Through his 20 years of coaching, Matt Dixon has identified five common triathlete archetypes that, despite best intentions and total dedication, fall short of realizing individual athletic potential. Could you be making the same mistakes?
I believe that it is too common for athletes and coaches to place a singular focus on the simple accumulation of training miles or hours without considering the critical supporting elements that facilitate successful training. Aspects such as fueling, sleep, recovery and healthy eating habits are often considered mere afterthoughts, with the greatest barometer of training success measured simply in “how much.” This proves costly for many amateur athletes, as most have to balance training load with very busy lives at work, with family and relationships, as well as a myriad of other factors. Logging hours of training, at the exclusion of what I call “the supporting cast,” typically leads to the rest of life becoming overstretched. We have so many athletes walking around fit yet fatigued, and not achieving the results of their hard work. Here are the five most common self-sabotaging training scenarios I’ve seen, and how you can avoid the same pitfalls.
Case Study #1: The Busy Executive
Joe is a top executive at a rapidly growing, successful company. He thrives on his leadership role and has to manage an ever-expanding work schedule, oversee a large number of employees and travel frequently across time zones. At home, Joe has two children and a hugely supportive wife, who appreciate (tolerate) his high motivation for Ironman triathlon. He is committed to being a great leader, a wonderful husband and father, but he also wants to excel in races.
Joe often struggles to complete all of the training prescribed, despite scheduling out 15 to 18 hours of time to achieve the work. Often compromising sleep to fit in the training, he has started to feel energy dips in work, as well as an overall feeling of falling behind in the needed training time to be successful in his sport. Travel is his worst enemy, as the eating plan often goes out the window, sleep is further compromised, and his make-up training sessions are often poor quality as they are typically completed right off the plane. He tends to train from race to race, complains that he’s hit a performance plateau and doesn’t feel like he’s thriving in various areas of life.
My initial recommendation to Joe was to get healthy and take a break. I gave him 10 days of very low-stress training, with a mission to restore energy and health.
The second step was to do a thorough realistic analysis of his life. The goal was to assess his true training availability, after the demands of work and family were taken into account, as well as proper allotment of both sleep and some social time. We realized he only had 10 to 12 hours of available time weekly to apply to training, with some weeks less time, and some a little more. It was no wonder his 15 to 18 hours were a struggle. I then encouraged him to view training through a different lens. Rather than ask how many hours were necessary to become race ready, I encouraged him to ask how he could maximize the available hours. This subtle shift completely changed the conversation. He could now build the training within the context of life and allow training to become integrated into—instead of dumped on top of—life.
The next fix was to address some fundamental habits that could help with recovery, energy management, sleep quality and body composition. We simply committed to fueling after every single workout, maintained quality daily hydration, committed to a little more sleep, and finally adjusted the structure of the training week. Rather than viewing each training week as a string of workouts to complete, we established long-term consistency as the goal, and developed a dynamic hierarchy of workout importance. Key sessions were not to be missed in any given week, but the supporting sessions were ones that could be trimmed, cut or missed if life stress and travel got in the way. This enabled Joe to maintain specificity and consistency without feeling like a failure. The result was fewer weekly hours of training but control over his life, and the hours completed were effective. Joe felt like his training was sustainable and under control, with a set of tools to manage when work or life became hectic. His energy has become more balanced throughout each day, and workout quality has improved, as training is designed to fit into his life (not the other way around). The outcome, as ever, is improved race performance, but also a more balanced and happy life.
Case Study #2: The Calorie Counter
Jeremy was consistently trying to “get to race weight.” While not overweight, he believed that his performance, especially in running, would be greatly improved if he could drop a few pounds. Over the last months, he has made a commitment to drop weight, with as much focus on his eating and dieting as on his training routine. His approach has included limiting the amount of calories consumed during training sessions, and aiming to avoid too many calories following training. For the rest of his day, he counts his calories to ensure an overall deficit.
After initial success, he is running into some struggles. His performance in workouts has begun to plummet, his mood has soured and his best intentions are often undone by the immense cravings for carbohydrates later in the day. No matter how strict he is with himself, he often ends up giving in to late-night snacking or ice cream. To make things worse, he isn’t dropping the pounds that he believes will help him achieve the desired performance boost. His frustration is amplified by a string of colds and little niggles that keep surfacing. He feels like he hit a dead-end, despite great ambition for the season.
This amplified example of what I call the “fit but fat syndrome” is very common among athletes of all levels, and highlights a classic misconception of what great performance stems from. My initial step was to rebuild some health and energy by reducing training, establishing proper eating habits and allowing some rest. Following this, the most critical component was education, and my primary focus was his fueling following workouts. I see this as the most common and critical mistake of many athletes, and we made it an absolute rule that every workout must be followed by adequate and timely refueling with a proper meal. Under-fueling after workouts will prevent sufficient recovery, lead to a decline in muscle integrity and illicit major carbohydrate cravings later in the day. “Athletic starvation,” as I call it, is also incredibly stressful on the system as a whole.
We reframed his relationship with calories around workouts as necessary fuel instead of a weight-loss strategy. This curtailed cravings and enhanced recovery and the ability to reestablish effective training. Outside of the fueling during and following workouts, we worked on healthy eating habits and ditched the massive calorie deficits.
Perhaps the most important intervention was the shift in mindset from short-term weight loss to performance arising from health, strength and greater power. Jeremy realized that establishing proper habits, in support of smart and consistent training, would establish improvements in fitness, resilience and power, but also steady and consistent positive refinements in body composition that would lead to his best performance. The outcome was great supporting habits but also a return to a healthy relationship with food.
Case Study #3: The Metrics Obsessed
Sarah is committed to improvement and wants to nail every detail of performance without missing one opportunity to excel. She tracks every metric, rides with power and runs with GPS, strictly adhering to her established training zones, and always executes her race plan within the strict parameters of her training and racing zones. Her Zone 3 sits at between 160 to 190 watts, so any prescribed Z3 work will always fall in this range, no matter her energy levels, mood or how good her legs feel. The exactness of her regimen flows through to racing, with firm boundaries around riding power and heart rate and well as run pace and heart rate. Successful implementation means steady power, regardless of terrain and wind, ensuring there is no space for guessing. This approach gives Sarah the feeling of great control and confidence. Sarah also tracks her weight, food intake and sleep.
Still, this dedication hasn’t produced the results Sarah has hoped for. After initial success, her performance has plateaued, and every session has so much analysis tied to it that Sarah feels like a prisoner. The trap is that she doesn’t see a way out of this metrics box without losing all focus.
Sarah’s case is classic paralysis of analysis. There is little doubt that tracking workouts and using measuring devices within training can be of great use to coaches and athletes. That said, we need to ensure that the way these metrics are utilized helps rather than hinders the progression.
The challenge with this type of situation is that the athlete resists the idea of evolving his or her approach—I call it “engineer brain.” So first, I had to take all the toys away and force Sarah to spend a couple of weeks maintaining training but without feedback. The second step was a reintroduction of the tools, but with context and an education on the ideal application. I told Sarah to view this little block as “holiday training” and then explained a few key things:
1. Tools are feedback: We can use tools to track progression, but the critical component is for athletes to feel the correct training intensity. You should never lose the inner gauge of easy, moderate, hard and race effort.
2. Language needs to evolve: I stopped prescribing workouts in terms of watts or heart rate. Instead, I referred to effort, using terms such as “conversational,” “moderate” and “build to very strong.”
3. Manage what is, not what’s expected: We have to manage the reality of fatigue. Instead of watt chasing, we measured Sarah’s subjective and objective fatigue level and based training around this.
4. Introduce freedom: A situation like this calls for a little liberty and fun. We mixed in periodic sessions that included rides with friends, more random intervals, and using the hills and terrain to randomly hit intensity. This made the training more enjoyable, and any loss of structure was made up for by enthusiasm and enjoyment.
This shift allowed Sarah to begin to feel when she was fresh, tired and what race pace felt like, instead of simply relying on a number. While she maintained a metric mindset, it shifted how she monitored her training.
Case Study #4: The Training Champion
Louise is a hard worker—a very hard worker. She has no issue keeping up with the guys in training, never misses a session, and many of her training partners talk up her great potential. But despite all the anticipation and hard work, racing always seems anticlimactic. Not only do many of her friends who cannot keep up in training tend to beat her on race day, but she also fails to generate the power and speed she sees in training come race day. This cycle has naturally eroded confidence, and each race has become a personal test that leaves Louise seeking fewer and fewer races, as she can just feel the disappointment looming. Still highly goal-driven, she pours even more effort into training, believing that she may just need to work harder to achieve the elusive breakthrough race she seeks.
There were multiple underlying issues for Louise—in both her training and racing approaches. We often think that a dream race will happen if only you could string together your best swim, bike and run training sessions. The issue for Louise is that, by approaching almost every workout as a race, she’ll never realize her best race day. She was arriving at the start line with less than a full tank. Add to it the emotional strain, and her race-day performance fell totally flat.
We made a few key changes in her approach and mindset. The first thing was to change her relationship with racing itself. Rather than looking at a race as a personal test of worth, we aimed to shift it to a celebration of the work. As a hard worker, Louise would salivate at a big challenging main set, so I asked her to view the race as a very hard and condensed day of workouts. We tried to limit focus on outcomes and other athletes and simply make it about her opportunity to go really hard, all day, against herself. The “reward” concept resonated with her, and thinking of it in terms of a big day of workouts made it simpler. We maintained relatively regular training load, with the simple reduction of intensity, all throughout race week and only dropped off in the final two to three days prior to the race day. This created rhythm going into the race and a sense of familiarity. As a hard worker, I felt Louise required rhythm and consistent work, and a long taper would only lead to over-thinking and fear.
We outlined a strict designation between the key sessions that we designed to provide race-day readiness, and the supporting sessions, whose role was recovery or a bridge to an upcoming key session. By understanding each workout’s purpose, she was less prone to stray. To support this, I made the easy sessions even easier than usual, and placed a strong limit on the upper levels she was to go in such workouts. To ensure she would be successful, I asked her to choose training company carefully. Training buddies and groups are wonderful, but if she joined a group ride of strong athletes on an easy endurance day, her good intentions would go out the window.
The final piece was to schedule regular “race sessions” that would serve as her reward for a well-executed training week. These “give it a go” workouts would help Louise hold back from racing in the rest of training, but also begin to train herself to raise the performance level when asked, in a relaxed environment. Over time I began to see Louise smile more often and become more skilled at holding back—and unleashing—upon demand. I knew true success was made when I overheard her providing caring counsel to a new athlete who had recently joined our group, warning her of the perils of becoming a training champion.
Case Study #5: The Random Wanderer
Opposite of The Metrics Obsessed personality, Gerry keeps it very casual, loves to train in groups and doesn’t follow a plan. He loves to go hard and is often swept up in the various groups he joins. He shows great potential, but only nails a great race performance periodically and with random timing. He wants to improve but is desperate to avoid the shackles of structure and metrics that he feels would kill the joy of doing triathlon. After several years in the sport he finds himself part frustrated with his plateau but also weary of too much structure.
Gerry needs a training framework that includes some flexibility but also provides some semblance of logic and progression. I decided to focus on a few key habits and rules that Gerry could adhere to:
1. Create baseline habits: It was critical that he commit to a few key behaviors. These “basics” include going really easy on the light days, fueling following every training session, eating breakfast every day and getting regular sleep.
2. Embrace the ceiling: In easier sessions, he could ride with friends, run on the trails or even ride a mountain bike, but he would also need to commit to an upper-limit effort, measured in power or heart rate. These were the only sessions in which he had to use metrics, but if he couldn’t commit, he would at least execute these sessions as always conversational.
3. Progress the key sessions: The real structure came in the key sessions of the week—two swims, two bike sessions, two runs that were structured, specific and designed to produce real load.
4. Maintain group workouts: He was allowed to supplement one or two sessions weekly with a challenging group session.
When training is random and uncontrolled, there is a massive tendency to go too hard in the easier sessions, compromising the more goal-oriented workouts. By creating diversity of intensity, and forcing control, his key sessions became higher quality, and his performances became more predictable. The most ironic component of this subtle approach was that, following multiple weeks of happy progression, Gerry began to request more structure. He started to find joy in measurement (in moderation!) and in seeing his progression as an athlete.
Matt Dixon is founder and head coach of Purplepatch Fitness. He holds a master’s degree in clinical and exercise physiology and is coach to a number of top pros, including Jesse Thomas and Sarah Piampiano.