Training for Decathlon and Triathlon at the Same Time

August 3, 2021

- 4 minute read -

My two favourite sporting past times have six letters in common and that's about it. One is the epitome of power while the other is a classic endurance event. The two share one key theme, versatility, and that is what always attracted me to them. For the last few years I would focus on track and power through the winter and then tri and endurance in the summer. The transition from one season to the other was interesting to say the least! I remember one year going for a 30k bike ride a couple weeks after a decathlon and while my muscles were fine my energy system was not. I was a carb burning machine at that moment so not built for fat-fueled endurance so I hit the blood sugar wall earlier than ever before in my life forcing an emergency stop to buy a Gatorade or two.

The learning never stops and that is what fuels me as a coach and athlete. You can think you have finally figured it all out but as a masters athlete your body changes every year so training balance is a moving target and requires continually adjustments and learning. On top of this reality of ageing I decided to stack the challenge of training my body for triathlon and decathlon not one season after another but, instead, to train them at the same time. I've already learned many fundamental lessons over the last few years but this would place greater demands on discipline and no doubt result in new lessons learned. And on top of it all, this challenge would take place during the pandemic.

Top Ten Lessons Learned

Many of us were forced to learn lessons during this pandemic many of which we will retain moving forward. When facilities are taken away from athletes they must learn new ways to train, and I was no different. These new or further developed methods were key to my success in striking the balance in training my body for decathlon and triathlon. Here are some of the lessons I've learned (so far!). There are lessons here for everyone whether you consider yourself an athlete or not. We are ALL athletes.

  1. Micro-dosing: This really is a huge key for masters athletes especially. A smaller training load consistently applied for a longer time will result in big gains, mostly due to decreased injury risk. If you can find a repeatable training week that is fun and you can sustain, you are on your road to success.

  2. Performance: I should add early on that I realistically have to sacrifice a little on performance level in both sports to allow them to coexist in a season. Staying injury free is always the #1 priority. The micro-dosed workouts certainly had a focus on technique and specific strength towards that goal.

  3. Bike Timing: This is the first lesson I learned and that was many years ago when I pulled my hamstring in my very first masters meet. The forward flexion of the cycling posture can result in restricted mobility if not addressed. If you go into sprints or hurdles with limited mobility (especially glutes) you're in trouble. I make sure my bike ride(s) happen immediately after sprint days so as to give myself 4-5 days to loosen up again before the next sprint session.

  4. Bike Intensity: Since a great majority of the running I do is high intensity I use the bike as a chance for some aerobic training keeping my exertion relatively low (zone 1-2) for the 45-60 minute rides.

  5. Run Distance: The easiest way to fit in one longer aerobic run is after that easy ride. Once I was ready, I added a run off the bike (brick) at that same easy intensity, slowly building to 5k.

  6. Swim Training: I've substituted dryland training for swimming before and so I knew it worked. General strength training coupled with swim specific resistance band work allowed me to be comfortable with a 750m swim after only a couple times in the water.

  7. Swim/Throw Timing: Next to the bike/sprint timing, this is the next big key. Swimming tightens the internal rotators, principally the pectoral muscles. Tight pecs for throwers places the rotator cuff at very high risk. There is always a few days between a swim and a throw workout with ongoing mobility work especially for the shoulders.

  8. One Big Day Per Week: Masters athletes simply don't recover as quickly as when we were younger. I have found through years of training for track that once base fitness is in place I was served best by having one big training day a week, usually around 90 minutes in duration. The rest of the week is then focused on active recovery to set up the next big day. Functional strength and easy aerobic work (ie bike) really helped to this end as did three days off or very easy each week. At peak I more or less alternated a triathlon session one weekend with decathlon the next. The tri's usually featured a 400 to 750m swim, 20k bike and 4-5k run, basically, a sprint distance triathlon. Without easy access to the jumps, I tried to ensure my track workouts simulated the conditioning load of a decathlon starting with all the runs and throws plus simulated jumps. I should add that the 'big' days were built slowly to allow for sufficient adaptation.

  9. The Jumps: I find high, long and pole vault to be the hardest on the body and I believe I'm not alone. The explosiveness of takeoff and the impact of landing, especially in long jump, are very demanding. The jumps also require special facilities and at the best of times that makes accessibility a challenge; during a pandemic it was a non-starter. Combine that with the fact the jumps are also the hardest to simulate away from the pits and all you can do is your best. In workouts, including the decathlon simulations, I would work on the run-ups, high skips and pole plants. My aim was again to simulate the overall physical load of the events and this achieved that goal. (Re hurdles, I was fortunate enough to have three training hurdles so there's one challenge I didn't have to face.)

  10. Margin for Error: The final point I'll mention is that decathlon training is much more mentally taxing than triathlon. The injury risk in track is ever present while in triathlon it is much more a cumulative matter. A pulled hamstring, a strained rotator cuff, a tweak of the groin, these are risks faced every workout on the track. The preparation and focus must always be there. Then there's performance. The majority of dec events are highlighted by key one second long movement patterns. If you get them wrong, your result is affected. Triathlon, on the other hand, is just so much easier in this way. Put in the time, look after your body, maintain technique, and all will be well. The pandemic pushed my track season much later this year and I have to admit I have suffered mentally from this load. The element that endurance sport offers that I at times miss is the meditative aspect of a long swim, bike or run.

Unfinished Business

My goal coming into 2021 was to learn to combine triathlon and decathlon training and I'm confident I've succeeded. There is, of course, much more to learn. I'm hoping that someday soon the opportunity will present itself for me to do a decathlon followed soon after by a triathlon, maybe the same week, same weekend, or even the same day!

Posted by Geordie McConnell, Head Coach