If you want to see what exquisite agony looks like, hang out at the finish line of an Ironman. Every athlete who crosses it will be wearing an expression that is equal parts utter exhaustion, physical and mental torment, and adrenaline-fueled exhilaration. The sense of achievement that comes with taking that last step in a multipart race — whether it’s a full Ironman, an Ironman 70.3, an Olympic triathlon, or a sprint — is unparalleled. And if you’ve ever taken it, you know how addicting it is — and how daunting that addiction can become.
So how can you stay fresh, mentally and physically, in a sport that is all about testing your limits and challenging your grit? I’ve spent nearly a decade as a professional triathlete trying to figure that out. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Take a Break Mid-Season
Once the race season is underway and you’re feeling fit and competition ready, it can be hard to press pause. But taking a short, structured mid-season break can be a game-changer. Some people (especially you “Type A” athletes out there) can find it extremely hard to back off, but it really is the best thing you can do for your body and mind, especially if you’re planning to race deeper into the year.
I started taking mid-season breaks a few years ago when my race calendar began stretching from March through October or November. There’s not an athlete on the planet who can keep fanning the flames of training and racing that long without taking some kind of downtime to allow his or her body to recover. I attempted to do that in 2012 (I raced from March to December), and by Christmas I was toast. Since then, I’ve made a point to take time out mid-season to reset, restore, and ready myself to charge into the second half.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you ditch the bike, pool, and roads to party hard and lay on the couch (well, maybe just a little bit!). What I’m advocating is that you work with your coach to map out a week during the race season that will allow you to recover fully from the punishing demands of your sport.
It’s an ideal time to go on vacation with your partner or family, catch up with friends, and spend some time indulging in passions and pastimes that typically get pushed to the side by training. You can keep swimming, biking, and running if you want, but keep it unstructured and put away all training gadgets (heart rate monitor, power meter, etc.). The focus should be on having fun and being social. Join your training buddies for a casual spin, jog, or splash, but keep your competitive side in check.
Make Recovery a Priority
Let’s assume you’ve taken a mid-season break and you’re feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. Your goal now is to stay that way, and to do that you need to place as much importance on recovery as you do on training (something you should be doing anyway).
I’ll often schedule a lighter recovery day after 3 or 4 incrementally harder training days, for example. That doesn’t mean I kick my heels up for 24 hours — “recovery” should never be confused with “inactivity” — but I might take a break from biking and running to perform a lighter pool or gym workout. If I do run or bike, I keep it easy — I’m talking 9- to 10-minute miles on runs and staying below 150 watts on rides. I’m staying active — building mobility, enhancing strength, honing my swim technique — but I’m not stressing my muscular, cardiovascular, or energy systems. On the contrary, I’m working them just enough to boost blood flow and facilitate repair and recovery.
If you think this sounds like polarized training (i.e., making hard work hard and easy work easy), you’re right. It’s the most effective method for not only optimizing adaptations to training (e.g., strength, power, endurance), but also keeping your body primed to perform at its peak. When it comes time to really hit the gas during a race or hard workout, polarized training will help make sure you’ve got enough va-va-voom in the tank to give the effort everything you’ve got.
On lighter days, I’ll also try to slow my pace outside of training. Everything is very relaxed — I’ll nap, read, get a massage. My goal is to calm my nervous system and release tension from my mind. When it comes to athletic performance, the mind is just as important as the body, so don’t neglect it.
Maintain a Balance
There’s a tendency among triathletes to adopt a training mindset of “more is better.” But in my experience, more of anything isn’t better unless it’s offset with plenty of something else. Take a good, hard look at your lifestyle to make sure you have everything in balance (and in perspective). If all you do outside of work is train for triathlons, then odds are you don’t have much equilibrium in your life. And if you spend all of your spare waking moments thinking and talking about triathlon, then it’s probably time to balance things out with other hobbies and interests.
I’m the first to admit that sometimes it’s easier to just keep chasing target times, but if you want to achieve them, you need to look at all aspects of your life — work, health, relationships, recreation — and make sure that all of your boxes are checked. If not, then take steps to change that. Get involved with a local charity, learn a new language, read more, make time to see friends — do whatever you need to do to create more of a balance in your life. I promise that it will make you a happier and healthier person — and a fiercer, more successful triathlete.