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How to avoid 5 common training mistakes
June 27th, 2011
07:40 AM ET

How to avoid 5 common training mistakes

Since January, we've been tracking the training of Dr. Sanjay Gupta and six iReporters as they prep for the August 7 Nautica New York City Triathlon.  Starting today, we're adding expert advice from our friends at Triathlete.com

Most triathletes take their training seriously. They are highly motivated, disciplined and willing to work hard to improve.

However, I also see most triathletes making the same training mistakes over and over again. I’m not talking about small mistakes in the details of training, but fundamental ones that impede progress in a major way. I’d like to talk about five such mistakes and show you how to avoid each of them.

Mistake #1: Not training progressively

A lot of triathletes practice what I sometimes call “lifestyle training,” by which I mean that they do more or less the same training every week. The only real planning they do is to sign up for races.

The only real progression in their training is a general trend toward increasing volume. Their swim training either completely conforms to a masters group, or else they swim alone and just do laps. Their bike and run training consists almost entirely in logging miles. Many triathletes do hit the track once a week for a few weeks as races draw near, but without much thinking behind the specific types of workouts they do there.

This approach is fine if you enjoy it and don’t care too much about consistent, long-term improvement. But if you do want consistent, long-term improvement, your training should evolve from week to week throughout the training cycle. In order to continually build fitness, you need to challenge your body in slightly different ways all the time, so that the only thing your body gets used to is the need to constantly adapt.

Now, you can’t just vary your training haphazardly. You need to sequence the various types of training in such a way that your fitness moves step by step from its present state to the race-ready peak state you want to achieve by the end of the training cycle. Break the training into three phases: a base phase, a build phase and a peak phase.

In the base phase, focus on building general endurance and improving technique and economy with technique drills and very short, very fast intervals. In the intensity phase, your key workouts should be short (60-90 seconds) to middle-duration (3-5 minutes) intervals of high intensity that enhance your body’s ability to buffer and clear away lactic acid and your mind’s ability to handle suffering. In the race phase, focus on race-specific efforts such as long intervals (12-24 minutes) and challenging long workouts (including bike-run workouts).

Mistake #2: Training in “No-Man’s Land”

Intensity is the most important variable in training because it is the main determinant of how your body adapts to training. In a well-designed training program, each workout will emphasize one or two specific intensities and you will train at a variety of intensities over the course of the complete training cycle.

Only a minority of age-groupers actually trains in this way. A lot of triathletes wind up doing too much of their training at a hard-aerobic intensity level, roughly equivalent to Ironman race pace in a well-trained and experienced triathlete.

This intensity level is best suited to the longer swims, rides and runs you do in the race phase. Most of the “endurance” workouts you do earlier in the training cycle should be done at a slightly easier intensity, which will improve your body’s fat burning efficiency. Some workouts should be performed at an even easier, “recovery” intensity.

At peak levels (during the intensity phase), no more than 20% of your training should be done at anaerobic threshold or above. Each of these high-intensity workouts should be carefully structured in terms of the duration of intervals and rest periods and the total number of intervals so that your body gets an appropriate but not excessive challenge.

Mistake #3: Not working on technique

Triathlon, in the end, is really a game of energy efficiency, and developing good technique is an important way to decrease the energy cost of swimming, cycling, and running. But most triathletes do minimal technique work in the pool and none on the bike or on foot.

There are three main ways to improve technique. One is to perform very short, very fast intervals, as we tend to become more efficient at higher speeds, but only when we’re not fatigued.

Technique drills are also effective. Two good technique drills for running are “high knees” and “butt kicks.” Do three times 30 seconds of each once a week. In cycling, do 30 seconds of one-legged pedaling with each leg on an indoor trainer, then “spin out” - pedal as fast as you can in your lowest gear - for 60 seconds, trying to not let your butt bounce in the saddle. In swimming, do 200-400 yards of drills such as the catch-up drill and the count stroke drill following the warm-up in each swim workout.

A third way to improve technique is simply to concentrate on your form while you swim, bike, and run. This effort can be helped greatly if you have a knowledgeable coach or physical therapist watch you in action and suggest modifications that you can then practice.

Mistake #4: Ignoring weaknesses

It’s human to nature to prefer spending time doing something you do well than something you do poorly. That’s why so many triathletes train hardest in their strongest discipline and only halfheartedly in their weakest. But if your overall goal is to maximize your improvement as a triathlete, you need to defy this inclination, at least for a time.

The ideal time to focus on your weakest discipline is during the off-season. Add a workout or two per week in this discipline to your schedule while cutting back on the other two. Do well-structured workouts, put your best effort into them, and don’t neglect technique work, whether it’s swimming, cycling or running. Two things will happen: You will see rapid improvement, and you will begin to enjoy this activity more.

Mistake #5: Not getting enough recovery

Most triathletes train moderately hard every week except in race weeks when they “taper” in order to be well rested for competition. It’s better to insert regular recovery weeks throughout the training process.

Planning recovery periods into your training in this way helps ensure that you don’t accumulate fatigue during a long training program. It also makes the fitness building process more gradual, and the more gradually you build toward a fitness peak, the higher that peak will be when you get there.

Step cycles are recurring patterns of training that last two to four weeks and end with a week of reduced-volume training for recovery. In a two-week step cycle, a week of hard training is followed by a week of lighter training. In a three-week cycle, the first week is relatively hard, the second week slightly harder, and the third week easy. In a four-week cycle, the third week of training is slightly heavier than the second.

Whether two-, three- or four-week cycles are appropriate depends on several factors, including your fitness level, the type of training you’re doing, and which phase of training you’re in. Shorter cycles are generally better for less experienced athletes and during periods of high-intensity training.

Shifting focus

The general problem with the way most age-group triathletes train is that they focus too much on how much they train and not enough on how they train. Working hard is important, of course, but training efficiently is just as important. If you see yourself in any of the five common mistakes I’ve talked about here, try the fix I suggest and get more fitness return on your training investment.


soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Charles Gilman

    Yet, with all this science and study, America still isn't the best at marathons- it's people who don't pay ANY attention to this stuff.

    June 27, 2011 at 09:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ruben

      You're right on the money!

      June 27, 2011 at 10:09 | Report abuse |
    • Think pl0x kthx

      Science can only go so far in a game of physical prowess

      June 27, 2011 at 12:34 | Report abuse |
    • KevinT

      This is true. The people who are good at it don't come to CNN for training advice.

      July 6, 2011 at 13:49 | Report abuse |
  2. MJSouth

    There is great satisfaction in triathlon life style. Provides significant fitness, you meet great people, you learn multiple sports skills, and when you are done with a race you have that self satisfaction of accomplishment few other sports can match. Makes the beer all that more tasty!!!

    June 27, 2011 at 14:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. AllisonB

    I found myself reading this going, "yup... I definitely do that!" I think that all triathletes KNOW they need to push themselves in the areas they're weak in, but it's much easier said then done. When I wake up at 430, I'm more likely to go for a run because I enjoy it than I am to hit the pool (which always seems so much colder at 430am than it does at 430pm, despite it being indoors–I'm sure this is mental).

    June 27, 2011 at 15:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. monder

    Great read especially for time crunched athletes...triathlon really is a complex sport which makes it all the more enjoyable...

    June 27, 2011 at 19:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Abdulkerim

      As a runner hiinttg the pool for some alternate training now and then I can strongly recommend the backstroke as on par or even above the crawl for the running muscles. It's much easier to do a powerful kick with the legs in the backstroke. I recommend going 25c/25b or 25c/25b/25c/25b times x, though you might also wanna try the occational total backstroke kick 25y with no help from the arms at all, that makes you come into the next crawl 25y with refreshed shoulders without having stopped at all! Also, for a beginner the leg kick in the backstroke transfers to a more powerful leg kick in the crawl faster than anything else, including the kick-board recommended above, those are more useful for the experienced svimmer whom already have a pretty good leg kick, kinda like when an experienced runner does 10 200 sprint intervalls, only good for you if you're not a newbie, and sometimes not even then.

      November 16, 2012 at 01:18 | Report abuse |
  5. Name* dr james

    Inadequate recovery in training program & functional imbalances are the two leading causes of sub-par performance for any athlete or performer.

    American journal of sports medicine posted an article years ago stating that 85% of those who run do so with with unreconciled injuries.

    It hasn't changed much today. One could surmise that over 80% of population or more have no real idea of what true recovery is beyond that of doing nothing or just resting.

    Just resting or passive recovery can be one of the biggest mistakes a performer or athlete can make.

    Those who compete & perform in the top 5% or higher will most likely bit not always have a greater understanding of the principles & application of optimizing recovery in their training program.

    Optimizing recovery leaves little room for guess work.....specific fundamental principles must be follows & applied.

    June 29, 2011 at 10:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Cornell Aumen

    great post, very informative. I wonder why the other specialists of this sector do not notice this. You must continue your writing. I am confident, you've a great readers' base already!

    August 19, 2011 at 10:13 | Report abuse | Reply
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    August 21, 2011 at 02:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. sylmarsh

    Thank you for your helpful information. Unless someone has a personal trainer to advise them, they often don't have a clue as to how to train. Although, with the internet, this really is no excuse when you can get this advice right here! Thank you.

    December 13, 2011 at 17:03 | Report abuse | Reply
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    We founded Resounding Health back in 2007. It's both a tech­nology platform and a database pop­u­lated with 1) all U.S. Gov­ernment con­sumer health infor­mation and 2) Case­Books that Michele and I have created while doing research for our stories on CelebrityDx and Med­Page­Today. FYI, anyone can use RH to do research and create Case­Books and these are private and unpub­lished by default. But you can also share them with others in a variety of ways. The user interface isn't the best, but it's a pow­erful platform and we'd be delighted if you gave it a try and let us know what you think.–Mark

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.