It begins with consistency, just like with most improvements in fitness. If you're like me, you came into tri with no previous background in sport (and if you're not like me, most of this series probably won't help you anyway), which means no athletic base to speak of. Any working out you do when you're just getting started will be beneficial, so try to do something every day, even if it's not swimming, biking, or running. Maybe try a group fitness class like cycling or kickboxing. I remember the first year I was training (junior year of college), and I was starting to really think that I could handle anything that fell within the realm of "cardio." One of my friends from my a cappella group invited me to her cardio kickboxing class. And for some reason, I thought it would be easy (surely it wouldn't hold a candle to a transition run). I got my ass kicked.
So I did the class a few more times.
In terms of training principles, the kickboxing class wasn't specific to what I wanted to accomplish. It wasn't swimming, biking, or running. It wasn't the appropriate intensity to get me the aerobic base (zone 2, anyone?) that I most needed at that stage in my training; my heart rate was through the roof the whole time. Those classes didn't fit into my training in any way that The Triathlete's Training Bible would suggest. But doing those classes gave me a confidence that I wouldn't otherwise have had; yes--I really could make it through 45 minutes of cardio hell.
Point is, when you're just starting, it's not so important what you do as just doing it. If you have time to get in a two-hour ride on Saturday morning, great. If you oversleep and miss that two-hour window but you can hit a spinning class later in the day, then do that. The spinning class won't be as specific to triathlon (and therefore less effective than getting out on your bike), but it's still good.
Another aspect of consistency is maintenance. If you're consistent for a month and then lose it, you're not going to see the improvement you want. Through most of my first two years in the sport, my running was especially inconsistent. I would start the season with the best of intentions, with three runs a week. Two months into my training plan, the only workout I was still hitting consistently was a weekly track workout--no long run, no tempo run, no easy run, no group run . . . and then I wondered why I wasn't seeing as much improvement in my run as my teammates.
A lot of maintaining that kind of consistency--hitting all of the workouts you want to do, week in and week out--has more to do with fun than with motivation. If you're looking forward to that 4-mile run, you're much more likely to get out and do it! How do you make workouts more fun? Easiest way is to do them with other people. Find a training group in your area. Even if it's runners or cyclists (as opposed to triathletes), find a group and start working your way into their workouts. Be sure, however, that you find athletes who are of similar abilities; running alone because you got dropped by the rest of the group after 5 minutes will be even less fun than running alone would have been.
So here's a quick run-down of how to improve your speed with consistency:
- Do something every day, even if it's not swimming, biking, or running (taking one day off per week is fine).
- Stay consistent day-to-day, week-to-week by hitting all of your scheduled workouts (even if "scheduled" is just in your head, not on a fancy-schmancy training plan).
- Find a group workout or two to help you hit your goal workouts.