I doubt there’s a single triathlete out there—scratch that, a single athlete . athlete out there—who’s trained for an event without a single disruption. So the question is: how do you adjust your training when you get sick, you’re tired, or a work meeting runs late? In short, when life just happens And you’re unable to follow your plan to the letter, how do you adapt?
In short, the answer depends on the nature of the disruption and how long that disruption is likely to last. But since “it depends” is not an incredibly helpful response, we’ll run through the most typical types of disruptions below and discuss guidelines for how to navigate each of them.
This category includes the most common impacts to your training calendar, including work conflicts, family conflicts, travel (for fun or otherwise), and weather. These disruptions can be well-forecasted or spontaneous, of your choosing or completely out of your control, and can last a day or up to a week (or more). Regardless of any of those aspects, the way you adapt your training calendar for these disruptions will be to rearrange, substitute, and/or skip (gasp!) your workout(s).
If you are going to miss one workout, or up to two days of training, your best bet is to try to rearrange most, if not all, of your workouts using the following guidelines:
- You can move workouts earlier or later within the week, but not from one week to another.
- Unless you are very acccustomed to your current training volume, limit each day to two cardio workouts, and only one of any given discipline.
- Maintain an even distribution of each discipline across the week versus lumping all of the bikes, for example, in the first three days of the week.
- Similarly, distribute the harder training days across the week versus lumping multiple interval workouts as well as your longest workouts for that week into just a few days.
If you have the time to train but are lacking access to your normal swim, bike, run, and strength resources—either for more than just one day or routinely, such as for work travel—then substituting training modalities can be a good “something is better than nothing” way to stay on track with your training:
- Local gyms and YMCAs sometimes offer day passes and provide access to spin bikes, gym equipment, and pools.
- Hotel gym equipment isn’t always great but will do in a pinch. Exercise bikes, rowing machines, and ellipticals, as well as power hiking, offer workout options that can help keep up swim/bike/run fitness.
- Runs and bodyweight strength training, including plyometrics, can be completed almost anywhere.
- Swim resistance bands (also called stretch cords) provide a surprisingly good dry-land option for maintaining swim fitness when you don’t have access to a pool. It’s important to make sure you use the correct technique, though. Check out this video from triathlon swim coach Gerry Rodrigues to help you master the best form. And if you’re looking for a great dry-land workout, this Weekend Swim Workout: Stretch Cord Build from former pro turned swim coach Sara McLarty is ideal.
Because there are only 24 hours in a day, you can only redistribute so many workouts, and spin bikes don’t fit in carry-on luggage, sometimes you are just not going to be able to get all your training done. In that case, be intentional in deciding what does and doesn’t get completed for the week:
- If you have some time in the day, just not enough time, a shorter workout is better than a missed workout; something is always better than nothing.
- Prioritize) your higher swim workout quality (intervals, your longest/bike/run of the week, and training for your weakest discipline.
- Maintaining overall balance across all three disciplines versus ignoring a discipline for the entire week.
A final note: if you are going to have an entire week impacted in a way that involves missing a substantial number of workouts, rearrange weeks rather than days and designate that week as a recovery week.
Triathlon training, especially long-course triathlon training, involves quite a bit of training while you’re tired. Running on tired legs is triathlon But, how tired is too tired? Even with all of the “readiness” metrics available through fancy algorithms, there is no perfect prediction of an athlete’s ability to complete their training on any given day.
With this in mind, I ask my athletes to show up to every workout with an open mind. No matter how tired you think you are, your body will often surprise you. Allow yourself a good 20-minute warm-up before you make any decisions about the day’s training. If after the warm-up you’re still feeling sluggish, toss out any pace/power/heart-rate/effort-level targets and just cruise along for the duration of the planned workout. Be mindful here too of some of the objective data and metrics your body will be giving you. If Your RPE (rate of perceived exertion) is unusually high for your pace or power and/or your heart rate is unusually high or low for your pace or power (yes, both can be indications of fatigue) then this is something to take note of and act appropriately. As power is absolute, it is a very reliable An indicator that something is off, whereas heart rate, while still reliable, can also be affected by things like caffeine, heat, stress, and more. Try to take stock of objective and subjective measurements to really be mindful of whether the session should be followed to the letter or if you should cut the intensity and/or volume and really take it easy. If even an endurance effort feels inappropriately difficult, then you are “officially tired” and it’s time to pull the plug on the workout.
If you’ve made the workout modifications above due to fatigue, sometimes that single day of recovery (or active recovery) is enough to bounce back. If you wake up the following day feeling back to normal, go ahead and resume your planned training. If you’re unsure, then test out an endurance-effort bike or swim to see if you can handle that. But if you have to pull the plug on your workout for a second day, then you’re “officially too tired” and you need to insert a day or even several days of recovery—proper on-the-couch or maybe a gentle yoga class recovery—into your training plan.
As a side note, it’s good to keep in mind that life stress lives in your legs in the same way that training stress does. So if you’re trying to understand why you might be fatigued, cast a wide net in your thinking.
Injury (or Impending Injury)
There is a huge difference between being injured and sensing an impending injury. An impending injury can be just a momentary blip on the screen, whereas a full-blown injury can result in a massive disruption in your training.
My distinction is characterized as follows: If you have a niggle that doesn’t get worse with training and isn’t severe enough that it alters your swim stroke, bike position, pedaling motion, run stride or your facial expression, then it’s an not impending injury and you can typically train through it. But that niggle does indicate that you need to be on top of something a little better than you currently are, such as stretching or foam rolling or scheduling a bike fit or a visit to your favorite bodyworker or treatment provider, so that it doesn’t become a full-blown injury.
Should I push through or scale back?
|Mild – Proceed with caution||Sureness; tightness; mild aches and pains|
|Moderate – Take a day or two off||Mild to moderate pain in muscles or joints|
|Severe – Hard rest, see a health care professional (PT, chiropractor)||Hard to weight bear/walk; painful to touch/massage|
If you do find yourself with a proper injury, then you need to treat it without delay (pro tip: find a treatment provider who is also an athlete so they understand your sense of urgency in terms of returning to training) and substitute workouts based on what you are and are not allowed to do. Biking and the elliptical (as long as you get that heart rate up!) and pool running can be solid substitutes for actual running, and the rowing machine is an incredibly good full-body cardio workout.
Also, remember to return to training post-injury on a gradual basis and a few days later than you think you could. The goal of this entire discussion is to avoid the classic pattern of (1) sense oncoming injury; (2) try to push through; (3) have to stop; (4) come back too soon; (5) have to stop again; (6) finally treat and recover the injury properly. Just go straight to number 6 and save yourself a week—or three!
RELATED: An Injury Guide for Triathletes
I use the following parameters to guide whether or not it’s OK to train when you’re under the weather: If it’s a cold with symptoms that are isolated to your throat and above, then training is typically fine; If the cold is in your chest, or if you have a fever or are vomiting, then training is a bad idea. (No, I didn’t include diarrhea on the no-fly list, because electrolytes and a spare bandana can handle that, and who here hasn’t pooped in the woods during training?)
Fatigue due to illness is a more nuanced symptom and therefore has more nuanced guidelines. If you’re fatigued but are able to go about your normal daily routine, then you can try an endurance-effort workout, but skip any planned intensity. If you are fatigued to the point where it’s affecting your normal daily routine, or you try an endurance-effort workout and it feels inappropriately difficult, then on-the-couch recovery is your best bet to getting healthy and back to training.
All that being said, you are the expert on your own body and how you handle illness (and impending illness). If you know from experience that training is going to prolong or worsening your symptoms, or turn the hint of a sniffer into a week-long flu, then don’t train. It’s that simple.
When getting back to training after illness, it’s best to start with an endurance bike or swim of moderate duration. If that goes well, then you can resume normal training the following day. If you feel sluggish during the endurance workout, then stick with that effort level and duration—or even dial it back a bit—until you feel like yourself again.
RELATED: The Triathlete’s Guide to Dealing With Illness
The Bottom Line
Above all, when you are faced with a disruption to your training plan: don’t panic. Preparing for a triathlon doesn’t require perfection, no matter the distance of the event or the boldness of your goals. Adapt where you can, let go of the rest, and focus on making the most of the fitness you’ve built in training once you arrive at the start line.