Importance of Base Training and Skill Development for Performance

It is now January, and for most of us this is prime time for starting the base training phase of our triathlon season.  This involves getting back into regular workouts in the swim, bike and run, with focus on building our aerobic systems and improving our skills in all three disciplines.  No matter your ability level, it is important to spend some time every year working on improving your skills – including swim technique, pedal stroke and run biomechanics.  All of these things will ultimately lead to improved economy/less energy expended for a given workout.  I see many athletes start back at training in January full speed ahead, doing hard intervals and trying to hammer out lots of volume again, with little focus on actually improving the way they are performing each sport and without following a properly periodized and focused training schedule.  Aside from improving skills, a proper period of base training is important to be able to build speed and power on top of that as training progresses and racing season approaches.

Here are some ideas and information on improving skills:

The Swim: The swim is one area where most of us do work on drills regularly.   Some common problems we see in triathlete swimmers without a swimming background are crossing over the center line, being tense throughout the recovery portion of the swim stroke, and not taking advantage of the glide.  Some drills to improve these things include:

a. 10 and 2 drill — the hands should enter the water at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock position.  This wider entry will discourage crossing over the center line, allowing for better activation of the latissimus dorsi and pectoralis muscles and will significantly decrease the amount of stressed placed on the rotator cuff muscles in the shoulders.

b. Finger drag drill / Zipper drill — This drill involves dragging the finger tips along the top of the water during the recovery portion of the swim stroke.  The goal of this drill is to encourage relaxation and a high elbow during the recovery portion of the stroke, thus conserving energy, and also to encourage appropriate rotation and body position by maintaining a high elbow as the arm recovers.

c. Catch up and Gliding — The catch up drill involves performing a full stroke with one arm, matching it to the other hand, and then performing a full stroke with other arm, and then repeat.  the catch up drill is great for focussing on the catch and the pull portion of the swim stroke with one arm at a time.  It is also good for developing a 3/4 catch up rhythm in your swim stroke.  Note that a 3/4 catch up stroke works for some people and not for others, and some coach’s will agree that this is an efficient way to swim for most people while other coach’s will disagree.  A 3/4 catch up stroke involves letting one arm recover so that your arm is just past your head before the other arm begins it’s pull.  This rhythm of swimming can improve a swimmer’s rotation as well as help them take advantage of gliding through the water as they wait for the other arm to recover 3/4 of the way.

The Bike: Improved technique on the bike can result in significant increases in power production with the same amount of energy expended, as well as decrease risk of overuse injury.  Cycling technique involves development of an efficient pedal stroke.  For most people, an efficient pedal stroke involves pedaling in “ovals” rather than in circles – or thinking of it as pushing forward over the top of the pedal stroke and then pulling backwards across the bottom of the pedal stroke.  The big muscles of the hips as well as the core should be active and involved.  Some drills and thoughts to practice an cycling technique include:

a. Single leg pedaling — Unclip one shoe and pedal with one leg at a time.  The other leg should be hanging to the side of the bike rather than placed on the trainer in order to increase core muscle activation.  Work on producing power around the entire pedal stroke and taking away any “dead spots”, or spots where there is no power put into the pedal.  Start with 30s of this at a time and work up to 1 minute at a time.  This can easily be incorporated into 10 minutes of your warm up and/or cool down.

b. “Wipe the mud off your shoe” — This is an image to help with pulling backwards across the bottom of the pedal stroke.  Drop the heel and pretend you are trying to wipe the heel of your shoe on the floor as you pull backwards.  This will help to engage the hamstrings and glute muscles.

c. “Kick forward across the top” — As you go over the top of the pedal stroke imagine you are kicking your leg forward.  This will help to maintain power as you go through this portion of the pedal stroke, continuing to encourage activation of the hip muscles.

The Run: Running is not just taking one step after another – to be a fast, healthy and efficient runner, there is a lot of technique involved.  It is a good idea for most athletes to get a running gait analysis done by a licensed Chiropractor or Physical Therapist to look for any technique deficiencies and/or anything that could predispose them to injuring themselves over time.  This is something that we do regularly on athletes at Absolute Endurance.  This is the best time of year to have this done, as you are just getting back into training and starting to build up fitness again.  That said, strides are a great thing to start integrating into your runs.  Strides are 20-30s pieces done at a faster pace (1 mile to 5km race pace) to work on quick leg turnover as well as other specific pieces of running form.  I would recommend incorporating 5-6 strides into 1 to 2 runs per week.  There are many other drills for running form, but I recommend getting your run biomechanics looked at first so you can identify your deficiencies and come up with a program of drills and exercises that make sense for you.

As suggested at the beginning of this article, base training and skill development in all three sports is ultra important this time of year if you are looking to improve your performance in triathlon or in any of the three sports individually.  Along with this, a properly periodized training program that guides you from the present right through race day of your last “A” race of the season is important to maximize your chances of becoming the fittest, fastest and healthiest athlete you can be in 2013.

Any questions on training, coaching, or all else related to triathlon can be directed to or

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