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  • Christopher Breen

The 3 E's of Triathlon Success: Efficiency, Effectiveness, Essentialism.

The Rules of E — efficiency, effectiveness and essentialism — can be applied to anything we do in life in order to be more productive. Here’s how we can apply it to swim, bike and run.


It is essential that in each sport we perform we do it in the most efficient way possible. In exercise physiology we use the term economy. According to exercise physiologists Jack Wilmore and David Costill, as you become more skillful at performing an exercise your energy demands for that given exercise are decreased. Therefore, by improving our economy we become more efficient and can go faster at the same effort.

Many different factors can impact our economy — some we can improve upon and some we cannot. However, they all revolve around our biomechanics (the way we move). Genetics plays a role in our biomechanics but we cannot change this. Neuromuscular coordination also plays a role in biomechanics and this we can improve upon. The more efficiently we coordinate our muscle contractions, the less energy we use and hence the more economical we are. In swimming, working on specific technique flaws through purposeful, individualized drills allows us to do just that. In cycling, we must not forget drills as well. Many athletes don’t think of drills when it comes to cycling, but if you consider how long we are riding in relation to the rest of the race, we stand to obtain great benefits in race performance if we improve upon our cycling economy. Drills to be incorporated in order to improve neuromuscular coordination are single-leg drills and increased cadence pick-ups. Our body/bike relationship is essential when it comes to economy. If we are not comfortable, we will not be economical. It seems one cannot read any piece of triathlon advice that does not recommend a bike fit and consider this my recommendation as well. Our equipment choices (e.g. helmet, kit, bottle placement) all contribute as well, but it starts with our bodies. If we do not take the time to get our bodies moving more economically and therefore more efficiently, we are literally wasting money and losing time.

Since running is the sport with the most likelihood of injury, we also decrease our risk of injury by improving our economy. Proper technique stems from good posture and a high cadence. The former can be obtained by having a friend video you running and going back to work on flaws you see. The latter is simply obtained by counting how many times one foot strikes the ground in one minute and multiplying it by two. Efficient runners generally have about 180 foot strikes per minute. For each sport having a base of both functional and traditional strength will improve economy. By focusing and strengthening the smaller, ancillary muscles we minimize injury and help to balance our bodies, which helps improve our biomechanics and economy. This is performed by incorporating exercises such as plyometrics, multi-joint exercises and therapeutic exercises that focus on balance and injury prevention.


Effectiveness is defined as the degree that something is successful in producing a desired result. In this regard, effectiveness applies to our individualized training sessions. There is a time and place for general exercising, but when it comes to our season, there should be a goal behind each block of workouts we perform and more specifically each individual workout as well. As we perform that workout we should be asking ourselves if we’re successful in producing our desired result for that given workout. Let’s say for example on a given Saturday in an athlete’s build period, his or her coach has prescribed an aerobic bike session for 4 hours. Two days prior, the athlete did an anaerobic interval ride. This athlete decided because of the length of the workout to join the group ride for some company. Quickly into the ride the athlete finds himself pushing to keep up with the group. The athlete winds up getting dropped and pushing hard to catch up with the group at the next red light. The athlete gets a short 5-second rest and sets off to push the next “interval.” The ride continues to play out this way for the next 2 hours until the group ends their ride. The athlete now finds himself in a recovery ride for the next 2 hours of the 4-hour ride. As you can see this athlete was clearly not effective in producing his desired result for that particular training session. The athlete might not have spent any time in an aerobic zone, which was the goal of the workout. Going forward he or she might not be effective for the given workout the following day as well if unable to recover from two hard sessions within 48 hours of each other. In order to progress and adapt to our training stimulus we must make sure we are effective in our given training sessions. If we sabotage one workout, we set ourselves up to sabotage future sessions as well. Each workout should produce a desired result and only if we are successful in producing this result will we be effective in racing up to our potential.


Now essentialism is defined in the Oxford dictionary as a belief that things have a set of characteristics which make them what they are, and that the task of science and philosophy is their discovery and expression. You might be thinking this is too deep and what does this have to do with the sport of triathlon, but it is actually quite simple. If you look at triathlon as the “thing” and as “characteristics” as specific attributes that help you function as a triathlete, you can quickly surmise how essentialism is needed for you to be a successful triathlete. There are many attributes needed for success in the sport. Within ourselves attributes such as health, dedication and motivation are essential to becoming a successful triathlete. Outside factors such as a supportive family and friends, a trusted coach and physiotherapist are essential to becoming a successful triathlete. Every athlete should look deep at what attributes contribute to their own successes. Some as I mentioned above are universal, others may not be. A challenged athlete who competes with a prosthesis might list their prosthetist as an attribute. You see essentialism, just like economy and effectiveness, is very individualized. It is imperative that we take a look at ourselves and focus on our attributes in order to improve upon our successes as a triathlete.

Originally published for USA Triathon's Multisport Zone May 22, 2017


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