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Train well or race well. What do you want most?

By Jemima Cooper

“But Jem - do you want to train well or race well?”

This is the question my coach asked me as I stood there trying to persuade him to add another track workout to my training week. 

He goes on: “The thing is - sometimes the art of going fast is NOT about what you DO it is about what you DON’T DO”...

This concept has been a hard one for me to grasp, and you may feel the same?

In the world of classical ballet (a world that was my world for 16 years) there is a continuous strive for perfection. The mentality being that the only way to get ‘there’ is through continuous hard work, each and every day:

If the sequence isn’t perfect, you practice it again, and again... you break down each move and practice those until perfect, then the next one... then add them together and do it all again and again…. 

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” - the phrase I had written on the inside of my pointe shoes.

I often get asked whether I think there is much crossover between my dance training and triathlon. Undoubtedly a strong core, a solid endurance base and a high power to weight ratio aren’t to go unnoted. Yet for me, it is not really about the physical attributes (heck, I wish I spent longer learning how to corner and doing pull ups as a kid if I knew that triathlon was on the cards!!) For me - what I have brought from my former dancing career is the ability to push myself well beyond the point of pain, to never give in and to approach training with discipline, commitment and a striving for better each day.

Ok - this is all great mushy stuff, the sort of stuff you read on those inspirational/motivational posts from insta-famous athletes. But what if I told you that taking this approach has been as much a curse as a blessing in my triathlon training?

In my experience hard work - is not always the winning ticket. 

For the first 3.5 years of triathlon I was constantly chasing more. Because the “More = Better” right?! ...

I would be clocking up hours, trying to match others around me. When my power numbers were off point, I’d add in a strength session on the bike. If my run splits were slow on Tuesday’s track workout - I’d make the weekend 15km run a 21km run ‘just in case’ I needed more endurance. When I wasn’t making swim gains, ‘better add in a 5/6th swim this week’.

Has anyone else been there? What happened for you?

For me - it DID work well, brilliantly in fact! Adding volume and pushing powers and paces worked a treat! for 2-3 months at a time I would be getting faster, my bike numbers would be getting stronger, I might even win a few events. Until...

My training performances started to plateau … soon followed by…

A total stint of burn out, usually some flu bug or injury and a need for total recovery time.

Rinse and repeat. 

This happened 3 times in my first 3 years. Until finally - the lesson was learnt:

Consistency may be king, but consistency is not something to chase for over 1 week, 1 month or even 1 year. Performing at a sustained level in training and racing over years upon years is what makes the cut.

That is why, sometimes the art is not in the hard work in training it is in the hard work outside of training - the efforts you make to ensure you are getting to your sessions fit, well and motivated to give your utmost. 

It is about ensuring your overall life and training load is balanced (yes that means the mental and life stress side too!) and that care is taken to work hard on your recovery protocols.

As I have written previously “Why Recovery Needs To Be Part Of Your P.L.A.N.S”. I have learnt to prioritise sleep, nutrition and active recovery within my routine. Does that mean sometimes I have to drop a workout to get my 8 hours in? Yep. Does that mean that some weeks when I am doing a big launch event at work and the hours get ridiculous I have to trade my 3 hours Sunday ride for a hard 1.5 session on the turbo? Totally! Does that mean that - although I love the idea of 30hours training weeks, in fact a volume much lower than is what my body can produce continued performance gains at? Absolutely.

The thing is, if you want to just train all day you can go ahead and add those hours, and enjoy it! If you want to perform - be it in races or simply shown by PB after PB- the hard work is rarely done in the sessions themselves, but rather in those other 22 hours in your day. When you are an athlete you #DontEverStop.

More blogs in this series by Jemima Cooper:

Are you confident in your recovery?

Why recovery needs to be part of your P.L.A.N.S.

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