Mark Allen's Five Triathlon Mistakes to Avoid

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For triathletes, mistakes can define a race performance as much as success can. Luckily, most mistakes are not only avoidable, but also easy to remedy for anyone willing to look closely at few key areas. Avoiding these mistakes can dramatically improve performance.

Based on my experiences as a coach and an athlete, I've outlined my top five mistakes to avoid. I've made all of them during my career, so I know from personal experience they can all be corrected. If any apply to you, take heart.

1. Lack of Base Building

First and foremost, triathletes are endurance athletes. Any event that lasts over about four minutes starts to tap into your endurance physiology. In simple terms, this is your ability to access stored fat for fuel.

Even in a sprint or Olympic distance triathlon, your ability to sustain a high speed is determined by the size of your fat burning engine. To develop this aerobic physiology, you should initially slow your training pace down.

Motivating a triathlete is rarely a problem, but getting him or her to slow things down to develop their fat burning aerobic endurance engine can be tough.

Here is a simple way to figure out what heart rate represents the top end of your aerobic physiology: Take 180 and subtract your age. Now take that number and correct it based on the statements below:

  • Subtract five beats if you are recovering from a major illness or injury that has kept you from training for six months or more.
  • Leave the number where it is if you have been working out about two to three days per week for at least a year.
  • Add five beats if you have been working out more than three days per week for at least a year.
  • If you are over about 55 years old or under about 25 years old, add another 5 beats onto it.

This number is your maximum aerobic heart rate, meaning that if you train at or below this heart rate you are stimulating the aerobic fat burning engine. Training above it stimulates the development of your anaerobic physiology or your speed physiology.

Training aerobically is low stress on your body. Conversely, training anaerobically is high stress. Doing interval sessions requires more recovery time compared to completing a similar length workout at a lower intensity.

It can take a few months of really dialing your intensity back to see significant improvements in your pace and speed at or below your max aerobic heart rate. But in the end, this is what determines the size of your endurance engine.

Why is training too hard too frequently a mistake to avoid? High intensity anaerobic work (training above your max aerobic heart rate) raises the stress hormone levels in your body. A little of this type of work will indeed make you stronger and faster, but if every session is physiologically anaerobic, your body will not be able to handle the stress and your fitness and health will go in the wrong direction.

Consistent anaerobic training will suppress the immune system, increase your chances of getting sick, and end up inhibiting new protein synthesis, actually making you weaker over time. It also causes sleep problems, disrupting the deep stages of sleep your body needs to repair and rebuild itself from your training. Additionally it lowers overall energy levels leaving you lethargic—lowering training motivation to the point where you just don't want to go out there and exercise anymore.

I trained too hard, too often, during my first two years in the sport. Fortunately I was shown how to do most of my training aerobically, and then I sprinkled in just enough speed work so the balance of aerobic and anaerobic development was correct. I went from being burned out to feeling strong, from having small injuries to having none and from having unpredictable results in races to consistently putting in the performances I felt I was trained to do.

2. Lack of Sleep

When you sleep, your body releases human growth hormone based on your training stimulation during the day. HGH tells your body to build new muscle and to repair any micro damage that occurs during your training sessions.

With chronic lack of sleep, your body stops releasing enough HGH to repair itself effectively, and you can end up overeating because the hormone that shuts off your appetite when you have taken in enough calories is suppressed. Also, without enough good quality sleep your body gets stuck in a state of continual stress and ends up slowing or even completely inhibiting your ability to develop your aerobic fat burning engine.

This played out for me the first year after my son was born. Like most infants, he woke up several times at night and I didn't get enough good quality sleep.

Normally my pace increases throughout every season as I build my aerobic base, and I eventually add in some speed work. That year my pace never got any faster at any heart rate from the beginning of the season to the end simply because I was sleep deprived. If you are new to training and triathlon, do your best to plan in some additional sleep from what you normally get so that your body can repair itself and become stronger, faster and leaner.

3. Switching Training

Just about every training program has its merits. Many coaches use similar philosophies to help get their athletes ready for racing—each adding in some kind of special sauce to differentiate themselves. Most are likely to make you faster and give you a better overall experience in your triathlon endeavors. However, every good training method—whether it's something a coach provides you or a training plan that you find on the Internet—needs time to work.

New triathletes sometimes try to mix and match too many training ideas together into their training regimen. It's easy to be swayed by the latest great training session your favorite monthly magazine puts out, but switching from one training method to the next can be worse than just training by how you feel. Our bodies improve fitness gradually—it takes time for any training method to fully play out.

Unfortunately with the speed of social media, we want our fitness to make heaps of gains in a week or two. A training methodology that promises huge gains in a very short period of time is likely to be the one that also burns you out after six weeks. When you train smart and give yourself time to adapt naturally, the improvements are small and incremental week to week.

4. Lack of Race Taper

It's so easy to keep adding in more training, harder sessions and bigger volume. Everyone loves to hit new, harder levels in training and in fitness. While this makes sense during the season, a well-planned taper will enable you to reap the biggest gains from all your solid and consistent training.

A taper is a gradual decrease in overall training volume and intensity over a set number of weeks to help you stay rested for your big races. A study in Europe found that over 90 percent of all endurance athletes go into their final big race slightly overtrained, meaning they did not taper down long enough to give their bodies ample time to freshen up to maximal levels. They found most endurance athletes start tapering down their training about three weeks out from their big events, but it actually took most people four weeks of gradually tapering down their training to arrive at the start line of their biggest race completely fresh and ready to go at optimal levels.

I didn't discover this until my final IRONMAN in 1995. I normally did the standard three week taper down, gradually cutting my overall training volume by about 25 percent each of those final weeks. I won a lot of races with that method, but I also saw that I actually felt even better the week after the big races. So in 1995 I cut things back starting four weeks out rather than three. It ended up being my best IRONMAN ever in my career. Rest up!

5. Trying Something New On Race Day

This one is so simple to avoid, but so seductive that pretty much everyone has done it at one point or another if they race long enough. We are all trying to find that last little piece of extra savings to help us have the race of our lives in the final days leading up to big races.

Whatever you do, never ever employ something on race day that you have not tried and tried over and over in your training. It's not worth running the risk of it holding you back from the performance you planned for.

Whether it's a new wheelset, a different brand of sports drink, a wetsuit or any other piece of equipment, try it a number of times before you make the decision of whether you will use it or not. Rely on your own feedback to tell you if they are making a difference in your speed and efficiency rather than taking the word of the representative who got you to try the product. Become your own expert on all new products by trying it out yourself. Most of all, never use your race to test new products.

Mark Allen is a six-time winner of the IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona and is considered one of the greatest triathletes of all time. The California native retired from professional racing in 1996 and now operates his own coaching business, MarkAllenCoaching. His 'mindful' approach to racing revolutionized the way many high-caliber athletes approach the sport.

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