Coach Tip Tuesday: You Can’t Get Better At Everything All the Time
In my life as an endurance coach based out of Upstate New York, July is always my busiest work month. IRONMAN 70.3 Musselman and IRONMAN Lake Placid happen in July; they’re both local (as local as these big races get!) to Central New York which means a significant number of the athletes I coach are typically targeting one of these races as their A-Goal race.
This time of year always makes me reflect on the Peak and Taper Phases of training. So unsurprisingly, this week’s Coach Tip Tuesday revolves around them and the behaviors I’ve observed over the years during these phases. This week, we’re going to talk about the realities of what athletes can expect to achieve training-wise when they are coming up to or in the middle of these phases and about how expectations should be managed accordingly.
I’ve observed that athletes often make the mistake of expecting progress in all areas at all times. Let me emphasize that this line of thinking is a mistake. It’s a mistake because it’s not possible. As such, having this expectation is a guaranteed recipe for (at a minimum) frustration and (at worse) disaster.
If you are training for an A-Goal race, your training should be getting progressively more specific for race day demands as you get approach race day. As such, as you get closer to your race (and if you are training correctly), you will start to see progress only in key areas. Correspondingly (and perhaps frustratingly for some), you will see other things not progressing.
I’ll share a couple of the most common examples of this that I’ve seen manifesting in athletes, but these are by no means the only ways that this pops up for athletes.
Long-Course vs. Short-Course
If you are training for a long-course event (for the purposes of this discussion, I’m defining a “long-course” event as any race that will take the athlete longer than 90 minutes to complete), your training should progressively get longer in duration as race day approaches. Additionally, the efforts you’re training to should reflect the efforts that are specific to that type of racing (aerobic, sustained efforts). As you train for an event like this, you will lose some top-end speed since training for a long-course event and a short-course event are completely different. Not only do they require the use of completely different body systems, but the training to be successful at each of these types of races is radically different and it’s not possible to mesh them together. (Attempting to will result in being mediocre at a lot of things instead of great at a couple.)
This means that an athlete who is used to placing in their age group at 5K running races may very well start falling back a few finishing places if they start training for marathons. Athletes that previously had success in sprint distance triathlons may find themselves struggling to hit those anaerobic and top-end speeds if they are training for an IRONMAN.
The reverse holds true, too. If you make the switch to training for short-course events (which usually means that the athlete is training for speed), then your proficiency at long-course events will diminish since you are not focusing on building endurance.
Multisport vs. Single Sport Event
If you are training for a multisport event (such as an aquabike, triathlon, or duathlon), you are - by definition - training to be at least decent in multiple sports (ideally, you’re training to be good in multiple sports). There’s a reason that it’s called “multisport;” it’s a measure of how well you can execute all the sports in your event, not how good you are at just one of the sports that is within your event. So, for instance, it’s great if you’re a strong runner, but multisport isn’t a running race. It’s a multisport race. You will never reach your potential in a multisport event if you insist on maintaining the same level of proficiency that you have or have held in a single sport.
Almost all multisport athletes come into multisport from a single sport background. Whether the person was a runner, swimmer, or cyclist, multiport is often appealing to athletes because it seems like a new and exciting challenge and a way to add more variety to training and racing. However, coming from a single sport background can be tricky, as the athlete is used to how they perform in that single sport and they often make the mistake of thinking that they will be able to maintain or improve their single sport fitness as they train for a multisport event.
As the training for a multisport event gets more specific, ideally, the athlete should be getting more “even” across the disciplines that they’re training. If the scales are tipped at the beginning of training (i.e. the athlete has a lot of experience in one sport but zero experience in another when they start training), the sport that the athlete is better at will have a corresponding lack of progress to the sport that is being improved upon. As race day comes closer, the goal is to have each of the multisport disciplines be the best they can be, not just one of them being strong while surviving the others.
In other words, no matter what sport an endurance athlete is training for or how long the race is, the expected result of training is that one area improves while another either stays the same or even regresses a little bit. However, even though this is expected, this can hit an athlete’s ego pretty hard. In my experience, athletes want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to layer on, and they don’t recognize (and/or actually acknowledge) that what needs to happen is that they need to layer things inand that saying yes always means saying no.
Embracing this truth really can be liberating. (Acknowledging (versus fighting, even subconsciously) the truth usually is - in sport and in life. :) ) Rather than becoming frustrated by an expectation that doesn’t have a basis in the realities of training science, embracing the truth that some things will not progress at the same time key areas are progressing enables an athlete to enjoy training more since they understand what actually is supposed to be happening and that where they are is exactly where they’re supposed to be.
Now, this all comes with a bit of an asterisk; what I’ve just said is what is true if an athlete is adhering to a training plan as it is planned (i.e. training properly and correctly for the race that is targeted as the A-Goal race). Going rogue, self-modifying workouts, adding in extra things and/or intensity, etc. will yield a different (and likely less desired) outcome than what I am outlining here.
You can’t get better at everything all the time. And no, you are not special and you are NOT the exception to that. (Sorry friends, you’re not the 0.01% here; that’s just not how odds work. :) ) Understanding that progress in some areas naturally corresponds with a lack of progress in others is something that can significantly enhance your training and racing experience overall.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.