Making things hard for yourself

This piece was written for TriNews in November 2005

You might have come across the expression ‘train smarter, not harder’.  Though I’m certainly in favour of training smarter it’s not an expression that I like.  I think that the purpose of training smarter is to enable you enable you to train harder.  And that’s what this article is about.

By ‘hard’ I mean high volume, high intensity training. The sort of heart pounding, sweat pouring, muscle burning, adrenaline pumping sessions that leave you feeling high, glowing and exhausted.  A slightly more scientific description would be sustained effort(s) at, and above, the ‘Painful Threshold’.  This intensity is also variously referred to as the Anaerobic Threshold (AT), Lactate Threshold (LT) and Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation (OBLA).

What’s happening?

The significance of the painful threshold is that above it your muscles are demanding energy more quickly than your body can provide it using its aerobic system – you are already breathing as hard as you can.  The anaerobic system is the only energy system that can convert stored glycogen quickly enough to provide the extra energy required – so to increase the intensity any further it is the anaerobic system which has to work harder. 

What’s the point?

One way of looking at base training, weight training, technique training, core-stability training, periodisation, nutrition, massage, recovery and rehydration is that they enable you do the hard training required to realise your racing potential.  Your ability to race hard is determined by the amount and effectiveness of your hard training.  This is the training that converts all those other ‘good things’ into power, speed, fast times and wins.  This is the icing on the training cake.

So why not just do hard training? 

Or do more hard training? 

This is where the smart bit comes into play.  There are many limiting factors to training hard.  The duration of sessions is limited, the frequency of sessions is limited and the effectiveness of sessions is limited.  Session duration is limited because hard training uses a lot of energy, which can’t be replaced until later, and causes rapid dehydration.  Above OBLA the anaerobic energy system generates lactate quicker in the working muscles than the rest of the body can reprocess it and this causes the muscles to tie up.  Even before the lactate gets to you it’s difficult to maintain technique and impossible to work on improving it.  Frequency is limited because recovery takes a long time: Hours to re-hydrate, days to replenish glycogen stores and longer for muscle damage to repair.  Besides the strain on the body hard training requires focus and mental preparation, especially as the rate of progress diminishes and plateaus.  One effect of trying to do too many hard sessions is that none of them is sufficiently hard to give much benefit. Effectiveness is limited because, even with a good base, the level of fatigue builds up and form (both performance and technique) starts to drop over a period of months.  So you get the picture.  Trying to do too much leads to the mediocrity of the ‘middle ground’ (pseudo-hard sessions and one-paced, one-hour wonderland) or worse, the meltdown of overtraining. And don’t forget that the purpose of training is racing – it’s no good putting the icing on the cake if you never get to eat it!

So what’s the smart way of training hard? 

The smart way is to do just the right amount at just the right times. 

The right time for lots of hard training is the pre-competition phase.  Physiologically (for your body) it’s the right time because a good base gives the ideal starting conditions, eight to twelve weeks is long enough to make all of the gains that are likely and then you get to make use of the gains during the competition phase.  Psychologically (for your mind) it’s the right time because motivation is likely to stay high as the races approach.  Doing lots of hard training at other times is counter-productive.  During the base phase it detracts from the effectiveness of your base training and, consequently, is likely detract from the effectiveness of your pre-comp phase.  Doing lots of hard training during the competition phase reduces your ability to recover for racing.

This isn’t to say that hard sessions don’t have a place during the base and competition phases.  Doing none at all is almost as bad as doing too much.

The not-so-secret secret

Another crucial point to understand is that the body only adapts to the training workload when the workload is removed.  i.e. during recovery.  Progression is only made by overload and adaptation to overload only occurs during recovery.  This means that even during heavy periods of overload, i.e. during pre-comp phases, recovery is as important as hard training. 

Matching overload to recovery is a very individual thing so beware of simply following a programme, even if it has been specifically designed for you.  When you make your plan, or look at the programme that you intend to use, think how you will feel at each stage.  Then, when you get there, consider how you actually feel.  If there is a big difference you’ll need to understand why and re-consider the plan.  (If you work with a coach make sure you keep him or her up to date with how you feel - otherwise your programme and sessions will be based on potentially false assumptions).  Remember that you cannot do effective hard sessions when you are either physically or mentally exhausted.


Serious athletes in any physical sport tread a fine line between overloading, which is essential to reach anything approaching maximum potential, and overtraining, which is the consequence of repeatedly overloading with inadequate recovery.  The only solution, or cure, for the effects of overtraining is prolonged rest – weeks or even months.  Recovery time is not only determined by training stress – other factors such as poor diet, lack of sleep, dehydration, illness, injury, other forms of stress, other activities and environmental factors can all reduce the amount of energy and resources available for training recovery.  Likewise, training recovery reduces the resources available for fighting illness so doing any hard training when you are ill is extremely dangerous and can lead to lasting or permanent damage.

In summary

To approach full potential a sustained period of progressive high volume, high intensity training is essential.  To make this effective a good level of base fitness and conditioning is required at the onset.  Such a period of hard training requires good focus and good health.  Recovery plays a vital role in enabling the body to benefit from the workload.  The period must finish with recovery.

…and finally

Over the course of the year I’ve attempted to describe a simple, common sense approach to training for and competing in Triathlon. 

Tim Williams - November 2005



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