Having worked with triathletes of all levels during my career as a coach I've seen the same mistakes being made. And this is regardless of the level of the triathlete. From beginner to elite I have seen these mistakes triathletes make happening again and again.
It's interesting that they are easy to make and in reality should be easy to fix. However, surprisingly some athletes do struggle to make the change. So what are they?
1. Training too hard on your easy sessions: Triathlon is an aerobic based sport, meaning we need to develop our endurance capabilities. That requires training at an intensity that feels easy.
So what is easy? There are a number of ways we can measure intensity to ensure we're training at the appropriate level to get the outcome needed. The first is RPE (rate of perceived exertion) where we rate our intensity level 1-10.
A 1 is sitting on the couch doing nothing while a 10 is a flat out maximal effort. To develop our endurance levels and improve our aerobic energy system we need to train at around a 5-6/10. At that level it should feel easy enough that you could have a conversation though it might be slightly laboured.
If we were using a heart rate monitor we should training at between 60 and 75% of your maximum heart rate. You can do a maximum heart rate test in a lab or otherwise take it at the end of 5km time trial in running and you'll get a good idea of what it is.
I find the old 220 minus your age is not that accurate. I am 49 and my maximum heart rate is around 195 so it doesn't work for me.
A great way to measure your aerobic limit is using the MAF method. This was devised by Dr Phil Maffetone a sports physician in the United States that has worked with athletes of all levels for many years.
His studies and experiences show that 180 minus your age will give you a guide as to your maximum aerobic intensity for easy sessions that develop endurance. I would certainly agree that in my experiences coaching this formula has been very useful and accurate.
To develop our endurance capabilities the majority of our training (70-80% of total volume) should be at that easy training intensity. The remaining 20-30 % should be at 8-9/10 or 80-95% of maximum heart rate. This concept is known as polarised training.
Where triathletes go wrong is they go too hard on their easy sessions. Instead of training at that easy aerobic intensity they fall into the middle or grey zone. Somewhere around 75-80% of maximum and where it is too hard to fully develop aerobic conditioning and not hard enough to develop strength and speed from high intensity work.
The biggest problem though is the body registers that type of training as a hard session but in reality you haven't gone that hard. By training at this intensity for a long period of time performance and improvements plateau. Injuries, illness and faitgue become a risk and triathletes start themselves why are they not improving.
One of the biggest reasons triathletes do this is doing their easy sessions in a group. Not wanting to fall off the back of a group in a ride or run when you feel as though it's gone beyond easy and into moderate for fear of what others in the group will think. And also looking at the GPS device and wanting to go by what that says in terms of speed rather than heart rate and feel.
I'm all for training in groups and love it. But don't be afraid to drop off the pace if you feel as though it's getting too hard for your easy session.
Speed on one day could be high but on the next day not so much. That is part of the training process, some days the easy feel great and other days not so much. This is why we need to also be in touch with what our body is telling us and use the data such as GPS as a guide.
Sometimes triathletes also fall into the trap that unless they are spent at the end of a training session it hasn't been worth it. For the most part we should finish training feeling as though you could do more regardless of the intensity.
The best way to avoid making this mistake is to remind yourself of the goal of each session. If it is an easy aerobic session then stick to that heart rate limit or where you can have a conversation. It is a discipline but by doing so you'll see the benefits in greater training consistency which will lead to improved performances and a greater enjoyment of the sport.
2. The second mistakes that triathletes make is comparing to others - comparison is the thief of joy. Through social media and even just comparing yourself to people in your training group or people you compete against it's easy to fall into a trap thinking they're better than you.
It might be they look fitter than what I do. They've got a faster bike than me. They have more time to train than me. They seem to have their shit together more than me. The list goes on.
My experience in life is everyone has their own bag of rocks to carry. We've all got our challenges in life regardless of what it looks like on the outside. Once we accept that it is our journey and success is as simple as saying, "am I better than I was yesterday?" If the answer is yes then it doesn't matter what others are doing or if they are faster than you.
We can't judge ourselves by what place we come in a race or even what time we do. At the age group level triathlon is in many ways not an even playing field. Some people have more time to train, can spend more time recovering, afford better equipment, can afford coaching and might be more genetically blessed.
If you're comparing yourself to someone based on what you see on the surface then you'll never be satisfied. The only person you should compare yourself to is who you were yesterday.
3. Not getting the basics right is the last of the mistakes that triathletes make. Triathlon is a basic sport, though you wouldn't think it with how complicated some people make it and the devices available to measure everything.
At it's heart it is swim, bike and run. Yes there are technicalities around how much training, what intensity and what type of training but primarily we should break it down by asking yourselves the following questions:
- Am I enjoying the sport?
- Am I improving?
- Am I recovering and balancing triathlon with the rest of my life?
If you can answer yes to those questions then you'll be doing all the right things. You'll be training at the correct intensities and volume, recovering properly and therefore getting faster. Overall result is enjoyment and satisfaction.
It also means you'll be getting the basics right which include sleep, diet, regular breaks and maintaining a healthy perspective on the sport.
There is no point spending thousands of dollars on fancy equipment if you're overweight and not eating properly. Get the basics right first about eating well, being healthy and fit and then worry about spending money on the latest equipment.
Similarly what's the point of spending a lot of time training if you can't stay awake at work or you want to lie on the couch all weekend. You can still train hard and achieve your goals but make sure you're getting enough sleep and recovering properly from training.
These are all basics that anyone of any level should do. But so many don't get them right. Take the short cut by eating poorly, skipping on sleep and being too worried about the outcomes rather than enjoying the process.
If things are not going the way you planned then ask yourself if you're guilty of these mistakes triathletes make.