In the beginning
In recent years I’ve become far more aware of the importance of being a healthy human being, and how it impacts one’s ability to achieve optimal athletic performance. When starting in triathlon it’s easy for one to focus entirely on just swim, bike, and run training. Many don’t think about the foundations of smart training until something goes wrong. And that’s usually when they find themselves getting injured and/or ill.
When I was ill it was often “just” a cold so I shrugged my shoulders, and chalked it up to a side effect of training. Of course, now I understand fully that even when it’s “just” a cold, there was usually something that could been done to prevent it.
Injury, on the other hand, resulted in reflection because the physio therapist would always ask questions like, “What have you done differently recently”, “what have you started doing?”, or “what have you stopped doing?” And in order to recover from the injury, she would always prescribe rehabilitation exercises such as more stretching and mobility, along with strengthening for the weaker muscles around that joint.
A time for reflection
A deeper reflection might have shown that I wasn’t sleeping enough to support my training. Or maybe my diet was contributing to my travails. But anyway, why would I need to worry about diet? I was lean, and always had enough energy to complete my training sessions. On the plus side, when I was training, I was able to really smash those sessions!
If only I’d appreciated then how crucial the foundations of smart training were, I could have saved myself so much frustration, so many training days lost, so much injury discomfort, and a whole load of money spent on physio.
The current version of Simon Ward is now well educated, able to fully reflect, and does things a lot differently. The diagram above is an adaptation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This is an interpretation based on observations of how athletes take on the task of preparing for triathlon. It’s far too easy to focus on what swimming, biking, and running needs to be done in order to achieve one’s goal. And only when everything starts to unravel do they think about the foundation.
Below the line (the free stuff)
When looking to set up a foundation for smart training, an individual should make sure they have all of their basic human performance needs covered, before thinking about athletic performance. These basics would include having:
- a robust immune system
- an understanding of the biomechanical strengths and weaknesses of their body and how these might be challenged as the training intensity and volume increases
- a good understanding of a sustainable nutritional philosophy. This doesn’t mean a fad diet designed to meet some short term objective, but rather something which can be maintained indefinitely and involves eating real food. To find out more about good nutrition listen to this podcast with Adam Feit
- good normal human movement which means mobility (range of movement/ROM), and normal meaning not restricted or tight.
- at least 35 sleep cycles per week. Sleep is a basic human function, and the absolute best recovery tool that we have. Yet most people don’t get nearly enough. When you add on more stress to life (i.e. training for triathlon), you should increase the number of sleep hours, yet the opposite is what frequently happens. To find out more about why sleep is so important, please listen to this podcast with Nick Littlehales
It might be worth recognising that up to this point, everything mentioned requires very little financial investment.
Once these foundations for smart training are in place, you can think about how best to train for triathlon. At this point, the engaging of an experienced and mindful coach would be a good investment. This would be the first financial investment. A second but equally beneficial investment would be to have physical assessments done (either with your new coach, or with a third party such as a professional bike fit, a physio visit for pre-hab, etc.).
Anyone who comes to triathlon likes to do the hard work. Far too many athletes skimp the warm-ups and/or rush the drills (if done at all) in order to get to the “real” work. If time is short at the end of session, cool down’s are also compromised. Please don’t get me wrong – hard work is important. But its true value comes from consistent application over many months and this is ONLY possible if you give equal importance to the areas covered above.
Above the dotted line
Look at the pyramid. The dark blue area below the line are the really important parts. It would be perfectly possible for the majority of recreational athletes to achieve their goals by focusing on just these 4 elements below the line. The light blue elements above the line are the icing on the cake. They can enhance the training you do. A power meter or the latest Suunto GPS watch will enable you to record and analyse the data from your sessions. It will inform the work you do in the future. A Vo2 or lab test may give you more accurate training zones, adding precision to your training. But this precision will be wasted if you don’t have the basics in place first.
Finally, the fancy kit. The aero wheels which make your bike look good, the pointy helmet or the super-fast running shoes. These are marginal gains and really only for consideration on the day of your A race. I wouldn’t be thinking about any of these until I’d covered all the bases in my training. This includes my nutrition, sleep, S&C, etc.
Until you have the foundations of smart training firmly in place, it hardly makes sense to start painting the walls. No amount of coaching or fancy kit will replace the things that begin and end with each of us: Sleep, nutrition, mobility. You can’t outrun or outride a poor diet. No amount of training will bring optimal benefits without the sleep to enable the body to recover. And no top-class physio or tri coach can make up for you choosing to ignore mobility and strength.