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Top 10 errors for the endurance athlete to avoid

The title of this factsheet may be a little misleading - there are obviously more than ten mistakes that athletes can make, but those listed in this article represent the most common performance-jeopardising. Some of these may seem basic and obvious, but you'd be amazed how many athletes neglect the basics and then wonder why their performance isn't as good as it could be. Carefully read through the description of each of these mistakes: at least some of them will sound familiar – and keep in mind, there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes, its only human. What IS wrong is making the same one, over and over again.

1.   Over reliance on sports nutrition products.


There is no denying that the sports nutrition industry is undergoing a massive boon time. A general awareness that the professional athlete is now seeking every performance edge, coupled with sports teams being sponsored by companies in the industry makes for high growth in sales. However, for the amateur athlete, sports nutrition products are seen as a q uick fix in filling the gaps left by poor general nutrition. At its worst, these products are even seen as part of the identity of being an athlete – the post race recovery drink being a badge for some to wear.

There is no substitute for getting your foundational nutrition right – eat a healthy diet FIRST, and use supplements as intended – as supplements! There is nothing wrong with sports nutrition products per se; it’s the abuse of them, rather than the use of them where the athlete must be aware.

2.   Inadequate fuelling and fluid intake

It is one thing to get people to take more drinks out on training rides – but as the old saying goes “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink”: many athletes return home with the same drinks they left with! By the time we feel thirsty, it is often too late to hydrate. Dehydration can lead to muscle cramping, elevated heart rate (as you lose fluid from the blood plasma), and increased rates of muscle glycogen use with a subsequent decrease in ability to produce power. How much should one drink? Suggestions range between 500-750 mL/hr, and this will fulfil most athletes' hydration requirements under most conditions. Turn up the heat, and you will need more. It is not uncommon for the athlete to neglect hydration during the winter months, as we don’t associate wrapping up warm against the elements to require hydration. However, sweat rates will be higher in thermal clothing. A good exercise is to weigh yourself pre and post session – the amount of kg you lose is equivalent to the water you lose. Next time, look to drink about 150% of the weight you lose – that extra volume is needed since the body will not be totally efficient at recouping the fluid lost.

Whilst in business the catchphrase “cash is king” predominates, in training principles it becomes “consistency is king”

– it is better to be realistic about training in the planning phase and to hit this week in, week out than to start out with high ambition and find yourself chasing your tail.

The same principles apply to fuelling during exercise: wait until you notice a drop in intensity, or even feel hunger (yes, it happens!) and it is probably too late to rescue your muscle glycogen stores. ‘Hitting the wall’ or ‘bonking’ is not a nice experience, and affects not only that training session, but could compromise the next day’s training too. You are better off keeping a steady and consistent rate of carbohydrate fuelling than cramming it in to the second half of a session. Be particularly vigilant in sessions involving the upper ‘steady’ training zones (3 and 4) as these are heavily reliant on muscle glycogen, but may not feel so early on: it will catch up on you. Try to fuel in the last 20 to 30 minutes, and it is probably too late for sufficient carbohydrate absorption to help you home.


3.   Trying to play ‘catch up’ on the training plan

The training athlete will undoubtedly lose training time at some point in their career: whether it be due to injury, illness, or even if work load and other lifestyle issues get in the way of completing the sessions detailed on the training plan. All too often though, the athlete becomes anxious about losing the session: meaning they attempt to double up on a given day to make amends. This probably does more harm than good, and can impact on the subsequent training – taking effect on the rate of progression the athlete can deal with (in terms of intensity, volume or frequency of sessions coming later in the training block).

The best advice to give is that if you miss a session, leave it to the past. The very fact you missed a session tends to indicate a rest was needed: even if the session was omitted because of non-training related incidents (like, getting home from work too late to train). Instead, give yourself permission to have a set number of ‘jokers’ to play in a training block (e.g. 3 extra rest days in a 10 week period).

4.   Not taking enough rest

RestUnfortunately, because our working lives and society in general operates in a 7 day week, we tend to make our training cycles fit that pattern too. This can mean that we spend too many days a week training. Even if we attempt to split our weekly training hours evenly, we often end up with a 6 day cycle: which because of the 7 day system means 6 days straight!

The body can only adapt to the physical stimulus of training when metabolic rate is reduced: tissue, muscle in particular, cannot be anabolic and catabolic at the same time. Training strips the body down (catabolism), whilst recovery and nutrition allow re-building work to commence (anabolism).

It is better to train with good quality on fewer days a week than stick to a regimen of a set weekly volume objective just for the sake of it. Also, if you have restricted time for training, use those hours wisely – remove the padding of ‘recovery’ sessions, and instead use that time to rest, or catch up with other aspects of life that sometimes get compromised: the mental break will give you an edge for your next session.

Remember that recovery is as important a part of your training and the achievement of your athletic goals as the actual training session. Make sure that you take your recovery as seriously as your training.

“Never stand when you can sit,

never sit when you can lie down”

Attributed to every pro cyclist

5.   Under valuing ‘total stress’ and its impact on training and performance

Very few athletes are in tune enough with their bodies to be aware of how stress extrinsic to their training is impacting on them: both as athletes, and as humans. The odd sleepless night, or a slight dip in the motivation for training can often indicate that total stress is too high. It is often only when athletes look back over a season that they pinpoint poor performances due to factors outside of their own control. The power of hindsight is a marvellous thing!

Think of a pie as a representation of the total stress you can cope with: there will be a slice for work, for family / social commitments, for money management, as well as for training, and for racing – you can probably think of many more areas of your life. The total size of this pie has to stay the same in order for you to maintain health and balance: work stress goes up? Another slice must come down to compensate – and, as most athletes tend to be part time, it might be training stress (volume, intensity, frequency) that might have to be the compensatory factor. Be gentle on yourself, and take the foot off the pedal if needed. The body is better able to adapt to training if that training stands on a firm pillar of health.

6.   Using something new in a race without having tested it in training

The title is pretty self-explanatory; it's one of THE cardinal rules for all athletes, yet you'd be amazed at how many break it. Are you guilty as well? Unless you're absolutely desperate and willing to accept the consequences, do not try anything new in competition, be it equipment, fuel, or tactics. These all must be tested and refined in training.

A common trap is where an event might be sponsored by a particular nutritional supplier. The athlete quite understandably uses the freebie product, and having not been used to it, they experience issues which causes deterioration in performance. Don’t let this be you: do your homework.

7.   Racing too often

In his book the ‘7 habits of highly effective people', Stephen Covey refers to the "P/PC balance", with ‘P' standing for production and ‘PC' production capability. The most famous example of this being the golden egg laying goose - you may have read this fable of Aesop: where the greedy farmer and his wife kill the goose, hoping they will find it full of gold. A rather simple illustration how people sacrifice the capability to produce in order to get the product, and to get it now! Training is the development of that ‘PC', and long term, this is what is going to make you the better athlete: this investment in time (and patience) is well worth the effort. If you focus on ‘P' too often, while you might appear to be ahead of the game, its short lived - soon you see those who have invested in PC overtaking. How often we see ‘early season stars' burn out.

This is where periodisation comes in: the scientific progression of training load - structuring the training year, working on building intensity in a stepwise manner, means we slowly nudge the body towards race pace: miss a step (i.e. start racing too soon) and you have missed out on a vital link in the chain. Think about how the body must build more structures, the proteins it must lay down, in order to cope with increasing workload. A classic example would be how zone 3 training is needed to boost capillary growth in the muscle bed before you work at zone 4 where lactic acid clearance determines performance level - less capillaries, less clearance. Start racing too soon, you jump steps (PC) that will ultimately limit your performance (P).

8.   Not paying attention to detail

DetailsIn preparation for sports performance, it is very easy to put the focus entirely on the training side of the equation. However, performance is built on 3 pillars:

  • Training is to stress the body, and convince it to rebuild stronger to withstand more stress
  • Recovery gives the body time to re-build, without it, the body won’t change.
  • Nutrition provides the building blocks for the body to take and re-build
Take one of those pillars away, and you won’t get fitter, full stop. In other words, one is no more important than the other. It is one thing to ‘do’ a sport: but another to ‘be’ an athlete. You might break down sports performance further and consider other areas you could work on. How well do you keep your equipment serviced? How well do you prepare mentally for the events? Covering the basics well will get you a lot further than training every spare hour you have – think about how you might devote time you have used traditionally for training to get more rest whilst applying effort elsewhere. For example, how about taking an extra day off and using that time to practice mental imagery, or to try a new recipe for a post training session meal?

9.   Doing the same thing, week in week out

When people enter a new sport, there is a temptation to rush at it without considering their long term plan. They try to put together a training plan that encompasses everything they might have heard about: base miles, intervals, speed work, tempo – the list goes on. This is understandable with novices. With time, athletes should soon start to use an approach where their year is ‘periodised’: layers of training are applied at times specific to their season and key goals. However, there are still athletes who try to cover all bases simultaneously, with the extreme being a mix of training sessions across all training zones in the same week, repeated every week of the year!

The body’s systems are no different to the human at the broader level – do too much of the same thing, and it will stagnate. Target your training so that you work in cycles, changing the stress to keep the body guessing. You will probably find you develop favourite sessions, and ones that you believe bring your fitness on the most efficiently. But exercise some caution, and try to keep things fresh – it helps mentally as well as physically.

10.   Keeping your eye on YOUR ball

Eye_on_the_ballOne of the questions coaches find themselves addressing most often is “why haven’t I started my intervals yet, everyone else has?” Understandably in sport - its very nature meaning we are competing with others - we often look around to compare ourselves. However, remember that each and every athlete has their own plan, their own goals, and even their own strengths and weaknesses. Two people with the same race goal will probably need different training because of their inherent physiological profile; likewise, two athletes with the same fitness might undergo different training paths because of when in the year they wish to peak.

This also extends to the micro level too – within each training session, two riders might need to focus on different aspects. This can be particularly difficult in group training rides, or on training camps. Each athlete will have their own training zones, their own agenda. Put effort in sticking to YOUR plan, and not riding to their goals.

Message to take home:

Preparation for sports performance doesn’t need to be sophisticated – most of the time athletes can get 90% of the way to their potential by taking a step back and applying some “good old common sense”. Why do so many fail to do this? Probably because we are too involved – working with a coach, someone with an objective view of your position, is the best way to get the support where you need it. Also, get into the habit of asking a trusted ally (avoid close friends or family, as they tend to have a particular view of you) what they would do – you don’t always have to follow their advice, but sometimes it helps in seeing the bigger picture.