Why training less can help you run faster

Triathlon coaches Christina and Bruce Thomas spend a lot of time telling their athletes to slow down.

This might seem counter-intuitive for the role of a coach, but the Energy Link Performance Coaching pair do know what they're talking about: Bruce is a four-time Australian ironman champion and Christina is also a former Australian ironman champion, and both are level 2 triathlon coaches.

The issue Christina and Bruce commonly face with their charges is over-enthusiasm, a trait that on some levels is great and can be harnessed for optimal outcomes, but which can also be a hindrance.

Running to stand still

"We get people saying they want us to help them with a program because they do too much," Christina says. "They are good at training really hard, but don't know when to back off. If you almost break every time you train, it's not going to help your times."

Inefficiency is a curse when you're trying to cram training into an already busy life. Junk miles can be unhelpful; you get unnecessarily fatigued both mentally and physically; the risk of overuse injury goes up; and you don't get any faster.

"A lot of triathletes are high achievers in general, so they are used to putting pressure on themselves," Christina says.

So when do you back off and when should you put your foot on the accelerator?

Back off

Most coaches adopt a training block approach for their athletes. A typical one is a 3:1 ratio, whereby three weeks are designed to progress the training workload and the fourth week is one of active recovery.

"Recovery weeks are periods to let the mind and body relax," Christina says. "Often during these weeks you actually feel a little bit average because you're used to training so much. You often feel really tired because you're not in your normal routine and you allow yourself to let go.

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"The key is to just go with it and focus on maintaining the body with massage and using the roller and stretching. So by end of week you go into the next build-week fresher."

It comes down to trusting your coach. "If an athlete trusts you it works, because they listen to you. When they stick to their own thing anyway, they get injured, they get tired or sick a lot. All sorts of issues crop up."

Recover, refresh

Christina says a lot of amateur athletes don't like to do active recovery, even though by definition it is still a training week; just the intensity and volume is cut way back. "People struggle with that. They think they don't need it.

"But if you feel at least a little bit fresh after a recovery week, it's such a confidence booster. If you occasionally nail a training session and feel great, then that shows you're recovering well. That's all it takes to motivate you.

"Training sessions and recovery are just as important as each other. If you can bounce back stronger after a recovery week, then you're going to improve."

The problem sometimes is that athletes don't know how to work hard when they're supposed to, nor how to go easy when the program says to. They sit in a grey zone of effort and don't get results.

Beat the grey zone

"We find a lot of amateur ahtletes tend to train in a mediocre pace and that's how they race," Christina says. "They sit in that zone where it doesn't impact on their VO2 either way.

"It's like singing - you have to have light and shade. In training for sport you have to have really good quality sessions and some easy sessions. Without challenging ourselves we won't improve or get the gains."

Christina says part of the fun of coaching is in educating clients and trying to make them realise how recovery is important.

"It's really hard to maintain a constant level of training. We want to see people in the sport for a long period and still enjoying it. Even if you have high expectations, you can be smart about how you train. You don't have to trash yourself.

"Consistency is one of most important things to make you successful in your sport. That comes from being able to handle the load and recovery and back-up for sessions week in, week out, and still be healthy.

"And that means you have to balance your light and shade."

Do you put breaks into your training? Does it help with recovery and/or performance?

Pip Coates is a running tragic who knows the euphoria of training for and completing a major race, but also the heartbreak of injury and every bend in the long road back. In between runs she is also the deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review Magazine.

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