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Why Amateur Triathletes Shouldn’t Train Like the Pros

"I believe in amateurs pursuing performance in the context of a balanced life."

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A balanced life is key to success for the amateur triathletes says coach Matt Dixon. Enjoy this excerpt from his new book, Fast-Track Triathlete.

I often discuss with athletes the concept of their potential within the context of the life they lead. Many triathletes never reach their potential; it’s difficult to manage all of the training hours (because of fatigue, poor scheduling, or a training plan at too high a volume), it’s not possible to be present and focused enough to train effectively, or the emphasis on training leads to feeling distracted and overwhelmed in other areas of life. Even as athletes try to cram the training into daily and weekly schedules filled with other important commitments, the results become more elusive. That kind of self-pressure puts an athlete on a downward spiral that leads to chronic fatigue, overuse injuries, frustration, disappointment, and burnout.

Ultimately, long-term sustainable success is going to require a clean slate, a new approach that permeates all areas of your busy life. The good news is that if you can take this on, you should not only achieve your triathlon aspirations but also establish a platform for excelling in health, work, and life as a whole.

Balancing the Sport/Life Equation

In seeking an effective performance model, it’s natural to look to those achieving great results. Amateur triathletes as well as many coaches have traditionally turned to top-level pros for inspiration, studied their approach, and mimicked how they train. Although there are certainly many things to learn about training and racing from the professionals, it’s a mistake to attempt to emulate a professional approach at the amateur level, especially within the context of a busy life. Professional triathletes train many more hours every week than you can, and they can put more time, effort, and resources toward training and recovery because triathlon is essentially their full-time job.

The programs I design for professional athletes are unabashedly built for world-class performance. Many coaches suggest that amateur triathletes try to execute a similar training regimen summarily diluted to accommodate far fewer hours of training every week. However, it’s not that simple. In fact, for a busy amateur limited both by athletic ability and by other commitments, a training plan that imitates a pro athlete’s preparation develops bad habits rather than performance. If an athlete is never able to effectively execute the requirements of the training plan, it creates a platform for failure, opens the door for many other follow-up mistakes, and ultimately invites overload and exhaustion.

I believe in amateurs pursuing performance in the context of a balanced life. The goal isn’t to qualify for Kona, become an age-group Ironman 70.3 podium finisher, or even just improve your time from your previous race at the expense of life. Performance should be built on a platform of health. An approach centered on pragmatism and adaptability that takes into account your own life circumstances, physiology, and focus will put you on the path to continued progress and success.

Everyone has a different set of life circumstances, but some basic tenets apply to just about everyone in the sport. It all starts with understanding the context of your life and how triathlon fits into it. That looks entirely different for professionals and aspiring age-group athletes. A professional triathlete doesn’t just “fit in” the training; life is anchored by it, and maximizing performance is the highest priority.

In many ways, professional athletes are the barometer for performance. They are our lab subjects for learning how different training stimuli affect the body. The training/adaptation equation is simplified when you isolate the variables in this way. The opportunity to push against an athlete’s physical limits in order to gain a positive performance adaptation can be met more easily with an equally appropriate amount of rest and recovery. When we add to this the greater availability of nutritional supplementary therapies for intake, the parameters are widened for continued improvements.

When I coach professional or world-class amateur triathletes, I am looking to suppress all factors that contaminate their sports-life equation. This means reducing their lives to simple components. I’m not aiming for some sort of former Eastern Bloc, machine mentality. I firmly believe professional athletes should be healthy, happy, and able to pursue relationships, but their chosen profession (their job) is world-class triathlon performance. So our collective approach reflects that ambition. I’ve coached athletes through the transition from amateur to pro. It entails a massive shift in mindset that illustrates why the pro approach isn’t a good fit for amateur athletes.

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