Breakthrough Training: Four Key Lessons for the Serious, Frustrated Athlete

As far as triathlon coaches go, I think I have a fairly homogenous group of athletes that I tend to work with. They are typically guys who have been plugging away with relatively high levels of annual volume for a number of years and have had either inconsistent results or results not in line with they work put in.

Since my sample of athletes are fairly uniform in athletic history, the key to attaining a breakthrough performance for these athletes more often than not comes down to a few slight tweaks to the way they have been doing things.

The central theme of these tweaks can be found in the lyrics of “The Gambler”. Many of these guys failed to take heed of Kenny Rogers’ wise words, “You’ve got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them,” and instead they put out a number of good performances through the year; but in the name of the good, they sacrifice the great.

Those with big goals — Kona qualification, IM podium — simply can’t afford to take an ad-hoc approach any more. There is far too much competition at the top of the field (whether age group or pro) to think that you can be a contender at a big race without a training program built around that race. Indeed, that is what these folks are paying myself and a number of other top coaches to do for them — design a plan that facilitates a true peak performance on one given day.

However, greatness doesn’t come without sacrifice and, in this case, it’s not the fun sort of sacrifice. So what sort of “less fun” sacrifices lead to these breakthrough performances?

  1. Allow yourself to get quite out of shape at the end of the year. There is no surer way to ensure a plateau than to carry fatigue across from one season to the next. If you want to be really in shape at a certain point in the year then you need to be okay with being quite out of shape at another point of the year.
  2. Forget last year’s fitness. Tied into the first point, if you allow yourself to get really out of shape at the end of the year then your training paces/power numbers at the beginning of the year will be significantly removed from your peak. Be okay with this — or if you’re not okay with this, don’t look at those numbers when you start up again! For this reason, I typically plan athlete prescriptions by heart rate at the beginning of the season and don’t adopt a power focus until a little later. Similarly, if your training groups don’t allow themselves to get similarly out of shape, train solo or with a slower group in the early season.
  3. Race long less frequently.It takes about three times longer to regain fitness than it does to lose it. Meaning if you spend a month tapering for and recovering from a race, it will take you another three months to merely build yourself back to the same level of pre-race fitness. This represents a very common situation for the competitive age group athlete and is another big reason for season to season plateaus.
  4. Be okay with racing tired. Even short races, Olys and sprints often lead to longer recovery than planned. Tied in with this, the fresher you are, the more damage you can do. A common trend in annual planning is to plan B and C races for the end of your recovery weeks, when you’re a little fresher. However, often this leads to the first half of the next loading week being lackluster (at best) or a string of zeroes (at worst). Considering the aim of these C races is to gain race experience, rather than beat your local nemesis, there is no reason not to race some of them at the end of your loading block and recover out of them. In terms of lessons for long course racing, there is more to be learned from pushing hard while tired than hammering yourself when fresh.

Adhere to the four lessons above to make 2012 your breakthrough season!
Train smart.

Categories: Planning

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Alan Couzens

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