Recipe for Completing the Perfect Workout

Coach Mike Ricci with his clip board
December 13, 2016

Dave Sheanin


Sometimes coaches and athletes have different ideas about what makes for a great workout. As a coach, the easiest part of my job is posting a workout. As an athlete, the easiest part of your job should be doing them. Sure, some workouts are really, really tough and some intervals might make you want to puke. But the easy part I'm talking about is completing them according to a plan.

Here's the recipe for completing the perfect workout.

1. Hydration/nutrition. Have something to eat and drink before you work out. Each athlete has his or her own individual tolerances for how soon before a workout to eat. You can experiment with this to find what works, but don't punt on it. This is especially important for early morning workouts since you wake up dehydrated and depleted. If your body has some fluid and fuel, your workout will be better.

2. Follow the plan. You hired a coach or bought a training plan for a reason. Whatever the reason maybe-to make you work hard enough or keep you from working too hard-trust that your coach has designed a workout to obtain the desired outcome. It fits into your training calendar in a specific way. It's always best to complete the workout as written. Here's a little peek into your coach's head: it makes your coach crazy to see a 2 hour run logged when the plan calls for 1:15. We don't care if you were "feeling good",if a 2 hour run was called for, we would have put it on your plan. If you have questions about a workout, ask your coach beforehand.

3. Bail out only when necessary. Complete your workouts as written as often as possible. Coaches understand that life/family/career can sometimes get in the way. Consistency is an important part of making progress. Do your best to complete every workout.

4. Warm up. The first 10-15 minutes (or more) are for warming up and preparing your body to work. It's common to include drills and/or pickups during this period. It's easy to fall into the bad habit of thinking, "I only have an hour to run so I'm going to make the most of it by running hard for an hour." You're better off warming up for 10 minutes, running hard for 40-45 minutes, and then cooling down for the last 5-10. The quality of the workout will be higher and recovery will be easier, you'll be better for it in the long run.

5. Drills have a purpose, do them. As with the previous item, athletes sometimes feel that when they're time-limited, they can skip the drills and get to the "important" part of the workout. News flash: sometimes the drills ARE the important part of the workout! Don't just go through the motions (or skip them altogether). Swimming harder won't make you faster over time, but swimming with better technique definitely will.

6. Hydrate during the workout (and eat if the workout is longer than an hour). Keeping your body hydrated and fueled is an important part of achieving good results. Every workout is an opportunity to practice race day nutrition habits. You don't want to find out during your "A" race that your fueling plan doesn't work.

7. All out means all out, RPE 7 means RPE 7, and recovery means recovery. One of the most common issues I see with athletes is that they go too hard on the easy stuff and not hard enough on the hard stuff. If your plan calls for work at a particular level of intensity (RPE, HR, pace, watts), complete it at that level. Your coach doesn't think you're a better athlete when you work too hard. And on recovery intervals (or recovery days), go easy. A great description of recovery pace is a pace you'd be embarrassed for anyone to see you doing.

8. When your coach gives you a range of intervals, it doesn't mean you need to complete the max. If your workout shows 4-6x 800m, it's okay to do 4 or 5. If you're hitting your intervals at the right pace and feel good, it's always fine to complete all intervals. After the last interval, you should feel like you have one more in your tank. Leave it there. If you finish your last interval completely wiped out or if it's much slower than the prior intervals, you did one too many. Quality is more important than quantity.

9. Cooldown. Allow 5-10 minutes to cool down after the work portion of your session. This is part of the workout, not something you can skip. Include some stretching or yoga to keep you loose.

10. Keep hydrating and eating. Make sure you put some food into your body within 30 minutes of completing your workout. If you're "dieting," this is the wrong time to limit calories.

11. Log, upload, and analyze. Make sure your coach can see what you've done, log your workout as soon as possible after completing it so you won't forget details. In your log, include comments about how the workout went. It's not helpful for your coach to read comments about your HR or power output at a particular point of the workout. We can see that from the file. What is helpful is when athletes make qualitative comments about the workout, how did you feel? (Be sure to include any information about injuries, even little nagging issues.) And don't leave all the analysis to your coach. Examine your own results. No single workout tells the entire story so treat each as a single data point, but you can learn a lot from each data point.

Following these steps will allow you to make the most out of your coaching investment. Happy training!

Coach Dave Sheanin is an advocate for aligning triathletes with their race goals. He believes that becoming “triathlon literate” is key to meeting your goals. Triathlon is indeed a lifestyle and like the other important areas of your life, knowledge is power. He encourages you to explore the nuances of the sport, be open to new ideas and ask questions – of yourself, of fellow swimmers, cyclists and runners, and of your coach.  

Coach Dave is a USA Triathlon and Training Peaks Certified Coach.  Coach Dave was honored by USA Triathlon with the Community Impact Award.

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