Triathlon attracts a diverse range of athletes to sport. Some people are drawn to the challenge of the event, some find that training so many sports keeps things fresh, while others enjoy the social contact that comes from being a part of their local club. But one thing that is common to all types of triathletes is the training. Unlike many other sports, triathletes spend substantially more time training than they do competing. Many people I know who call themselves triathletes barely race at all. This is totally fine – in my opinion you do not need to race to be considered a “real” triathlete.
Combine the fact that training is so much a part of triathlon with the fact that there are often long stretches between races, then add in a bit of winter doldrums, and the training in and of itself can become the end goal. On the surface this might not seem bad. If you want to get better you need to train, and if you enjoy training, why not do more of it? It seems like a win-win! And as I mention above, this might not be bad – training can be fun and rewarding in and of itself.
However, when we layer on more and more training to help us achieve our goals, we can get into trouble. To understand why, let’s take a look at one of the key principles of training – adaptation. This principle states that the physiology of the body changes in response to the stress of exercise. This means that the next time you can either do more work, or do the same work while experiencing less stress. This makes sense, and is likely something that you have experienced. The problem is that many athletes forget that adaptation takes time. If you exercise without giving the body this time, then you end up impeding the positive adaptation, and your training does nothing for you.
What is the solution to this?
- Balance your training with recovery. This means that for each training session you need to have a period of recovery, from several hours, to a day or more. Exactly how long will depend on (among other things) the nature of the session and how acclimated you are to the training you are doing. During this recovery period you need to eat, rest (i.e. sleep or otherwise relax) and drink fluids. Some active recovery (foam rolling, yoga, massage etc.) is also good but does NOT replace the need for passive rest.
- Just let it go if you miss a workout. I’ve written about this before, but “stacking” missed workouts together is one of the cardinal sins of the age-group athlete. I get, it – life is busy and our calendar isn’t always under our control. Unfortunately, putting all those missed sessions onto one day does more harm than good.
- Take the long view on your training. The best way to see progress in triathlon is by training continuously and regularly for extended lengths of time. It takes top-level athletes years of steady, consistent training to achieve their potential. Training without allowing your body to recover from your sessions can lead to burnout, overtraining and increased risk of injury. Any of these are serious impediments to achieving the consistency needed to maximize your long-term progress.
So, go out and do those hard sessions and enjoy your training. But then take a break, rest, refuel and recover. Enjoy those spaces between training sessions, because it’s only during the recovery that your body is actually getting better. And, hey, now the next time you’re sitting on the couch streaming a show after a hard session you can tell yourself what you’re really doing is getting faster!
Darian Silk is a triathlon coach and Clinical Exercise Physiologist based in Toronto. Read more about Darian here or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out his TrainingPeaks profile here.