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Allowing for Flexibility within a Structured Training Plan

By Martha Grinnell

I’ve written hundreds of training plans over my coaching career, and I think I can vouch for most coaches by saying that the majority of triathletes out there do not lack in the motivation department! Many athletes come to me more than ready and excited for the challenge of attempting a first-time event or the desire to ramp up his or her performance from previous years. It is my job to write out a plan that allows for balance on several levels, taking into account numerous variables such as work hours, family life, sleep quality, social life, travel, etc. There is no doubt that having a clear, well-thought-out structured training plan takes the guesswork out and allows for training with intention.

trainOne of my biggest challenges as a coach is to help athletes trust in their gut instincts of backing off if their body is telling them it’s tired or feeling off. This, in my experience, is the biggest hurdle for highly-motivated athletes to clear. Sticking with the training plan is not the issue, however veering off it slightly and allowing for flexibility can be difficult. Certainly injury, chronic fatigue and potential burnout can be prevented just by listening to that inner voice which says, “I think I need to rest more today.” That inner voice often will send an SOS signal calling for either a brief physical or mental break.

Many athletes ignore these signs and feel that they must, under any circumstance, stick with the plan. You may understand this if you surround yourself with other athletes in training and feel pressure to keep up with the workouts, or feel guilty about missing a workout. When you log your workouts, it’s easier for you or your coach to try and pull out those red flags and make adjustments. Often times you may need a workout option that is more playful and in line with active rest.

As an athlete, you need to understand and trust that it’s OK to back off. Listening to that inner voice and allowing for that flexibility can mean the difference between having a full, fun season of racing and training versus sitting on the sidelines with an injury.

Often times, the best barometer of feedback is not in watts, heart data or fancy graphs. Some of the best feedback comes from our gut instincts. Finding the joy in training and being opening up to being more flexible in our regimen is just as important as all the hard interval work or getting in the volume.

Here are some classic examples of listening to that inner voice:

“Suzie’s plan called for a 2800m swim with a main set of 10 x 100m at threshold pace. During the warm-up, her right shoulder was bothering her a bit and continued through the first three 100m repeats. Suzie opted to hop out of the pool and not take the risk of adding more pressure to her shoulder. She took two more days off of swimming and felt back to normal again during her next swim.”

“Bob woke up feeling beat after a horrible night’s sleep. He was scheduled to meet his regular, 6:30 a.m. Tuesday track group for an interval session. His body felt off just walking around the house. He opted out of the track session and did an easy spin on his mountain bike, exploring some carriage trails.”

“Carol has been prepping for her first ironman for five months. She’s been feeling pretty tired from the past two weeks of higher volume training. Fortunately, she is on a back-down/recovery week in her plan; however she just does not feel excited about getting out for her 60-minute spin. She has not had a chance to spend much time with her non-athlete friends and misses those connections that help to make her feel balanced in her relationships. So, she opted for a 45 minute walk on the bike path with her best friend.”

Often times, I’ll throw in recovery workouts on a plan for the bike that say “with a bell and a basket attached” so an athlete gets the hint that the ride should be easy and fun. Another example of one of my recovery suggestions for the run is “run with an imaginary friend who is much slower than you.”

The best advice that I can give to you as an athlete is to speak to yourself as if you were your own best friend. What would you say to a good friend if she or he felt pressure to so something on plan, but knew deep inside what they really needed? What would you say to your friend if he or she said that she was really, really tired and not up for doing something you had planned together? You’d probably say that “it’s okay – we’ll get it in another time.”

The best athletes, who perform well consistently, often follow a structured training plan. However, they also have learned the art of listening to that inner voice and allowed for flexibility within their plan.

Martha Grinnell holds a BS in Health and Fitness from Springfield College and a MS in Exercise and Sport Studies from Smith College. She also holds certifications from USA Triathlon as a Level I triathlon coach and ACSM as a personal trainer. Martha was an All-American runner at Springfield College, four-time member of the U.S. Pro Triathlon World Championship Team (1992-1996), placed 7th overall for the women in the 1997 Hawaii Ironman, and qualified for the first Olympic Triathlon Trials in 2000. Martha still dabbles in a few races, but is primarily focused on lifetime fitness activities and a lot of “playing!” She is the founder of Dynamic Training Multi-Sport and Fitness Coaching Services.