The Myth of “Train Your Weaknesses”

You’ve put hours of practice in—so how come you’re not getting better?

It’s the advice triathletes hear over and over: “Train your weaknesses.” In other words, if you’re a great cyclist but struggle to make the swim cutoff in a race, your training blocks should be heavy on pool time so you can bring up those skills. If you lose steam in the final miles of your race, you’ve got to run more to build strength and endurance. On the surface, “train your weaknesses” makes sense. After all, logic dictates that if you practice something enough, you’ll get better at it. But this can also backfire, says Laura Henry, USA Triathlon Level II Endurance & Paratriathlon Certified Coach with Team MPI.

“Athletes often think that more is better,” explained Henry. “Many of them like the idea of increasing training volume. It can give many athletes a false sense of security that makes them feel that because they went above and beyond, they have a higher chance of reaching their goals.”

But simply doing something more is not a great plan for success. Henry said many athletes haven’t developed their self-awareness to the point that they can accurately identify and then correct weaknesses that they may have. Incorrect assumptions can lead to wasted time and energy training the wrong thing.

Take, for example, an athlete who wants a faster swim split. Using a “train your weakness” mentality, this athlete spends hours in the pool, but with minimal improvement. That’s because swim volume isn’t a solution if the problem is a lack of core strength and core control. “This seemingly simple thing is actually the underlying cause of a lot of the perceived weaknesses that plague triathletes,” explained Henry. “This can manifest itself as inefficient or ineffective swimming technique, unstable bike handling skills, and poor running form. If triathletes don’t have good local control, they will not be able to progress to high-level movements, which are needed to make high-level progress.” 

What’s more, this combination of high volume and muscular imbalance is a fast track to injury. There’s also the risk of burnout. If you do a lot of something you don’t particularly enjoy—especially if you’re not seeing results—you’ll grow to resent it.

“You could do something a lot, but if you are not aware of what exactly you are doing it or consistently doing it in a way that helps you reach your goals, then frequency on its own is ineffective,” said Henry. “‘Train your weaknesses’ is a very generic and empty statement that doesn’t give a good call to action that the athlete can follow through on.”

Henry recommends replacing the standard advice with a new rule: More is not always better; better is better. Explicitly emphasizing quality over quantity will yield results, as doing the exact same thing for hours on end only makes an athlete better at doing the exact same thing. Instead, athletes should get back to basics with foundational skills, confirming each skill is being performed correctly. This allows the athlete to focus on the small details that make up the big picture, identify the actual root causes of weaknesses, and get the results they’re looking for. Drills, technique work, and skill “ladders” for swim, bike, and run are a great way to get back to basics and gradually build to more advanced skills.

“There’s an inverse relationship there—as an athlete sets higher and higher performance-based goals, they spend more time on mastering basic skills. Doing something with purpose, mental engagement, and a slowly increased level of skill is much better than just layering on volume for the sake of doing more.”