Most Coaches Overtrain Multisport Athletes

There, I said it.  I know that there will be many people who will applaud and many others who will scowl at the idea.  But it’s something that needs to be said because I think it’s an epidemic and does a real disservice to our sport.

Before I get bombarded with hate mail telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about, let me clarify one point.  I don’t mean the word, “overtrain” to suggest that coaches are inducing a state of overtraining (in the clinical sense) amongst their clients.  “Overtraining” in that sense of the word is training so hard and so often that fundamental chemical and neurological changes are made to the athlete’s body.  An athlete in this state is a sorry sight– their cortisol levels are completely jacked up, they’re utterly exhausted but they can’t sleep, and it’s not uncommon for them to tremble.  Instead, I mean “overtrain” in the layman sense– they just train their athletes too hard without a proper respect for recovery or other stressors in their client’s lives.

Inadequate Respect for Recovery and Stress

My physical therapist, who is getting long in the tooth like me, calls the problem, “the young male coach syndrome.”  I pass this phrase on with some trepidation– I know and respect a lot of young male coaches.  You know who you guys are and just know that I respect you and don’t mean to suggest that you fall into these stereotypes. 😉

Here’s the typical scenario.  You have a young male coach who was at the top of his game in his college years.  He had a coach while he was in college who pushed him to excel– and he did excel with the constant stimulation.  Then he graduates from college and starts coaching others the way that he was coached.  The problem is that his clients aren’t college students– they are much older, age group athletes.  Even if he has top-flight age group athletes in his stable, they don’t have the free time, youthful bodies, or relative lack of stress that he enjoyed.  All three of these factors (time, age, and stress) are concepts that he probably has little appreciation of.  Chances are also that this youthful (typically male) coach focused on a single-discipline sport in his college years instead of duathlon and triathlon.  Applying his old college coach’s work ethic while cramming in three sports into a schedule is a real challenge for him– and an even greater challenge for his aging athletes.  A typical schedule from one of these coaches include blocks of three consecutive hard days before a brief recovery day, then two consecutive hard days and then another recovery day.  Each day has two–sometimes three– workouts, including the recovery days.  Packing in a ton of hard workouts fills up the calendar fast with multiple workouts per day– and just meeting this schedule becomes an enormous source of stress in itself!  A coach in this situation would be wise to experiment with a sports rotation methodology and, when he sees his clients performance fully blossom, reconsider his approach to coaching.  The one thing a coach in this situation should not do is to take a schedule that’s worked for him and assume that it (or some variant) will work for his clients.

The kind of schedule-packing used by most coaches just doesn’t work for most athletes, except in rare circumstances.  One of those circumstance, for instance, is a training camp.  If you have ever taken time for a mid-winter training camp, you probably noticed that you could hammer for days on end.  You may have been tired, but you were able to sustain the training like an 18 year old.  The reason you performed so well is that you removed two components (lack of time and stress) from the equation.  While you still have to contend with your older age, freeing up your time and eliminating distracting stress enables you to perform better than you ever could back at home.  The disparity between an athlete’s performance at training camp and back at home should be a big red flag to both athletes and their coaches– it’s a huge gap that’s entirely due to stress that is unpredictable and virtually omnipresent in any age group athlete’s life.

The Unpredictable Nature of Stress

I have a friend who flies around the country constantly.  He is also a triathlete at the top of his game.  He lives and dies by his calendar– including the calendar sent to him by his coach.  Often, like so many of us, he tries to do too much.  He’ll land in a city after a stressful flight and work out in the hotel gym until 11:00 pm to try to make sure that every workout in his calendar gets checked off his calendar.  Not surprisingly, a number of his key workouts don’t get the attention they deserve because he couldn’t give them adequate recovery ahead of time.  It is a good thing that he enjoys a very Type A lifestyle and that he has a lot of natural talent– I would be a wreck if I lived his life.

The fact of the matter is that a calendar shouldn’t be set in stone and should only serve as a suggested way of fitting in the key workouts.  Life is simply too unpredictable.  For instance, an airline flight can suddenly become either relatively stress free or a source of incredible stress at the last minute if little things like delays, crying babies, first class upgrades, etc shift one way or the other.  And if an athlete has kids, well, all bets are off for any kind of regularity.  Some days are unpredictably better days for working out– other days simply get out of control and suck.

Cover of The Well-Built TriathleteJust in case you think that I’m just some namby-pamby weekend athlete who just likes to complain about coaches, let me tell you I’m not the only one.  Matt Dixon runs Purplepatch Fitness, which churns out some of the top age-group triathletes in the country– 150 championship and podium finishes in Ironman events in the past five years.  For months, I had been waiting for his new book, The Well-Built Triathlete on pre-order through Amazon Prime.  When it finally came out, I had that strange feeling of excitement and aggravation when someone famous just confirms what you’ve been saying for years– that most coaches train their athletes too darn hard.

I think Matt’s greatest accomplishment is addressing the basic mindset of multisport coaches and their athletes by reframing the way basic mantra in their heads.  The typical multisport athlete lives by the internal message,

“What can do to perform at my best?”

There are two problems with thinking this way.  First, it ignores all the other stresses in an athlete’s life.  Second, more is not necessarily better– but this message seems to suggest that it is.  Yes, an athlete in perfect condition and without stress can always add another set of intervals and get better.  In other words, this message just feeds the Type A workaholic in all of us to work harder and harder for infinitesimal gains to the point of self-destruction.  To get around this outcome, Matt suggests changing the internal message to:

“What is the absolute minimum amount of training that I need in order to achieve my athletic goals?”

WOW!  Print this out.  Put in on your refrigerator.  Put it on your work computer.  Put it on your bike.  Yes, it’s a subtle change of thinking, but it’s absolutely fundamental to your success.  We all need to have a good healthy respect for stress in our lives– and how it trashes our workouts and kills our performance.  Hopefully, this message helps.

The Solution: Clarify the Real Priorities of the Week

Despite Matt’s suggestion, I found that some of his schedules were still pretty stuffed for a time-pressed age group athlete.  Instead, I think that the real solution is identifying the two or three key workouts of the week that really matter— and their relative priority– and then making sure this information is conveyed to the client.  In general, there is usually only one (possibly two) workouts that are the real stars of the week.  For instance, if you’re in the middle of build where you’re trying to refine one-hour race speed, that one key workout is likely going to be your tempo efforts focused on one-hour race pace.  Alternatively, suppose that you are in the middle of the race season and your maxVO2 effort is taking a hit.  In that case, then Tabata intervals might suddenly become the absolute priority of the week.  Really, in terms of non-negotiable workouts for the week, there shouldn’t be more than two of them– a third one can be somewhat optional.  If a coach demands on more than two key workouts, they are just being greedy (they know deep down that their athletes’ bodies can’t make simultaneous adaptations in that many directions) AND they are being impractical (really, how many of your clients actually consistently perform like a rock star in more than 3 key workouts a week).  It is the one or two key workouts that coaches need to have their clients excel in– and that means, when push comes to shove, other workouts may need to be shed or changed to give the key workouts the respect that they deserve.  If coaches explained these relative priorities up front, my guess is that they would have happier and much more successful clients.

Coaches need to also help their clients understand their recovery patterns so that they can adjust their schedules for success in their key workouts.  Frankly, I think that providing this kind of objective insight is the single most important thing a coach can do.  Athletes tend to spend far too much time “in their own heads” and don’t know what’s normal fatigue and what’s unusual.  If they know, for instance, that long plane rides will invariably leave them trashed, they will know not to do a key workout right after a plane flight.  Helping an athlete get to know herself enables her to make the proper adjustments to get the really important things done.  Athletes also tend to think that they are super-human and rarely give stress the respect it deserves.  Helping clients appreciate recovery is critical if they are going to enjoy the long-term success that you both want.

Get Killer Results

My much younger teammates often call me “a machine” when it comes to my workouts.  What they don’t know is that they would probably consider my other workouts downright slothful compared to theirs.  While they usually have several hard workouts in a week, I only have two or three.  I usually only do one workout a day– and rarely stack two hard workouts on consecutive days.  Often, I don’t work out at all if things get even mildly stressful.  But I keep a sharp focus on my key workouts of the week– and they are invariably the team workouts.

I believe that great results in fewer workouts per week trumps mediocre results in all workouts for the week.  Of course, this has limitations.  For instance, I can’t just work out two or three times a week and bank everything on one killer workout without losing fitness.  But I will gain better overall fitness, have lower stress, and enjoy my life a lot more if I focus on a schedule with two or three key workouts with adequate recovery days– and then juggle my life’s priorities to ensure that the most important workouts get done as perfectly as possible.

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