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Workout Dilemma: Pushing Your Limit or Taking a Break

By David Bertrand

tired womanTraining Question: "When I feel tired and drained, should I skip the workout or just push through it?"

We as triathletes ask a lot out of our bodies. When we demand too much without enough rest and recovery, our bodies talk back to us. But, our bodies also talk back to us when we push our training to new limits and attempt to do more than we have previously done (principle of overload).

So, you show up for your training session and don't feel quite up to par. You may then wonder if you should go through with the workout as scheduled, or save it for another day. You don't want to be a wimp, but at the same time, you don't want to push through it if resting would be more beneficial. What should you do?

To navigate through the conundrum of determining whether or not you should do a workout, it is helpful to investigate the following three areas:

  1. Sleep
    • How much sleep have you gotten in the past five days? Take an inventory and you may find you are in need of a nap. It is no secret that athletes perform better with more sleep.
      • Adults usually require seven to nine hours daily, and adolescents and teens need more at nine to ten hours daily.
      • Triathletes love the key workouts and the big training days, but if only they had the same enthusiasm for sleep and recovery.
A former Big Ten Conference swimmer shared with me that his coach required he and his teammates to log the number of hours they slept daily throughout the season. Unbeknownst to the swimmers, the coach was recording 100 meter split times from key, benchmark practice sessions throughout the season and then graphing the data against the number of hours slept. When the information was presented to the players, they were able to see objective evidence: athletes getting more sleep were simply outperforming those with less sleep. Needless to say, the underperforming swimmers on the team made sleep a higher priority. Likewise in the triathlon realm, I have seen significant increases in power on the bike purely from having clients get more sleep (this was for athletes getting four to six hours a night or less).

  1. Nutrition
    • Have you eaten A) enough calories, B) the right kinds of calories, and C) at the right times throughout the day? Nutrition is a big reason why people bonk and feel lack of energy for their workouts.
      • Enough calories? - Determine your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) so that you can have a starting point for managing caloric intake. If you don't eat enough, you can forget feeling charged up for a workout.
      • The right kinds of calories? - In addition to eating enough total calories, the percentage breakdown of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats can affect your energy level. Tracking the percentages can be useful as it often points out you are too low in one area. The exact amount of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats needed depends on what training phase you are in. Just as your annual training plan is periodized, nutrition should be periodized as well.
      • At the right times throughout the day? - Three squares a day won't cut it anymore! Aim for five to six smaller meals throughout the day with pre-workout and post-workout snacks in mind.
I have never learned more about the "4th discipline" of triathlon - nutrition - than I have through logging food. I have found the process to be extremely helpful because my weaknesses are clearly exposed. When I saw that I wasn't eating enough through logging, I came to a greater understanding of just how much fuel it takes to sustain a hard training week. I changed my mindset from "training to eat" to "eating to train." As soon as I made the appropriate changes to my diet, I saw the quality of my workouts skyrocket during weeks with a heavy training load. If you want to take your nutrition (and performance) to the next level, then you must be willing to log. Do a Google search for online logging sites so that you can begin experimenting with logging food.

  1. Goal Setting
    • Have you clearly defined your goals? Often times when workouts lack purpose, motivation goes out the window. You start missing workouts left and right. Having a plan and executing it will give you confidence and momentum.
      • When you write down and have someone hold you accountable to your goals, you are more likely to achieve them. This is one reason why athletes with a coach consistently outperform those without a coach.
      • Make sure your commitments are enough to achieve your goals. Having a goal that you cannot devote enough time or money towards to achieve will only result in dissatisfaction and stress. If you have lost the "fun" factor in your training, then it is time to reassess your goals.
The #1 tip I have found to help myself (and my clients) is to broaden the scope of the goal(s). Look beyond the current season. Strive to grasp the big picture. It seems that the narrower the scope of the goal, the more likely the athlete is subject to disappointment or burnout. There is nothing wrong with short-term aggressive goals; they keep some of us highly motivated. But to complete the goal setting repertoire, I have added a five-year goal and a ten-year goal as well. This way if I happen to fall short of my specific goal for the season, I can maintain the perspective that I am making progress towards my five-year and ten-year goals (twenty-year goals, etc). I stay motivated and keep the consistency going. And there's no dancing around it, consistency is the key for long-term success in triathlon.

People think that since I'm a coach, I never experience the ups and downs that accompany the motivation surrounding my year-round workouts. The truth is that I get the opportunity to practice discipline all the time! I make the conscious choice to either meet the standard I have set for myself or to not meet it. If I do not feel like swimming, for example, then nine times out of ten I need to push through it. The reason is because swimming is a limiter for me. Usually you need to "suck it up" for the discipline that you are the weakest in. However, if I am questioning my desire on a track workout, then I really may need rest and sleep as this type of workout is generally more fun for me and a strength of mine. 

To know your body well takes a lot of time and practice. Mastering the three areas of sleep, nutrition, and sound goal setting, will equip you with the knowledge for more effective discernment when it comes to the original question posed: "When I feel tired and drained, should I skip the workout or just push through it?"

Training Tip Summary: 
Show up. Go the pool. Lace up and head out the door on your run. Get on the trainer. Start warming up and see how you feel 5 to 10 minutes into the workout. If you feel better and forgot you were tired, then you probably just needed to harden up! If you feel worse and/or that you cannot maintain proper form, then take it to the house with no guilt and focus on rest and recovery.


Coach David Bertrand has been training, racing and coaching endurance athletes for over 10 years. His pursuit of mastery began in graduate school where he earned a master's degree in health and human performance and became fascinated with finding new ways to help athletes perform better and more efficiently. A true Professor of Practice, David teaches at Southern Methodist University in the Department of Applied Physiology and Wellness and has been featured in many leading publications. He can also be found speaking and teaching at many of the industry's national conferences, including USA Triathlon and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. David is Head Coach of DFW Tri Club in Dallas, Texas, and leads DFW Tri's Coaching School, an institute for the education of endurance coaches. David is married to Nikki (also a coach), and has two beautiful girls, Annie and Tessa. To reach David, please visit dfwtriclub.com or email david@dfwtriclub.com.


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