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Are You That Triathlete?

  • By Matt Dixon
  • Published Jan 11, 2016
  • Updated Jan 15, 2016 at 1:32 PM UTC
Illustration by Oliver Baker.


Through his 20 years of coaching, Matt Dixon has identified five common triathlete archetypes that, despite best intentions and total dedication, fall short of realizing individual athletic potential. Could you be making the same mistakes?

I believe that it is too common for athletes and coaches to place a singular focus on the simple accumulation of training miles or hours without considering the critical supporting elements that facilitate successful training. Aspects such as fueling, sleep, recovery and healthy eating habits are often considered mere afterthoughts, with the greatest barometer of training success measured simply in “how much.” This proves costly for many amateur athletes, as most have to balance training load with very busy lives at work, with family and relationships, as well as a myriad of other factors. Logging hours of training, at the exclusion of what I call “the supporting cast,” typically leads to the rest of life becoming overstretched. We have so many athletes walking around fit yet fatigued, and not achieving the results of their hard work. Here are the five most common self-sabotaging training scenarios I’ve seen, and how you can avoid the same pitfalls.

Case Study #1: The Busy Executive

Joe is a top executive at a rapidly growing, successful company. He thrives on his leadership role and has to manage an ever-expanding work schedule, oversee a large number of employees and travel frequently across time zones. At home, Joe has two children and a hugely supportive wife, who appreciate (tolerate) his high motivation for Ironman triathlon. He is committed to being a great leader, a wonderful husband and father, but he also wants to excel in races.

Joe often struggles to complete all of the training prescribed, despite scheduling out 15 to 18 hours of time to achieve the work. Often compromising sleep to fit in the training, he has started to feel energy dips in work, as well as an overall feeling of falling behind in the needed training time to be successful in his sport. Travel is his worst enemy, as the eating plan often goes out the window, sleep is further compromised, and his make-up training sessions are often poor quality as they are typically completed right off the plane. He tends to train from race to race, complains that he’s hit a performance plateau and doesn’t feel like he’s thriving in various areas of life.

The fix:
My initial recommendation to Joe was to get healthy and take a break. I gave him 10 days of very low-stress training, with a mission to restore energy and health.

The second step was to do a thorough realistic analysis of his life. The goal was to assess his true training availability, after the demands of work and family were taken into account, as well as proper allotment of both sleep and some social time. We realized he only had 10 to 12 hours of available time weekly to apply to training, with some weeks less time, and some a little more. It was no wonder his 15 to 18 hours were a struggle. I then encouraged him to view training through a different lens. Rather than ask how many hours were necessary to become race ready, I encouraged him to ask how he could maximize the available hours. This subtle shift completely changed the conversation. He could now build the training within the context of life and allow training to become integrated into—instead of dumped on top of—life.

The next fix was to address some fundamental habits that could help with recovery, energy management, sleep quality and body composition. We simply committed to fueling after every single workout, maintained quality daily hydration, committed to a little more sleep, and finally adjusted the structure of the training week. Rather than viewing each training week as a string of workouts to complete, we established long-term consistency as the goal, and developed a dynamic hierarchy of workout importance. Key sessions were not to be missed in any given week, but the supporting sessions were ones that could be trimmed, cut or missed if life stress and travel got in the way. This enabled Joe to maintain specificity and consistency without feeling like a failure. The result was fewer weekly hours of training but control over his life, and the hours completed were effective. Joe felt like his training was sustainable and under control, with a set of tools to manage when work or life became hectic. His energy has become more balanced throughout each day, and workout quality has improved, as training is designed to fit into his life (not the other way around). The outcome, as ever, is improved race performance, but also a more balanced and happy life.

RELATED: 7 Tips For Balancing Training With Life

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