TO ALL THE amateurs who train like a pro for triathlon success, Matt Dixon would like to say, “Don’t do that.” Professional triathletes work that hard because it is actually their job. On the other hand, amateurs who excessively pressure themselves can end up losing in all areas of life, including their race performance. After logging so many hours, at the expense of everything else in their lives, why do triathletes experience underperformance and disappointment? “Therein lies one of the most glaring missteps that plague so many triathletes,” writes Dixon. “Underachieving usually can be traced back to being rooted in an unhelpful mindset.” Dixon is familiar with amateurs who mistakenly think that loads of training time is their barometer of success. “Instead, they should establish a mindset that considers the context of their entire lives and allows for consistency over many months and pragmatic adaptability on a weekly basis to get them to their races fit, strong and healthy.” Think integration, not accumulation, within a full and demanding life that incudes your work, family, friends and other interests. Following a principle of efficiency, he says, it is far better to perform less training well than it is to perform more training poorly.
Dixon views each person’s potential within the context of the life they lead. Many triathletes never reach their potential because they apply too much self-pressure, leading to a downward spiral that creates fatigue, injuries, frustration, disappointment and burnout.
“I’ve coached athletes through the transition from amateur to pro,” writes Dixon. “It entails a massive shift in mindset that illustrates why the pro approach isn’t a good fit for amateur athletes.”
Jim, a highly ambitious triathlete, had a demanding job, a family with two young children, a 45-minute daily commute to work and a goal of qualifying for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. As his coach, Dixon wasn’t looking for a “utopian balance within a highly goal-driven individual,” but he wanted to help Jim be effective and maximize performance gains.
Jim thought he needed at least 15 hours of training every week and cut back on his sleep to fit that in. This led to an accumulation of fatigue that showed in underwhelming race results and low performance progression over several seasons. His commitment wasn’t declining, but he certainly wasn’t thriving.
Jim reduced his training to about 12 hours a week by cutting out all but one evening session, losing one morning session and saving four weekend days over the season for sleeping in, spending the day with family and having downtime for himself. This provided four to five extra hours of sleep a week, better daily energy, more time to think and a net performance gain.
“The takeaway is not that less is more,” explains Dixon. “Jim made a strategic plan to secure ‘more’ of what was holding him back: sleep. He ended up making performance gains in sport and life as a result.”
In the greater context of life, the wrong mindset brings down many triathletes and makes their results meaningless. Dixon realizes his approach might be controversial because “it debunks the prevailing belief that triathlon has to be a selfish, exclusive pursuit that stands between you and your family and friends.” He goes on to say, “If you are a really busy person, your pursuit of triathlon had better be fun and bring you happiness. Otherwise, what’s the point?”—helen
Helen Powers is a regular contributor to Triathlon Magazine Canada. She lives in Dundas, Ont.