Pulling Back from Training

Pulling Back from Training

When Quitting is an Option

Strategically Pulling Back from a Training Session

by Elite Triathlon Coach Matt Dixon of purplepatch Fitness

Triathlete on bike

Triathlon is a tough sport, and much of the purity of its appeal is that your results gained are a direct result of your effort put in, execution of trained potential and sensible self-management throughout the process of training and racing.

It rewards traits such as commitment, suffering and problem solving. With this lens, some may see it as a paradox to guide athletes to occasionally morph the focus of a training session, or even quit a session.

Isn’t the goal to always finish what you start? Won’t it develop a sense of suffering and follow through?

Pulling the Plug

While a mindset of suffering and finishing what one planned can provide the instant gratification of checking the box, it isn’t always the best long-term lens of performance evolution.

...quitting, or more accurately defined as strategically pulling back or out of a session.

Cyclists riding in the desert

For even the most dedicated athlete, quitting sometimes is the smart option. To appreciate this statement, I think it requires some context. Let’s first establish a few key criteria to overall performance evolution:

  • Results require real work:
    The path to success is never easy, nor void of obstacles, setbacks and challenges.

  • Consistency is king:
    Train effectively, on a long-term consistent basis, and your results will blossom.

  • Don’t buy into “balance”:
    Excellence isn’t about harmonious balance. I prefer “performance within context,” where you achieve great results, but not at the detriment of your pillars of life such as health, family and work.

Cyclist riding with power meter

With this lens we can talk about quitting, or more accurately defined as strategically pulling back or out of a session. I don’t know a committed athlete who dilutes the intensity or duration of a trained session and who feels great about it. It goes against the inner animal instinct of the competitor.

So let’s explore a framework to help you know when to adjust, evolve or even terminate a session.

Life is Not a Spreadsheet

One of the biggest mistakes athletes make is to judge their training success around the simple accumulation of miles or hours completed. Chasing weekly totals dissolve any opportunity for athlete awareness of how they feel, or how life commitments and events may influence training.

Whereas professional athletes have life built around their training, the majority of athletes live very full lives, and we cannot ignore the influence that life stress and commitments plays on our ability to execute and absorb training effectively.

Cyclist viewing spreadsheet on computer

While we can carefully plan training load, and create all the pretty spreadsheets of planned training, life doesn’t often operate within this framework. It can be chaotic and joyfully unpredictable, meaning that the smart athlete must always retain a dynamic mindset and willingness to adjust when it comes to planned training.

I encourage athletes to view any training plan as a living document, that may well require additions or subtractions based on training response, life events, or other factors such as lack of sleep, illness or even unplanned extra time that comes available to add on some training load.

Cyclist riding on bike with power meter

To adopt this mindset, it requires the athlete to understand the intent of the prescribed training, and what they aim to get out of the sessions. In addition, while all training should be valuable, I believe it serves the athlete well to develop a hierarchy of the planned training to understand the key focal training sessions within any block of work.

This makes decision making around scaling or evolving sessions much easier. This approach fits into the critical value proposition for overall training success:

Successful training is that which prepares you to arrive at your key events ready to perform.

This is an important statement. It is less about a contest of highest fitness, but a combination of great fitness combined with the freshness to perform on the day. While we seek to execute every training session as well as we can, we must also do so within context of what has happened in the preceding days, as well as what we have planned for upcoming days.

If the season is the 10,000 feet view, and the daily training is the ground level, I like athletes to have presence and focus within the moment, but also to always be able to hover at 3,000 feet, to have the big picture in mind. It is at this lens that arrives decision around scaling, removing intensity or terminating a session.

Cyclist in the desert on bike

This is not a shortcut, nor is it a get out of jail free card at the first sign of a little fatigue. It is simply a baseline mindset of decision making to ensure you have a framework and path to make strategic decisions that allow the best accumulation of effective work over many weeks and months.

A block of work that can be void of an accumulation of deep fatigue, injury and illness, as well as one that allows performance evolution to the point that you arrive to race day prepared to execute a great performance.

If you want toughness, then realize it takes courage to recover, and mental toughness to make smart big picture decisions to help you arrive prepared. Anyone can run into a barn door, but that isn’t the best approach to make a great entrance.

Cyclist biking downhill

Reasons to Scale a Workout

Let’s progress to actionable steps.

There are two main reasons to take a planned workout and scale it:

1. Time

2. Fatigue

Cyclist coasting downhill on bike

An important statement to live by is that it is typically better to do something instead of nothing.

I have had the chance to work with some of the busiest people imaginable, yet I have not met one who is unable to commit to 30 minutes at least 4 to 5 times weekly. This approach won’t get you through an IRONMAN, but you can typically achieve something.

Optimal Approach

If you are time compressed then the optimal approach should be to:

  1. Trim the warm up: don’t eliminate, but reduce the percentage time of the total workout time available that is taken up by the main set.

  2. Remove any technical or additional sets included in the workout.

  3. Maintain the intent of the sessions.

If you approach a workout and you are feeling highly fatigued, either from previous sessions or simply a long day at work with poor sleep prior, then the process is slightly different. Most adjusted sessions will follow this process:

1. Give Yourself a Chance

There is often a gulf between perceived fatigue and real fatigue, and your legs and system will often come alive throughout a warm up period, so start the session.

2. Extend warm-up

If you are not time compressed, then it is a great chance to extend the warm-up and give yourself more time to “come good.”

3. The Crossroads

Following warm-up, or perhaps following the first interval, you will either feel better than expected or still feel lethargic and fatigued.

Cyclist on bike coasting

The Build Option

If you have chosen the fatigue route, there is no need to judge your self-worth as an athlete, or your commitment. You simply shifted the value of the session, and can either move the planned intervals to the next day, or take a couple of lower stress days as needed, then return to those key intervals when the body and mind are prepared to execute with intent and purpose.

All of the above focus around subjective measurements, but you can always utilize objective measurements to help frame or guide the conversation you are bound to have with yourself in a fatigue situation. How is your perceived effort? How does that stack relative to heart rate response? How does that index to power or pace?

  • If your heart rate is suppressed at a pace, but perceived effort is high, then you are likely tired.

  • If you have unusually sore legs, and cannot produce regular pace or power, you are fatigued.

    Cyclist with sore legs sitting on bike

  • If you look at your PowerTap and see your interval number, but your heart rate is very high, then you have some acute fatigue.

    • Equally, if it is very low, then you are likely systemically suppressed.

    • It doesn’t mean it is an automatic reduction of work for the session, but some information to help guide and frame your decision making process.

    Cyclist looking back at his accomplisments

  • Once you finish a session it is great to review your training load and stress score from the previous series of training.

    • There is nothing more empowering than reframing a scaled session because of the accumulation of great training that you have executed over the last 5 to 10 days.

    • The fatigue is not a failure, but a result of the accumulation of high value work in the last days. Log your training; review it. It makes a single session adjustment so much more palatable.

There is nothing more empowering than reframing a scaled session because of the accumulation of great training that you have executed over the last 5 to 10 days.

Cyclist walking away from bike

Stopping a Session

If something is better than nothing, when should you skip or quit a session?

Here are a few reasons to miss or stop a session in which you should carry no guilt, nor should you judge your worth or commitment as an athlete:

1. A situation in which you feel like you are truly hurting yourself

Sharp pains, or a consistent pain that is progressing from previous sessions. Pushing through a session and achieving a long-term injury is not tough, it is naive. Be pragmatic.

Athlete dealing with an injury

2. You are sick

When you’re under the weather your body’s ability to positively adapt to training stress is greatly reduced or eliminated. Remembering what effective training is, it is sometimes better to stop and rest.

The best self-check is if the sickness is beneath the neckline and feels systemic. Fever, chills, shakes etc are clear signals there is nothing to be gained. You will see high heart rates relative to power, and typically have a tough time getting power up.

3. You look in the mirror and it isn’t there

There are some days, for every athlete, where you need a break. They should be rare, but they exist.

When you are on interval two of ten, and you simply cannot bring focus, intent or purpose to the session, and when you really look inside you just wish you were anywhere else, give yourself a break and walk away.

If you need to do this, then you should impose a 36- to 72-hour non-negotiable cessation of structured training. You can be active, but turn your back on the sport. Do this, occasionally, and your love and passion for the daily grind will return.

Ignore it, and you will likely grind and grind, but remain ineffective. The toughest I have trained have all had these moments, but I offer permission to fail, without inquest, periodically. Passion returns, and productivity is restored.

Cyclist reflecting with helmet in hand

Indoor bike trainer with no rider

4. Life brings a rest day

Life happens, and if things get so compressed that it becomes improbable to have a productive session, don’t get up a 2:30am to train.

Yes, I did it when I was an athlete, to my detriment. It was a lack of courage and confidence in myself, and the program. I gained nothing, and lost sleep and adaptations from previous training. If life brings you a rest day, embrace it and move on.

Training isn’t defined as nailing every day on a program, or avoiding any obstacles. Perfection is not attainable, so don’t set your success criteria and looking to achieve the unattainable.

Remain smart, pragmatic yet committed. Develop a rhythm of consistency and success, and develop the confidence to pull back and evolve as needed. Your best performance demands it.

Training with Power: The Ultimate Guide

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