Triathletes as Tightrope Walkers

I had a conversation today with my friend that I wrote about a few weeks ago who has been suffering from the effects of chronic overtraining (you can read about it here). He asked me how he could be so irresponsible to allow himself to keep pushing day after day, knowing he was training beyond his limits but still convinced he was not doing enough.

I assured him that his self-flagellation was not uncommon. I, myself, fall victim to thoughts of never doing enough or going hard enough. And, I have constant talks with my athletes about over-training and how to moderate their efforts during workouts (it is much easier to dole out advice than actually listen to it).

It is a double edged sword. The attributes for success – the drive, the will to work hard, never being satisfied – can also lead to demise. Most triathletes do not seem to have an “off” button.

There is a very tenuous relationship between fitness and success and fitness and failure.  When training is going well, it is so easy to push yourself over the limit by turning easy workouts into hard ones and making the hard workouts harder. Come on, you know you have gone out for an easy ride with the group and it turned into a slug-fest.

Bobby McGee once told me, “If you are at the track and you are nailing your times or going faster and it feels super easy, go home. That is the day you hurt yourself.”  Lisa Bentley, multiple Ironman winner once said, “We are all just one good workout away from an injury”.

How true. The time you are most likely to get injured (or sick) is after a series of hard sessions or a race. Your body is more tired and your immune system low. Without recognizing the warning signs or taking a break, the body will eventually fail. Ignore the signs long enough and suddenly only months of rest will undo the damage.

When you are on a hot streak, nailing workouts and always ready for more, it is hard to imagine a day that you will wake up unable to complete an easy run. But just ask my friend. He knows beyond high wattage lies exhaustion, loss of appetite and lack of motivation.

Part of the problem is the notion that everyone else is doing more. The internet is inundated with accounts of the training regimens of athletes held in high esteem. Training partners boast about their latest training endeavors. Certainly, living in Boulder provides a warped perspective on normality; no matter the time of day you are sure to find someone training somewhere.

As athletes (and coaches) we have to be tightrope walkers. Move a little to the right and off the high wire you go – overtrained. Move a little to the left and you fall off – injured or sick. Making it across, from one platform to the other, requires extreme focus, balance, and nerves of steel.

Balance. That is answer. It is imperative to find the right combination of training hard, but not too hard, backing off when things are not right and resting. Knowing your limits. The theory looks good on paper but are we smart enough to execute?

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4 Responses

  1. Christi says:

    Wow, I hear you on this post. I fell off the tightrope and now I cannot run. Another learning experience, I just hope I can learn from it!

  2. Bob Mitera says:

    Great post. More is sometimes "just more". I am not overtraining at the moment. Very sure of that.

  3. Krista says:


    After IM China in "09 I fell off the the tightrope and finally feel like I am back up and back at the balancing act again. Glad to hear others go through this!


  4. Cara Brue says:

    Great Post JZ 🙂 I have found that over training can come on quickly for many of us that don't take in account our other daily activites in addition to our scheduled hrs. in a pool on a bike and pounding the pavement. I know that i'm not the only one out there that has the feeling of "GO" the minute the alarm goes off. Our days are filled with school, work practices etc. All these things are time consuming and energy depleating and being aware of the whole daily picture can help guide us on that Tight rope walk!