To some this may sound like Accounting 101, but stress budgeting is one of the most important components of a triathlete’s success. Often overlooked by many less detailed coaches and self-coached athletes, this is part and parcel to surviving and benefiting from the triathlon training season. I encourage athletes to approach their workouts and season planning with a total stress budget in mind. That is, planning and executing their season on micro and macro levels, and consistently expanding their stress budget without breaking the bank.
My aim is to further explain what this budget is and why it is so important to your success. We will also explore how to appropriately determine, expand, and properly manage your own budget. While I am sure that many have broached this topic in the past, my goal is to finally break it down in a way that will finally convince the hard headed type-A triathletes that this is the most productive way to make progress in this sport. So go get your balance sheet and a ledger. It’s time to determine your stress bottom line.
The redirection of wants is the real sacrifice in this sport; not the 6-hour rides you do in preparation for race day.
1. Your stress budget is the maximum level of stress that can be added to your system without it becoming counterproductive. Many athletes often continue piling on stress factors through intensity, volume, poor nutrition, and/or life logistics far past their acceptable budget. This undermines the super-compensation cycle and staggers progress due to improper rest and recovery. For the purposes of this article, the “stress budget” will refer only to systematic stress or physiological stress, the primary symptoms of which include out of balance hormone levels, abnormal blood work, and lack of immunity—all beacons of overtraining. We are not referring to peripheral system stress, which is typically experienced on a day-to-day basis, and presents itself as general fatigue (i.e. tired legs). Although these two types of stress can be closely linked, they are typically managed on very different levels. Stress of the peripheral system should be managed on the micro level, by ensuring that best effort workouts are immediately followed by recovery type workouts, allowing the body to restore and rebuild for the next key workout. Systematic stress, on the other hand, should be managed on the macro level, through a training plan that is designed around, and incorporates, an appropriate gradual increase of stress over time. Such training plans will typically include a “bird’s eye view” of your overall season or multi-year plan.
2. Your total stress budget is a function of the prior year’s acceptable stress level. Following a year of training and racing, you should have a pretty good sense of your acceptable stress budget, in terms of volume, intensity, and life logistics. This is the volume/intensity that you are able to turn over on a weekly basis without getting injured or burning out. I typically refer to this as “sustainable volume.” With this, you can make reasonable increases in stress when planning your coming season of training and racing. This, of course, assumes that your life logistics will remain consistent throughout the coming season. If you foresee a change in these logistics, then the appropriate compensation must also be made to your training stress in order to maintain a balanced stress budget. For example, if you’re planning on an increase in responsibility at work or an addition to your family, then you can’t expect to maintain the same level of training stress.
3. Your total stress budget can be increased or decreased based on your restoration techniques. Factors such as an increased amount of sleep, better nutrition, and frequent massage can significantly increase your total stress budget because they allow the body more time and means to recover from training. These factors can be looked at as an investment in your training; the dividends are increased recovery and an expanded total stress budget.
4. Your speed on race day is directly correlated to your acceptable stress budget. The higher that your acceptable stress budget is, the faster you will be, assuming that you fill it with a large percentage of training stress rather than life stress. An improved stress budget allows you to direct more stress towards sport-specific activities. At the end of the day, the athlete who most improves their stress budget, and then spends the majority of this budget on sport-specific preparation, will most develop their natural born talents. This is why professional athletes perform so well, as compared to age groupers. Professional athletes tend to be naturally gifted in the sport, but those who train on a full-time basis are able to minimize life stresses, as compared to those who maintain full-time jobs. This allows them to devote a great deal of time to the restorative process, expand their total stress budget, and then spend that additional budgetary time on further training.
5. There are more and less effective ways to spend your total stress budget. Once you’ve expanded your stress budget through gradual year-to-year stress increases, and executed perfect restoration, you can begin to realize how your overall budget has increased. If this newly expanded budget is spent on staying awake more than 16 hours each day, or further complicated life logistics, then athletic progress simply will not improve as it could.
The figure below illustrates the concept of total stress budget, with a few graphical examples. This figure assumes that all four athletes have the same total stress budget, as indicated along the y-axis:
Athlete #1: Most age group athletes training for the Ironman distance fall into this category. These athletes tend to be very driven in all aspects of their lives. They have lofty athletic goals, and equally lofty employment and family responsibilities. As a result, these athletes are often working well beyond their available stress budget, as they try to cram all of these priorities into their lives. This athlete is systematically burnt out, maybe injured, and certainly lacking long term progress. Unfortunately, this worst-case scenario is also the most common! These athletes would be best served to take a good, hard look at all of the factors pulling on them, and determine if any of these can be mitigated. Because work and family responsibilities tend to be unyielding it is often their training that must be reformulated. Initially, this can be a difficult pill to swallow, but will very likely improve training, racing, and frame of mind.
Athlete #2: With very high goals, but lacking appropriate levels of stress in their training, these are the second most common type of athlete. The progress of these athletes is actually being limited by too little training stress. These athletes will struggle to make real long-term progress because of the combination of low training stress levels and a somewhat high level of bad stressors. With significant stress budgets, which are being both under and incorrectly used, these athletes would train and perform better by incorporating greater training stress into their program and cutting back on the opposing factors in their lives.
Athlete #3: These athletes have some training stress and limited life/logistical stress, but underuse their total budget. These athletes are much more uncommon, but many times can be the shining gems out there with unrealized potential. These athletes typically do not have children, and have low-stress jobs. They are often unaware of the work that is required to make real long-term progress. Together with a good coach, these athletes should consider how to implement a greater amount of training stress into their program, so as to induce even greater progress. Already having the infrastructure needed to support the necessary restoration, staying within budget should be accomplished with ease. Again, these athletes are a rarity—if you find them as a coach, you have a great opportunity before you!
Athlete #4: With a large percentage of their stress budgeted towards training, and very limited “bad” stress factors, these athletes hit it perfectly. Excellent nutrition and restoration help to maintain or improve total stress budgets, and these athletes continue to take full advantage of that budget. This athletes excels beyond the rest, and over the long term makes real quantifiable progress.
Many athletes make the mistake of adding stress at the expense of restoration, which is like using gasoline to quell a fire. This increases the amount of the budget being used, while actually decreasing the budget itself, which can lead to a dangerous overdraw. These items are twice as dangerous, and include training at the sacrifice of sleep or poor nutrition during periods when great nutrition can be used. In these cases, opportunities to increase the budget are replaced with activities that both fill and reduce the available budget. Since these factors are twice as potent, the focus as an athlete should be to avoid these mistakes. As a result of my work with athletes over the past 10 years, I have found that about 70 percent of age groupers, training for long course triathlon, most closely relate to Athlete #1. About 15 percent are most similar to Athlete #2, 12 percent Athlete #3, and only 3 percent like Athlete #4. Based on what we have discussed above, it should be of no surprise that Athlete #4 most often qualifies for Kona. These athletes have spent three or more years properly expanding and utilizing their stress budgets, and are reaping the rewards. Among the Ironman pros, I estimate that about 80 percent fit into the Athlete #1 profile (with a much larger percentage of their stress the result of training) and about 18 percent into Athlete #4. Very few professional Iron-distand athletes fall under the Athlete #2 or #3 profiles, as they typically understand (and over estimate) the amount of hard work needed for success.
As you approach the 2011 season—eager to succeed and take on additional stress—I urge you to take a step back and consider the accounting. Keep in mind that the correct type of stress applied within the constraints of your total stress budget typically improves performance, while stress outside of it simply hampers progress. Make it your goal to become a #4 athlete! Don’t always act on what you want to do, since in most cases for triathletes, that want is the decision that breaks the budget. The redirection of wants is the real sacrifice in this sport; not the 6 hour rides everyone does in preparation for race day.
Jesse Kropelnicki is an elite/pro level triathlon coach who founded QT2 Systems, LLC; a leading provider of personal triathlon and run coaching, as well as TheCoreDiet.com a leading provider of sports nutrition. He is the triathlon coach of professional athletes Caitlin Snow, Dede Griesbauer, Ethan Brown, and Jacqui Gordon among others. His interests lie in coaching professional triathletes using quantitative training and nutrition protocols. You can track his other coaching ideas on his blog at www.kropelnicki.com.