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The Five Elements. 1 - Physiology

There are five elements which I believe are at the heart of performance and each has its role to play in contributing to an athlete’s success: Physiology, psychology, technical and neuro-muscular strength, tactical understanding and finally an athlete’s lifestyle. Over the next five blogs I’ll briefly introduce my reasons for including each one of the five elements, some will of course, be obvious, whilst others less so.

Element 1 – Physiology

First up; Physiology. Why is it first? Well, it’s probably the element that for the majority of people receives the most attention.

We all know triathlon is fundamentally an aerobic sport. It’s why we put in those hours of lower intensity training, to improve our oxygen uptake, our cardiac output, our oxygen transfer and our fat metabolism. The greater these physiological factors, the greater potential we have to perform. However, to get fast, you also need to train fast and this brings in the anaerobic side of training where lactate metabolism has a big part to play. So now it’s important to know how to balance both the aerobic and anaerobic training, to understand what intensity we can describe as ?‘aerobic’ training and what intensity we can describe as?‘anaerobic’ training and where these intensity boundaries lie. It is important to know an athlete’s individual physiological strengths and weaknesses and, finally, it’s important to know then how to piece together a programme that appropriately develops that athlete based on their own strengths and weaknesses. It is for these reasons (and a few others I’ll come to in the psychology section) that testing has a place in most athletes training programmes. It’s the sanity check where we make sure what we are doing is working. For the majority of the time, physiological training is about getting the work done in the right training zone at the right time while also remembering that humans are complex systems and physiological development does not occur in a straight line (just because you did 10 x 400 in 75’’ with 45’’ recovery last week does not mean you must be able to do 11 the next week and 12 the week after).

Training zones are described in many ways; through lactate thresholds, percentage of VO2 max, through heart rate zones and beats below maximum, through power developed or the pace that results from this work. Triathlon is known for being a sport that has a bit of an obsession with measurements, data and the correct zones. This results in hundreds of gadgets that which are able to measure and dictate with ease just how hard you are working. While I see some value in most training aids - , and I have tried many - , I still have to confess to only really liking them when used with the intention of assisting in learning more about our own bodies and with the ultimate aim of reducing reliance and obsession on the numbers they produce.

You might think this is slightly odd in the context of my initial training - as a scientist; I have three science degrees - however, I’m still not convinced that many of the measurements and training aids have the outright importance that some would believe. That's not to say they don't have relevance, they often do but it's contextual, use the appropriate value at the appropriate time. Very early on in my Exercise Physiology MSc we learnt that 220 minus age has a very surprising background and its use has been somewhat questioned (1.). More recently the confusing array of 25 concepts for lactate thresholds have been demonstrated (2.); including LT1, LT2, aerobic threshold, ventilatory threshold, maximum lactate steady state, and so on and on. All this makes for an interesting discussion area but one with the potential for great confusion. However, what matters to me most is how these concepts are interpreted and perceived; I try to keep it as simple as possible.

While applying a variety of training methods at intensities relative to two key lactate boundaries (which can be measured in a variety of ways - more on this in later blogs), it’s my belief as a coach, it is also important to understand the perceived level of effort athletes are putting in and look to combine both the prescribed stimuli and the perceived effort. My understanding comes about through observation and discussion whilst I also encourage athletes to improve their understanding through listening to their body combined with, but not reliant on, the use of, technology. I’ve spent the last 15 years trying to train my eye to observe these behaviours and responses and will continue to do this with every athlete I work with because for me, physiology is not purely a numbers game.

So this blog has described physiology as one of the five elements and it’s fundamental importance to progress and performance. Alongside this we can have great conversation around the benefits and pitfalls of all the different ideas to improve our physiology. Next up, element number 2. - Psychology.


  1. Robergs R. and Landwehr R. (2002). The Surprising History of the ‘’HRmax=220-age’’ Equation. Journal of Exercise Physiology online 5; (2).

  2. Faude O, et al., (2009). Lactate Threshold Concepts. How Valid are They? Sports Medicine 39 (6), 469-490.

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