Photo Credit: Wesley Xie
Even though I race as a Professional Triathlete and have coached for 9 years, it is not hard to remember the mistakes I made when I was first starting out as a triathlete. I came from a wrestling background where the mentality was that very hard, all-out work paid off. I treated those first triathlon workouts as if I were on the wrestling mat. I attacked the water and road, pushing as hard as I could for as long as I could.
I only kept up that intensity for a few weeks before my body started to break down. Eventually, I got injured. At that point, I started to look into basic triathlon training principles and eventually hired a coach. In hindsight, my mistakes are very clear. Here are four mistakes that I made which you can avoid.
Mistake #1: Going Too Hard Too Soon
The first mistake I made was that I went too hard, too soon.
While training for a sprint distance triathlon, I would go out for a 3 mile run or 750 meter swim and do it all at race pace. This tired me out and inevitably left me with a calf injury because I overloaded my body too quickly.
As an experienced athlete and coach, I have come to understand that we must build the body up slowly and steadily to get the best results on race day. This usually means beginning with very easy and short aerobic work (think 20-40 minute runs, 45 minutes swims and bikes) at a perceived effort of 5 out of 10. After the body settles into the program and gets stronger, I use the 10% rule to add mileage or intensity.
It is important to remember that no one workout makes you a better triathlete, it is the cumulative load that builds over time and supports great performances. My advice is to build slowly and conservatively. You can always do more at a later time, but if you do too much too soon, you are going to find yourself burnt out and injured.
Mistake #2: Expecting Daily Workout Gains
A second mistake I made early on had to do with my expectations. I expected to see better results during every workout.
So, if I ran an 8 minute mile pace for 3 miles on Monday, I expected to run 7:55 pace for my next 3 mile run on Wednesday. I thought that I would just continue to improve if I stuck to this type of training. I kept building and building until my body broke. As an experienced athlete and coach, I have come to understand that the body doesn’t work in this way. If we keep forcing PR’s during every workout, we will overload our muscle tissue and bone structure too quickly, which often leads to injury.
It is also possible to compromise the immune system which can lead to sickness. I learned that to train effectively, we need to look at the body from a biological standpoint. We don’t need to get overly complicated, but athletes need to understand that the body has three main energy systems (phosphocreatine system, the aerobic system, and the anaerobic system). We can use this knowledge to target each system at the right times to produce great results.
In endurance sports, we need a strong aerobic system in order to build the foundation by which fast racing is supported. This means that we need to spend a lot of time doing long slow distance miles to get the physical adaptions (increased mitochondria, increased oxygen affinity for example) that allow us to go long and fast on race day.
My advice is to treat workouts as the building blocks for race day success. Expect most of your training to feel and be mediocre compared to your workout PR’s. If a PR comes, enjoy it, but don’t force it. Trust in the process and you will continue to get better in the long term.
Mistake #3: Never Changing the Intensity
A year or two after I got into triathlon, I started to use a HR monitor. I then focused all my attention on aerobic training. If I was riding my bike, I averaged 154. If I ran, I averaged 164. I didn’t do any speed work on the track and I didn’t do very much recovery work either. I did this for about 2 years straight. This style of training helped me develop a very powerful aerobic engine, but it did not maximize my ability to perform on race day.
As an experienced athlete and coach, I now understand the power of variation. Once I began to change my effort and speed and worked on developing my neuromuscular ability and anaerobic engine, I saw huge improvements in performance.
Experienced athletes know how important it is to work all systems all of the time. They may spend more time on one system during particular periods, like a lot of aerobic training in the “base” period, but these athletes will still do short pick-ups, tempo runs, and hill workouts that enhance the bodies’ ability to perform on race day.
My advice is to avoid getting caught doing the same thing over and over again for more than 6 weeks. Change up the intensity, duration, and distribution from day to day, month to month, and year to year. The body will respond very well to variation in training. A good coach with experience will know when to stay the course and when to change things up.
Mistake #4: Misunderstanding the Power of the Off Season
As a beginner, I took the off season off. By that, I mean I would take 4 months off of any sort of structured training. I didn’t just sit on the couch, but I also didn’t work on improving any aspect of my sport either.
I now understand that the things you do in the off season, or non-race season as I like to call it, matter. The difference between doing non-structured training and structured training during the winter time helped me drop over an hour and fifteen minutes from my first ironman to my second. I have found that you can use this time in many ways. Some years I work on my weakness by doing a 6 week block of swimming. Other years I will take a more balanced triathlon approach and really try to improve my aerobic capacity or my muscular strength across all three sports.
My advice for beginners is to take two weeks off of structured training to allow your body and mind to reset. Then, set goals and get to work improving one overarching aspect of your endurance sport performance by doing a single sport block or fitness directed focus (strength, speed, endurance). In the final 12 weeks leading up to your race, start to include race specific work that addresses the course and competition demands that you will confront on the day of your race.
Take these four pieces of advice into account and you will set yourself up for a great 2017 triathlon season!