Build a Burnout-Proof Training Plan

Understanding the cycles of training can help you take a big-picture approach to your season—and prevent burnout as you approach your “A” race.

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To love triathlon is to love training. When you first start, you build a habit of working out and you start to look forward to your daily sweat session. Training always feels good, even when it’s hard, and pretty soon you can’t imagine a day without it. So, you keep going—sometimes even training without a specific race in mind. You love it so much, rest days become optional, tapers get skipped, and off-season? Why would you take an off-season from something you love?

Then one morning you find yourself feeling low and struggling to get out of bed. The next day, you snap at your kid for something insignificant. A dull fog seems to be sitting over your head that week and into the next. Eventually, even the workouts become a drag. Your legs start feeling like they’re encased in cement and your performance has completely plateaued. Training was going great, so what went wrong?

You know how to swim, bike, and run, but do you know how to train?

It’s all too easy for athletes to fall into a training schedule that lacks structure and direction. Enthusiastic beginners can end up adding extra sessions or pushing too hard in the honeymoon phase of their triathlon love story. Been-there-done-that veterans might be overconfident in their ability to coach themselves or might be using plans that don’t suit their current needs. Some triathletes make training decisions based on advice online (without knowing whether it’s legit advice or pseudoscience). When we deviate from the plan, training can often fall into one of three ineffective trajectories: continuously adding volume and intensity, holding steady at a comfortable point, or spiking efforts followed by epic crashes.

No matter how much we love the training, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it or we risk physical and psychological burnout. Tamara Kozulina, a former professional triathlete and current coach, with a BS from the University of Science and Physical Culture in Ukraine, warns that training without a solid plan (or deviating from that plan) is like trying to cook a complex dish without following the recipe. We might have the right ingredients, but if we prepare them the wrong way, the outcome will be a disaster. Instead, Kozulina said creating a plan that contains micro, meso, and macrocycles across a year will help athletes stay on track. This concept, known as periodization, can help you to stay on track toward your triathlon goals.

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The point of periodization

Critical to the success of the plan is having a specific goal to work toward. “Every athlete, whether a beginner or experienced, needs to ask the questions; ‘Why am I doing this sport? What are my short-term and long-term goals? How can I achieve them?’” said Kozulina. She designs training plans for her athletes only after gathering this information, making sure to build in phases for base building, peak, competition, and recovery phases. 

RELATED: How to Use Periodization in Your Triathlon Training Plan

Research shows that this method of periodization is an effective way to manage a wide variety of variables associated with training, such as physical improvement, recovery, nutrition, mental health, and even skill acquisition. Making space in a training calendar for varying degrees of volume and intensity can help athletes get the most out of training without overload. Plus, shifting among speed drills, skills practice, strength training, and absolute rest days also keep athletes psychologically fresh and their enthusiasm high. 

How to plan a full year of training cycles

Suzan Ballmer, a former professional triathlete and award-winning coach with over 30 years of experience, relies on periodization plans with all of her athletes. “I have found that using these guides mitigate the dark holes of injury – both physical and mental,” she said. Ballmer shared a basic plan of action, emphasizing that every athlete is different and will need individual adjustments. She suggests categorizing goal races as “A” for those that require a full taper (1-2 weeks for Olympic distance,  3-4 weeks for IM), “B” for races that require rest, but not a full taper, and “C” for races that don’t require much rest and are more “for fun.” Athletes will then create the yearly plan, or macrocycle, based on the A races.

Yearly Macrocycle

Block Duration
Base 3-5 months (weather/climate-dependent)
Strength/Stamina 8-10 weeks
Speed 6-8 weeks
Maintenance (with appropriate taper) 2-8 weeks (depending on race schedule)
Recovery 4-6 weeks
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Ballmer then helps athletes design a mesocycle that will help to organize the weeks and months leading up to race season. In general, she believes in using training blocks that have a ratio of 2-3 weeks of hard work to one week of decreased volume and intensity—but that changes based on the time of year. For example, base training may require a 3:1 ratio, but dedicated speed work might require a 2:1 or even 1:1 ratio of work to recovery. Depending on the athlete’s experience and goals, a mesocycle might look like one of the examples below.

Training Mesocycles

The following are examples of the beginning of building the endurance base after a time of rest and recovery post race season (or for the first timer starting out in example 1). All follow the 3:1 ratio of build:recover.

Beginner Sprint/Olympic Race Distance

Week Weekly Training Volume
Week 1: Build 7 hours (1 day off)
Week 2: Build 7 hours, 45 minutes (1 day off)
Week 3: Build 8 hours, 30 minutes (1 day off)
Week 4: Recover 7 hours, 30 minutes (2 days off)

This athlete might build up to 10-12 hours for a big week over the course of several months.

RELATED: How Much Time Does it Take to Train for a Triathlon?

Veteran/Experienced Athlete

Week Weekly Training Volume
Week 1: Build 9 hours (1 day off)
Week 2: Build 9 hours (1 day off)
Week 3: Build 10 hours, 30 minutes (1 day off)
Week 4: Recover 8 hours, 30 minutes (1-2 days off)

This athlete might build up to 12-14 hours for a big week over the course of several months.

Half-Iron and Full Iron-Distance Athletes

Week Weekly Training Volume
Week 1: Build 10 hours (1 day off)
Week 2: Build 11 hours, 30 minutes (1 day off)
Week 3: Build 13 hours (1 day off)
Week 4: Recover 9 hours, 30 minutes (1-2 days off)

This athlete might build up to 16-20 hours for a big week over the course of several months.

RELATED: How Many Training Hours Does It (Really) Take to Conquer Ironman?

Training Microcycles

Finally, within the larger cycles, adhering to a weekly plan, or microcycle, that includes absolute rest days is critical to successful periodization. Kozulina believes that athletes should make the most of these days for the maximum physical and mental benefit, and suggests getting a massage, spending time with family, or even relaxing with a book. Ballmer suggests taking at least one day off per seven-day microcycle. Both coaches advocate staying away from additional workouts on rest days or from leisure activities masquerading as workouts, like hikes, vigorous yoga classes, or even strenuous gardening or home-improvement tasks.

Photo: Getty Images
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The right plan = a healthier you

Most athletes are aware that physical rest built into a periodized plan is a benefit, but studies now show that it’s the psychological rest that is responsible for keeping athletes motivated, engaged, and improving their performance over time. When athletes have the chance to shake things up and even spend some time away from training, they can avoid staleness and the burnout that research shows can often be a consequence of steady endurance training that lacks adequate recovery. The result is better physical and mental health, a long-term relationship triathlon, and plenty of energy for non-triathlon life.

Ballmer said that there are some red flags to look out for when an athlete’s training plan may have gotten away from them and they are approaching the edges of burnout. “These may appear initially in an elevated resting heart rate or depressed working heart rate, as well as an inability to sleep or a grumpiness during the day.” She encourages athletes to take note of their mood, amount of sleep, and even heart rate data in order to catch the problems at a point where a relatively small amount of rest can have a huge effect.

RELATED: Losing Focus? Feeling Grumpy? You Might be Overtraining

If you’re not able to hire an experienced triathlon coach to help you create a plan, don’t let that deter you from being diligent about implementing some of the best practices of periodized training. You can be honest about your bad training habits, as well as the good, and get on those cycles.

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Ballmer’s Rules to Avoid Burnout

The 10 Percent Rule

Increase hours/mileage by no more than 10% for the run. This often holds true for the swim and bike for beginners as well. “I prefer to err on the side of caution to avoid injury,” Ballmer said.

The Intensity Rule

Depending on the experience of the athlete, higher intensity run workouts (such as track workouts) should be kept to 5-10% of the total amount of training. Higher intensity causes more stress and fatigue, so using the metrics of heart rate, respiration rate, mood changes, and sleep are extremely important to keep athletes healthy and strong.

The Skill & Technique Rule

This is especially important for the swim but also for transitioning between swim and bike, then bike and run. Skills and technique work should be incorporated throughout the yearly training program.

The Food Rule

Teaching athletes about food requirements for before, during, and after training and racing must to be a part of a periodized program. Said Ballmer: “I always suggest working with a sports dietitian to learn about proper fueling.”