The sport of triathlon. It is unlike most others because it involves training for not just one, but three separate disciplines. Training for one discipline is hard enough and requires time, energy, dedication, and a willingness to learn. Sports like basketball, football, track, volleyball, and swimming are hard enough to participate in and excel at by themselves. But to train seriously for three sports? If you really want to be good, then you need to multiply that training time by three. What does that give you?
Not enough hours in the day, in my opinion.
First, let me say that Iím not a sports psychologist, a physical therapist, or even a triathlon coach (edit March '03 - I am now). What I am is a guy who has been training hard since he was a kid, who has been injured, who has been burned out, but who has a positive attitude and knows what it takes to do well at triathlons as well as life in general. And Iíd like to share what Iíve learned along the way. What I say may be something you already know, but maybe there will be something I say that will make you think, and maybe that will help you down the road some day. With that in mind, letís talk triathlon.
There are a number of results from the typical triathleteís training schedule of one or two workouts a day. The good results are, of course, excellent fitness and health, competitiveness, a good body, an active mind, and the ability to eat just about anything you want. Itís also a great feeling to know that you are using the gifts that youíve been given in life in a healthy and fun venue like triathlon.
However, there are some negative consequences to this kind of training regimen as well. These include injuries, both new and recurring, over-training, burnout, and time away from friends and family. Iím going to try and discuss these topics during the course of the winter, but what I want to talk about in this article are a couple of methods Iíve discovered over the years to avoid these negative consequences.
First, letís discuss what a lot of us triathletes go through. It probably has an official technical name somewhere, but for right now Iím just going to call it training addiction. You know what Iím talking about. Itís the feeling that if you miss just one workout, youíre entire season will be ruined. Itís the feeling that makes you get out of bed and go for a run on a morning when, in reality, you really do need the rest and should have stayed in bed. Itís this feeling that ultimately leads to injury and burnout. It is the demon that resides in all of us, and itís name is Obsession.
Obsession is not uncommon in our sport. You can recognize it in some people. All they talk about is racing and training. Itís all they think about. And the truth is, if someoneís going to be obsessed with something, triathlon is not such a bad thing to be obsessed with. There are certainly worse things in the world.
But there is more to life than training and racing. And old training partner of mine from New Jersey said it best. I was just getting serious about triathlons, and he explained his philosophy to me. Simply, it is all about balance. He liked to train hard, and race hard (and he did great), but his life did not center around triathlons. He was a triathlete, no doubt about it, but he was also many other things.
Thatís the attitude I have about it now. I have a great time racing and training, but itís not the only thing I am interested in. And this brings me back to my original point - training addiction. Sometimes, when you wake up, or when you come home from work, and you feel really tired, just take a break. Skip a workout. Donít do it a lot, because triathlon training does require a lot of time, but do it once in a while. That rest break will do you much more good than bad, and will most likely help you avoid burnout and injury in the long run.
Letís talk about that as well - the long run. Iím not talking about a 20 miler on Saturday. Iím talking about staying with triathlons for the long run. We all know those individuals who get involved in triathlons, and who immediately go off the deep end, training and racing all the time, sometimes to the detriment of their personal and professional lives. Sometimes they do great and eventually learn how to balance it all out. Others, and youíve seen them, burn out in a furious burst of energy, never to be seen on the race course again. Some of these people end up with serious, chronic injuries. Others hang their bikes on the wall and spend the rest of their lives watching reruns of Happy Days. (OK, maybe Iím exaggerating now...)
Then look at a guy like Scott Tinley. Heís been at it for more than 20 years, and heís still smiling and having a great time. Thatís what it should be about. Yeah, heís serious about triathlons, but yeah, heís also got lots of other things going on in his life. Heís got a great wife, two daughters, three books, his own clothing line, his own triathlon series, and, just for fun, heís working on a doctorate. Heís able to stay serious about the sport while achieving a lot in other avenues of life. Now thatís what I call balance.
One of the best ways to keep some balance in triathlon is to take some time off from the sport every year. Every other sport has an off-season, but triathletes always seem to find an excuse to train straight through.
"I gotta beat this person next year."
"I need to get faster in the swim."
"Iím aging up a category and itís tougher than the one I was in this year!!!"
This is the stuff we tell ourselves. And believe me, I understand it. Having both hurt myself training too hard and burning out while trying to train straight through the winter, in my experience, a break at the end of the season is what everybody needs. Some people need less than others, but even the most competitive, fittest athletes, if they know their bodies and understand their sport, will take some down time. Otherwise they risk their health and their happiness.
Thatís what Iím hoping to help you all avoid. So I made up this little list, and if it helps just one person out there avoid burnout or chronic injury, then Iíve done my good deed for the season.
- If you train doubles or triples during the season, drop down to once a day for at least three weeks to two months at the end of the season. If you train once a day during the season, drop down to three or four times a week for three weeks to two months.
- During a long period of intense training (more than four weeks), take a mini-break near the middle. That would be 2 or 3 days of absolutely zero exercise. This helps your body rest as well as gets your mind excited to get back into it.
- During serious training, if you feel nagging pain or discomfort, take a few days off to rest and repair. If you keep training with questionable health, you risk serious injury.
- If youíre sick, for Peteís sake, take a few days off!!
- Train with other people. Itís more fun and will help you make new friends.
- Take easy days at least once a week.
- Do strength training. I prefer free weights, but not everyone can do this. Other options are stuff like isometrics and resistance training - stretch cords and the like.
- Mix it up once in a while. Jump on the rowing machine. Go surfing or mountain biking. Have some fun!
- Donít take yourself so seriously. Sure, youíre a triathlete, but what has that ever gotten you most of the time but some funny looks from your friends? Loosen up!
- Above all, and I mean it, have fun. Learn to enjoy your workouts. When you get to a race, donít be worried about the competition. Rather, say to yourself, ĎI am going to have a great time today.í This will make for a long and happy triathlon career.
Basically, thatís it. Those are my training secrets. Well, okay, maybe there are a couple other ones, but...;-)
Until next time, train safe and have fun.Marty Gaal - October 2000