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Triathlete Blog

Common Mistakes

By January 26, 2014July 21st, 2015No Comments

For the past few years, I’ve coached the Iowa State University triathlon team.  Last week, I had the opportunity to present at their triathlon weekend via Skype.  One of the presentations was about common mistakes collegiate triathletes make in triathlon.  Though it focused on youth, this list can apply to all ages.  Enjoy!

#1:  Training Non-Specific to Triathlon

If you’re going to set big goals in triathlon and train as a triathlete you must do things that make you better at triathlon; swimming, biking, running, transitioning and strength training.  Things like boot camp, Cross Fit – these are all fun fitness activities with low relevance and high risk for triathlon.  Doing them comes at a cost – usually injury or burnout or fatigue when it comes to doing your key triathlon workouts.  If you’re going to seek top performance, you need to make choices.  Often that means giving up some things you want to do to make room and energy for the things you actually need to do to be a better triathlete.  Save the outside stuff for the off season when you’re not asking as much of your body with the triathlon training.
#2:  Random vs Specific Training 
The best training is the most specific to you and your goals.  By doing random, non-specific training, you get random, non-specific results (and risk injury).  Beware of just training to train with no focus and structure.  Following a logical training plan will keep you focused and on track with purposeful structure designed to develop your fitness towards your goals.
#3:  Violating Basic Principles 
Fitness is built through two principles: consistency in training and recovery from that training.  Most athletes are willing to put more time into training or go harder in training without accepting that the real gains are made by recovering more to promote better health and consistency (meaning: no workouts missed, injuries, low energy days).  The difference between pros and age groupers?  Not talent or training 30 hours a week.  It’s making the time for the little things that add up to big gains; ample sleep, quality nutrition, massage, stretching, injury prevention, icing, etc.  This allows them to be consistent with their training day to day, week to week, year to year – this consistency adds up to progress.

#4:  Bad Form Is Bad For You

Swimming, biking and running each have proper form that allows for economical and efficient movement.  Economy and efficiency are not only key to performing movements fast but also staying injury-free.  Throughout the season, take the time to incorporate drills and exercises specific to your weaknesses and flaws in form.  Ask a friend to take video of your swim stroke, pedaling technique or run gait so you can address what needs work.  While technique work is boring, having the patience and taking the time to do what others won’t tolerate doing leads to your advantage and performance improvement.

#5:  Garbage In = Garbage Out

Proper nutrition is the cornerstone for health and performance.  Health is consistency and – consistency is the key to progress in your fitness and training.  When you have missed days from illness, injury or low energy, you create inconsistencies.  Inconsistency creates holes in the foundation of your fitness making it harder to not just build fitness but build to the next level of performance.  Proper nutrition is, therefore, free fitness and speed.  Get an understanding of what it takes to fuel an athletic lifestyle; the proper ratio of carbohydrate, fat and protein will keep you healthy, lean and strong.

#6: Missing the Recovery Window

The 30 minutes post-workout are critical for glycogen replenishment and rehydration.  Glycogen is a fancy term for your energy stores.  You have enough glycogen on board to support about a 90 minute effort.  This is why any workout or race lasting longer than 90 minutes (which is a sprint triathlon for most athletes!) requires a fuel and hydration plan.  When you deplete your glycogen stores through hard/long training or improper fueling or missing the recovery window, you put yourself a little further into a hole of low energy.  This negatively influences your workout for the next day and done often enough, increases your chances of getting sick or injured.  30 minutes after every workout, consume a source of carbohydrate, protein and rehydrate.

#7:  Alcohol Is The Enemy

Not only does alcohol put you are risk for embarrassing and dangerous situations, it also is an athlete’s poison.  Your sleep quality and quantity suffers.  You’re also prone to making poor food choices when consuming alcohol.  You wake up dehydrated, queasy and with a higher heart rate – making your body work harder even for an easier effort.  Any athlete serious about their goals knows that abstaining from alcohol is critical
#8:  Ignoring Triathlon As 5 Sports 
Most athletes train the swim, bike and run but on race day completely forget about the other, often more important factors, for success in racing.  Pacing – having a sound pace plan that you practice in training and then have the maturity, control and patience to execute on race day will go a long way.  Fueling/Hydrating – following a well-practiced and specific plan for what, how much and when to eat and drink during races is critical for ANY race lasting over 90 minutes.  Transitioning – a fast swim is nothing if you spend 2 minutes getting out of your wetsuit!  You can practice transitions before and after every workout on every training day.
#9:  Racing Without a Plan 
Racing without a plan is like traveling without a map.  If you point your car in the general direction of California you might end up there or might end up in — Canada?  Have a plan.  A week before your race, sit down and think through your timeline, pacing, mental strategies and supply lists.  Literally write out what you will do and when.  Read through it several times before race day, spending time visualize it in your mind’s eye.  You’d be surprised at how automatic your race will feel on race day – like you’re pressing the “play” button in your head and your “script” unfolds.

#10:  Racing Without Research 
Not only should you go into a race with a plan but a basic understanding of the demands of the race.  What’s the terrain like?  Temperature?  What time does the sun rise?  Will you be swimming into the sun?  Is there current?  What’s the weather forecast?  Wind direction and speed?  Road quality?  Look for blogs and race reports from athletes who have done the course before.  The day before the race, preview the course by car.  Doing your research on the course and knowing what to expect is free speed.  You start to control the controllables; goggle choice, tire inflation, gear, heat management supplies, pacing.  Triathlon great Paula Newby-Fraser once said: Expect anything, prepare for everything.
#11:  Overracing 
As we get into race season, it’s common for athletes to want to race every weekend.  After all, racing is the reward for all of your training!  But beware of racing too frequently.  It leads to a pattern of race – recover – race – recover and in that time, you don’t actually build fitness, you lose it – ending the summer less fit than you started and also risking injury.  Space out your races appropriately.  Choose 1 to 2 peak races per season, spacing them out by 8 weeks or more.  Mix in other races throughout.  The longer the race, the more time you need to prepare and recover from it.  Use shorter races (sprints, run races) as training experiences to build your fitness for peak races – but still respect the need for rest after any type of race or breakthrough training experience.

#12:  Going Long

The worst thing a young athlete can do is train or race the “speed” out of their system.  In youth, you have the unique privilege of elasticity and freshness in your body.  Your hormones are more robust.  All of these things lend to faster performances and higher potential.  When athletes go too long too soon, they deplete their hormones, they drain their energy and lose precious ‘pop’ that we all naturally lose as we ago.  While you’re under 30, go short, fast and have fun.  Avoid half and full Ironman distances.  Build up your durability through triathlon-specific strength training and take an annual rest cycle to decompress from the work and damage you’ve done.  These things will allow you to stay healthy, motivated and fresh for long-term performance well into your 50s in endurance sports.  Remember, you can still be fast at going long well into your 40s and 50s.  You start to lose your ability to go fast at shorter distances in your late 30s.

#13:  Short-Sightedness

Training is not just a day to day endeavor – it’s a series of purposeful workouts that tie into a big picture.  That big picture should be your ultimate or “A” season goal.  This goal is top priority; your training structure, timing and details are geared towards making this goal happen.  Often athletes scoff at the drills, the technique work, the boring “base building” workouts that lay the foundation for the harder, race specific work ahead. This view is short-sighted, with short-term gratification or boredom overruling long-term planning for your goal.  Widen the lens.  Look at everything you do – no matter how simple, boring, or slow as an integral part to your long term development as an athlete looking to achieve peak performance at your top season goal.
#14:  Learn to Take the Funnel Approach 
Imagine your “A” race as sitting at the bottom of a funnel.  As you get closer to the bottom, the space you have for error, extras and anything other than laser-like focus for your goal – becomes less.  Approach your races the same way.  As you get closer to your race, start to decline social outings, take the little time you do have to really take care of your body, zero in on your diet and wrap yourself in bubble wrap!  Saying no might be a small sacrifice for achieving your big goal.  After the race, take the time to kick back, recover and fall off the wagon a bit.  This will help your body to recover from the stress of preparing for an A race and give you the sense that all of your work was worth it.
#15:  You Can’t Do It All 
You cannot peak for a sprint, Olympic, marathon and Ironman in a single season – no matter how good you are.  Choose one thing and do it well.  Focus your training and racing on a specific distance, giving yourself the time and training experiences that will lend to peak performance at that distance.  Though a sprint and an Ironman are both triathlons – the training is completely different.  Focus to get the most out of your performance.

#16:  Information Overload

Today’s youth are privileged to have an abundance of information at their fingertips from multiple sources.   Everyone is an expert on the internet and social media.  The challenge of youth is to learn to filter out what is meaningful, reasonable and relevant.  Find a few reputable sources and mentors and follow what they say.  Learn how to compartmentalize the information out there into categories of scientific proof/theory and opinion.  Follow theories that have stood the test of time.  Experiment carefully and minimally with anything else.  Don’t believe most of what you read on forums.  Above all, have someone you can bounce information and ideas off of to help you make sense of everything out there.

#17:  Avoiding An Ounce of Prevention

With youth comes an invincibility that time will never catch up to you or it will never happen to you.  The five most dangerous words you can say to yourself maybe it will go away.  It might – for a short time but chances are it will catch up to you and become a bigger problem later.  Now, when you have the time as your life really isn’t busy and it really is just all about you – take care of yourself.   Do body maintenance – improve your mobility through stretching and yoga.  Increase your strength through sensible, multi-planar functional strength training.  Look for the cause of any injuries or recurring niggles – whether through the help of a physical therapist or sports doctor.  Invest in the best equipment (ie., shoes, bike fit) to keep your body injury free.
#18:  Not Listening to Your Body

The best athletes are finely in tune with what their body is saying.  If you think your body isn’t giving you messages, you’re not listening!  Feelings of fatigue, hunger and stress are all powerful messages from your body.  Taking a day off, eating more or relaxing will go a long way to fight off illness or injury.  Taking your resting heart rate each morning is another way to listen to your body’s messages.  A few days of an elevated heart rate suggest it’s time to back off the stress and take it easy.  A pain in your foot might mean it’s time to reduce run volume, stretch or get a massage.  Listen to your body!
#19:  Worrying About What Others Are Doing 
Training with groups or friends can be a great way to push yourself, stay motivated and make the time fly.  But be careful of turning every session into a competitive hammer fest.  Stay your own path.  This is your journey, your process.  On your easy days – train solo or exhibit the maturity and patience to go easy when your schedule calls for going easy.  Do what’s right for your body and goals – not your friends.  Race in races only – don’t leave your best performances in training.
#20:  Distractability 
Distractability is a dilemma for today’s youth. Your ability to focus is constantly challenged by so many sources of incoming stimuli, options and media.  Learning to focus through meditation, quiet time or visualization is critical for being an athlete.  Practicing the ability to be in the moment, here and now, will help you to reign in your doubts, mind and self-talk during a race.  When you are racing – it’s all about finding the quiet in your head so you can focus on the task at hand.  Once a week, practice the art of focus in training – no watching tv, no listening to music, no talking to friends, no checking email/Twitter/Facebook.  Learn how to direct your mind and manage the chatter in your head.

#21:  Ignoring the Stress Bucket

How full is your bucket?  Are you taking 20 hours of classes, working a part-time job and pulling all nighters?  If so, your stress bucket is full.  Training is also stress.  Even though you may enjoy training and feel a stress release from it, anything that taxes the body is stress.  And the body does not differentiate between life stress, work stress and training stress.  To stay healthy and make gains in your training, you need to be sure your bucket doesn’t overflow.  “Balance” is the word often used to find that point where you can manage the demands of life, work, relationships, training and school without overflowing the bucket.
#22:  Going At It Alone 
Everyone needs someone they can depend on when they’re confused, feeling low or need direction.  Find a mentor, role model or coach you can look up to, ask questions and seek guidance.  This might be an old coach, an old teammate, a professional athlete.  Find an objective source that you can bring your questions and concerns about training and performance.  Look up to them; value their opinion, experience and perspective.  Ask questions and filter what you find most useful for you and your situation.

Thanks to Jennifer Harrison (who coaches University of Illinois triathlon team) and Nick Rizzo (one of my athletes who is a collegiate women’s soccer coach) for brainstorming some ideas with me about this topic!