Injuries & illness: My Frustration with Conventional Triathlon Training

I’m still relatively new to endurance sports and triathlon, but now after my 5th season of calling myself a triathlete, I’m able to look back on my start in the sport and see the changes and vast improvements I’ve made. Based on my own experience of different training methods and the knowledge gathered from fellow athletes, I’m writing to help other aspiring athletes, those new to endurance sport and those more experienced, understand and be able to apply the changes in training and racing that have helped me transform my race performances, my health and my nutrition.

Below is the short summary of how my first couple of seasons in triathlon, and largely high-intensity training, had left me frustrated, disheartened and looking for more from myself:

I’d always liked sports. I liked the challenge, I liked the camaraderie and liked seeing what I was capable of.  I was involved in several different teams throughout my teenage years, but predominantly played basketball. However, upon starting university I decided it was time to try something different, away from team sports, and I took up triathlon. I enjoyed running and cycled every now and again, so combining these two into the sport of triathlon made sense. Swimming was just a necessary evil to complete the trio.

3.40.58 - London Marathon 2015

3.40.58 - London Marathon 2015

My experience of endurance training and racing was very limited, but I had successfully completed a half-marathon and 10k fun-run in the past so was keen to get started in triathlon. Like most people getting involved in endurance training, I was too keen early on, trained too much too early and got injured. Having started university in late September 2013, I had become injured by late October in the midst of starting triathlon training whilst still playing basketball. I had picked up an Achilles injury that would end up keeping me out of training for 8 months, until June 2014. Frustrated by a year on the sidelines, and having to defer my 2014 London Marathon place, I vowed the 2014/2015 season would be better – I would stretch religiously, do all my physio exercises, and cut down on the excess fat in my diet so I could be at a better weight – ready to fly round a triathlon course the next year.

2.34.56 - End of my first ever triathlon

2.34.56 - End of my first ever triathlon

Returning to university in September 2014 training started off well.  The London Marathon was in April ’15, and my first triathlon was to be just two months later, in June, so marathon training took precedence.  I set the ambitious goal of running a sub-1hr30 half-marathon as a build up to London (having only run 1hr45 before). At that time, it made sense to me to train for how I wanted to race – fast!. This meant most of my training was at a minimum of 6.52min/mile pace – which would get me round the half-marathon course in just under 1hr30. Other sessions included 1km repeats at way above race-pace (6min/mile), sprint hill repeats and the odd sprint time-trial over a couple of miles. I pretty much never did an ‘easy jog’ and even if I set out to do a lower-effort run, I’d end up getting too competitive with myself and running too fast. My ‘easier’ efforts were around 7.30min/mile. Looking back these really weren’t ‘easy’ at all.

Almost monthly, however, I was getting blocked noses, stuffy headaches and other cold-like symptoms. This would mean I would get a 2-3 good training weeks in, then be ill for a week, then would have to build back up again. It was a frustrating cycle but I thought it was just part of pushing your body to newer physical heights. By February though, my body gave out, and I got a knee injury that would prevent me from running for almost 6 weeks – not brilliant prep for a half-marathon in March, and a marathon in April.
I managed to get a couple of jogs in before the half-marathon and did actually manage to set a new personal best at 1.31.06. I was ecstatic on the one hand, that I’d achieved a new PB, but I was also frustrated by the fact that I knew if I’d managed consistent training, I could have smashed the 1hr30 barrier. The London Marathon was next, and after a few painful long training runs, and a reduced 2-week taper time, I managed to complete the course in 3.40.58. Similarly to the half-marathon I’d completed the month before, I was pleased that I’d broken the sub-4 hour marathon, but knew that I could achieve much more if I could train consistently. 

Up next was the British University and College Sport (BUCS) Standard Distance Triathlon in June 2015. Having recently done completed the marathon, I knew I was not going to be  ideally prepared for this event. However, I was pleased complete my first triathlon in 2.34.56 (but I did arrive 5 minutes late to the start!), over the distance of a 1500m swim, 39k bike (24.2 miles), and a 9.5k (5.9mile run). I was over 40minutes behind the leader.

I went into a rest period after my races and thought about training and how I’d been forced into inconsistency due to illness and injury. I was feeling slightly disheartened as I wanted to improve my racing performances, but knew that working harder and training more would probably result in more injuries and illness. Was this the only way to train and race – improving slightly, but coming away with a feeling that you could do so much better? After all, I’d been doing all my physio exercises, stretching after every activity, getting plenty of sleep – what else could I do? I was 40 minutes down on the leader at the BUCS triathlon event, someone not dissimilar in age to me– 40 minutes! I’d been training as consistently as my body would allow me to, and although I’d improved on the year before, it would take me 10 years of this training before I’d be in the same region as the leader’s time. Wasn’t all this exercise meant to be making me healthier, not plaguing me with illness, aches and pains?

Knowing I am could be a capable athlete, having basically the same tools at my disposal as the triathlon race leaders – arms, legs, a willingness to train – , I was left asking a question: how could I adapt my body and training to allow me to train more consistently, and get closer to having the races I knew I was capable of having?

This is where I stumbled upon Dr. Phil Maffetone, and his MAF method training. My parents had been looking into his work as a method of losing weight, but I wanted performance. I started reading his material and found that many of the patients and clients he’d coached had experienced similar issues to me, and that his method was designed to ensure you stay healthy in training, making sure you can maximise performances in races. So in late July 2015, I embarked upon my journey with the MAF method and haven’t looked back since. I’m now faster, healthier, lighter and keen to share my experience for anyone who struggled like I have.

This is where my story with the MAF method starts. In the next post I will explain my journey and the dramatic improvements I’ve experienced in the past 18 months, since making the decision to change my training.