athletes have used these machines to supplement their training plans, I have found few materials that specifically provide recommendations on how to customize usage. To be very specific, at age 46, I have learned that my body responds better to higher intensity, lower volume programs than most plans recommend. Given my work and family commitments, I also need a regular schedule that doesn't rotate change sequence of events week to week. So given all that, which strength and recovery EMS programs should I use on what days with my Globus?

My initial weekly routine is at the bottom of the page. I plan to step up the intensity for two straight weeks, and then taper for the third week. I will essentially repeat until the event. Here are my notes of a discussion with Alex on how to get to my goals and integrate EMS

Paul: First, Alex, how is your recovery coming from the biking accident earlier this year?

Alex: The recovery…it's coming. I have spent a lot of time in the pool, focusing on drills and technique. I couldn't train very hard initially because of the broken ribs so I instead spent that time rebuilding my swim stroke and trained much like a swimmer during the initial recovery period. I'm actually faster now in the water than I was before yet I am also less fit than I was then. It is the same for cycling. I have considerably strengthened my hamstrings and glutes and the speed, power and endurance is returning quickly. That being said, I still have a long way to go. I'm working on incorporating some intervals into my training that is a lot of fun. I still haven't started running, though. Overall, it's coming along and I am optimistic.

Paul: What are the pros and cons of sticking to the same pattern of workouts for 6-8 straight weeks?

Alex: There are a lot of positives - with a regular routine it is easier to notice progress from one week to the next, increased speed, power etc. You can measure it more easily with a consistent routine. A consistent routine is also important when you're balancing busy schedules. Everyone around you will know what to expect and that predictability is good for work and family. It also makes training more likely to be consistent and sustainable. However, I only have my athletes do the same type of training and schedule for about 6 to 8 week. Training stimulus is important to produce fitness and continue to improve. You can do the same thing for 8 weeks and see clear improvement. However, after that point, the benefits begin to plateau. If an athlete does the same routine and type of training after three weeks, they get about 50% of the total fitness benefits. After six weeks, the athlete gets about 90% of the possible fitness benefits. Beyond eight weeks, the improvements plateau.

Paul: So I had troubles figuring out how to line up my usage of the Globus Premium Sport device with my specific training program. I use it frequently for active recovery after long workouts, but I know it can do more.

Alex: Active recovery is a great way to use it. It's an excellent substitute for a massage or cool down. You can use it that way all season long. You do want to periodize the use of EMS just like your training schedule.

Paul: So how should my usage change in the next 8 weeks?

Alex: During early season work, you would have ideally used it for neuro-muscular activation. This means using short bursts of energy that generate strong contractions with a longer rest periods - programs with a 1:4 rest to work time. These would typically be "maximum strength" programs - with a frequency between 80-100 Hz.

Paul: How should I use it to build strength?

Alex: For an endurance athlete, it should be used much like endurance lifting in the gym, lower weight, higher reps. The EMS should bed used with less intensity (lower weight) in contraction - for 15 seconds to a minute (higher reps). The muscle shouldn't be fully contracted but by the end should be pretty tired. The intensity should be submaximal, but total set should be longer with a 1:1 ratio of work to rest. These are typically "endurance" or "ultra endurance" programs at 15 - 50 Hz.

Paul: So how should I mix and match the endurance and speed programs in the next 8 weeks?

Alex: The EMS strength program is not a replacement for workouts, but should used as an adjunct. As such it is important that it does not interfere with your regular swim, bike and run training. For the first 3 weeks focus on maximal neuro-muscular stimulation. This should hurt, but not enough to cause damage. Take one rest/recovery week. For the next 3 weeks build endurance strength. In the last week, you should taper for the race.

Paul: What days should I do the activation or strength work? Should I do it on the same day that I'm hitting the same muscles with my regular routines?

Alex: Every coach and every person will have a different answer. I would use it in the off-days - specifically on an active-recovery type day, or well after a hard session in the evening before an easier training day. There is something to be said for pushing the body harder and some recommend using right after a hard work out. However, I would not feel comfortable using it that way as the risk of injury or over use outweigh the potential benefits.

Paul Tyler founded Triessential.com (Twitter @triessential) to help grow the sport and encourage more people to adopt more healthy and active lifestyles. Dr. Alex McDonald (Twitter@alexmmtri) is a physician, professional triathlete, and owner of Fast Forward Triathlon, an innovative coaching service. Globus will offer Xtri readers a $50 discount on the purchase of their devices using the code TRIESS.

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