Most of our training we do, as amateur part-time athletes, falls into one of the following categories:
Endurance, where you are training to go for longer distances. For example, people who want to train for a marathon who have only ever done 10k runs before. That sort of thing.
Strength, where you are trying to do things that require more physical strength. Sometimes this is for appearance's sake, like where someone wants to develop larger or more defined muscles. Sometimes this is for more practical reasons, like where someone wants to be able to cycle up hills, run up hills, or carry equipment.
Speed, where you are trying to go faster for a given distance.
I have been a triathlete for 13 years and a triathlon coach for 9 years. I have worked with thousands of people and helped them to achieve pretty much every conceivable combination of goals listed above, and a few more that don't fit into those categories above. I have worked with people going to world championships in their age group, professional elite triathletes, as well as ordinary people trying to achieve extraordinary things through triathlon at pretty much every distance out there.
So, here are a few things that I have learnt along the way. A few you may not have heard before, a few you probably have heard before but are worth repeating, but all of them will help you achieve your goals:
1. Don't try and do it all at once
Break it down into bite-size pieces and tackle your goals one at a time, in a sensible order. First endurance, then strength, then speed.
If you have only given yourself 3 months to train for your first marathon, then you have not given yourself enough time to do everything you want to do. Sorry, but you simply can't quadruple your running distance AND shave 2 minutes per mile off your longer distance running time all in one go.
What you can do is achieve one of your goals this year and then build up towards achieving another goal next year, and then set another goal to achieve the year after that...and so on.
2. The harder you train, the more you risk injury
This is something you probably won't hear in most of those places where they come up with new and improved ways for you to burn more calories in a shorter period of time - and achieve your dream results faster.
I'm not saying don't ever train hard, but I am saying don't always train hard. It's over-rated, the results are short-lived, and there are loads of benefits to good, old-fashioned moderate training sessions, too.
3. Learn to tell the difference between bad pain and not-so-bad pain
Some pain is sharp, doesn't go away quickly, and probably indicates you have done something the wrong way or excessively - and that's bad pain.
If you have strained something, then you probably need to get some professional help, figure out what you did wrong, correct your form, and do it better next time. Some pain goes away immediately, probably from soreness or a new type of exertion, and that can be not-so-bad pain. Not all pain is all good or all bad.
Some pain you can "train through" and "tough it out", some pain is an important warning sign telling you to stop now before things get really bad. Hard to tell the difference, but worth figuring it out.
4. Allow for regular rest
One day out of every week, one week out of every month, one month out of every year. Rest and recover.
When do you release more growth hormones than at any other time? When you are sleeping. You want to get stronger, fitter, faster? Rest. Recover. Rebuild. One of the great things about taking a rest day or a rest week is that you get a chance to find out just how much you miss your regular training and how eager you are to get back to it.
5. Don't be afraid to take a day off
There are some objective factors you can look for (like a seriously elevated resting heart rate) and some subjective factors (perhaps you have not been sleeping well, you are super-tired, you feel a cold coming on, or you still ache from yesterday's work-out) that can help you determine whether or not to take a day off.
If training today might push you over the edge into injury or illness and force you to take a few days off, then it really does make sense to take today off so you can be strong and healthy to train well tomorrow.
6. Mix it up
One of the great things about triathlon is that we have a nice amount of variety built into our sport right from the outset.
But, even then, it is good to get out and mix it up from time to time. Mountain biking in the winter time is an excellent adjunct to your normal cycling training (develop great handling skills, more muscular endurance, and a greater tolerance for muddy, rainy, cold conditions). Trail running, orienteering, and mountain climbing are nice alternatives to pounding out miles and miles and miles on city streets and paved pathways for your run training.
Yoga and Pilates can be excellent complements to your other triathlon training sessions.
7. Don't train on an empty stomach
It's tough, I know, especially if you are in the habit of training early in the morning. But, even a little something in the tank is usually best for training. You want to burn calories, your body won't do it very effectively on an empty stomach.
It doesn't have to be a full meal, and you certainly don't want to cause yourself digestive distress by eating heavily before a work-out. Just a little something in your stomach will help kick-start your metabolism and keep you going longer. Just figure what your system can tolerate and be comfortable.
8. Please please please remember to drink water
You have almost certainly heard this one before and it definitely bears repeating. Drink water. Your body needs water. Your blood needs water. Your cells need water. Without it, they all stop working efficiently and things start to go wrong.
Take a water bottle to the swimming pool and take sips between drills or intervals and see how it changes your session. Take a water bottle on the bike and keep taking little sips throughout the ride, see how it changes your ride.
Take a bottle of water with you when running or perhaps stop and drink some water occasionally throughout a longer run, and see how it changes your training.
9. Get some personalised training or coaching advice
Generic advice can be helpful, such as articles in magazines, training plans in books, tips from friends and fellow athletes, can all be good and useful, up to a certain point.
But, after a certain point, we all need some personalised advice from an experienced professional. Particularly when it comes to things like heart rate training zones and specific pronouncements, you need personalised assessments, advice and support.
10. Don't take it too seriously
Okay, you're not a pro, your livelihood does not depend on your training and performance. Yes, I know you really really really want to do better, and you are the sort of person who is used to achieving every single goal you have ever set your sights on. But, it is also supposed to be fun, it is supposed to be good for you.
It is not supposed to trigger all kinds of obsessive behaviour, alienate you from your friends and family, or make you insufferably single-minded in your pursuit of your sporting goals. If you do not finish your first marathon in under 4 hours or complete your first ironman before the cut-off times, will your family go hungry? No. I didn't think so. Then lighten up, have fun, and enjoy the journey on the way to the finish line.
Rob Popper is one of only 28 British Triathlon Federation level 3 performance coaches in the UK with 9 years' experience. He has recently foundered London's first dedicated triathlon training centre, Triathlon House. Currently located in a new pop-up private tri-training space at the Heavenly Spa in Paddington, Triathlon house offers all the facilities any triathlete needs with expert coaching to hand. More locations opening soon. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org