Chrissie Wellington on… The importance of rest days

Britain’s four-time Kona queen shares her advice on how to listen to your body and cope with self-doubt

(Image: Jonny Gawler)

With our ‘Train with Chrissie’ competition winner Katy Campbell struggling not only to muster the energy to train, but also to handle the expectations placed on her, four-time Kona winner Chrissie Wellington shares her advice.


Competition winner Katy came to me at the end of last year with a complaint that I’ve not only heard many times in my career but have also uttered myself: “I’m terrible at figuring out when to rest and often leave it too late as I hate to feel like I’m skiving. Any top tips on deciding when to have a day off?!”

First of all, for any athlete, it’s great to think about this and learn to read your own body. For Katy, her volume of training has increased, so it’s not surprising she might be feeling tired. It’s so important to listen to the signals, ask for advice and respond appropriately.

Many of us find it hard to take days/time off. This was anathema to me and tantamount to weakness – especially if people were always asking what I’d done. To respond with “I haven’t trained today” was like admitting I was weak or a failure. Coach Brett Sutton told me: “You don’t know how to rest your body and mind. Unless you can learn to do this you will never be a successful athlete.” He was right.

Rest/recovery is NOT weakness or failure. It’s fundamental to success. It’s not the swim/bike/run sessions that will make you fitter, it’s the recovery – the adaptation and regeneration from the stress caused by those activities. And it is not just about physical recovery; it’s mental recovery/relaxation too.

Take it easy

Regarding rest days, there’s no hard and fast rule, but generally it’s sensible to have a rest day once every 7–10 days. Spending the afternoon trying in vain to assemble an Ikea wardrobe does not count as rest: buttocks on sofa is the position to assume. Push aside any (unnecessary and self-destructive) feelings of guilt or laziness and trust that resting makes you stronger and more resilient. Yes, sometimes you can also opt to substitute harder sessions with an easy training day (active recovery), but the emphasis is on the word ‘easy’. If it goes from being a 90min spin on the bike to a 2hr ride with a few hills then you’ve totally changed the nature of the ride and its purpose.

The key is to listen to your body and its signals, irrespective of your planned training schedule, and ask yourself some simple questions. Have my last few workouts been pretty sub-optimal? Has my sleep been broken? Am I moody and irritable? Do I feel overly lethargic and tired? Has my appetite disappeared? Do my legs feel like they’ve been run over by a truck?

Matt and I are trying to encourage Katy to try to work out what ‘tired’ feels like, what ‘illness’ feels like, and what ‘prolonged fatigue’ might be. Yes, it’s a fine line and that’s also why a log-book can help, so you can see if there’s a pattern developing and where you/your coach can respond accordingly.

We also need to make sure that Katy’s getting enough (good quality) sleep. Sleep is vital to recovery. Cut down on the caffeine, switch off your phone and computer a few hours before bed, don’t eat too late, keep the bedroom for sleeping rather than gym sessions/watching tv and so forth. Whenever my sleep was disturbed, it was actually a sign that I might be over-trained. This isn’t the same for everyone, but it was something for me to watch out for.

It’s really important to try your best to relax your mind as well as body. For Katy, it’s hard as she’s in the ‘spotlight’, so to speak, but try your best to turn off the triathlon switch so that you forget all things ‘A-race’ related. Watch TV, cook a meal, meditate, read a book, go to the movies – anything that gives your mind a break.

As we’ve told Katy, if you’re a newbie, right now the focus is on exploring yourself, and your body, and getting used to doing three sports in one. It’s not about doing x hours per week at x speed (that comes later!). Be kind to yourself and banish guilt. It’s not healthy and it’s not productive. You may need more rest than some and less than others. It’s not about them, it’s about YOU, and what you need. Err on the side of caution. If in doubt, don’t train.

Chrissie Wellington continues her pep talk on how to listen to your body and cope with nagging feelings of self-doubt…

“I’m worried that I won’t live up to people’s expectations of me. How did you cope with self-doubt and the pressure to perform?”

This was [competition winner] Katy’s next concern and, as I’ve said to her, it’s normal to feel like this! We all have those mental demons at some time or another, whether it’s nervousness, self-doubt, anxiety or fear. Dealing with this insidious foe is not unique to sport: deadlines at work, job interviews, meeting the in-laws for the first time, giving a speech – it’s not uncommon to be gripped with feelings of self-doubt and worry that we won’t be able to perform, that we’re not up to scratch, or that we might let people down. The more we doubt ourselves, the worse it can become, in a downward spiral of fear and nervousness.

We need to find ways to identify and then banish the self-doubt and build self-belief and self-confidence. Replace any negative thoughts with positives statements and affirmations. Instead of seeing your A-race as a hurdle that you will trip up on, see it as a means by which you can get the very best out of yourself, an opportunity to challenge your mind and body and reach new limits.

Don’t dwell on what you haven’t done or can’t do. Remember how far you’ve come, even in the last few months. In Katy’s case she’s gone from not being able to swim 2km to routinely completing the distance in training.

Visualising success

Visualisation can help; visualise yourself achieving your goals and hold onto that image. You can also use techniques to help relax mind and body. Deep breathing, listening to music, repeating a mantra – all these can help ease tension. It’s also worth looking back at times where you may have doubted yourself and gone on to achieve your goals. Use those experiences to give you confidence that you’re capable of more than you may think.

It’s really good to reach out and express how you’re feeling. I know that I often bottle up my fears and concerns because I’m scared of being seen as a burden or that people might think I’m strange or neurotic. Sometimes all you need is a little reassurance and your family and friends, your coaches and training mates are all there to provide that. It’s a shared journey, which means dealing with all the ups and downs together as a team. Once you share your concerns you’ll also realise just how many people feel the same at some time or another.

I find that I doubt myself the most when I compare myself (unfavourably) with others. Everyone is on his/her own journey and others’ accomplishments are not a litmus test to grade your own success. I’m also guilty of worrying about what everyone else is thinking of me, which can be psychologically limiting.

I recently asked Katy how she would define success. She said that it wasn’t about times or positions; it was about using this opportunity to grow, to challenge herself and, most importantly, to have fun. So the only pressure or expectation is that she does this and has fun at every opportunity! And that’s the best advice I can share with you all.

(Images: Jonny Gawler)


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