Amateur to Elite: Six Keys to Athletic Progression
The quantity vs. quality debate has been filling up endurance sports forum and blog sites for years. Some argue that high-volume low-intensity training is the way to go, and others claim that athletes and coaches should focus on the opposite, high-intensity and low-volume, but, as you may know by now, there is not a correct answer.
In real life, not in the internet reality or the discussion tables around the sports world, athletes have a hard time committing to a specific training philosophy because athletes are humans and as humans have other stressors and obligations that limit what is possible. Nevertheless, this does not mean that achieving substantial goals is not conceivable.
Significant achievements in sport are like big achievements in other aspects of life. Both require giving up some things and focusing on others. Both need dedicated work time and resources, and both benefit from a plan. That being the case, let me showcase my personal experience and a couple of learnings that have come out of the process.
Over the last two years, I have dedicated my life to getting a graduate degree, working part-time while in school, and picking up some extra part-time work to help myself financially, all while taking steps to become an elite triathlete. So, for Coach Jason and I, understanding my specific availability of time and stress was pivotal to lay out a plan, and to be able to set reachable intermediate goals. However, to save you time from a never-ending story let me give you a couple of tips to illustrate what we have learned.
1. Train according to your lifestyle. This may sound abstract, but it is by far the best adjustment I have done to my training. As mentioned earlier, we all have stressors and commitments that limit our training and recovery time, and we must be aware of that. The training that we do has to fit our lives so we can stay happy, motivated and healthy. For example, many of my graduate classes were until late at night, meaning that an early morning workout would have limited my sleep. So, as a solution, the day after a class would involve mid-day or afternoon workouts, to fit the school and work schedule.
2. Less is more. So, when in doubt, go for the lesser option. During my years in the sport, I have encountered many athletes that, due to pure insecurity, have done an extra rep, workout, or ride hour, leading themselves to overtraining and injuries. Yes, it sounds better to do 6 by one mile, instead of five, but if doing an extra rep may represent a step back in training and racing, leave that extra mile in the tank and use it when it matters, on race day.
3. Make every workout count. This concept, along with the less is more concept, are extremely important for athletes of all levels. When an athlete understands the purpose and the goals of each workout and works accordingly, the improvement becomes exponential. Yes, it may hinder your social experience of training since your riding buddies may resent the fact that you want to focus on your intervals instead of sprinting to the next town sign, but if you want to maximize the effects of training, this is a good step forward. Also, cutting the fluff out of the plan helps on this maximization task.
4. Focus on the process and look at the big picture. This phrase might be, perhaps, one of the most used quotes in the sporting world. As athletes, it is very easy to overfocus on the day to day data and the immediate results of training and racing, but one must have the courage to "sweep good and bad things under the rug," and understand how something might be just a step in the grand picture of the process. So, do not get carried away by a workout that does not turn out as expected or subpar race results, do not add unnecessary stress to the system, all those are learning experiences to adjust training and future racing. Also, by focusing on the process, one can be conscious of the overall demands and life stressors, which can affect the level of happiness and the sustainability of training.
5. Consistency over epicness. This is a particularly important aspect, especially for newer athletes. The sport of triathlon is filled by tales of epic workouts, in all three sports, that seem to spread like the next biggest secret to a personal best performance or a race victory. However, athletes must be very careful about how those big and challenging training days fit into the overall picture of training and recovery, mainly if this can affect the consistency of training. So, if doing an epic brick will leave you out for the next four days, adjust it and think that it is more critical to string a chain of good and consistent training days, instead. Remember that time and stress are limited resources, and epic workouts require lots of both, so keep it simple.
6. Trust and enjoy. This is the most simple yet most important learning of the last two years. It may sound cliche, but regardless of the type of training you are doing, you must make sure that what you decide to do makes you a happy and you can trust it in the hardest moments of racing and training. Understandably, some workouts can be tedious and repetitive, those are a necessary evil of the sport, but if you enjoy the sport and trust the plan you have decided to follow, those workouts will become more manageable and will leave you satisfied and stronger. Also, when you trust your process, you become more accepting that the work that you do is the one necessary to reach your goals, nobody else's, and if somebody is doing harder and more work than you, be "ok" with it, you are doing what is right for you.