The Secrets of Training - How to Remain Injury Free While Improving Performance

author : AMSSM
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Discussions on overload, adaptation, progression and periodization, specificity of training, training at intensity

By Troy M. Smurawa, M.D.
Member AMSSM

The primary goals of a triathlete are to:

  1. Arrive at the starting line healthy and injury-free

  2. Optimized training in order to be in the best shape to meet the demands of the race

  3. Finish the race with a great personal performance AND without injury or illness

  4. Recover from the effects of the race

Over-training, under-training or a poorly planned training program are common errors in a triathlete’s preparation for competition. These errors can lead to injuries and problems during training and race day.


The right preparation and training program is key.  The primary goals of training are:

  1. Improve the body’s ability to supply oxygen and energy to exercising muscles

  2. Increase energy reserves

  3. Strengthen sport-specific muscles

  4. Remove metabolic wastes from muscle tissue

  5. Become more efficient in the specific neuromuscular functions required for running.

There are five principles that apply to training:
Overload, Adaptation, Progression and Periodization, Specificity of Training, Training at Intensity


The principle of OVERLOAD refers to imposing a demand onto the body’s systems and allowing them to adapt to that load. Overload is the stimulation for the body to improve its ability to handle higher levels of training stress. An appropriate level of stress leads to adaptation while non-adaptation occurs from too high of a stress load. Non-adaptation leads to over-training and injuries. The fundamental principle of endurance training is to give the body a tough workout followed by the right amount of rest. A gradual increase in workload, with appropriate rest, stimulates further improvement in conditioning. Gradual increases in duration and intensity will improve endurance, power and strength.


The principle of ADAPTATION refers to the body’s ability to change and adjust to the new demands training imposes. The goals of training adaptation are 1) to increase the workload that can be performed at the same intensity, and 2) to perform the same workload at an increased intensity. Adaptation occurs with both the aerobic and anaerobic systems.

  • Aerobic adaptation is a result of increased oxygen delivery to exercising muscles and improved muscle extraction and utilization of oxygen. The heart and blood vessels become more efficient at pumping and delivering oxygenated blood to muscles. Exercising muscles become more efficient at extracting oxygen from blood and also utilize oxygen better.

  • Anaerobic adaptation is a result of increased muscle fiber strength and recruitment, increased lactic acid tolerance and increased glycogen utilization. Muscles adapt by increasing the ability to utilize glycogen at a higher intensity and slow down the build-up of lactic acid. Muscles increase the ability to tolerate lactic acid at a higher intensity.

The body adapts to increases in training duration, frequency and intensity over time. Short-term adaptation occurs during a specific exercise session. Recovery heart rate is an example of determining if your body has adapted to an exercise interval or session. For those with chronic illness, novice to exercise, or on medications for medical problems with your heart, determine your training heartrate is important and you should determine your exercise tolerance with the consultation of your physician. Long-term adaptation to new training loads usually follows the “two week, two month” rule. It takes your mind and body about two weeks to adjust to the new training stress and about two months for you to fully adapt to the added changes. The body will also adapt throughout longer periods such as a season, a year or years of gradual increases in training.


The principle of PROGRESSION AND PERIODIZATION refers to the gradual build-up and adaptation of the body to a training stress. The progression in training volume and intensity occurs gradually over different periods or cycles of training referred to as periodization. Periodization is the structure of a training program designed to produce a progressive increase in training stress from cycle to cycle. Cycles are divided into weekly, monthly and yearly periods. I break down training periods into microcycles of one week and macrocycles of four weeks.

The progression from week to week or cycle to cycle should not be a steady increase in volume and intensity, but rather should reflect a stair case progression with periods of reduced volume and intensity at certain times during a training period, season or year. This allows the body to have periods of rest to allow recovery and adaptation to the increasing training loads. A common training pattern is to progressively overload the body for the first three weeks with decreasing the volume and intensity the fourth week by about 25 – 50%.

Increases in training volume, duration and intensity should be a gradual increase of 5 to10 % per week. Increases more than 10 % may result in overtraining and injuries. Young or beginner athletes should progressively increase their training volume by only 5 – 10 % per year to allow growth and adaptation to occur effectively. They should focus on technique, form and training principles.


The principle of SPECIFICITY OF TRAINING refers to improving performance in a specific sport by practicing that sport in training. Endurance sports such as running require efficient aerobic and anaerobic metabolism, strength, power and neuromuscular coordination for efficient technique. Running has certain biomechanical and technical requirements to master in order to develop energy – saving efficiency.

The type of training should be similar to the actions and demands experienced in competition. Training should focus on improving performance factors such as technique, aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, strength, recovery, psychological readiness and injury prevention. Early stages of training should focus on aerobic conditioning and technique, then, progress to more sport-specific training such as speed and endurance.

Specificity of training also requires individualization of training. Each athlete needs to identify areas of weaknesses and strengths. Target training specifically at areas of weaknesses. Also, every athlete has limitations to the capacity at which he or she can train or compete. Not every athlete can compete and train at an elite level. Train and compete within your level of skill and abilities.


Training sessions are performed at different levels of intensities in order to achieve a maximum training effect. Too often, athletes do all of their training at a medium intensity, medium duration and medium speed. This type of training will produce minimal improvements in performance. Athletes should train at different intensity levels for each different type of workout. Intensity levels are based upon training heart rate zones that are a certain percentage of maximum heart rate (MHR) or perceived exertion.

The different types of workouts and corresponding intensity training zones are:

  • Overdistance/Aerobic Recovery: 60 – 70% MHR. These sessions are long distances that focus on building aerobic conditioning and endurance or recovery and easy workouts. The training effort should feel comfortable and easy.

  • Intervals: 80 – 90% MHR. The focus on these sessions is to build anaerobic threshold, improve efficiency and practice race pace.

  • Speed: 90 – 100% MHR. Speed workouts are typically track workouts and focus on developing race speed, turnover and neuromuscular coordination.

Perceived exertion and using training heart rate zones are ways to determine training intensity zones. In the next article, I will mention stages of training.

Dr. Troy Smurawa is a sports medicine physician that has many years of experience as a competitive triathlete and runner. Having competed in 5 Ironmans and over 30 marathons, he wanted to offer some recommendations gathered from his athletic and his medical experience as a member of the medical staff for USA Triathlon, and, as a USA Triathlon certified coach.


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date: April 3, 2005


The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) was formed in 1991 to fill a void that has existed in sports medicine from its earliest beginnings. The founders most recognized and expert sports medicine specialists realized that while there are several physician organizations which support sports medicine, there has not been a forum specific for primary care non-surgical sports medicine physicians.



The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) was formed in 1991 to fill a void that has existed in sports medicine from its earliest beginnings. The founders most recognized and expert sports medicine specialists realized that while there are several physician organizations which support sports medicine, there has not been a forum specific for primary care non-surgical sports medicine physicians.


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