Having the courage to listen to your body

When should you go easy and when should you go hard ?

It’s a question that many triathletes struggle with and invariably end up getting it wrong.

The reason is it takes great courage to rest or go easy when your body is tired. Courage because every athlete has a little devil; it sits on their shoulder and whispers that resting is a sign of weakness.  In some athletes that little devil is much more powerful than in others, and can be very hard to ignore.

The number one reason I see athletes making poor decisions is because they blindly follow training plans, going to extraordinary lengths to get sessions done even when the world and their body is working against them. A training plan isn’t written in stone; to get the most out of it, it needs to be both adaptable and flexible.

Making the right decision about what session to do is not always clear, because most triathletes are carrying a certain level of fatigue throughout most of their training. The key is to be able to distinguish between what I call ’good fatigue’ and ’bad fatigue‘.

Good fatigue is a kind of lingering fatigue, which endurance athletes tend to carry for most of the time during working, sleep and training hours. You feel some tiredness going into sessions but once warmed up you feel really good and the session is a success.  Bad fatigue is when you have pushed your body close to the limit of its capacity, often there is a loss of motivation, you are exhausted and your joints and muscles ache constantly. This is your body telling you it needs rest.

In this situation you need to be able to use your training ‘judgment‘ wisely –  if you don’t you will add more stress to an already stressed body. This will lead to even more fatigue, which stresses your immune system putting you at a higher risk of getting ill or injured. You will notice a significant drop off in performance during sessions and won’t be able to perform at your previous levels.

This creates a negative mindset, the athlete thinks something is wrong or they are failing in some way. The little devil comes in to play overriding the rational side of their brain.

The most common mistakes I see athletes making are pushing through hard sessions when:

  • They are very tired/exhausted
  • They train in a squad and don’t want to be seen as weak in front of the coach or other athletes
  • They have a race coming up and don’t want to lose fitness or miss key sessions
  • They have an injury niggle
  • They are ill or not fully recovered from illness

For each one of the above options there are some simple smart choices you can make to help your body feel better. As I see it there are 3 options:

  • Take a rest day
  • Start the session and see how it progresses. If it’s there push on if not back off.
  • Do a shorter, less intense session (30min easy turbo spin or  30 x 50m in the pool to replace longer, harder sessions).

The value of these two types of sessions are that they allow you to do something that makes you feel good, crucially they don’t add more stress to an already stressed body. They also allow you freedom to move your harder session to a day when your body will be more responsive.

Don’t be afraid to chop and change what’s on your training plan to suit how you’re feeling; it will help you squeeze the most out of your training. Learning how to balance easier sessions with hard ones as your fatigue levels rise and fall is the key to training consistency. Listen to what your body and mind is telling you, you will feel an enormous sense of empowerment when you get it right.