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Top Five Mistakes of Beginner Triathletes
By Josiah Middaugh
We all start somewhere
Every triathlete was a beginner at some point, picking up one, two, or possibly three completely new sports. With huge variations in the training history, skill, and fitness levels of new triathletes, it makes finding sound training advice even more difficult.
To help any aspiring triathletes and provide a refresher to vets looking to refine their game (these comments don’t only apply to beginners), I’ve written down some of the most common mistakes I see triathletes make – or that I’ve made myself!
1. Following someone else’s training plan
Be careful who you listen to when seeking advice on training. When asked, an athlete will almost always detail their peak week of training (neglecting to tell you about their lighter weeks), may exaggerate their training, or may even flat out lie. Even if they are honest, they may be well beyond or below your current level. If your top local athlete has 15 years of training experience, how is that year-15 training plan appropriate for a year-one athlete?
With social media, there is even more misinformation and a not-so-subtle attempt to depict epic training days or brutally hard workouts, so elite athletes’ profiles can be the worst place to look for training ideas. Their work/life/training balance may also be very different from yours, and with more sleep and recovery focus, their ability to adapt to higher training loads will also be very different.
There are several tenets of endurance sports nutrition; the first and most important is adequacy. Adequately fueling for your activity level can make all the difference between adapting and not adapting to a training stimulus. Staying in an energy balance or even a net energy positive will prevent your body from spending too much time in a catabolic state, so the most effective way to recover faster between training sessions is to fuel properly before, during, and after each training session.
Glycogen stores (carbohydrates), fluids, and electrolytes are the primary nutrients depleted during training. It’s crucial to arrive at key sessions with carbohydrate stores topped off and to fuel consistently during any long or back-to-back training sessions, which necessarily entails tracking your general nutrition outside of training. If you know you have a long training session on the schedule the next day, make sure to plan your preceding meal(s) accordingly – just like you would before a race.
During exercise I like to keep it simple with a minimum of one water bottle per hour and 200-300 calories of carbohydrates, depending on my output. I also aim for about 500mg of sodium per hour. For example, on a two hour ride, I will start with one bottle mixed with EFS-PRO (120 calories) and another bottle of water or diluted hydration mix, and I will supplement with one Liquid Shot (110 calories) every 30-40 minutes.
Post exercise, pay close attention to the 30-60 minute window when your muscle glycogen stores are most readily replenished with carbohydrates and protein in a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio. My go-to recovery drink for long exhaustive workouts and key sessions is the First Endurance Ultragen recovery drink, because it’s mixed at an effective ratio and uses a GI-friendly protein source that digests quickly to clear that critical 30-60 minute window.
3. Single-sport mindset
Many endurance athletes come to triathlon from one of the three sports in which they had a strong, single-sport focus. It can be hard for them to switch focus to the other two sports and back off on their strength. For example, an experienced marathon runner is used to tracking running mileage meticulously, and it can require a conscious adjustment to cut that mileage in half or more and put that energy into the other disciplines.
It also does not work to train like an elite swimmer, cyclist, and runner simultaneously. Realize that each training session needs to be accounted for when planning training load and recovery between key sessions – after all, achieving that balance is the heart of triathlon. When it comes to key high-intensity sessions and long endurance workouts, make sure you spread those across the key disciplines. Depending on your training history and current fitness level, your recovery from a long run, for example, might be very different from your recovery following a long ride or swim.
4. Fad diets
In some cases, pursuing triathlon might be part of a recent lifestyle change with a focus on health and weight loss. Triathlon can be a great way to help achieve your health and fitness goals, but be cautious of the latest diet trend or crash dieting – especially if you’re in the process of making drastic changes to your activity levels.
Most diets are just calorie restriction in disguise, and are designed for a sedentary person. If you are new to triathlon, then make sure to account for the extra calorie expenditure from your training. As a side note, avoid any diet that eliminates or severely restricts one of the macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, or fat. Your body will need those as an endurance athlete more than ever.
5. Training at the proper intensity
Triathletes love their gadgets and I am a big fan of using training metrics to help guide your training. The primary metrics I like to use are pace for swimming, power and/or heart rate for cycling, and pace and/or heart rate for running. In addition to those definite metrics, your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) is the universal metric that can be applied to all of your training modes.
I like to say that training zones are never set in stone and are there to serve as a guide. There are benefits and limitations of each training metric, and they can sometimes be in disagreement with each other, adding unnecessary confusion to training blocks. The bottom line is that metrics should help you tune into your body and give you some objective feedback without serving as the ultimate arbiter of your approach to training and racing.
Be careful comparing your training metrics to others, and don’t use age-predicted equations to determine heart rate zones. Instead, use simple field tests or key training sessions to determine functional threshold numbers, and do a majority of your training well under that pace, power, or heart rate. It helps to start your endurance sessions easier than you think you should and pace your hard interval sessions, often leaving one on the table.
For endurance sessions, observe a gradual heart rate rise to your target range, and then plateau. For tempo sessions, look for a slight ramp in heart rate – but with control. During threshold sessions, the ramp will be steeper and steeper yet for harder interval sessions. When you combine a performance metric like pace or power with heart rate, you learn how to pace each session and ration your effort. Over time, observe increased workload for any given submaximal heart rate value.
Know your own limits – then break them
Even experienced triathletes reading through this list will likely have found themselves nodding knowingly, recognizing behaviors that they or others are guilty of today or have been guilty of in the past. I am certainly guilty of many of them.
Much of this advice reduces to one simple idea: your training and racing plan is your plan alone, and it should be the product of personalized coaching guidance, your own current abilities, your own availability, and your ultimate performance goals.