Athletes are always looking for that THING that is going to take their performance to the next level. I know, I’ve been there. You try to lose weight to race lighter and faster, but it’s HARD. Then you read something in a magazine that says, “breakthrough study shows…” and you think you have finally found that THING that is going to get you to where you have always wanted to be. Or you read about someone who became a top professional athlete 2 years after their introduction to racing and you think if you just have THEIR plan or THEIR coach, that’s all you need. Unfortunately fad diets and trying to hire the “it” coach are actions that are rarely going to lead you to your best self or your best performance.
So what do you do if you find yourself hitting a plateau or not progressing the way you’d like? It’s starts by looking at your training and being honest with yourself about where you are. Here are the top 5 most common mistakes I see athletes make (all of which I have made!) and what you can do to avoid the pitfalls that trip up so many athletes in our sport!
- Ignore your best workout results! Wait, what?? But that long run where I CRUSHED my prescribed pace or that long ride where I held Ironman watts for 5 hours… aren’t those the workouts that show that I am READY to race at my best? No. Yes, you can have great workouts here and there that can give you confidence, but your most successful race day will ultimately result from an aggregate of a lot of solid work over a long period of time. Consistency is key and to maintain it you have to stay healthy and be able to stack a lot of good work week after week. Get your confidence going into race day from a lot of green boxes in Training Peaks and a steady build of your training volume over time.
- Ignore ANY fad diets! I see this so much and it makes me crazy – athletes are fasting, using juice cleanses, or completely cutting out all carbohydrates. The very best thing an athlete can do to stay lean and not race with extra weight is to eat a well balanced diet that is heavy on protein and vegetables. I actually think Michael Pollan (Author of In Defense of Food) said it best when he said the key to healthy eating is “eat real food, not too much, mostly plants”. Yes there are things you can do to help performance within this maxim, like nutrient timing, increasing your protein intake, and drinking plenty of electrolytes, but in general I think we make proper nutrition too complicated. This nutrition strategy isn’t sexy, but it’s HEALTHY and sustainable. (Or consistency in nutrition, perhaps?). You might not get skinny, but chances are if eating real food in the right quantities doesn’t make you skinny, you aren’t destined to be skinny. Focus on being strong instead!
- Quit ignoring the low and slow aerobic base building. Fitting triathlon training into life is tough. There are only so many hours in the day and in addition to your swim, bike, run, strength, and mobility, you also probably have a full-time job and a family. So when you are stretched for time, it’s easy to want to focus on the high intensity work that makes you feel like you are really getting fast or fit. Yes there is always a place for high intensity work, but it should play a small roll in your weekly routine. If you want to race well, at least at the 70.3 or 140.6 distance, you need awesome aerobic fitness and always going anaerobic isn’t going to get you there. If you have ever felt really strong to start a race (and not like you were pushing THAT hard) but quickly found that you were gassed and your performance basically fell off a cliff, you probably don’t have the aerobic fitness you need. Make sure your weekly routine incorporates REALLY slow runs (like almost painfully slow). These will help you build your aerobic fitness, get more miles on your legs, but won’t tear your body down like faster runs. For your longest rides, don’t worry too much about holding a specific power or pace in the early months. JUST GET IN THE TIME AND MILES. Keeping your HR low will help you build that aerobic base and over time you can increase the intensity.
- Repeat sessions to track your progress. Each athlete is different and some types of training just won’t work for you. I fell into the trap of thinking I was progressing because I was working my tail off. But I never repeated the same workout to really test my fitness. My favorite run benchmark workout is to get a long warmup and then to run 3-6 miles at a specific HR (about 70-80% effort). If you repeat this workout every 4-6 weeks you should hold the same HR, but see 2 things: 1. Your overall average pace should get faster and 2. There shouldn’t be much drop off in speed from your first to your last mile at the same HR. If you find after a couple of months that your pace is getting slower or isn’t changing at all, you might need to shake up your training a bit.
- Create a detailed race plan that is actually based on your numbers training. We triathletes can put so much time and energy into our training, it’s sometimes astonishing how little preparation goes into the actual race day. A detailed race plan should be written AT LEAST a week before race day. It should include exactly what you plan to eat before and during the race (nutrition that you should have practiced in training), how you will approach each leg of the race (i.e. where you will line up for the swim, are there areas of the bike where you’ll ride a big stronger or back off, etc..), and what heart rate, power, and pace you plan to follow. These metrics should be based on your training and should focus primarily on your heart rate since that’s the purest measure of how hard your body is working. Once you have your race plan you should read it over and over until it’s fully committed to memory and use it to visualize a successful race. You can complete all the physical preparation for your race, but don’t discount the impact your mental preparation can have on your race day results!