If you have ever trained or are in training for an Ironman, you will know that it is an experience like no other—especially if you are an ironguides athlete on a daily dose of The Method training program. This article offers advice on how to spot the patterns of overtraining and how to minimize the down days for a more balanced, manageable and effective training cycle.
Whether you are an Ironman veteran signing up for your 7th tour of duty, a top 70.3 age grouper stepping up to race with the “big boys”, or a brand-new newbie who’s caught the bug and wants to get one under their belt (“What’s all the fuss about?”), the demands of Ironman training will stretch you to your physical, emotional and psychological limits.
The Ironman training cycle is a crazy rollercoaster ride that can take you from good days, filled with hope and confidence to nightmare off days that will leave even the fittest athlete discouraged and questioning their ability to even make it to the finish line.
This article offers advice on how to spot the patterns of overtraining and how to minimize the down days for a more balanced, manageable and effective training cycle.
If you are forcing yourself to do your sessions for fear of losing fitness and find yourself half-heartedly going through the motions, while getting more tired and desperate as your performance drops... Listen up!
The most common comment from an overtrained athlete is not, “Coach, I am so tired, I need a break”. Rather, it is “Coach, I’ve been training hard but I am not improving, I think I need to do more.”
The athlete’s drive to excel is so strong that they end up burning the candle at both ends, giving up personal down-time, recovery and sleep to maintain high levels of work, family and triathlon training commitments.
In my experience, the most telltale signs of an athlete who is overdone are:
- Malaise and constant fatigue
- Immune-compromised state
- Unhealthy obsession with (lack of) improvement
- Loss of enjoyment of the sport
- Loss of trust and faith in their training
- Continual weight loss
- Decreased motivation
- Flat/jaded personality
- Refusal to admit that they are over-done.
Without timely and well-considered guidance, this athlete is headed for trouble.
The risk of overtraining is especially high in the last 6 weeks before a race—in the middle of the final loading phase. An athlete who has been training hard for the last 4 to 6 months will want to push even harder in order to cram in more training before winding down and resting up for the big day.
Here are three common situations that can make these final 6 weeks a tricky patch to navigate:
1) Your dedication and consistency have paid off and you’re fitter than you’ve ever been. You feel invincible. The temptation is to push even harder through the home stretch looking for that last 5 percent of improvement.
Quick Fix: If you are feeling good at this stage, keep up the good work and don’t bury yourself in the hardcore tunnel. Aim to finish each session feeling great, keeping something in the tank for the next day. Aside from getting more rest, don’t change a thing! Unless you have planned it carefully with your coach, don’t turn up the volume or intensity-knob all of a sudden. Overreaching requires a carefully thought-out recovery period.
2) You only have a handful of weeks left before you need to taper. Your preparation has been a little patchy and your insecurities are surfacing. You think that by hammering every session in those final few weeks before the race will make up for lost time and missed sessions earlier on.
Quick Fix: Don’t panic. Speak to your coach and let them know exactly what has been going on and how you are feeling overall. Recap calmly what you have done and how far you have come since the start of your journey. Chances are that you’ve caught it early enough to salvage the race and you realize that you’re not in that dire a situation. Your coach will know how to tweak your plan to freshen you up while highlighting the key workouts that you must get done. At this point you may need to manage your race-day ambitions but this doesn’t mean that you can’t have a great day out.
3) Because of your high training load and the length of time that you have been at it, your body’s immune system—normally used to fight daily germs and bacteria—has been working overtime to regulate muscle and tissue recovery instead. As a result, you fall into an immune-compromised state and pick up colds and flus that don’t go away. You try to train through it but end up even sicker, performing worse and fearful that you’re losing fitness.
Quick Fix: Alert your coach immediately and spell out clearly how long you’ve been under the weather and what training you have done while ill. Your top priority is to return to 100% fitness. Load up on vitamins and antioxidants, get as much sleep as you can and drop the volume of each session to a maximum of 40 minutes and back off the intensity by a few notches too. By doing this, you are able to keep the relevant systems open and warm, yet avoid doing too much to compromise your immunity any further. Your coach should tweak your plan for a few days of “unloading”.
In all these situations, you will notice that bringing your coach into the equation is a critical step; it is one of the first things you should do. It will make the difference between just getting though the race and arriving at the start line fresh, focused and full of energy. The sooner you speak to your coach, the quicker he can get you back on track rested and refocused on the end goal, i.e. perform your best on the big day. This brings me to my next point ...
A coach's job extends way beyond dishing out training plan after training plan. Don’t wait until you are a burnt-out zombie, shell-of-a-human-being before approaching your coach for help.
Timeliness is the key.
Your coach’s role is to get you as fit as possible for race day. At times, this might involve a gentle nudge or cracking the whip; at other times, his job is to rein you in from the edge of burnout or, in the worst-case scenario, nurse you back to health and sanity.
A good coach will know:
- Your personality/lifestyle
- Your current training load
- How far along the training cycle you are
- The current stressors in your life.
At times, it is difficult to consider all these factors from inside the Ironman bubble so if you need a little extra guidance, make the effort to elaborate on how your training has been going. Together with the usual training parameters and assessment of your current perceived level of fitness, some feedback on how you are feeling and your emotional state (especially your doubts) will provide your coach with a good insight into how you are coping and what you need to work on.
A good coach will not judge you on what training you have or have not completed. Stay open to your coach’s questions and suggestions and share openly with him your goals and motivations. If you catch signs of overtraining early and nip it in the bud, all that maybe required is a weekend off or a few days/ a week of unloading to get you refreshed. If you keep these things to yourself, you run the risk of digging yourself deeper into the lonely hole of overtraining.
Even before you sign up for an Ironman, there are a few simple steps to tip the scales in your favour.
The majority of age groupers today work a demanding 10-hour day. Many are married, or with a long-term partner and have young families. Before jumping online at 4am to wait for registration to go live, examine your calendar 6 months before race day. Are you getting married, having a child, moving house or country, changing jobs, starting a new business, or going to be involved in other big “life” situations?
All these things will factor into your training, recovery and performance, especially the final 2 months before race day. You will enjoy a much more balanced and successful journey if the forecast of life’s big stressors and events reads relatively “normal and boring”. Of course there is no way to predict the future, but an uneventful half-year window is a good place to start your Ironman dreams.
Secondly, have that chat with your partner or spouse. The one that starts with “Baby/Dear/Darling, I am thinking of doing an Ironman next year...”
It is of the utmost importance that you have buy-in from your loved one because, as much as you think you’re doing all the hard work, they will be the ones playing a major supporting role. Extra understanding and support could make or break your race preparation.
Explain what an Ironman is and why you want to do one (or another one). It is important to give them an idea of the hours of training that will be involved. This will help them to appreciate and give reason to what you will be putting yourself through. Your coach is the best person to advise you on the different time commitments required for the different phases of a typical Ironman training cycle.
By including your spouse / partner into your decision-making process, you are also giving them a time frame so that they can appreciate and be mentally prepared for those days and weeks when you don’t need the extra distractions and social gatherings because you will be more tired than usual. In all fairness, it also allows them to look forward to when they can have a fully present and energetic partner back in their lives!
It is a good idea to take it a step further to roughly plan out your allocated training hours with them. As you proceed, daily duties and responsibilities will surface, and together you will be able to discern much more clearly which are the most convenient tasks for you to stay engaged in to pull your weight.
I hope this article has given you some insights into some of the common pitfalls surrounding Ironman training and, more importantly, how to avoid them. Training is not all a bed of roses nor should not be viewed as an excuse for unlimited hours of swimming, biking and running. To get it right and to nail it on race day requires a delicate balance of training and recovery guided by a close working relationship with your coach, and an understanding and supportive home base from which to launch your adventures and live your dreams.
Enjoy your training.
Shem Leong, Certified ironguides Coach - Singapore
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