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I love learning - in whatever form that takes. Something that I've aimed for in the short years I've been involved in triathlon is to learn as much as I can - about myself, about the sport, and about others. One thing I always find interesting is hearing about other people’s (and their coaches’) approaches to training, witnessing the way people act and react in their pursuit of their own goals, and listening to the myriad experiences that people have had along the way.
I am of the school of thought that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to coaching or training – every athlete has different needs, different genetics, different responses and adaptations, and different areas of focus. I think it’s narrow-visioned to apply the same training principles to countless athletes and expect the same results.
Too often I hear of coaches who just ‘beast’ their athletes – providing them with high volume, high (yet unmeasured) intensity, and not enough recovery. As such, these athletes will train tired most of the time, never really capable of hitting their full potential in training or in racing as they are missing that top 5% which makes all the difference.
In many ways, these athletes will improve to begin with. Sure, it’s easy enough to just ‘go and do hard sessions’ – any brute can put themselves into the ‘hurt box’ – but it’s not scientific, it’s not individualised, and more importantly, it’s not sustainable.
After time, these athletes will inevitably start to plateau because the adaptations on the body are limited, there is insufficient recovery, and if they are training tired and can’t give that extra 5% or 10% in training, they won’t get any adaptation benefit.  What’s more, illness and injury risks are high, and both mentally and physically, the athlete will break down.
It’s not as simple as ‘just do more training’ or ‘just train harder’ – that’s ignorant. There are so many factors which come together to make great athletes exceptional, and it really is a perfect science. Except the tricky bit is that’s it’s different science for each and every different individual, because there is not a single formula which works for everyone. The challenge for a coach, then, is to know what does work for each individual and quite often, that’s just established through trial and error.
The other important part is recovery. I think we all know this, but how many people actually really respect what recovery really means and how much value it holds in catalysing improvements? The capacity to listen to your own body and recognise the differentiation between it just ‘feeling hard’ and wanting to quite versus feeling genuinely ‘exhausted’ is a learned skill, and one which many people have not yet acquired.
Yet it is crucial in any athlete-coach relationship to have a two-way communication – a good coach isn’t someone who just provides ‘training programmes’ – anyone can download those off the internet – a good coach will listen, adapt, measure, monitor, and work with you, constantly tweaking and adapting your programme based on your feedback, data, experiences, and how you generally feel.
The other part to over training without a science-backed, intelligently executed training programme, is longevity in the sport.
If you are constantly battering yourself, you are tired for every session. If you are tired for every session, you won’t be hitting your target numbers or reaching your full potential. If you are not reaching your full potential, you will feel demotivated and deflated. If you feel demotivated, you won’t enjoy training. If you don’t enjoy training, you won’t be doing it for very long.
It’s a simplistic view, but it holds some truth. There is only so much your mind and body can take if you are only ever battering yourself in training – and if it isn’t injury or illness that inhibits you, it will be your mind. Which one will give up first?
If you want longevity in the sport, you need balance. Balanced training programmes which combine easier sessions and harder sessions to maximise the benefit of both aerobic and anaerobic training, which incorporate sufficient rest and recovery, nutrition which is right for YOU, and strength and conditioning to prevent injury. Furthermore, a balanced mentality towards the sport.
Another thing I often see, which is not unusual given the type-A person that is stereotypically attracted to this sport, is obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Yes, we are all prone to triathlon taking over our lives, some more than others, and it can be an all-consuming thing (I won’t claim that I am an exception here). However, there is a fine balance between becoming ‘over-focused’ (yes, that is a thing) and retaining a sense of proportion while still being the best you can be.
Again, it comes down to a sustainability issue. It’s not sustainable to deny yourself something in the pursuit of greatness – completely cutting out food groups, alcohol, chocolate, or a social life – whatever your ‘vice’ is – only lasts for a period of time before it makes you unhappy. And here, I revert back to the point previously iterated – unhappiness doesn’t lend itself to longevity in the sport.
Realistically, happier people who can have fun (still applicable even if you’re at the very top of your game), relax from time to time, have the odd beer or glass of wine and realising it won’t undo years of training, realising that there is in fact ‘life outside of triathlon’, will probably spend longer in the sport - and might even be more successful - than those who take themselves too seriously and let triathlon rule them rather than the other way round.
Sadly, I think the 'slave' approach ruins many people's potential. Although I may have not had many years in the sport, I have learned as much as I can through my own and other people’s experiences, and am frequently reviewing and checking in on how it is working for me, what’s not working, and what I can do differently. But most of all, I make sure that what I'm doing makes me happy.
Self-awareness really is the key thing here, and I think it can get you far - both in sport and in life.