Triathlon can be frustrating as hell sometimes. You know the feeling. You’re training hard, you’re making all your club sessions, you’ve bought the latest kit – but still you’re not getting faster.
In fact, your times may have fallen and your mates are dropping you on rides that you used to find easy. Plus, that niggle in your right knee? It just won’t go away…
So what’s going on? Well, the good news is this is something that happens a lot and we generally don’t need to resort to expensive scientific testing to get to the answer.
It’s just a case of looking a bit deeper at what we’re doing in (and out of) training and being honest with ourselves about what could be going wrong.
There are several common mistakes that many triathletes make and, chances are, you’re guilty of at least a couple of them, and this is probably what’s holding you back.
Read on as we explain what they are, how to beat them and how to start smashing it again.
1. Try new sessions
When training time calls, most of us have a favourite session we return to time after time. But much as you might enjoy it, this may not be best for performance progression.
You know that phrase: ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got’? Well when it comes to tri training, it’s true.
Triathletes might love to read about new training styles and of the benefits that can be achieved by revolutionising their training habits, but unfortunately many don’t get past this point and stick to the same tried and tested methods.
The result? Lots of training, no progress.If you’re in this rut, it can even go as far as you always repeating the same races, because you’re always searching for a PB on a specific course.
It might feel familiar and comfortable but sadly, in order to change performance, we need to sometimes get out of our comfort zone and try new things.
It’s not necessary to change all of your training habits, as you may be seeing great success in some areas, but when the progress slows down or even starts to go backwards – then it’s time to snap out of it and look for new ways to challenge yourself.
Finding ways to change your current training habits is difficult so don’t look to change everything at the same time. Think about where you feel you could find the best gains and start there.
Does your swim stroke need professional advice? Could you benefit from including cycling time trials in your plan? Should you think about joining a running club?
Seeking some advice from a tri club coach or a professional tri coach could help you look at your daily, weekly or monthly plan and suggest ways to change it or adapt the blocks.
Another way to seek some change is to train with new people – it can bring a new energy to your sessions!
Sign up for a new race you’ve never done before and one that will mean you need to train differently. It will challenge you but you might just like it!
2. Quality, not quantity
You might have managed an hour more than your training rival on Strava this week (ha!), but the bad news is it won’t necessarily see you being faster on race day.
If in doubt, do more – right? Well, not really. There’s no doubt that triathlon is a sport where you have to cover decent amounts of training distance in order to be able to build fitness and be race-ready.
But triathletes often fall into the ‘more is better’ trap and it becomes like a badge of honour to have beasted yourself for a couple of hours each week more than your club mates or to have achieved something more each week on Strava.
However, if that same athlete is not backing it up with results then they need to think about their approach. Structuring your training and aiming to execute quality targets in every single session is far more beneficial and will produce greater results.
There’s also an argument that simply focusing on building training miles will lead to fatigue or injury, as it becomes a competition to do more and more distance each week. Ask yourself where this ends?!
How to change:
So let’s say, for example, you want to run faster. You can run heaps and heaps of miles, but that ultimately will enable you to run further, not necessarily faster.
If you reduce the overall run distance in a session though and focus on smaller blocks of distance and set challenging targets, this can be more successful. Quite simply, in order to run faster, you need to run faster.
It may be more difficult but that’s part of the process of changing habits. Another way to avoid covering ‘junk miles’ is to attend club sessions where a coach is dictating the distances covered.
This will encourage you to concentrate on speed and power instead of distance.
When reviewing your training data look at the detail of the sessions and see how much time you spend doing ‘junk miles’ and aim to reduce them by 10-15%. Replace with quality sessions.
3. Fuel correctly
Yeah, so you burn a lot of calories training for triathlon. But however many your burn, it’s almost impossible to out-train a bad diet. Here’s what you should be eating
Let’s face it, as triathletes most of us like our food (and lots of it), but that doesn’t mean we have healthy diets. At some point most of us will have an inner voice telling us: ‘Well I’ve earned it as I did a really tough training session today’.
Okay if you’re looking at a plate of chicken and rice, less good if you’re eyeballing a meatfeast pizza.
It’s true to say that as we burn through big amounts of calories we might be able to eat large amounts of calories, but the quality of what we eat and when we eat is crucial to staying in great shape.
If you owned a high-performance sports car you wouldn’t put the cheapest low quality fuel into it, and we need to treat our bodies in exactly the same way. A poorly structured diet can very often be the final link in the chain that athletes need to correct to see performance gains.
We’re not saying put a ban on all treats (we’re not ogres), but they should only make up 10% of your diet.
How to change:
Just as you plan out your training sessions, you should also plan out your meals and snacks. Picking at random foods and snacks is a recipe for disaster, and usually leads to choosing high calorie foods that have very little nutritional benefit.
Aim to have your meals set out at least a couple of days in advance and if you’re snacking, then pack healthy snacks to take with you wherever you go.
It’s also important to have your main post-workout meal within 90mins of training, so consider how you can do this.
Aim to make small changes to your diet that can be sustainable. Gradually include more changes until you’re happy that you have the balance correct. Radical changes to diet and lifestyle are rarely realistic to maintain.
4. Train with friends
You’ll save considerable energy by sitting in a group comfortably, but, more importantly, you owe it to yourself and your fellow riders to be safe and confident. Here’s what to do…
Triathlon is an individual sport, for sure. Come race day, it’s just you against the clock. But when it comes to training, you should adopt a very different approach.
We can learn so much from working in groups and there are only positives about training in a squad environment.
A great example of this is when triathletes don’t like to cycle in a group, stating that it’s like drafting which isn’t allowed in racing (apart from draft-legal events) and so they go it alone or hang off the back of a group.
Instead, they should be watching how others ride and learning from better skilled riders.
The natural competitiveness that all triathletes have in them allows them to achieve more from their training sessions when there’s a friendly rivalry with team mates.
Not only are there physical gains to be made from training with others but we can also learn about different swim, bike and run techniques.
How to change:
Not everybody feels comfortable as part of a group and it will mean putting yourself in a position of vulnerability. Have a think about if you want to join a triathlon club, or if you need help with one specific discipline of triathlon and join a single-sport club.
You will most likely find that there are lots of others who feel exactly the same as you do and are of similar ability levels. You don’t have to do all of your training in a group environment, but do be open to trying it out!
Do some research and ask questions about various clubs in your area. Choose a group that suits your needs and take the plunge. Start with just attending one group session per week and do more if it suits you.
5. Hit the gym
Spending endless hours swimming, biking and running, but coming out in a (cold) sweat just thinking about the weights room? It’s time to learn to love strength and conditioning.
Hate the weights room? Yep, you’re not alone. This is maybe the most common flaw in triathletes that I see as a coach.
Although nearly every athlete understands the benefit of strength training and what impact it can have on their overall triathlon experience, sadly so many of them will always drop the strength session when time becomes tight or they think it’s not actually making them faster.
Instead they will plough on with swim, bike and run, but some of these sessions may actually be ‘junk’.
A common discussion between triathletes is how they’re constantly working with the odd niggle (how many of you are battling a ‘twinge’ in a hamstring or Achilles tendon?) or are getting properly injured and it’s disrupting their season.
All of this could be avoided by sticking to a structured and regular strength session. Imagine a building that’s weak when put under stress from external factors – our bodies are the same!
If we can make our skeletal and muscular structures stronger we’re more resilient to the stress of a heavy training regime.
When an athlete becomes functionally stronger then they will be able to move faster and generate more power without fatiguing as quickly. These are the stepping stones to success and no triathlete can afford to ignore this.
Set yourself a mini challenge of completing 4-5 body weight exercises three times per week. Keep them simple. Change the exercises each fortnight to add variety. Make the routine last no longer than 20mins.
6. Plan your season
Regardless of the end goal, having a plan for how to get there is crucial. Many, many athletes instead seem to move from one week to the next, one month to the next and even one year to the next without any real pathway of how to achieve their targets.
It’s possible that there will be some success but without a clear plan an athlete will struggle to meet their potential. Without a plan how can you know if your training sessions have been successful?
If there’s no objective how can you measure what you’ve completed? Instead, you will simply be moving from one session to the next without any purpose.
This is where a coach can be helpful as they will challenge you to look at what you’re currently doing and will offer advice on how to change the old routine.
The process of planning must start with evaluating your current performances and asking questions about where you need to improve, then executing the new plan and constantly re-evaluating.
The reasons for not planning can include being lazy or being happy with what is comfortable, but in order to see real change there must be a plan!
Take your time to work on this and map out on a calendar your objectives for the year. Don’t be afraid to seek advice from a coach or team mates on how they plan their training.
7. Listen to your body
Social media might be packed with ‘man up’ messages about being tough in training, but you’d be better off listening to the messages your body is sending you. Here’s why
There’s heaps of advice out there about how to train, when to train and what to do – but ultimately you are the best judge. As we’re all different, it means that there’s not a ‘one size fits all’ method of how to achieve your triathlon targets.
The most common example of where we need to listen to our own bodies and the feedback it gives us is when deciding if we should train through fatigue and possibly injury. Triathletes are a very stubborn bunch!
If this sounds like you, then this may be when your body starts to give you signals that you should pull back or stop altogether. But instead you carry on and end up missing days, or maybe a week of training rather than just a single session.
When deciding what distances or intensity of training is best for you, again you must let your head rule your heart, don’t follow the crowd when you know it just isn’t right for you. Sometimes it’s best to do your own thing.
Who cares if your buddy is doing an Ironman? If an Olympic distance is right for your body right now, then don’t feel you have to scale up. Picking the right level for you is better than getting sidelined completely through injury or fatigue.
How to change:
Over time as an athlete, you will develop the ability to pick up on the physiological signals that your body gives you through exercise and how to separate between general exercise-induced fatigue, which is actually good to experience, and the type of fatigue that comes with overtraining or the early onset of an illness.
If you can tell the difference you will know when it’s time to take an extra rest day and recover before starting to train again. Examples of these signals include loss of appetite, needing to sleep excessively, decrease in performance levels and a lack of desire to train.
Always take preventative steps to avoid illness and injury. Don’t wait to get ill when you’re given an opportunity to take control of the situation. Better to miss the odd session than miss a whole week.