Common Mistakes of the Independent Athlete

In a recent post I promised a forthcoming post about common mistakes you may encounter as an Independent Athlete. I know an unfortunate amount about this, as an athlete who has learned the hard way in too many cases. But after today you will be armed against them!

First off, what do I mean by “Independent Athlete?” If you train alone more than a couple times a week or don’t have a coach to consult with, you’re likely an Independent Athlete. Even if you work with a coach, or with a team, or just a friend and training buddy, you are an Independent Athlete if you like to have a say in what you’re doing for training.

I’ve spent most of my athletic career working with coaches, either in person or remotely, but I have always considered myself to be independent. Stubborn, some call it. I want to know why my coach wants me to do this workout, I want to be able to suggest I do it tomorrow instead.

Endurance sports are for strong-willed people. We’ve gravitated toward these tough sports for challenge, personal achievement, as even time alone. The question that has been at the forefront for me lately is,

How can I retain this stubborn independence while still benefiting from guidance and training smart?

In my quest for the answer, I have identified 5 common mistakes that Independent Athletes make. Here they are:

#1) We train too hard.

The number one mistake I see athletes making every day is training too hard. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve asked a friend to run with me, and they say, “Oh no, I won’t be able to keep up with you,” and then we go out and they crush me! But they’re always breathing too hard to talk.

A majority of workouts should be so easy you’ll hardly feel like it’s a workout. There are specific heart rate and lactate tests that can be done to identify this precise effort level, but those are expensive and not easily accessible to everyone. Thankfully there’s an easier way. I call it the Talk Test. If you are out for an easy workout (anything that’s not intervals or racing) you should be able to hold a conversation comfortably, speaking in complete sentences. You should not have to draw breath every few words. Seriously, go out and try it. You’ll be shocked.

Still worried you’re not going hard enough? If you have enough voice control to be able to sing comfortably, you’re going too easy for most distance workouts, though this pace still has it’s place on very easy recovery workouts.

#2) We have no training plan

Independent athletes often have no concrete plan, because after all, even if we wanted one we’d make it ourselves, so what’s the point? Right?

The truth is that even if you have to set your own plan, you will be a much healthier and more successful athlete if you do, rather than training without one. A plan forces you to identify goals, which in turn increases motivation. A plan reminds you exactly how long it has been since you did those pullups you know you should do, because the days go by a lot faster than we realize, and I personally am always surprised at how long it’s been since I did my pullups. And a plan alleviates the number one issue that makes training downright unpleasant: Guilt. Which leads me to…

#3) We struggle to achieve a healthy level of accountability

For many of us Independents, guilt might be the thing that gets us out the door in the morning. But there are two main problems with this. One is that guilt is no fun at all, and the other is that this will often motivate us to push through when we should be resting (see above #1 and below #4.)  This is a problem of too much accountability.

On the other hand, too little accountability can also lead to feeling guilty, and certainly leads to ineffective training. Without a coach, or a friend, or even a training log to report to, it’s way too easy to put off a workout, skimp on our sit-ups, or offset our run by eating a pizza whole.

Issues of accountability are closely linked to not having a training plan. Imagine having a training plan which calls for a rest day today. You don’t work out, and you know you’ve done your body a huge favor by allowing it to rest. You don’t feel guilty, and you’ll be ready to go tomorrow. Without a training plan, you might push yourself to train when you need rest (too much accountability) or you might take today and tomorrow (and the next day) off when you know you should be training.

#4) We don’t recover!

Closely related to training too hard, we train too much! This is my personal vice. My most common form of self-sabotage is training too much and recovering too little. What’s the problem, you say. Won’t you just get that much better?

Ah, if only. Many athletes have the misconception that we get stronger while completing our long, hard workouts. Not so! We get stronger while recovering from our long, hard workouts. Think about body-building. In very simplistic terms, we lift a weight. That weight is too heavy for us. We tax our muscle. Afterward, we rest and feed our muscle and our muscle says, hey if I get bigger and stronger, next time I will be able to lift this weight. And since we’re giving that muscle proper rest and nutrition, it is able to do just that.

Endurance training works in much the same way.

How to recover could (and eventually will) be a blog post in itself. For now I will identify three practices you should start today:

  • Take days off! Completely off. No strength, no aerobic, no nothing. At least one per two weeks. (Add them to your training plan.)
  • Get a snack that includes a little sugar immediately post-workout, and a meal that is balanced in macronutrients (fat, carb, protein) within 1.5-2 hours.
  • Plan long or hard workouts for days when you will be able to get off your feet for a couple hours afterward.

The question of recovering while maximizing training load gets a little murkier. It can be difficult to identify just how much training one can or should handle, and this is where the advice of a coach or teammate can really be a game-changer.

#5) We have ineffective (or no) strength routines.

We’re endurance athletes. Why do I need to do pushups to be able to hike a mountain? I’m a runner, I don’t want to put on muscle. But you need strength training, I promise.

The reasons are nearly endless. Here are a few:

  • Strength training helps keep you balanced. That is to say, if not all muscle groups are strong, you will compensate for the weak ones without even realizing. This puts unhealthy strain on your joints and connective tissue.
  • Joints and connective tissue are easily damaged by repetitive activity if they are not strong enough to handle it. Injury Prevention is one of the top reasons to follow a sport-specific strength training routine.
  • Resistance training is great for the metabolism! If you use endurance sports as part of your weight-maintenance, you’re doing yourself a disservice to not strength train.

Okay, say you do strength train. How do you know what you’re doing is effective? An effective strength routine targets your goals. If you are a runner, effective strength will mimic running motion, strengthen connective tissue taxed by running, strengthen muscle groups that do not get as much of a workout from running, and avoid the building of muscle mass.

It’s all about your goals. Every strength plan will be unique to the athlete.

Armed with your new awareness of mistakes you may be making as an Independent Athlete (and with the knowledge that you are not alone) you will be ready to adjust your training so that you are truly training smarter. If you have any questions about how to fix one of the issues addressed above, or if you have a training problem not included in this post, I want to hear about it, as usual. Send me a message!

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