Making and implementing a good training plan is great, and making sure that you have well balanced, specific training for you and your goals is key to getting the most out of your body. Improving your training plan and trying to implement those changes is good, but sometimes fixing problems in your routine will allow for more progress than slight improvements in what you already do well. If you are doing something that is hurting your training or not doing something that you really need to be doing, then if you fix those errors, that can make more of a positive impact on your results than tweaking your favorite workout.
Here are 7 of the most common training mistakes that I have made over the years or have seen other athletes make. If you are doing any of these in some form or another, I would definitely recommend looking at what you’re doing, and look for ways to adjust as you move forward. I am sure that your results will get better if you fix any of these common mistakes. If you can make your training just 2% better, compounded over time this can result in big gains over time.
- Training too hard, too often. One of the most common problems with athlete’s training is that they train too hard too often, and try to make every training session a workout. Another common problem is that people do their intervals too hard. In both cases, it seems to be driven by a mentality that more is better… People try to shoot for the highest power they can manage for their endurance rides or the highest power that they can do during their intervals. Higher numbers aren’t always better. Usually what you want is more of the specific stress that you’re trying to create, which may mean power power at times, but sometimes it means more time at the desired intensity and not doing the most power possible. And, you want to keep your overall training stress in balance, keeping your training within the bounds of what your body can reasonably and effectively adapt to in a reasonable time period.
- Training hard every day because you feel halfway decent will only ensure that you’re always kind-of-training, and always kind-of-recovering, and never doing either one very well. You will never be working out as hard as you can or recovering as fully as you can. If you just took all of the harder efforts you’re doing and just dump them all into just 2 or 3 workouts, and then do easy sessions on the other days, then your training will automatically get better. You’ll have more substantial and specific training stress and more effective recovery. Even better, dump all of one type of intensity into just 1 or 2 days, and keep each day focused on just 1 or 2 things. A common mistake that people make is that they do a few random efforts on every ride or almost every ride. They’ll do a few town-line sprints, hammer over a couple of short hills at their VO2 max, and do one or two longer climbing efforts at a low threshold pace that finishes with an above threshold kick at the end. Every day they’re doing enough that they’re getting tired, but they are never creating a large, specific stress that will significantly boost one or two of the body’s systems that will make them better.
- More power isn’t always better, and often isn’t. Rather, it’s usually good to efficiently get in the desired intensity. If you have the capacity to do more and to recover from it, then you can and often should do more volume at the desired intensity, but not increase the intensity. Sometimes you do want to go out and do the workout as hard as you can, usually as you are trying to build for peak fitness in the middle of the season, but not every week throughout the year.
- People often do more than they should by running on the assumption that more is better. More is often better, as long as it’s within certain bounds. More riding is better, as long as you can do it and still get stronger and feel fresh week after week. More hard workouts are good for building peak fitness, but only if you can recover well. Almost always it’s a matter of making sure that your training is effective and that your recovery is at least equal to your training stress.
- Training too easy. There are two common ways that I see this happen. On the one hand, people don’t do their hard workouts either hard enough or they don’t do enough hard work within those workouts (e.g. they do 3 intervals instead of 4 or 5).
- How hard and long you should go will always be subjective and specific to you, your goals, and your training history. And not all of your workouts should put you on the verge of tears. Most of them shouldn’t, but you definitely want to make sure that if you’re doing a hard workout that you have an idea in mind of what you’re trying to accomplish and that you try to create a substantial stress that will move your fitness in the desired direction once you recover from that workout. Pick one or two things to focus on and try to make those things very challenging for your workouts, then recover.
- When you’re ready to do a hard workout, you should go out and do a hard workout. Often this problem of not going hard enough in workouts is because there isn’t enough recovery between workouts, so this ties in again with the first mistake of going too hard often. Ironically, many athletes can’t train hard enough, because they’re trying too hard, training hard every other session, and never recovering well enough to do properly hard workouts.
- On the other hand, training too easily is a common feature of many athletes’ winter training. After all, you’re supposed to go easy during the winter, right? Any smart periodized training program will start with a lot of long slow distance in the winter and then ramp up later with higher and higher intensities in the spring and summer months, right? No, this is definitely not the case, and for many athletes, doing a lot of “LSD” (long slow distance) will be a waste of time and will allow their fitness to slide backwards during the winter if that’s most or all that they do.
- Wasting time in training. All of the time, when I look at people’s rides on Strava or Training Peaks or I go riding with people, I see that many people miss out on huge amounts of training benefit by not making the most of their training time by not staying on task. This usually comes in two forms: excessive stopping and excessive noodling.
- I see a lot of rides where people are out riding for 2 hours or 3 hours or 5 hours, but then I look at their total time out and it’s something like 3 hours, 4.5 hours, or 7 hours, and you can see that a full 1/4 of their total training time is lost. Where did all that time go? Some things are unavoidable… stopping for water, bathroom breaks, and of course, stopping at lights will always take up some of our training time, but when people stop for 10 minutes to get water, 20 minutes to get coffee, and often when people don’t know how to effectively ride as a group, they get spread out and have to wait up on climbs and descents. It’s really fun to go riding with a group of friends and it can help pass the time much more quickly when you’re training, but you also want to make sure that you don’t allow the fact that you’re riding with a group to add 30 or 40% more time to your ride.
- Then, aside from stopping, it’s very common for people to lose a ton of training benefit from their riding by not keeping their power/effort up on descents and flats. People naturally push the climbs, often more than they realize and more than they should. Most people ease up on the flats, and barely pedal the downhills. If you live someplace hilly like the Bay Area, probably 30-40% of your riding time is spent climbing, maybe only half or less is done on flats and false-flats, and then maybe 15-20% is spent on descents. If you’re going down a fast, twisty descent, then you need to safely maneuver your way down the hill. Every descent is an opportunity to practice getting a better feel for your bike handling, even if you aren’t trying to rail the descent, you can still pay attention to reading the lines, to how you feel when you’re cornering, and how your bike is the most stable and responsive so that when you do want to rail a descent you are better prepared to do it, because you’ve been practicing. But aside from that, whenever you’re on a shallow descent that doesn’t have any sharp turns, or you’re on mostly flat ground, there’s no reason that you can’t keep the same power up that you did on the climbs. But, so often I see people pushing 30-50% more power on the climbs than they do on the flats and 30-50% less power on descents than they do on the flats.
- Not training consistently enough… In the long run, no matter how much you train in a given week, if do your training on a consistent schedule of 4 or 5 days per week, then I’m sure that over time your fitness will be much better than if your training is very irregular with weeks where you train 6 days, others where you train 3 days, and others where you don’t train at all. If all you did to make your schedule more regular was to ride the trainer for 30 minutes on some of those days that you might otherwise take totally off, then I think that your long term development will be better by a significant margin. This is something that I’ve seen a number of times when my schedule has been very demanding and it’s hard to find time to train. Sometimes I wish I had the time to do a “real ride” on the road, but all I can do is get 30 or 40 minutes in on the trainer. In some cases, all I can do is 20 minutes before I shower and work, but doing that versus doing nothing at all makes a big difference. If you can signal to your body every day or nearly every day that it needs to be able to deliver and process oxygen to propel your body forward, then your body will develop that ability much better. Your body will always be looking to make itself more efficient and more fit for running or cycling or whatever it is.
- Not recovering well, especially when it comes to recovery meals. A lot of people miss out on some of the benefits that their training can give them by not eating well right after training. Many people don’t eat as well as they could throughout the day to maximize recovery and minimize big swings in hormone and energy levels. Many people also don’t prioritize sleep enough by getting enough or by making sure that they have good sleep quality. At the end of the day, our bodies get fitter and stronger when they’re exposed to substantial stress and then they get a chance to recover. I have another article specifically on recovery that you could check out here.
- Training randomly, without focus, or repetitively doing the same routine over and over without change. Good training will have a variety of intensities, but they will generally be balanced and progressive throughout the season or over the course of a few months as you build up a specific type of fitness. Doing random workouts that aren’t balanced or aren’t specific to your goals aren’t going to get you the results that you could if your training was a little more deliberate. Likewise, if your training is always exactly the same, then you will not progress much. You need to keep evolving, and in order to do that, your workouts need to evolve.
- Not training specifically enough, or at all. Many people don’t train with enough specificity. It’s important to include a variety of training intensities in your training plan and focusing on just one thing is rarely a good idea.
- Depending on what kind of events you’re doing or what your fitness goals are, most athletes will do well to have their training focused on a specific mix of workout types. Usually you want to have an idea of what the demands will be for your goal event(s) and then build your body up to meet those demands. I’ll often categorize events by how much endurance, threshold fitness, aerobic capacity/VO2 max, and anaerobic fitness they’ll require to do well.
- Likewise, if you have certain attributes as an athlete, it’s good to take those into account and make your training specific to your body and training history as much as you can. Before jumping to any conclusions about your abilities and how you should train, it is good not to specialize early on in your development as an athlete. Many people start their athletic careers in a given sport and see their fitness developing in a certain way, and then extrapolate from that some sort of conclusion like “I’m a good sprinter but I can’t climb” or “I have great endurance, but I don’t have any high-end.” But in so many cases, the way that you train when you start training or the activities you’ve participated in before getting into a new sport have a big impact on how your fitness will be early on. If you’re just riding for the fun of it, or you are training for endurance events like bike tours or something where complete fitness won’t matter to you personally, then it’s fine to just focus on endurance and aerobic fitness, for example. But, if you’re a bike racer, runner, or triathlete then you really want to develop as a complete athlete as much as possible for at least the first few years before you specialize in any specific area.
- And, along with this, most athletes will see that their fitness change over time, as well as the training required to get better. Even though you may continue to do similar training from year to year, it’s good to look for ways to make small adjustments to your training to get more out of it year after year. Early on, doing 4×3 minutes might be a great workout, but later you may do 4×5 minutes or 7×3 minutes. But, you always have to make sure the workouts are geared towards your training goals, and not just do them because other people do them or because it was relevant to your old training goals in past years.