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The Characteristics of Elite Performance

There is no secret.

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When it comes down to the details of endurance training, every athlete wants to know what it will take to achieve success. Many triathletes are on a mission to find the secret sauce, or magic recipe, that prominent coaches use to create performance. I’m often asked about the types of intervals I create for my athletes, the number of hours of training I prescribe, and how long it takes to get results. The most popular questions from athletes seeking big performance gains are:

  • How many hours a week do I have to train?
  • How long do I need to get ready for X?

The frustrating response must be “I don’t know.” Questions like these tell me a lot about the athletes. To successfully coach them, I will need to educate them in how best to approach the sport, recalibrate their notions of how much they need to train, and convince them to take a broader view of performance gains.

A successful plan for endurance performance will take into account more than just an athlete’s current level of fitness and the amount of time available for training. You must be willing to apply a dynamic and moving strategy to create effective training. There are certainly some traits shared by the most successful athletes, but simply emulating the pros is not a winning strategy. Throughout this article I will make some distinctions between the professional and the working amateur triathlete who seeks performance within the context of a busy life. I will outline the differences and similarities in hopes of helping you recognize the limiters and advantages that should be factored into your own training plan. If there is a secret to be discovered, it’s self-awareness.

The Professional Athlete

These athletes are the icons of our sport, and their performance inspires all of us to be better, but simply emulating their approach to training or racing is a dangerous approach. We will explore many of the lessons to be learned from elite athletes, but suffice it to say, their lives and approach are very different from yours.

Quite simply, a professional’s goal is to develop into a world-class athlete, winning races and championships. Everything is based on elite performance. This is important because some of the decisions made and approaches utilized may be at the expense of a full and complete life. While competing at the top or making the journey toward it, pros must have a myopic lens on maximizing performance. Not much else matters. Of course athletes are not robots, so smart coaches and athletes will do all that they can to round out this narrowly focused life with just enough real-life balance to ensure that passion and enjoyment are maintained—but I think you get the concept. Following are the ways that the professional triathlete goes about achieving this goal.

Minimize Life Stress

To maximize the body’s absorption of specific training stress, the pro must radically reduce sources of life stress that cause negative hormonal stress. This means that any work outside training must be minimal; obligations to sponsors and organizations should be carefully managed; and absolute focus and value should be placed on sleep, rest, recuperation, and proper nutrition. The global goal is to create a comfortable setting with minimal life stress, leaving greater capacity for training.

One of the greatest stressors is a lack of supporting finances and sponsors. It’s not an easy problem to solve, but it certainly factors into training ability for developing pro athletes. Many coaches see a rise in training and racing performance once an athlete manages to create a comfortable environment with reduced financial or sponsorship stress.

Maximize Training Load

The pro’s training goal is to absolutely maximize training load while remaining in a state of positive adaptation. More is more, but only if the athlete is able to absorb and adapt to the stimulus. To determine how much training is enough, the athlete must take into account experience, individual resilience, and injury history and risk.

Experience. Training history and the foundation of fitness affect the athlete’s capacity to absorb training. It takes time to develop the bedrock of fitness to successfully achieve greater load.

Individual resilience. Each athlete tends to have a predisposition for different types of training load. Some athletes respond better to lower intensity, whereas others are able to achieve a higher training load without consequences. These are also the athletes who tend to recuperate and bounce back from heavy sessions more quickly. Ironically, the fragile athlete is sometimes easier for a coach to manage and guide because the deeply resilient athlete can mask fatigue and initial stages of injuries for an extended time, which can lead to more serious issues.

Injury history and risk. Some athletes are bound by their history of injury, whether due to impact or overuse, and they have to carefully manage their training load in order to stay healthy. Because triathlon comprises three sports, if a previous injury in one of the sports requires management, athletes can often make up for it in another discipline.

The Amateur Athlete

The amateur must find a sustainable recipe of training that is in balance with the other factors in his or her life. This is where things get interesting. In the perfect scenario, all of the training becomes habitual within an already full and enriching life. In a sport as complex and demanding as triathlon, this scenario isn’t easy to achieve, but it is a worthwhile pursuit. Unless you are a young amateur with aspirations to develop into the pro ranks, you should resist the temptation to allow the sport to dominate most or all of your bucket of life.

The vast majority of successful long-term triathletes should strive to maintain a full and happy life that can sustain training and racing while improving performance. Of course there are also goals of podium finishes, qualifications for championship events, personal records, and other performance markers, but all of these should be balanced with other elements of a complete life.

Balance Life Stress and Training Stress

A balanced life facilitates performance gains, so the goal is to integrate training into the framework of life. This immediately creates the need to consider each of the other factors in our lives that will minimize our ability to effectively absorb training load. We simply have to acknowledge that, in order to create an effective training plan, we need a dynamic framework that always considers the impact of life stressors on our ability to train hard. I believe that when athletes train by this rule, they make logical decisions about training when managing higher-than-anticipated stress. They typically remain consistent in training, experience less injury, and achieve greater performance gains.

The overall goal is to create a habitual training pattern that includes larger training weeks or blocks when you have more time or capacity, such as a training camp or a holiday. As I’ve said numerous times, your primary pursuit is consistency of specific training. As a working amateur, you have to consider the following important factors when you are deciding on your training load.

Accumulation of life stress. A self-assessment of your current stress and time available for training is the best place to start. These things cannot be easily mapped for you, so your own wisdom and self-awareness are key. Stress and life commitments fluctuate, so reevaluate often.

Individual resilience and training history. Make an honest appraisal of your previous training load, how you cope with training load, and your ability to recover from fatigue. Understand that performance isn’t exclusively available to those who train most—you can achieve great results by remaining consistent.

Injury history and risk. Are you a fragile athlete who tends to get injured? Awareness can be the start of mapping a patient program that helps mitigate some of that risk.

Of course, all of these factors require that you set longer-term goals for performance rather than seeking out a fast track to results. My hope is that these guidelines will help you define how and why training fits into your life.

Characteristics of Elite Performance

While amateurs don’t have the same goals and training methods as the pros, they can absolutely learn from the characteristics of elite performers in the sport and develop a winning mind-set of their own. Let’s move beyond mapping the plan and the logistics of training to investigate the traits of performance.

When you look at any elite performer in the sport, the obvious question is “What makes him or her so special?” Beyond the genetic gifts or talents that provide a platform of opportunity to pursue their dream, the complete answer is more complex. As an elite coach, I am lucky to spend a lot of my time with elite performers and have had the opportunity to learn from them and guide many to success. While every individual is unique, I have identified 10 traits or characteristics that are evident in nearly every one of the more successful elite athletes. There may be more, and many of the traits require development and work in order to become prominent, but they all grow as an athlete develops throughout a career.

  1. Be goal-oriented. All top athletes have a clear and distinct vision of their path and goals. Goals may evolve over an individual’s career, but all athletes achieve positive results by creating and chasing a vision and set of goals.
  2. Commit to ongoing assessment. Staying on track is key, and the best have great personal reflection and assessment skills but also look outside for guidance and advice. A part of this may include the willingness to review the training approach and to evolve or change it. This takes courage and can occur only for athletes who frequently assess themselves, their setup, and their approach.
  3. Train for specificity. Keep a laser-like focus on what is important. Great athletes have the ability to carve through the noise of training partners or unsolicited advice and truly focus on executing their plan in pursuit of their goal.
  4. Be resistant to adversity. One of the key elements I look for in new athletes is their ability to manage and overcome adversity. Triathlon is a demanding sport, and navigation through hard times is the price of admission.
  5. Have patience. I use the word “journey” to describe the path to elite performance because it doesn’t happen instantaneously. Behind every overnight success is many, many years of hard work. This is why patience is a key attribute of every elite performer.
  6. Feed the passion. You cannot fake this. The high that is brought on by good results doesn’t last long, and it won’t create the will to embrace the journey and struggle of performance. To excel, you have to fall in love with the process.
  7. Embrace support. An athlete cannot go it alone. No one person has all the answers, so the best athletes need to be humble enough to build an inner circle of experts to help drive the train forward and maximize their performance. Whether self-coached or supported by many, every elite athlete with lasting success will have mentors, guides, and a support team.
  8. Achieve balance. The ability to avoid dwelling on success or failure is a magic attribute. Celebrate victories, but keep emotions in check—they should be only as high as the low of struggles or failure of another race or session. This is certainly an area that athletes can learn and improve in, but only if they make the full commitment to do so.
  9. Take calculated risks. The willingness to take risks can come in many forms but often involves being willing to expose your weaknesses and insecurities and being unafraid of failure. The best athletes are willing to take a risk with purpose in order to reach their desired level.
  10. Make time for recovery. If you don’t establish a platform of health and recovery, you will follow the trajectory of my pro career—plenty of ambition and hard work with a very limited performance yield. I seldom meet an elite athlete who, in time, doesn’t appreciate the value of recovery and recuperation as much as hard work and tough intervals. After all, that’s the easy part!

I want you to go back and reread the traits above, but this time through a different lens. Think about how these traits relate to different endeavors in your own daily life. We could also identify these traits of elite performance in successful CEOs, concert pianists, the owner of a hugely successful little coffee shop in your town.

I am fortunate to work with leading business executives. I get to know these men and women very well, and they are instrumental in helping me frame my thinking about coaching, guidance, and leadership. Business leaders and professional athletes share similar mind-sets. This isn’t surprising because elite performance requires plenty of determination. The gift of physical talent is certainly the ticket to get into the room, but it is these characteristics of performance that help drive the talent toward real and lasting success. Even if you could choose your parents wisely, you would also need to develop these traits to convert potential into performance.

How does this relate to you? Well, you may not be the most genetically gifted swimmer, biker, or runner out there, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t improve. The long-standing culture of this sport is one of inclusion and self-improvement, and it has never been only about the best. We can determine how we approach the sport (and life). Make it your goal to improve yourself—this is where the magic is, and it is where a winning mind-set is born.

Adapted from The Well-Built Triathlete by Matt Dixon with permission of VeloPress.

The Well-Built Triathlete