Adaptation: Are we thinking about it enough, or are we just going through the motions? By Phil Muprhy

“Adaptation – the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment.”

Ask yourself this…When is the last time I saw my swim times really come down in the pool? My bike power really move up a notch on the turbo? Or, my run times in an interval session really hit an all time high?

Surely with all the training most committed triathletes are doing we should be seeing continual improvement throughout the training cycle. Ok, so it might not be a PB day every day of course but over the course of weeks and months your performance must improve. Otherwise all the effort simply hasn’t been worth it.

A harsh reality maybe, but one that addressed properly will see you start to move forward again. This situation arises typically with intermediate to advanced level athletes who have already had the gains going from couch potato to a triathlete in regular training and then over time see progress slow and the dreaded “plateau” set in.


To start with you need to look at the possibility that the type of training you are doing needs shaking up and moving on. If you constantly supply the body with one type of stimulus it will get used to it and in the end it will plateau and progression will cease or slow down at least. A proper training plan over the course of a season should have emphasis on improving certain aspects of all three sports and triathlon performance on the whole at differing times – simply called periodisation. These “periods” of training allow for you to focus on making gains in certain areas at the right time in by the fact they change every 4 – 12 weeks stop any stagnation of training stimulus happening. The mistake a lot of athletes make is always trying to keep all aspects of each sport going well at all times of the year e.g. if you are in a power phase on the bike, then maybe your endurance rides have to be scaled back or done less frequently or if you are improving strength in the gym then commit to it fully, knowing that sessions in the following days may feel slow and sluggish as your body becomes stronger from the gym work. In the last example, you will eventually adapt to the gym work and be able to perform the day after as well – it is at this point that adaptation has occurred and it will be time think about changing the type of training again to take the new found strength in to your overall triathlon performance. This theory can be and should be applied to all periods of your training plan.

Most athletes, coached or self-coached, do follow a periodised plan of sorts but still a lot of them reach a plateau and it is those who get here and manage to break through this that really start to unlock their true potential. For most it comes down to two things: 1. How hard are you really training? and 2. How hard are you really recovering?

Both of these are equally important but the more you get number 1 right, the more you need to get number 2  right. Most athletes think they train hard and if you are measuring this by TSS (Training Stress Score, a metric in training peaks that we use to coach our athletes) or hours trained or simply by how tired you feel then there is probably an area you are overlooking…Intensity.


Now this is not to say that we should all be blowing our brains out with zone 5 workouts every day but rather getting the balance of intensity right in the prescribed sessions we are doing. Training Peaks uses a metric called IF (Intensity Factor) to monitor this and one thing we always notice is that there is just not enough daylight between the easy/steady workouts and the hard/very hard workouts.

As an example, take a steady endurance ride, which might be a supporting session,  should be somewhere in the 60-70% (0.6-0.7 IF) of your 1 hour max (or FTP) but we often see athletes pushing too hard in these session and coming back at 75-80% and feeling exhausted the next day. This then has a knock on effect to a session a few days later which might be 10 x 6 mins HARD with 3 minute recoveries steady. The athlete who has ridden their long ride too hard then falls short of the, lets say 90% (0.9 IF) that that session was supposed to produce.

Simply put, do the easy stuff easy and the hard stuff VERY hard (A note here – hard does not always mean short and very high intensity, some very hard sessions can be long at slightly lower intensities. It all depends on what part of your periodised plan you are in).

I have used bike sessions as an example but the same applies in both swim and most certainly run where we see most athletes doing their easy running too fast.


The final part of this and the point at which all “adaptation” takes place is the recovery phase. If you are getting the intensity right in training you should be able to do the same, if not more volume than before, and with a wider variation in your intensity you speed should improve but only if the right amount of recovery is applied for the given amount of stress. At Total Tri we measure these figures using TSS and this is converted in to the performance management chart which can monitor fatigue for the athlete along with other metrics such as HRV (heart rate variability), but it is still no substitute for making decisions based on how you feel. The data we have just helps back up these feelings and make decisions.  Feeling tired is fine and natural, but getting the balance right between periods of stress and periods of rest is imperative to adaptation.


Taking away fancy metrics and data these few steps should be enough to help you recover faster and therefore adapt better:

Sleep –  This being the most important for many and the one that our busy modern lives leave us short on.  It is during sleep that the repair from training goes on and the quality and duration of your sleep can totally change the way you adapt to training. It is in this part of the day that you actually become fitter and stronger as the hormones released during sleep allow your body (and mind) to heal.

  • Try to sleep 7-9 hours a night.
  • Focus on winding down an hour before bed and turning off technology.
  • Get the room the right temperature
  • Get in to and stay in a routine of when you go to sleep and when you wake. Strike a good healthy balance between work nights and the weekend trying to not let the times you sleep differ by much more than an hour either way
  • If alcohol effects your sleep then try to avoid it as often as possible. Caffiene should be avoided after mid afternoon.

Stress – we all have plenty of this to deal with in life these days and some of it is unavoidable. It is all about how you view stressful situations. The best amongst us view these situations as a challenge and relish them. They can make very clear decisions about what really matters in life and is worth their mental energy to sort out, and everything else is like water off a ducks back.

Nutrition – eat the best quality you can. Too much of our food is heavily processed or mass produced with chemicals and antibiotics which put huge stress on our systems.  Away from training avoid refined sugars as much as possible. It is just a dessert…. Get over it!

Mid Season Break – It takes a brave athlete to take time out to freshen up but if you start racing in March and plan on still going well at an Autumn race this is exactly what you need to do. It may feel like you are losing fitness but the reality is that when you start back your body will respond very well to the training stimulus. If you can’t cope with doing nothing for 1-2 weeks then limit exercise to light, non-tri specific 30 minute sessions

Fun – Make sure that the sport you spend so much time doing is fun and not a chore. Train in groups to make it more social, even once a week will make that session one to look forward to. Let the sport take you to new places, a training camp, or just find a new trail to run, or swimming in the sea somewhere new on holiday. These are the times that you will remember and making it all fun will relax your mind state to allow for better recovery.

Minimise to Maximise – Take away the non-important things in life to free up time for what really matters most to you.

In summary use these guidelines to asses how effective your current strategies for training and recovery are, and make sure that going forward you “adapt” to your training with maximum effect.

By Coach Phil Murphy.

Phil Murphy is one of the coaches within Total Tri Training. Coming from a background of top level bike racing he has had multiple Challenge and Ironman podium results along with both 70.3 and Ironman World Championship finishes to his credit. He also has helped athletes to overall and age group victories at all distances and levels of racing as well as many others who simply wanted to be the “best they could be”. You can find out more about Phil or any of our coaching staff at

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