It’s a pleasure to share this thought-provoking essay by Dr. Phil Maffetone with Natural Running Center readers. Phil’s reach into the world of triathlon began when the sport was still in its infancy; and thankfully, his influence continues to this day. There’s a reason why his teachings and writings on training, racing, and nutrition will never go away. His principles are the basic science truth and no matter what new trend or technology appears, long-term success comes down to really understanding and applying these essentials: aerobic development through fat burning, avoidance of “no pain, no gain,” balanced and economical running stride, proper nutrition, stress management, and much more.
Phil’s two most recent books, The Big Book of Endurance Training and Fitness, and The Big Book of Health and Fitness, should be on every runner’s bookshelf. They are on my mine, and I often use them as references.
I first began following Phil’s recommendations about the athletic lifestyle for over two decades. Before that, I was part of that first generation racing triathlons in the early 80s. Hard to believe it? I was a skinny teen in a Speedo whose only bike was a Schwinn 10-speed. No disc wheels, no aero bars, no energy bars. Triathlon’s Big Four –Mark Allen, Dave Scott, Scott Molina, and Scott Tinley — were my heroes then.
Phil later went to coach several top triathletes, including Mark Allen who went on to win six consecutive Hawaii Ironman championships. While Phil has pretty much retired from the triathlon scene to focus on his writings and music, he has been advising a young talented triathlete by the name of Angela Naeth who is fast becoming a dominant force in the sport. — Dr. Mark
Revisiting Triathlon: Athletes are Still Overtraining!
by Dr. Phil Maffetone
I don’t really ever feel ‘old.’ Aging is something we have more control over than most people can imagine. It’s all about being both healthy and fit. Attending a triathlon for the first time in almost 17 years didn’t make me feel older, but there were observations to make.
Last month, I was in the middle of a three-month Music & Wellness tour with Coralee Thompson, and one of our scheduled stops was in Syracuse, New York—home of the Ironman 70.3 Syracuse. We had been invited to speak at a pre-race event, and stayed overnight to watch the Sunday race.
I saw young triathletes who may not have even been born when Mark Allen won his sixth Hawaii Ironman Championship in 1995, his final year of professional racing. That was also the last time I attended a triathlon, but remember it well. It was one of the most exciting and tension-filled sporting events I’ve ever witnessed. I was watching the race while riding in the media van, which followed the leaders after the swim, as the bikers streaked out into the lava fields of Kona. The van would drive ahead of the lead pack and stop for everyone to get out for photos. I would get out too, and pace back-and-forth, hoping Mark could catch the leaders. He eventually ran into the lead halfway through the run, and my pacing quickened, wondering if he could hang on for the win, which he did, at age 37.
I had started working with Mark 12 years earlier when he sought my help to address a leg injury that threatened to keep him from racing the following week. I was able to correct the problem, enabling him to not only race, but also win. I explained to Mark there was a bigger picture—the leg problem was the end result of the way he was training, and that if he wanted to avoid injuries, continue racing well and improve for a long time, modifying his training would be vital. This involved developing the easy aerobic muscles that burn fat for energy—the same ones that support the body’s structure. Since retiring from competition, Mark has been helping other athletes train the same way.
Seventeen years later, I can honestly say that while the sport has matured and changed, much has stayed the same.
Working with Angela Naeth
But first, some background. Since late last year, I’ve been working with Canadian pro triathlete Angela Naeth. Even though I no longer work with athletes (although I still write about health and endurance sports along with being a busy songwriter), Angela, who had previously read my books on training and racing, and who lives near me in Arizona, eventually persuaded me to help her. She came to see me with a leg injury, the result of a number of bodily imbalances. Just like Mark, her problem was related to training, with a complex variety of mechanical imbalances.
As her doctor, I play a difficult-to-define role, just like I did with Mark throughout his career. I helped Angela individualize her athletic life (including a healthy diet and nutritional regime), gave hands-on therapy to balance her biomechanics, helped plan her race season and training schedule, and assisted her in reaching the goal of being a balanced endurance athlete. Coralee Thompson, a family physician, has contributed too (for years we often consult with each other regarding our patients). In recent months, Mark Allen joined Angela’s team as coach. This makes for the most unique support team.
Since Angela was racing in Syracuse, it was also a perfect opportunity for me to evaluate her immediately before, during and after the event. Being at such a competitive triathlon would enable me to obtain important information about how Angela’s body performed, what muscles may have become impaired, and which ones didn’t, and other factors that could influence performance. This information would further help me formulate her individualized training, diet, and nutrition.
Observation is a hallmark of health assessment in all healthcare professions, and something I’ve done my whole career.
Angela and I were both invited to speak to some local triathletes on Friday evening at a shop called Syracuse Bicycle. We focused our talk on a trio of common athletic issues: avoiding injury, performing better, and improving health. We emphasized one of the key factors that influences all three—burning body fat. This was the very issue I helped Mark address back in the early 1980s. Training the aerobic system with easy workouts, avoiding junk food, and eating well was not just another recommendation, but exactly what Angela has been implementing to build up to her first full race year with a new approach. (She’s been burning up the pro race circuit, winning four events out of her six races so far this year, and placing on the podium in the other two. ) She had won two 70.3’s and we were hoping that Syracuse would mark her third victory for the season.
After checking Angela’s mechanics on Saturday—evaluating her running gait and posture, checking shoe fit, and correcting any subtle muscle imbalances using biofeedback—Coralee and I drove our RV to the race site for the night. Overlooking the lake, we made a dinner of fresh greens, vegetable stew with beef, red wine, and later healthy fudge. We played guitar and flute and sang well into the evening sitting on a picnic table. Based on the applause from triathletes in nearby RVs, we were making our music heard—a soothing sound that can help relax the neuromuscular system, important for a good night’s sleep that’s key to racing well. From one of the RV’s a triathlete named David came over with his guitar to jam with us. His daughter, Nora, age 7, followed, and with a new song in her head, shyly sang it to us. In all, it was a great evening.
The next morning, after an early smoothie, we brought our coffee to the beach. At 7 a.m., we watched a sea of colored swim caps head into the water one wave at a time. The race was on, and I started pacing.
Angela came out of the water three and a half minutes behind the lead women. I quickened my pacing. Now I realized the whole weekend was one of excitement and nervous tension. It was many years ago that I had to stop competing because working with professional athletes at their races required a lot of my energy, making competition impractical and less enjoyable. All those feelings of tension were coming back. Could she catch the leaders in such a highly competitive field?
I eventually wandered up to see the lead men come off their bikes and into the transition to head out on the run course. Before long it was the women, and there was Angela, who made up all the time on the bike, coming out of the transition onto the run course in first place by just a few seconds ahead of the second-place female. “Could she hold that slim lead?” I thought while I paced.
As she circled around the transition area and out to the road, I silently monitored her gait as she settled into the 13.1-mile run. Her mechanics looked very good—balanced rotation in the torso, even leg lift, nice forefoot strike, head level, and other important factors. When one’s gait is not well balanced, the body must use additional energy for muscle action, ultimately slowing the pace.
Soon afterwards, following the lead men who passed by to start their second and final lap, Angela ran by. She managed to pull a couple of minutes ahead of her competition, still with a good gait. A quick thumbs-up said she was in control. But now the tension was building inside of me even more. Could she hold on for the win?
I continued to pace while waiting at the finish line. The clock seemed to slow down. These feelings are the ones I remembered well from the competitions I attended in past years. In some ways, it’s more tension than if I was racing. I tried not to think about whether Angela could hold on, knowing full well that there were very good runners trying to catch her, that too fast a pace could cause bonking, as well as the possibility of cramping and other scenarios.
As the announcer said the lead woman was heading down the hill toward the finish line, I stared and anxiously waited. Finally, there she was—Angela came through looking strong for the win, even breaking the course record. I was relieved. She was ecstatic.
Hours later, as Coraelee and I drove away in our RV and headed down the road for another stop on our music tour, I reflected on what I saw at the race—and not just about how excited I still was over Angela’s win.
What’s Changed with the Sport of Triathlon?
Large numbers of triathletes are still training wrong in the form of overtraining. This can impair performance because of the associated injury and muscle imbalance, reduced fat burning, and reduced health. Those carrying too much stored body fat and weight are also often mildly overtrained. Working out with too high a heart rate—or too much intensity—encourages the reliance on more sugar and less fat, and thus the accumulation of higher body fat stores than are necessary. At our lecture, there were many questions from triathletes about fatigue, inflammation, weight loss and other common end-result indications of overtraining. Physical injuries including those in the knee, foot, low back and shoulder were common too. A local orthopedist and triathlete voiced his concern about such high rates of injured athletes in his practice.
At the race, there seemed to be many people who appeared quite fit—able to compete in a half-Ironman distance event—but less-than-optimally healthy. I can’t help but carefully watch athletes move and evaluate them from a distance.
I also noticed more junk food vendors and sponsors now, even relative to the number of athletes, as I did over 30 years ago when most triathlons were quite small with only a handful of displays here and there. Of course, the sugar-based products, which may work well for energy during a race but seriously impair fat burning when they’re part of one’s daily diet, seemed to be everywhere in all forms. Consuming these foods not only can “train” the body’s metabolism to use less fat for energy, but up to half of the sugar calories consumed get stored as body fat.
The overtrained athlete is often exhausted, broken down, and unable to train or race. But this is a late stage condition of a spectrum called the overtraining syndrome. Early on, less-obvious indications predominate—and this is when the problem is relatively easy to eliminate. Properly done, this can quickly restore better performances, eliminate injury and fatigue, and improve the body’s fat burning state. Reducing training volume and or intensity is often the place to start. Using a heart rate monitor during training can significantly help avoid intensities that are too high and potentially detrimental. Finding someone to work with, such as a knowledgeable coach or health care professional, who can more objectively assess the body’s condition, can also be important.
As I drove onto the highway heading south, something else became evident: I still had fun being part of a triathlon weekend, and hope to play some role in the road ahead.