Elite triathletes are amazing people. The speeds at which they are able to swim, bike and run and the distances over which they are able to sustain these speeds are truly mindboggling. For this reason, following their performances and accomplishments can be inspiring. We are wowed and encouraged by their drive and performance to get out there and try to be our best as well. For the most part this is great, however, when the inspiration leads to imitation, it can get us in trouble. This is because the choices that they make do not always make sense when taken out of context. Here are some examples.
Train or race injured
If you are an elite athlete, your world, self-worth and livelihood are often determined by your performance at a few key events throughout the year. Want to go to the Olympics? Well, you better do well at the qualifying races. Want to be world champion? Well, there’s only one day a year where you can try to do that. For people with such high stakes attached to their performance on a given date, it can make a lot of (short-term) sense to train and race through injury in order to peak at the right time. Risking long-term negative performance, or health consequences, might even be deemed acceptable. I believe that the calculus is different for amateurs. We want to be in this for the long haul, doing races, and enjoying them, year after year and trade-offs that compromise this goal are probably not worth it.
Sweat ALL the small stuff
Laboratory-based VO2max testing? Check. Altitude beds? Check. Flying across the continent for wind tunnel testing? Check. Personalized rehydration mixes developed based on laboratory sweat tests? Check, check and check.
These, and more, are some of the examples of details that elite athletes pay attention to in their training and race prep. Do these things matter to them? Yup, when you’ve already achieved 95 per cent of what you are capable, and your success depends on getting that last 5 per cent right, then you leave no stone unturned. Unfortunately, turning over these metaphorical stones requires financial resources, physical effort and, most importantly, time. For many amateurs I believe it is not worth it to sweat over the last 5 per cent. It can be just as demanding to get that last 5 per cent right as it is to get the first 95 per cent. Focus on doing the 95 per cent right and you’ll see much higher returns for your time investment.
Push to the limits in training on a regular basis
If you follow the exploits of any elite athletes, you are probably familiar with the incredible workouts they are able to complete. What is also amazing is the frequency with which they are able to do them. What we don’t see is the amount of work that goes into recovering from these training sessions. This recovery happens in the form of many small things – long sleep, regular naps during the day, dialed-in nutrition plans, regular professional massage and physical therapy and more. Many elite athletes also have the ability to really relax and put their feet up between training sessions – the training IS their job, not something they do before they go in and put in an extra eight-hour day. If you can’t also put this much effort into your recovery, then you shouldn’t train as hard as these athletes do either. Training without recovery just leads to burnout, not improved performance.
Overall, while we can learn a lot, and gain a lot of inspiration from watching what the best of the best in our sport can do, that doesn’t mean that we should try to do it all ourselves. Keep their actions in context and keep your training goals in perspective.
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.