The holidays are behind you, you're settling on your season plan, and chances are you've jumped right back into regular training. While structured training forms the backbone to a successful season, many athletes find it hard to hold back and stick to the directions given by their coaches or training plans—especially at this point in the year.
Motivation is high, but training volumes are still comparatively low. The final sessions and races of last year are still fresh in our minds, and it's natural to want to start at that same level. The temptation to put in extra miles lurks. We've got some tips to help overdoing it so that you stay healthy and productive all year long.
Your coach will set up a plan that suits your fitness level and considers your strengths and weaknesses. Trust them, they know what they are doing and don't get irritated by your friends' higher training volumes. Every triathlete is unique and so is his/her training. If you feel insecure, overtrained, or not challenged, talk to your coach. Don't have a coach? Try CoachMatch.
Even pros like Germany's Michael Raelert—a multiple IRONMAN 70.3 world champion—admit it's hard not to leave it all out there in the first few weeks of training: "I set myself extremely high standards and tend to overshoot the mark from time to time, in races just like in training," he shares. He says it's very helpful for him that his brother Andreas (2015 IRONMAN World Championship runner-up) holds him back when he begins to get carried away.
Holding back when you'd rather step on the gas is something a lot of age-group athletes should do as well, particularly in the first weeks and months of preparation. "It's definitely a challenge to overcome the temptation to overtrain early in the season, but one of the key attributes of any successful athlete is discipline—the ability to stick to the plan regardless of how 'easy' the plan might feel," says IRONMAN Certified Coach Ben Psaila of RFMCoaching.
Failing to do this puts athletes at risk for injury, illness, and ultimately disappointment—something that pro athlete Nils Frommhold had to learn the hard way. After suffering a stress fracture he did not give his body enough time to recover and tried to keep his fitness level: "In the end, I only stood in my own way and the injury got worse," he recounts and admits that he almost lost the joy in doing triathlon because of this.
Though motivation and determination are good prerequisites for effective triathlon training, overdoing it after an injury or at the beginning of the season can do more harm than good. It's critical to ensure that the new season's training plan matches your current fitness levels and doesn't subject the body to too much stress. This will destroy any training consistency and ability to progressively overload the body in the coming weeks, putting future gains at risk.
Sticking to a structured approach to training and starting off easy will hopefully see you reaching even higher levels in the upcoming season. It's important to start the season slowly as the aim of the first part of the season is to "build the physiology" as IRONMAN Master Coach Matt Dixon puts it. (Related Article: It Takes Courage to Recover)
"I attach great importance to a good balance between training and recovery," says Frommhold, who is particularly attentive when it comes to planning the pauses and recovery phases. "There is nothing to be gained from exaggerated ambition. In triathlon training there are no shortcuts," he summarizes. "If you overdo it at the beginning of the season your body is not able to process the training stimulus." Hence, overtraining.
According to Psaila, the two most obvious and common signs that an athlete has overtrained are excessive fatigue and extended muscle soreness. Other warning signs may include difficulty sleeping, depression, elevated or suppressed morning heart rate, a longer heart rate recovery period (accumulating fatigue) between intervals, easy irritability, lack of confidence, and overall lack of quantitative progress. The most serious effects are ultimately illness and injury.
"Prevention is always better than cure, so trying to avoid overtraining in the first place is always the best solution," says Psaila—though he knows that this can be easier said than done. "Look out for early warning signs, then, if necessary, prioritize rest and recovery which should already be part of your plan," he recommends. (Related Article: Is it Time to Lose the Gadgets?)
If you find it hard to hold yourself back at the beginning of the season, try to occupy yourself with race-related activities that don't require physical activity. Looking ahead and planning your season and earmarking races and training opportunities are perfect ways to pass several hours doing something triathlon-related that won't strain you. And also keep in mind the lesson Michael Raelert learned from his misconceived training ambition: "Listen closely to your body. It will tell you what you can demand of it."