SPORT PSYCHOLOGY & STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING FOR TRIATHLON: INTEGRATING MIND AND BODY FOR A FASTER SWIM, BIKE, RUN
Having given a talk at the London Triathlon Show Tri Experts Theatre on Thursday, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to share my thoughts in blog format for those that couldn’t make it in person. I’ve changed a few things around and expanded the talk, so it’s both a bit of a hybrid, and a bit of a beast. For that reason, I’ve included a list of some take homes at the start. If you like what you see, hopefully within my ramblings you’ll enjoy digging deeper and find something that can be of use to your training.
- Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning can be applied to your triathlon training in two ways:
- through direct psychological interventions or gym routines
- through a more subtle integration via an over-arching philosophy or perspective
- Strength and Conditioning can help you develop athleticism and become a more robust athlete – allowing you to really focus on what matters – your swim, bike run.
- Don’t waste time in the Gym! Performance Profiling is not exclusive to Sport Psychology, but a great way to ensure you address and integrate your specific needs into your S&C. This will allow you to keep it simple and make sure you aren’t spending longer than you need in the gym!
- Consistency is perhaps one of the most important aspects of any training routine. It is a perquisite for effective progression, overload and guards against detraining.
- Integrating various aspects self-determination theory into your S&C training can really help promote consistency.
- View your training as an investment in yourself as both person and an athlete.
- Most age-groupers lives are too busy and distracted to be worried about tedium getting in the way of training, but flexibility skills can really help you remain adaptable.
- Mindfulness – if you haven't checked this out, you probably should
I began my talk with a brief introduction of my theoretical and practical experience en route to becoming an S&C coach. A fairly standard way in which to start any talk, but one that I hoped would also serve as a parallel to theme of ‘integration’ I had also hoped to convey. In the same way that I have aligned my resources and interests to attempt to make a living, I feel that both Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning should be channelled to improve triathlon training. It can be useful therefore, to think of two levels at which Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning can be applied to training for triathlon (or training for any athletic event for that matter).
- The direct level, whereby you might decide to employ a given psychological intervention or routine in the gym (e.g. visualisation or 5 x 5), and
- in a Gestalt manner.
Ok, so I just totally that made up and not even sure you can have something ‘at a gestalt level’, but I’m referring to the more subtle and indirect application that influences and permeates our perspective, philosophy and wider approach to training.
Whenever you give a talk I always find it useful to seek out the wisdom of far more sensible and successful people that yourself. Having mused about his philosophy of training quite recently I decided to frame the talk with an introduction to David Braislford’s and Team Sky’s ‘Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ or as Mr. Brailsford put it, to aim for
“that 1% improvement in everything we do”
Clearly, as demonstrated by the success within British cycling and Team Sky it seems like an effective approach – and one that both can be seen to have worked both in terms of the direct and novel physical /psychological interventions it employed, but also the over-arching philosophy and perspective it promoted.
It is novelty associated with the direct applications of the ‘Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ idea however that I think can be somewhat of a distraction from the true reason it is effective. When I think of the success in the tour of Team Sky, the mind conjures up images of jet black & blue uber-high tech Pinarellos, changing bedding each night and frequently washing hands to avoid risk of infection, and anything else that might happen aboard the ‘Death Star’! For the everyday athlete though, this is largely irrelevant. Simply put, if you want to add up all the 1%ers to a significant amount, first and foremost, it requires a tremendous amount of consistency and focus on getting the basics right. While a lot of these interventions are themselves obviously valid, their novelty distracts us from the inescapable – there much point in worrying about your massage oil if you forget to get out and train. I’m sure my intro was far more concise than above, but I eventually go to the point that it is the consistency, that other 99%, where the application of Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning is of true value.
With the scene set, I then went on to use the acronym of SPORT (Specificity, Progression, Overload, Reversibility, Tedium) for the principles of exercise training to delve into a little more detail around how exactly Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning could be applied. I did however caveat these applications with the fact that Individuality or Individualism is another principle that is often discussed. I mentioned that I would deliberately approach things in more general terms during the talk, as without a detailed understanding of the wider context of a given individual, it is impossible to advise with any real sense of confidence – there is no one size fits all approach!
This one is a pretty simple idea, and is effectively, what you do is what you get. For a good example, this is something Brett Sutton’s coaching methodology seems to adopt at its very core. While I’d love to be able to tell you that S&C is the MOST important part of your training, it honestly never will be. Your swim, bike and run will always come first. When it comes to Strength and Conditioning for triathlon however, that doesn’t mean your time is wasted. Time spent on your S&C can help your triathlon in one of two ways – decreasing injury risk, or improving performance. As many of you will have found, hammering your swim-bike-run with no form of self-care or preventative work often leads to the inevitable. This is often the cost of specificity - imbalance. Since you are looking to become proficient in 3 sports at the same time, you really want to have a solid and robust foundation on which to add all the sport specific volume. I sometimes think that triathletes only see half the picture. They do the ‘Tri’ bit, but forget about the ‘athlete’ – attempting to become 3 types of athlete before they are one. Spend time developing and enhancing basic movement competency and athleticism and I promise you will reap the dividends.
Strength and Conditioning for Triathlon
So if Strength and Conditioning can primarily be seen as an enabler in allowing you to train more effectively – how should you do it? Well this is the golden question. One thing I hate to see, is the well-intentioned triathlete who actually manages to get in the gym, then spends their time ‘cross-training’ on the rower or elliptical. If you want to put something like this as a short feature as part of your warm up – fine. I don’t even have any problem if you are in the gym to use the treadmill or wattbike as an actual bike or run session in their own right. But if you are in the gym to develop athleticism and strength, and turn yourself into a more robust triathlete, use your time effectively. Triathletes spend almost all their training developing their aerobic capability. When you are in the gym, do what you can’t do elsewhere. Target your limiters with some time-efficient ‘homework’ or prehab work during your warm up (15mins tops). These are normally what I refer to as the ‘usual suspects’ – lack of pelvic/trunk control, hip or thoracic mobility - ten a penny in desk-dwelling triathletes!
During your main set, aim to build strength and athleticism through a variety of single and double arm/legged compound lifts. Not because they offer some sort of panacea, but because they offer a lot of bang for your buck. By their nature, they will also help you develop proficiency in many of the sport specific requirements of triathlon and go a good way to help stave off the reoccurrence of the ‘usual suspects’ listed above.
Most of you will definitely want to get some advice on how best to construct this, but if you are feeling brave and wish to have a go at putting something together for yourself - remember to keep it simple and be systematic. Use performance profiling to look at what your sport requires, be realistic about where you are currently and set about getting there!
As a small aside, when we consider the specificity of the adaptations we are looking to stimulate through strength and conditioning, the timing of your S&C sessions relative to endurance training can be a great ally. Because the science would seem to suggest that endurance work inhibits strength gains, but not the other way around, if you train twice a day, do you strength work second. Preferably you’ll separate your strength and aerobic sessions by at least 6, if not 12-24 hours!
Progression, Overload, Reversibility
Bottom line – execution of these three fundamental exercise principles in a training plan, requires consistency. Consistency is therefore an inescapable requirement in any effective plan. As categorical as that statement may seem, ‘just turning up’ is often easier said than done. But, we can once again look to sport psychology to help develop applications through our strength and conditioning programming that can help boost consistency. How? Well two things often get in the way of us completing our training: either life gets in the way, or we let life get in the way (we don’t really want to – i.e our motivation).
Motivation in Triathlon
Motivation is a huge topic when it comes to sport psychology, and Self-Determination Theory developed by Deci and Ryan is a ‘big player’ in that area. It is concerned with the regulation of behaviour (how self-determined we are) and views motivation on a continuum. At one end of the continuum is Amotivation, where an individual lacks any motivation or attempt to perform that behaviour – perhaps a triathlete who doesn’t do any strength and conditioning because they don’t understand the benefits and wouldn’t know where to start anyway. At the other end of the scale is Intrinsic motivation, the most self-determined we can get - this might be a triathlete who hits the gym just because they love hitting the gym, they don’t even care how great might be for their triathlon training. The more self-determined behaviour, the more positive the outcomes, the greater the sporting experience, attitude and most importantly, persistence! Great, so we want self-determined behaviour, but how?!
Well, a sub-theory of Self-determination theory is Cognitive Evaluation Theory (stay with me guys). Again Deci and Ryan wanted to find out what influenced self-determination. Lots of research and thinking later and they suggested that Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness were the three key psychological needs were crucial to culturing self-determined behaviour. These are three things I try to include in the architecture of Strength and Conditioning training to boost your chances of getting in the gym consistently!
Competence – Have 1 key exercise you pour your focus into every session. Make it a key lift that you WILL progress. This is useful especially when you’ve been hitting the gym for a while and gains are harder to come by. 1 simple goal of progression that you can achieve will improve your perception that you are able to meet your desired outcomes. Happy days!
Autonomy – In addition to making sure an athlete understands the benefits of S&C and subsequently has choosen to partake in the activity (most important), it can be useful to offer a choice of exercises to deliver a given benefit – there are many variations of a hinge movement for example. As a coach, I’d sacrifice the finer details of a programme every time, if I can consistently get an athlete is in the gym, performing roughly the right kind of exercises, with good form at the right intensity.
Relatedness – We all seem like to feeling supported and accepted by others. Gym work is well-suited to having a ‘gym buddy’, who can jump in during your rest periods and perform their sets. Find someone at your club who’s keen to progress with you and it should really help you to deliver week in, week out. Whiles ‘its all you’ when you get under the bar, it doesn’t have to be that way to get you to turn up.
The Pain Community?
With all the endurance work you will be doing, strength is going to take time and dedication to build, so it can also be useful to address your perspective with regard to Strength and Conditioning. Matt Fitzgerald’s book Iron War talks quite extensively about how triathlon can be seen as a ‘Pain Community’. How through shared experience of physical and mental suffering, we are bound together. I certainly think there is a lot of truth in this, but perhaps with a slight adjustment to the way we look at our training can get a whole lot more out of it. In a world of ‘Smash-fests’ ‘Sufferfests’ and ‘MTFU’ what is wrong with being kind to yourself? Triathlon should be something we do because we enjoy it! Yeah, sure its fun to come out the other side of a demanding workout or race, and ‘overload’ is something we are definitely looking to achieve, but what’s wrong with being a little nicer to ourselves. This is our ‘me’ time. If we see it purely as a time when we are breaking ourselves down, or punishing ourselves, there is going to be a limit to how much we can take. That’s why I advocate thinking of time in the gym as an investment. An investment in yourself as both a person and an athlete. A time when you are building a foundation for health and performance – not going at yourself with a sledgehammer. Training sessions are a bit like going to the bank. Next time you go, will you be paying in, or cashing out?
Finally we get to Tedium. This is often known as the variety principle too. Variety is important, because in many ways we want to build an adaptable, not an adapted athlete. It seems like most age-groupers lives, season plans and training schedules are WAY too busy and frantic to be boring, and so the problem is often the opposite. Its actually uncommon to see boredom as the reason an athlete fails string together a really consistent (there is that word again) and progressive block of meaningful training. Rarely is programming variety the reason that an athlete has reached a plateau, its more likely that the progression, overload and consistency is not there.
This is where developing psychological flexibility can really help. The ability to be able to take life’s curve balls in your stride is extremely useful. Since triathletes have a tendency to view things as very ‘black and white’, a small programming hiccup can often seem borderline catastrophic, psychologically undermining an entire week or month of training. Rarely are things so cut and dry. If this does sound like you, try the YES/NO exercise. Pick 5 things that you normally say YES to (e.g. filling out your Heart rate in the morning, or taking your garmin with you on a run), and 5 things you normally say NO to (a forbidden food perhaps). Choose 1 each day of each and try out the opposite. It’ll definitely feel weird, and you probably won’t like it at first. Follow it through though, and observe how you feel. Perhaps not so bad eh? (Oh, and you aren’t allowed to go back and ‘undo’ what you did in either situation. Just deal with it!)
Mindfulness for Triathlon
For the top age-groupers and pros and dedicated individuals who really are reaching a plateau due to tedium in training again, performance profiling can again help you stay on track. This will help bring a ‘meta-awareness’ and sense of purpose to each and every session. Training isn’t always fun, but deferred gratification can be a powerful thing if you manage to master it. I won’t go into depth about it, because it has been done to death, but Mindfulness practice can also be very useful for the bored athlete. Culturing a moment to moment, non-judgemental awareness can really help to reframe and bored feelings you might have. Just observing a situation will often change its very nature. I’d highly recommend Headspace app for this. They have a good free introduction to mindfulness training and subsequent premium sessions that can easily be applied to your triathlon training and lifestyle!
You made it! Although that was a far longer blog than I anticipated, I hope its been of use. Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning have a myriad of application to triathlon training, and it can be hard to know where to start. If you liked this article, please do share it, and if you have any questions please do email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or tweet me @acbcoaching. One question at the talk was about whether I might recommend strength training year round. In short – yes! While I’d certainly periodise training in the gym and strength work around major races, you are looking to be your strongest when you race. Surely that’s the point? It therefore makes little sense to do all your gym work in the winter then be at your weakest come race day in the summer! So a definite yes to some strength training year round! If you have any more or any feedback on how you integrated any of this into your training, I’d love to hear you! In whatever ways you do try to apply Sport Psychology and Strength and Conditioning to your training – make sure you don’t stray too far from the S.P.O.R.T. principles and keep it personalised!