Building Better Habits for Triathlon Performance
Evaluate what you're doing well and what you're not.
Bad habits are tough to break, and good habits are equally hard to create. Training endurance is no exception. Many athletes fail to achieve real and long-lasting results because of poor planning, inadequate self-evaluation, and an incorrect mind-set rather than a lack of effort or motivation. Many endurance athletes train hard, but their training doesn’t yield consistently positive results. They have access to plenty of feedback to identify the warning signs of faltering progression, but many blindly repeat the same mistakes season after season. It’s also easy for athletes to find themselves caught in the weeds, looking for quick-fix easy passages to improvement.
Progress is not achieved simply by wanting it or training harder, and there are no shortcuts. Instead, it takes a fundamental evolution of mind-set. If you are not seeing the results you expect, it’s time to change the way you look at your sport, your training, and the route you will take to performance. Whether you are beginning your endurance journey or are an experienced athlete who is looking to improve, the first step in your journey is to assess your goals, habits, and training practices and truthfully define your approach to performance. While it sounds like a big project, it is actually pretty simple—and setting your vision and focus before you begin another season of training will reduce the risk of losing your way along the journey.
A Road Map to Performance
Let’s begin with one of the most critical components of planning your performance journey. In principle, I could claim that the best strategy is always to head out and train consistently hard, eat well, and ensure that you recover enough to stay healthy. A good performance should be the result. While this approach may seem reasonable, in the real world its tactics and application are significantly more dynamic and complex than they would appear in this summary. Fundamentally, we all have a similar strategy (train hard, eat well, recover, and support our training with strength workouts), but we are individuals with different lives and ability levels. Our history, limitations, and constraints, as well as the way we execute our training strategies in our daily lives, will vary immensely. This brings me to one of the most common problems encountered by endurance athletes of all ability levels: The ingredients are right, but the cake tastes nasty.
I believe every athlete understands that in order to improve, there is a need to train hard, train consistently, and train specifically for the demands of your sport. I also believe that every athlete values, at least in principle, the benefits of a solid and healthy approach to nutrition. Furthermore, I believe that most athletes understand the value of high-quality sleep and the consistent integration of recovery into the training plan. Finally, despite some controversy around the “what and how” of implementing it, most athletes believe that some form of functional strength component is a healthy addition to an endurance training program.
Most, if not all, athletes would be quick to agree that these are the components necessary for good performance. Here’s their fatal flaw: failing to weave a complete program that values each component equally. When theory is put into practice, athletes place almost all of their focus on the endurance training component, and recovery, nutrition, and functional strength become mere afterthoughts. Before long, life is filled with endurance training sessions crammed into any space that an athlete’s life allows, often at the expense of sleep (both quantity and quality), proper fueling and nutrition, and any chance of completing a functional strength session. These athletes train hard, sometimes for many seasons in a row, but fail to achieve real results. They often end up stuck in a cycle of failure. It’s not a great route to self-improvement.
So you understand that there is more to finding performance than simply heading out of the door and training—but let’s talk about the secret of performance. There really is no secret, but there are four magical principles to guide your journey.
- Consistency. Improvement will happen only when you apply your training plan in a consistent manner.
- Specificity. Your program must be specific to your needs, background, and life.
- Progression. Your program should evolve over each phase of training, as well as over each season of training, and even over your entire career of training.
- Patience. Real change takes time, so you will need plenty of patience and persistence.
To improve, you will also need to stay healthy, motivated, and injury-free as much as possible throughout your training. Yes, hard work is important, but that hard work needs real support to ensure that you reap the rewards you seek from the effort. By dumbing down your fundamental approach to the point where it is simply training hard, you are setting yourself up for fatigue, burnout, and increased risk of injury.
The Pillars of Performance
Your program is no longer about swimming, biking, and running; trying to eat well when you can; grabbing a strength session if you have an open slot; and squeezing in sleep if there is time. You need a complete approach that places equal emotional and philosophical value on your endurance training, nutrition, recovery, and functional strength. This simple, yet critical, shift in thinking will give you a foundation for making optimal decisions in training, establish the positive habits that support performance and make them stick, and give you the confidence to maintain a mind-set of “logic over emotion” to review your practices and measure the effectiveness of your hard work. Make the pillars of performance the framework of your approach to performance and training. The chapters that follow explore each pillar of performance in more detail, but here’s an overview to explain the role of each.
Swimming, biking, and running are the most specific training you do, facilitating the necessary stress to allow sport-specific adaptations and gains.
Sleep and recuperation are required in order for the body to positively respond to that much-needed training load and adapt to become fitter and more powerful. Recovery also includes integrated rest from training and other aspects of your life; specific lighter-stress training sessions; adequate sleep; and specific recovery modalities. All of these combine to maximize adaptation and facilitate performance.
Simply put, you need to be sure that you provide your body with the nutrients and calories to support your training effort, optimal health, and proper recovery from training. This effort extends beyond healthy eating to include a serious focus on fueling during and immediately after training; the correct quality, quantity, and timing of daily eating; and optimal hydration during, after, and between training sessions.
Much more than simply a means of injury prevention, a properly designed functional strength program will help you improve your athletic movement patterns; strengthen typically weak muscle groups; and increase your “brain talk,” or synchronization of muscle recruitment. This combination will assist in potential improvements in biomechanics, improve your power potential, and likely reduce your risk of injury.
It’s natural to be a little defensive about the areas of your training that are underdeveloped, so let’s turn to a case study that highlights some typical approaches to training and performance. You might identify with some of the athlete’s lifestyle, strengths, and weaknesses. Although I identify the athlete as male, I see the same problems in both men and women.
Case Study: The Busy Executive
Mark is a high performer in life, with a great family, a senior position at a finance company, and a passion for triathlon. Since getting the triathlon bug a couple of years ago, he has steadily increased his level of dedication to the sport, despite the demands of his regular life. Not one to fail, and feeling he has a great ability for time management, Mark fits triathlon training into his work life, which includes multiple monthly trips across time zones as well as long, demanding hours. Despite his dedication, his training is often disrupted by sickness, and he is frustrated with his lack of improvement. He often complains that if he only had a few more hours in the day, he could fit in the additional volume and sessions to make those big leaps.
To fit in the training and avoid missing out on too many family activities, Mark wakes up very early every morning to squeeze in his sessions. He hits shorter, more intense sessions in the evenings after his kids go to bed. When he travels, he plans ahead to have access to workout facilities and fits in every key session he can. On his return, he is dedicated to hitting the hard training to make up for a loss of volume. His weekends are made up of early-morning sessions followed by kids’ soccer and volleyball and other family activities.
Cramming in endurance training with a volume-centric focus always leads to lower-quality sessions and poor ability to adapt. The result is poor performance. I see this all the time, and I have ongoing battles with executives to try to help them see the logic.
The obvious red flag is Mark’s very poor sleep. He is often limited to four hours in a night, much of which is broken, and he rarely feels rejuvenated when he wakes up. Generally speaking, he has very little time for rest, and he is accustomed to feeling rushed and manic. He particularly feels the effects of travel, especially when crossing time zones.
Little sleep and the inability to rest lead to a highly compromised immune system, hence Mark’s frequent sickness. It is very unlikely that he can make many positive adaptations through his hard work.
Mark strongly believes in a high-quality diet and eats all organic foods, but he often settles for a snack while he works or misses meals altogether. He is frustrated with his waistline, which he tries to attack with a subtle calorie deficit. Mark is convinced that reducing his weight is the key to running faster.
Simply another stressor in his life, nutrition is a problem for Mark. He frequently underfuels and regularly fails to achieve the calories needed to support his training and recovery schedule. His fat retention is more likely due to high stress and athletic starvation, not eating too many calories. If he perpetually exists in an overstressed state, Mark is sure to hold on to that spare tire and fail to positively adapt to training.
Mark doesn’t believe strength work has a role in endurance sports, and he has never done it.
Mark would benefit greatly from adding two very short sessions to each week, each one coupled with a swim or run session. These additions should be made in conjunction with a reduction in both the frequency and the volume of his main endurance sessions.
If Mark took the same skills and knowledge he uses in setting up a successful business life and applied them to his triathlon training, he would be more productive. This situation is common among busy professionals and is often related to their inability to stop and review their situation before training. Simply mimicking what other athletes have done in front of them, they fall into a mind-set of “more is better” and form habits that are counterproductive to their goals. Their goal-driven approach to health often comes back to haunt them, with negative effects in daily work performance as well as family relationships. The solution is a smart, pragmatic approach and an athlete who is brave enough to adopt it.
Ironically, Mark’s case has many of the hallmarks of an athlete who is frustrated by frequent injuries and ailments. While we likely have a genetic predisposition to be less or more resilient in response to overuse injuries, the frequency and severity of such injuries are undoubtedly influenced by many of our supporting habits and approaches. If you reread Mark’s case but replaced the competition for training time with an athlete who is struggling to find training time as a result of being frequently injured, the same lessons are there. In nearly every case I have seen of an athlete with frequent injuries, there is usually a strong influence of improper fueling, underrecovery, and a greater training load than they are able to handle. Just taking half a step back from training, with an increased focus on sleep, fueling, and functional strength, can often radically reduce the time that an athlete spends sidelined by frustrating injuries.
A Smart, Progressive Plan
This case study is the story of a real athlete who came to me looking for help. I’m happy to report that in this situation, we were able to make changes that led to significant improvements in performance. If you’ve had your fill of nasty cake, it’s time to change the recipe. Most of us are using all of the right ingredients, but we are not proud of the results. It all comes down to this: You can train your heart out, but without a smart, progressive plan that is supported by equal focus on all of the pillars of performance, you will never realize your best results.
I urge you to take a step back and avoid simply looking at this week of training, or even this month. Instead, aim to establish the habit of effective and smart training. This habit includes consistent hard work, but work that is supported by recovery, nutrition, and functional strength.
Adapted from The Well-Built Triathlete by Matt Dixon with permission of VeloPress.