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How to stay sane while training hard

Published 11 December 2019. Written by Chris Worfolk.

Silhouette of a man running through a field

Triathlon training, especially long format racing, takes a considerable amount of time. That’s time that you used to spend relaxing, seeing your friends and doing some good old fashioned self-care. So, how do you stay mentally well when you do not have time for anything except training?

Exercise is good, for the record

Before I get into what we can do to maintain our mental welling, I want to be clear that exercise is good for us. You are not damaging your mental health by merely training hard. Avoiding exercise is not the answer.

That said, most things can reach an overdose level eventually. There is a point where training can become an unhealthy obsession. But it’s not like doing heroin. It is overwhelmingly a good thing.

That said, let’s look at what we can do to keep our minds healthy.

Train socially

If you join the cult of CrossFit, you are not allowed to see your old friends any more. But it’s fine because you get new, better CrossFit friends. They love CrossFit, too. You all love CrossFit.

Training can be the same. If your schedule is draining your social time, why not train socially instead? Find a local triathlon club and go to their sessions.

Or join specific clubs: find a local cycling or running club and do one session per week. Or maybe a strength and conditioning class at the gym.

Spending time with others will mean the workout is not perfectly tailored to you. But it will still be a good workout and often a lot more enjoyable. Give yourself permission to train socially instead of doing the “perfect” set of intervals.

Build your support network

Sometimes you need to talk to someone. That is much easier to find if you have a support network already in place that you can go to.

Get into the habit of regularly calling a few key friends and family members. People you trust. Be open with them hen they ask how are you. Build up trust.

That way, when you are having a bad patch and could do with talking to someone, it will be a regular phone call.

Go easy on yourself

The best thing you can do is develop your nurturing inner coach.

If a coach is worth their salt, and they can see you struggling, would they shout “stop being such a loser”, or would they offer you support, encouragement and understanding?

The answer is the latter. But, when it comes to the voice inside our head, we are often far less kind to ourselves. Triathletes tend to be driven people who like to push themselves. Being compassionate to ourselves does not come easy.

Practice it; it’s a skill. Remind yourself that you do all of this training, often while holding down a job and having a family, and many other commitments. You are doing amazing getting through all of that.

It is okay not to feel 100% all of the time, and when you do, be kind and compassionate to yourself.

Train in cycles

Going hard every session is the road to injury. This is true both physically and emotionally.

If you are working in training blocks, say 4-8 weeks, at least one of those, preferably two (one every four weeks) should be a recovery week where you make it easier and let your body and mind have the rest it needs.

In your broader season plan, you should have an off-season. For me, this typically runs from October to December. I use this time to do something different, relax and decide whether I want to do another year or triathlon (the answer is always yes!).

You do not have to stop training in the off-season, but you should change it up. Maybe it involves cross-country running, cyclocross, skiing, climbing, or anything you feel like.

Release your inner yogi

The evidence suggests that yoga is not an effective treatment for anxiety and depression. But you might enjoy it.

And what’s not to love? Combing some strength work with stretching, breathing, mindfulness and the magic of sharing a room with other people who are all participating in the same self-care activity at the same time.

Plan your rest days, or do nothing

You should be having one or two rest days each week. If not, start doing that. Your body needs time to repair damaged muscles and make them stronger.

Where possible, use your rest days with purpose. That might mean planning something in advance, like seeing friends. Then, when the day comes and you don’t want to go, remind yourself that Chris warned you that you would change your mind and insists you go anyway. You will feel glad you did afterwards.

Or do nothing. Give yourself permission in advance to do nothing. To achieve nothing. To spend an entire day being lazy and not feeling the need to be productive.

What it does not mean is spending the whole day scrolling through social media and wondering whether you should do something else. That is a day spent eroding your mental health and then feeling guilty about wasting a day you di enjoy very much.

Get some professional help

If you are really struggling, talk to a counsellor. Doing this can be expensive: typically £40-60 per hour. So, you probably need to budget £1,000 to get six months of sessions.

That Is quite a bit of cash. But much cheaper than most triathlon bikes, and arguably an excellent investment in your wellbeing.

If you are looking for a cheaper alternative, consider a self-help book or online course.