Endurance racing and training success is unique to everyone. Part of the fun of training and racing is the challenge of figuring out the unique blend that works for you as an individual when combined with your unique set of limitations (age, work life, family commitments). For all of us the struggle is real in getting that daily balance just right regardless of your level of experience – it’s our own little recipe for long term success and then building on it season upon season, looking for the incremental wins either in race results or in our training times. But whilst there is a unique swim, bike or run blend for each person, there are tried and tested protocols that are common to great athletes. Here are 5 that can easily be implemented and will reap rewards immediately:
1. Know your why – this is where all goals must start, whether in endurance racing or in anything worthwhile in life, and it is the first question I ask anyone I coach. Most people skip right past this, in their rush to hand over credit card details to race directors. If it is going to challenge you, and therefore change you, then you better know your why. With any challenge, there are going to be struggles, difficult periods, tough sessions and times where motivation wanes. What first seemed like a great idea over a glass of wine with mates, will seem like madness when 6 weeks into a challenging program. The 5:30am alarm clock on a rainy Sunday morning is when you need to go back to THE WHY! The how, what, where and when all flow from here so perhaps spend an hour mapping it all out first.
2. The art of Kaizen – a performance term popularised by some of the biggest businesses in the world, that fits nicely within endurance racing. The Japanese word means “change for better”, a focus on continuous improvement, particularly small changes daily over time leading to bigger positive changes. This is a key concept in creating your own performance culture, something that is intrinsic to the success of a goal-oriented athlete. Large and radical changes rarely work as the disruption is too large, whereas a small positive change is initially barely noticed, is easily achieved and is likely to be followed up on. Once established, other successful strategies such as asking the Five Why’s can be utilised effectively. It is quite simple to jot down two or three things that you could do slightly better to have an immediate impact on your endurance training. Thirty minutes more sleep tonight, no phones in bed, meditate daily for ten minutes, or one less alcoholic drink are simple examples that involve positive change without even discussing a training philosophy or adapting your weekly training load.
3. Form before fast – everyone’s in a rush to get better. I get it! But, many endurance athletes don’t take the time to develop their skills or learn their craft properly to their long-term, or worse short-term detriment. I would urge anyone to become a student of their chosen endurance sport first and foremost, as all the mistakes have already been made by athletes before you. As an example, with the removal of a qualifying process for almost all Ironman’s these days, many view these huge races as bucket list events, entering them without ‘paying their dues’ in an endurance sense. We now have many infants in an athletic age context “racing” putting huge strain on all systems of the body particularly the skeletal, endocrine, circulatory, lymphatic and of course muscular. Aerobic, neural and muscular development all suffer when big mileage is applied to a body that is not ready for it. The great thing about a qualifying process was that it often took 3 or 4 attempts at shorter distances before you got fast enough, meaning that you had to be patient and develop your speed and strength over 2 to 3 seasons, honing skills and working on efficiency. More importantly, it allowed you to adapt. The importance of small amounts of technique incorporated within sessions give great bang for buck, aid focus towards the session, and develop motor skills necessary for long term success. Try adding small but purposeful little bouts of technique within your sessions:
• 500m of technique within a 3k swim set
• Running drills incorporated within an easy aerobic run
• Learn to ride the rollers on the bike to help develop a smooth pedal stroke and greater appreciation for your core.
4. Know YOUR key sessions and nail them – much of endurance training can be termed mileage, and in endurance training and racing, mileage matters. These are aerobic and semi-specific sessions that are used to underpin the key sessions that you will do towards your specific event. Mileage varies depending on coach and the athlete’s ability, but it underpins the important work, and it will mostly be done at somewhere between an easy, conversational pace and a steady state level. In most successful programs this sort of mileage will make up around 80% of a good program, and it is crucial to any athlete’s long-term success that it is done that way. Knowing how to nail the other 20% and hitting those sessions fresh is your key to long term speed and strength. Many athletes hit the 80% aerobic work too hard, and so when it gets to the 20% important stuff, they are cooked and grossly underperform where it counts. Or worse, they don’t know what the key sessions are, or worse again, they end up doing their mate’s key sessions. This is one of the overarching problems with generic style programs or when training within a big group. Most age group athletes can only handle two or three key sessions each week and it is crucial that you know what they are, that they are tailored specifically to your level of ability, and that you understand where they fit within a macro view of your overall goal, and what success looks like to you on completing that session. Done well, these are the sessions that give you the race day you have trained for!
5. Keep a training diary – how are you going to know where you are going, if you don’t know where you have been? Training diaries are crucial journals of your achievements but more importantly, your mistakes! If working with a coach, they are windows into how you operate, what works for you and what doesn’t, and they are great at cutting through the crap. They are the harsh black and white of your training and racing and make for great critical analysis. I do not know a single successful athlete that does not have a training diary! It should include weight, hours slept, mood, HR, and then performance statistics within the sessions themselves. Over a period, they become excellent evaluation tools that will hold you accountable and help develop motivation. One thing I like to do with athletes in race week, is have them review over the past months all the amazing training they have delivered on, the sacrifices they have made, the key sessions that they nailed. Nothing gives a nervous athlete more confidence in their ability then to look back on all of the mini achievements, the small wins that have been done in the lead up. It underpins the race plan, ties everything together and allows the coach and athlete to focus on the crucial mental preparation necessary within race week.
These 5 tips form part of 10 overall focus points that I work with daily with my performance squad. If you want more information, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris Hanrahan is a Nationally Accredited Performance Coach who runs PB3, a bespoke triathlon service suited to driven and motivated athletes looking to train towards goal events with likeminded people. Programming and squad sessions are specifically tailored towards athletes that are training towards upcoming goal events.