Stress and recovery
How many age group athletes look at the intensive training schedules and workouts of elite athletes and think "I could be that fast, if only..." If only I didn't have to work 50 hours a week, I could spend more time training. If I didn't have to deal with family responsibilities as much, I would be able to train more. That's why I'm not as fast as the other athletes I'm racing against. I don't have the time to train as much as everyone else. So we try to replicate the elite schedules the best we can, with pre-dawn swims, lunchtime runs and evening rides on the trainer after dark. Every minute of every day is planned around the workouts. The weekends come and instead of rejuvenation from the stress of the week, more stress is piled on in the form of long rides, long runs and open water swims. And even with all the training and hard workouts, the results aren't there. So instead of going back to the drawing board, the most common "fix" is to pile more and more training onto the schedule - especially for self coached athletes. Increase the yardage in the pool, more hours on the bike and more miles under the running shoes. For many athletes, the cycle continues until something breaks - either the breakthrough race or an injury. Unfortunately, it doesn't take look perusing Slowtwitch and other sites to realize the breakthrough races are few and far between and season ending injuries are very frequent.
For many, the answer to getting fitter and faster isn't more hours training - regardless of the sport. Yes, more is better - but only to a point. A new runner slowing building the mileage up from 10 miles a week to 20 miles a week will become a better runner. A cyclist gradually increasing the duration of her long rides to prepare for a century ride will arrive at the starting line ready to perform. A well trained veteran triathlete trying to cram another five hours of training into his schedule is asking for trouble. Unless there is five hours of free time in the week, something will have to give. Since work is non-negotiable for most people, those five hours are usually taken out of sleep and recovery or family time. Instead of adding five hours of training stress, the additional workouts also increase the life stress. In turn, they affect the ability to recover from the daily and weekly stresses from work, family and training. The biggest thing that athletes miss when studying the training schedules of others is what does the rest of the day look like? Is someone rolling out of bed at 5:00 for masters swim racing off to work after or heading home for a leisurely meal and nap? Is the hour lunch run an balancing act - dashing out of the office between meetings and inhaling food at a desk after the workout or is it a solid warm up, the main intervals, then a cool down followed by a healthy lunch with feet up? As for the long rides on the weekends - do they start in the dark with a cup of coffee for breakfast so not to miss a kid's soccer game or is the roll out planned for after breakfast, when the weather is nice because that's all that is planned for the day? It's the same workouts, but two very different schedules. Which athlete sounds familiar?
It isn't always training that makes someone fast; it's what they are doing when they aren't training. Training is the stress - the trigger for adaptation. Recovery allows for the body to repair and adapt to the workload. Without proper rest and recovery between workouts, there's more stress, more load but without the adaptations that create fitness and speed. For the lucky athlete who doesn't have the addition of work or family responsibilities, training is the only stress. For everyone else, the hours at work and with family compounds the stress from training, increasing the need for recovery. Trying to fit more training into the day decreases the time for available recovery and can eventually lead to the breaking point. Adding more hours to the training schedule has to be done intelligently, with a purpose for every additional workout and the ability to increase recovery if needed. Knowing yourself and having a coach who knows you as well will help with the balancing act of training volume/intensity, daily work and life responsibilities and stress and the appropriate recovery from it all.