With over 15 years of experience coaching a lot of athletes, I’d like to think that I’ve compiled a lot of data about what makes athletes faster and stronger.
That said I’ve also got the data to show what doesn’t work and what holds athletes back from achieving their best performances. As an example, here are 5 ways I see athletes sabotage their own training.
Athletes have gotten much better about consuming fluids during training. That’s a trend we’ve seen in training data over a period of several years. On average, athletes consume more ounces of fluid (bottles per hour) than they did ten years ago. That’s a good thing, but there’s still a problem of athletes starting their workouts under-hydrated. I wouldn’t call it dehydration, per se, because we rarely see athletes starting workouts in a truly dehydrated status.
Rather, they are not starting their workouts fully or adequately hydrated for the efforts they are about to perform. I have said for years that the quickest way a coach can deliver a performance improvement for an athlete is to get them to drink more.
To bring that statement up to date, I would amend it to say that the best way for an athlete to see improved performance in a workout (increased power for intervals, greater repeatability of high power outputs throughout the workout) is to get them to drink more in the hours before training and throughout the day.
Taking too little rest between workouts
It is difficult to break motivated, high-performing adults from the “more is better” mindset, but there is no doubt in the scientific literature that training adaptations diminish or disappear when athletes complete repeated training bouts with insufficient recovery between them. How much recovery is the right amount?
Unfortunately, there’s no single answer to that question, it depends on your baseline fitness, cumulative training load, lifestyle stress, and host of other factors. A general rule of thumb, however, is that the higher the workload from a single training session (either high intensity or high volume) the longer recovery period you need before you can train effectively again. That’s why you can do back-to-back moderate-intensity endurance rides but should take at least full day of recovery between high-intensity VO2 max workouts.
Taking too much rest between workouts
Recovery between workouts is a bit of a Goldilocks story. Too little time between sessions and you’re too fatigued to perform effective workouts (see above). The opposite is also a problem. Too much time between sessions and there’s not enough cumulative workload to stimulate adaptation. This is especially true with more experienced athletes who need a bigger stimulus in order to affect a meaningful adaptation.
Many of you are fit enough that a single workout, no matter how difficult, is not enough to cause an adaptation. You need that workout plus the ones before it and after it together to force your body to notice and respond. We see this problem mostly in athletes who have trouble with training consistency; you can ride once or twice on the weekend and then miss all your workouts during the week.
There’s so much time between the stimuli that you’re just treading water. You’re able to maintain fitness that way, maybe, but probably won’t see much if any improvement.
Taking too much time off
Any prolonged break from exercise (4 weeks or more) will set you back significantly. You’ll lose baseline aerobic fitness and your power/pace at lactate threshold will diminish. I’ve said this for years, but it bears repeating: you can’t make significant gains year over year when you lose 20% of your hard-earned fitness during a prolonged layoff.
Fitness is easier to lose than it is to gain, but it is also relatively easy to maintain what you have right now. You can reduce your training workload by nearly 30% (10 hours/week to 7), and as long as you keep some intensity in there you can retain most of your current power at lactate threshold and the vast majority of your aerobic endurance.
But if you sit on the couch, get fat, and figure you’ll take two months off, prepare to spend about 5 months training your ass off just to get back to where you are right now.
Failing to look at training data
Athletes generate more data than ever before and it’s getting easier and easier to gather training data. The irony is that even as power meters, GPS units, and smart trainers get less expensive and more affordable athletes aren’t doing anything with the data! Please upload your data.
If you’re self-coached you don’t have to do the level of analysis coaches do; there’s still a benefit to aggregating your data to see simple metrics of how many hours you’re doing, how many weekly kilojoules you’re accumulating, and whether your normalized power outputs or best 20-minute powers are improving, staying constant, or declining.
Here’s the easy summary to avoid being your own worst enemy: focus on consistency, use your training data to optimise the amount of recovery time you’re taking between workouts, and drink a bottle or two of fluids in the 4 hours before your workouts.