by Tim Ford
The idea that more is always better is probably one of the most dangerous ideas in endurance sports!
One of the easiest ways to tell an experienced, knowledgeable athlete or coach is what sort of priority they give recovery. Forget the bravado of how tough you are or ignore the Strava graphics showing you all the days you train on. The truth of the matter is that if you do not make rest and recovery a priority you are playing a game of chicken with yourself that will either end up in sickness, injury or the end of your time as a triathlete.
While people will undoubtedly disagree, the fact of the matter is that if you continue to punish yourself, eventually your body will fail you. Now of course there are some injuries that are not caused by extended periods of training like breaks or scratches from a bike crash or falling over when running. You might also argue that getting attacked by a shark while swimming was because you spent too long in the water so I will admit there is a grey zone.
The more common injuries people experience are those caused by too much repetition. Stress fractures, tendonitis, tendinopathy. While there is most likely a biomechanical issue at play as well, these issues present themselves when people overdo it.
Forget injuries, look at sickness. When you get really fit and ready for a race it is so easy to get sick. How many times after a big block of training have you gotten the sniffles, have you always managed to fend it off? Or when you have gotten sick, have you rushed back to training only to make it worse?
Even from a performance angle, by pushing too hard you are limiting your ability to improve as well. While it isn’t sexy, recovery is actually where you improve. You break down your body and allow it to heal stronger than before, you repeat this process over and over again. But lots of athletes are impatient, they want to see big improvements quickly and yes, training hard is probably going to lead to the biggest improvements but at what cost?
Have you ever heard the expression “it’s a marathon not a sprint”? It is literally talking about endurance sports and it is true, the biggest gains you will make as an athlete are from long term, consistent, high quality training AND recovery!
Forcing yourself to train when you are exhausted isn’t going to make you fitter or faster, sleeping in will on those days you need it. Taking a couple of weeks off after a big year aren’t going to make you slow and fat, they will set you up for the next hard year of training.
The simple problem is that taking it easy and recovering are not sexy, they do not look good on social media and they do not add to your total training hours on Strava. Measures like TSB or TSS have been able to help people see the value of recovery but even those metrics are now used to brag as people will proudly show how hard they trained by how big their TSB is!
One of the unique aspects of triathlon is the access we have to the professionals. We get to see up close what they do. Have a look at what your favourite athletes are doing, chances are they take time off, they make recovery a priority and they do not get caught up in the social media bravado of trying to show they train harder than anyone else (or most of them at least.)
Whether you have a coach, self-coach or have no idea what you are doing, you need to accept that pushing yourself all the time will not actually make you a better athlete in the long run. If someone is telling you that it will, chances are they shouldn’t be giving you advice.
To really improve, to be a longterm and successful triathlete, you need to train consistently for a long time. The easiest way to do that is to recover well, avoid sickness and injury and be patient. You might not pb at every race but you will continue to head in the right direction.
Next time your alarm goes off and you are too exhasted to train, don't feel too bad if you roll over and go back to sleep. But also don't use this as an excuse. Training is hard and being an endurance athlete means you will be tired a lot of the time. That is why having a coach or a group of athletes who you can lean on for answers can be so valuable.