Bring on 2021!!
For some reason, this photo reminds me of the uphill battle of 2020. After the craziest year most of us can remember and most would like to forget, many athletes are taking stock of their current fitness and coming up with a plan to prepare for the 2021 season. A season that it looks like will happen either with Covid protocols or with the increased confidence of an effective vaccine. Maybe you have kept up with your training and gotten in a race or two, or maybe you haven’t done a race in nearly a year and completely let go of the rope with all of the uncertainty the last year delivered. If you’re like me, you are somewhere in the middle and my middle section has taken a hit.
We find that many athletes starting back up are worried that their best performances are a thing of the past and their goals are to get as close to their previous best as they can. I think there might be a country song about that, “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once, as I ever was.”
One of the things I always ask Josiah about this time of year is, “What are you going to do to be better than you were last year?” Even if some of your best individual performances are in the past, we think it is still important to adopt that growth mindset and ask yourself what and how you can improve. Below are just a few guidelines to help you make 2021 your best year ever.
Consider a new approach
A famous internet quote likely misattributed to Einstein states that, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Many triathletes are creatures of habit and in some cases follow the same training plan year after year with the same races and sometimes even the exact same workouts for any given day on the calendar. I applaud your consistency which has probably led to some successes, but that pattern might also lead to staleness or a decline in effectiveness. Don’t scrap everything altogether, but you have probably fallen into a rut of reinforcing your strengths and neglecting some types of training that might be a good stimulus for you.
If you have failed to excel with consistent training, then you probably need to try something new. However, we often find athletes who have been successful and decide to totally change up their plan often end up disappointed. Instead of giving a previously successful plan a complete face lift, make minor changes that focus on just a few areas where you feel you need or can make improvements.
Be careful about always following the trends
At the other end of the spectrum is the triathlete who is always following the latest training or nutrition trends. Compared to other sports, triathletes are considered “early adopters” when it comes to the latest scientific breakthrough in sport science. Usually these trends are due to misinterpretation of a recent scientific study or new technology. For example, I sometimes see an athlete go all in one season on high volume, low intensity training, then do a complete 180 and go with high intensity, less volume the next season, or vice versa. You see the same thing with nutrition when athletes decide to eliminate a macronutrient from their diet, in search of a performance edge or improved metabolic efficiency. Don’t completely discount decades of proven training methods, or millennia of eating practices because of one article or study. Instead of always looking for the one thing or secret training method that others are not doing, look more at what successful athletes and coaches have in common.
We talk about this all the time, but consistency over time is one of the main indicators of success. Reasons for missed workouts come in many forms. It could be from work, family or injury. Pull up previous year’s data and look to see where and when you tend to miss workouts. Come up with a plan to avoid missed sessions and be more consistent than you ever have been in the past. Sometimes we need to have a hard conversation with an athlete frustrated with improvement and remind them about the 30% of their workouts that were missed in February and March, or the unplanned two week break from training during a key training block (for a variety of reasons).
Undulate your training
It’s a fact that elite athletes undulate their training more than top age group athletes. Part of the reason is that elite athletes tend to log more total training hours so there are periods of overreaching followed by short periods of restoration. The top age group athletes don’t think they are putting in enough training to warrant a recovery week and plow through with the same training hours and intensity week after week, despite much higher life stress from work, family, etc. Most would benefit from manipulating training load (duration x intensity x frequency) to have distinct blocks of training (2-3 weeks long) broken up with 3-7 days of lowered volume and intensity. The exception would be the severely time crunched athlete training less than 6 hours per week.
Log your training
Perception of your training doesn’t always match reality. Compared to the average person, we all train a lot. So, when I ask people about their training history and current fitness level it is always best if there is a fitness log to back it up. It’s not that we purposefully lie about our training or abilities, but we tend to remember best performances and peak training weeks. Elites are no exception, and if you ask an elite what a typical week looks like, do you think you will get a recovery week or a peak training week? Do you swim 4-5 days per week, or is it really 2 or 3 days per week? Was your 10k PR 25 years ago in college or last month?
Keep basic training principles in mind
The cool thing about someone coming back from injury or a prolonged break from training, is the stimulus needed to improve is small. So, don’t double up volume to make up for lost time or you will dive right into the spiral of overreaching/overtraining, or worse, overuse injury. Make sure the training is progressive especially with an impact activity like running. One mistake I see athletes make is thinking they need to start right out with a high-volume base period when they don’t have the capacity to adapt to it. The most important way to determine if you are headed towards overtraining is to gauge performance during key workouts. Remember that performance improvement is the goal and not just padding your training log. The graph below could be three different athletes following the same workouts. See how the same type of training can have very different results depending on someone’s ability to adapt.
Kayser, B., & Gremion, G. (2004). Chronic fatigue and loss of performance in endurance athletes: Overtraining. Schweizerische Zeitschrift Für,(52), 1st ser., 6-10.
Set realistic benchmarks to check progress
In order to know if you are making progress you need to set benchmarks along the way. They can be very specific power or pace goals, but they can also be process goals. For example, you might have goal of swimming with a local masters group three times per week for the next month.
Be present and deliberate in your training
Ultimately, any well thought out plan still needs to be executed. It doesn’t only matter what you do, but also how you do it. Do your best to arrive to each training session with a positive attitude and the willingness to do the work necessary to improve your current situation.