Top Ten Mistakes Triathletes Make

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Top Ten Mistakes Triathletes Make

Learn the common pitfalls that plague newbies and experts alike

Jennifer Harrison
USA Triathlon Certified Coach

The Triathlon Truth

Training for a triathlon is a tricky endeavor.  With three sports and seemingly endless miles of training, it is easy to get tripped up.  Here are the top ten mistakes that athletes make and how to avoid them.

The Top Ten

  1. Following someone else’s plan. You need to follow the training plan that’s right for YOU. Whether you are a new triathlete training to finish your 1st triathlon or an experienced runner preparing for your 20th marathon – there is a plan that is perfect for you.  Many athletes either follow a generic training program or adopt a friend’s training program. Generic training programs are just that – GENERIC.  They are not designed specifically for you.  In fact, I have written a ton of them over the years and while the workouts are fine and well thought through, they never take into account how each athlete is adapting to the workouts, what each athlete’s strengths are, etc.  An athlete who just “jumps in” on his friend’s, spouse’s or someone else’s workouts is also missing out on the benefits of following a plan that is tailored specifically for him.  Training for a triathlon is a TON of work – do it right.
  2. Hard days are not hard enough and easy days are not easy enough. I find that most athletes train in that grey zone where they are never working hard enough to get faster but never easy enough to get in the recovery.  These athletes may get more fit, but they will eventually hit a ceiling.  Learn what HARD means – if you have to ask “how hard is very hard,” then you do not understand what hard means.  Easy means nearly walking, but easy is there for a reason.  Follow the zones as they are intended.
  3. Daily eating habits. This came up recently when I had a new athlete email me and ask me for help in deciding “IF” she could race Ironman AZ; she was concerned because she is injured.  After many emails back and forth trying to determine the cause of and recovery plan for her injury, I finally asked her to write down what she ate for the day.  While I was not too surprised at the food diary, it further convinced me that a huge contributor to many athletes’ repetitive injuries, lack of recovery, lack of energy and lack of motivation is as simple as:  POOR eating choices.   Eat for fuel.  Eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet.  Seek out help from a Registered Dietitian if you need guidance.  Eat for performance.  Eat with a purpose.  Poor nutrition is possibly the #1 reason women triathletes struggle.
  4. Too many cooks in the kitchen. You get faster by training and then resting after the training.  Stick to that.  Don’t spend your days and nights over-analyzing everything.  Don’t take advice from 1,000 different athletes and coaches and mentors.  Find a few close people – people whom you respect and who have had success in their sport and latch on to them. Follow them.  Read their stuff.  Ask them questions.  Trust them.
  5. Changing the coach’s plan. Follow the coach’s plan. Do not mess around with the plan.  It is worth all the money you pay if the coach is good and the plan works for you.  If you are accountable to someone then you aim to please that mentor or coach. This leads to smart training and steps to success.  Of course some athletes do not have a personal coach, but many have a strong, steady mentor helping them sort through the three sports. Remember, the triathlon involves three key sports + mental prep + racing strategy + nutrition + recovery – it is a lot to think about with everything else we have in our lives so follow the advice of a good coach and a plan that works for you.
  6. Making excuses. Just do the work and do it with a smile.  Of course we all “complain” about the weather, the cold, the rain, having to get up early on the weekends, etc., but at the end of the day, the top triathletes just get the work done.  They do not negotiate with themselves.  They put their heads down, grit their teeth and get the work done.  Don’t just go through the motions.  Be present in the workout.  Don’t take the easy way out.  Don’t just do the workout to check it off for the day.  Of course not every day is a good day, but every workout should have a purpose and your goal for that workout should be to focus for that short time on that workout.
  7. Not enough respect for training for THREE sports. Realistic expectations need to be set early on otherwise you may set yourself up for disappointment, and the guilt is not worth it.  Learning how to balance all three sports plus strength training IS hard.
  8. Being a head case. Athletes really underestimate how important the mental preparation and training are for a triathlon.  The workouts, the intensity of the workouts, prepping to suffer, prepping to go places physically that you never thought possible – all require mental preparation.  The best triathletes really get this and really are plugged into themselves.  They are plugged into their goals.  They sacrifice things to achieve to their goals.  Please, do not be a head case.  Do not over think everything.  Do not forget how powerful the mind is and how the mind is capable of amazing things.  Train it like you train your body.  And, get out of your own way – do not sabotage your training.
  9. Underestimating recovery. The best athletes train hard but rest harder. Most have heard this before, but very few heed this advice.   Recovery means no training, no talking triathlon – step back.  Do things you are not used to doing. Heal any niggling pains and aches.  Be confident that a few weeks (or more!) off from specific triathlon training will not weaken your potential for the next season.  In fact, the athletes who rest the hardest are those who are able to take their games to the next level.  That means NO “I will just go and jog 30 minutes today.”  That is for the head. Do something different – try a new sport!  Take a yoga class, take a long walk – and step away from triathlon stuff for a bit.  No need to train year round.   Train hard but rest harder.
  10. Ignoring stretching and injury prevention. The only way our bodies can tell us “enough is enough” is through sensations of PAIN.  A twinge here or there is a sign that the body is under stress.  Listen to your body. Guess what?   If it is that bad, it will not magically disappear.  Stretching, core work, strength training, and functional lifting are all so critical. Icing, massage, and other recovery methods are also critical.  Recovery and injury prevention are part of the whole package.  This becomes even more important as we get older.


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