Triathlon is a lifestyle and training is a huge part of who you are. You get up early, work out at lunch, and have training equipment in your car. You were recently voted “most likely to not go out because of a morning workout” by your friends and colleagues. You debate lane etiquette on Twitter and have an impressive display of witty bumper stickers. You are a triathlete.
But while all our training constitutes 95 percent of the journey, we train because we race. We don’t judge our year by how well that Open Water Swim went on July 9, rather we remember our races as the place in which we put our fitness to the test and earned a result.
There’s just one problem: Race day is about execution, not fitness.
Unfortunately a great race is made up of a ton of different elements, the intersection of which is the ultimate performance. And while training is important, it’s not the only arbiter of a good race.
If you are on the quest for that elusive outstanding performance, here are Endurance Nation’s top 10 reasons (in no particular order) why you are most likely undermining your own ability to perform at your peak.
1. You Race Too Much
I’m always amazed at just how much the average triathlete competes and it’s not just in triathlons. Fall is filled with long-distance running relays and marathons. Winter is filled with running or winter events like XC skiing, skate skiing or snowshoeing. Springtime brings the eternal quest for a Boston Marathon slot, not to mention any number of early-season cycling races.
And amidst all of this other noise, you’re trying to become a competitive triathlete.
Done correctly, a season full of different events can make you stronger. Since so many of us choose races for social reasons, instead of competitive ones, we are often our own worst enemy. There is simply no way you can be your best in August if you have been racing hard every month since January.
2. You Don’t Prioritize Events
An overflowing race schedule isn’t always the worst thing. In fact, it might be only thing that’s keeping you sane. The real culprit isn’t the volume of races, but rather the fact that there is no prioritization.
It’s totally fine to race eight times between January 1 and March 31. Just make sure that one of those events is your key race, which you intend to taper and target. Focusing on that event will enable you to choose how hard you need to train as well as how hard you can race at all of the other events. In fact, it will let you know whether or not you should do those other events at all.
3. You Start Too Early
If your key race is in August, there’s no reason why you should be racing hard in January. Every season has a progression, regardless of which coaching philosophy you subscribe to. Just be sure to understand the fundamentals of how your fitness will be built and what your responsibilities are in regards to scheduling events.
One of the consequences of participating in such a popular sport is the fact that many events sell out long before race day. Registering early is a requirement, not an option. This early action also brings with it much anxiety, putting beginner athletes in a place where their head is already focused on the next race that is 365 days away.
Training for an event that’s that far away is a recipe for mental and physical breakdown. Do yourself a favor and pick intermediary events that will allow you to build your fitness and maintain your focus, never losing sight of your overall goal for the season.
4. You Don’t Know How to Taper
Training is easy, tapering is hard. Training is something we do every day, some of you several times a day. Tapering is something very few triathletes do. In fact, most triathletes spend the bulk of their seasons training straight through races, using them as organized workouts.
When it comes to actually tapering for performance you most likely don’t have enough data to know what will work for you. Just remember that the goal of tapering is to be 100 percent rested for race day.
Too many athletes say they need “just one more key workout to make sure they’re ready.” That workout is, in fact, their race. This turns the big event into nothing more than a footnote instead of a foot race.
Resting should be easy. The best way to do it is simply to not work out. But most Type A triathletes don’t come with an off switch, and if they do their version of “off” isn’t exactly what their body needs. Remember that no one ever said they were too rested on race day.
Building the right taper takes practice and even some tweaking along the way.
5. You Swim Too Hard On Race Day
Then again, it’s possible to get everything right and still not have your best possible race. Your equipment is good, your fitness is high, you’re mentally ready but then you go out and try to impersonate Michael Phelps on race day.
Sometimes this is caused by an experience, sometimes simply by too much adrenaline. Either way, your body simply can’t handle the work of a super hard swim within the context of the triathlon.
It’s worth spending a few key workouts before your next a race focusing explicitly on race pace swimming. Not to get faster, but rather to dial in that pace so that it becomes the default. While the vast majority of triathlons aren’t won on the swim, many of them are lost there.
6. You Can’t Hit Race Weight
Fitness is one thing, speed is another. While there are many different gradations when it comes to quality of equipmentusually in proportion to how much you’re willing to spend on itthere are some things that money can’t buy. The biggest one on the list: gravity.
Aside from the time you spend in the water, the rest of your time is spent moving your body across land. The larger you are, the more work you have to do. The math is that simple. You’re far better off working to lose 5 pounds then you are spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on a wheel set that will save you 1,000 grams. You’re better off losing 5 pounds then you are locking yourself on your bike trainer for 8 weeks to improve your threshold power.
Weight loss is, of course, extremely relative. Some of us have more to lose than others. Know your body, know your limits, and focus on the things that give you the highest return on investment. Besides, looking really fit and strong on race day offers a secret psychological advantage as well.
7. You Frequently Change Your Training Focus
As a coach, this has to be one of my biggest pet peeves. Back in the day, there was very little information on coaching, workouts or training performance. Now thanks to your smart phone, you’re only seconds away from finding hundreds of articles with training ideas, each one promising better results than the last.
While some people worry about their child’s potential for having Attention Deficit Disorder, many of you suffer from a parallel issue: Training Attention Deficit Disorder.
What starts out as a simple season with the master plan quickly snowballs into doing the workouts your friends are doing. Maybe you find a new article on secret high intensity intervals, and now you’re including those as well. Adding hills to your new training focus: running? Not a problem; that’s in the schedule now too. Everyone is doing a big century ride this weekend, so you cut your intervals and do something else instead.
While there is always new information on what can be more effective, there is no substitute for a consistently implemented program. It usually takes your body anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks to achieve a basic training plateau. Any changes, incremental or otherwise, made during the six-week period will inhibit your body’s ability to adapt and grow.
Next time you find something new and appealing, set it aside for when you revisit your training results, within the context of your master season plan, at the end of one of these phases.
8. You Ignore Your Seasonal / Life Constraints
Regardless of where you live, your athletic world has a season. There’s a time when getting outside to train is feasible and there’s a time when training indoors is deftly recommended. There’s a time and a place for both within the context of improving your fitness. Recognizing this pattern and using it to your advantage can be an incredibly effective way of boosting your fitness for the long term.
Ignore these basic truths about your climate zone or the nature of your job (accountants should never race in March or April!) at your own peril. Every year I hear stories of people trying to accomplish six-hour rides on the trainer because they sign up for an early season race even though they live in New England.
On the flip side, I also hear the grumbling from people who’ve signed up for a late-season race in November or even December long after their friends have stopped training and things have ceased being fun.
One of the most important things you can do is identify this rhythm and build your season around. This will reduce friction both at home and at work, and allow you to build your fitness to peak when it mattersand when your body is ready.
9. You Don’t Recover Well Enough
One of the more amazing things about triathletes is the sheer amount of work and stress they can handle. From work to home to social commitments to volunteer opportunities to training and racing, the list of things to do is both impressive and intimidating. While it’s easy to get caught up in the game of doing more, success in our sport is actually a function of doing things well.
The shift from “more” to “better” has to do with one simple thing: absorption. Anyone can fire up an insane 6 x 1 mile repeat workout after a century ride. The difference between you and someone like Craig Alexander is that he can absorb that work and grow off of it. You and I? We’re lucky if we simply survive, spending the next 3 to 5 days trying to recover.
The most important thing you can do for recovery is to get enough sleep every night. At a minimum you should target an average of 7 hours a day across a week. If you can get 8 hours a night, that’s even better. You’ll want to follow a consistent schedule so that you have adequate time between key sessions each week.
Do your best to avoid overreaching in any individual workout, remember the goal is to be consistent instead of flashy. If you can feel the signs of fatigue setting in, whether it’s in the context of your daily life or work out, take the time to dial things back. It’s always better to rest a day now because it’s good for you then it is to wait until you have a problem and you have no other choice but to fix it.
10. You Don’t Have a Baseline Execution Plan
While this might not be the most important success factor for peaking, it is a critical part of achieving your best. I’m constantly amazed at the sheer number of triathletes who choose to wing it on race day with no plan.
From my experience, the exact opposite would be more effective: minimal fitness but a fantastic race plan. The longer your “A” race of choice, the more relevant this becomes.
This allows you to test your plan against the reality of race, and then learn from what happened. Without a plan, you’re arbitrarily applying your fitness and resources to the race. Even though that might work, there’s minimal opportunity for growth because you have nothing against which to compare your outcomes.
Having a specific plan allows you to incrementally improve it between races until you reach a place where racing itself is more of a habit than an event.