THOUGH I CONSIDER myself an athlete, I've never followed a disciplined training regimen. Mileage, heart rate, lactate threshold—these are things that turn sport into work. So when I decided this past winter to sign up for the New York City Triathlon, an Olympic-distance event (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run), it was with some trepidation. Besides being notorious gluttons for pain, triathletes have a reputation for being numbers-and-gadgets junkies. And they are. I saw for myself when I began training with Cadence Cycling & Multisport, a Philadelphia-based group that expanded into Manhattan last year. The coaching staff includes pro triathletes and cyclists, and Cadence's swank Tribeca facility is outfitted with enough carbon fiber and blinking, bleeping computers to design the next bionic man.
At first, I did exactly what my coaches prescribed. I attended indoor cycling classes and fixated on my pedaling cadence. I wore a heart-rate monitor on runs. But about a month in, just as I was turning into that guy who takes over dinner-party conversations with lectures on training zones, I caught myself. Looking over notes from an early session with my swimming coach, I saw a quote I'd scribbled down: "The numbers are great, but you can also feel what your body is going through."
That seems pretty obvious, but it's easy to forget when you're toggling through settings on your power meter. For me, it immediately became a reassuring mantra: Train by feel. This meant sometimes leaving the heart-rate monitor in a drawer, or running even if my daily coaching e-mail said to bike, or just sleeping in and watching the game no matter what.
So I slacked off a little. Or a lot. But you know what? My program worked. By week nine, I was feeling downright awesome. On one gorgeous Sunday, I went for a five-mile run in Central Park, then biked an hour over to Brooklyn. I woke up the next day feeling strong, so I ran two miles to the pool, swam for 30 minutes, and ran home. Then I biked the 20 minutes to work.
Surprisingly, my coaches supported my method. Mikael Hanson, Cadence's triathlon guru in New York, suggested I focus on simple principles ("to race faster, you gotta train faster"). The result was a fluid program that became part of my everyday life. I was exercising up to ten hours a week, but on my terms.
This, it turns out, is the open secret of triathlon training: It doesn't have to be agonizing to work. In fact, follow the simple stages laid out here and it's actually kind of easy. Take it from me: I've got just over six weeks until my first race, and I'm going to cut today's ride 20 minutes short so I can catch Iron Man. And I still feel awesome.