Keep it simple if you want to improve

Last week I posted one of my favourite quotes on my social media:

If you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t understand it well enough
— Einstein

Improvement in triathlon, as with many things in life is driven by education. This is one of my main roles as a coach and the way I have always approached my progression as an athlete. I figured out early in my teaching career that its entirely possible to complete something without any real learning or education taking place, often with the goal not being achieved. Off the back of last weeks post on social media I received a lot of messages and had a lot of conversations with athletes in my community about the power of this idea and how to make things simple.

The simplicity of this quote and it’s message is mirrored by the approach you should be attempting to make when you swim/bike/run, here’s how I broke it down:

When I speak to athletes about simplifying training sessions to achieve a goal I describe 3 different types of athletes:

  1. The athlete who sees the description of the training session, does it and turns the Training Peaks box green.

  2. The second athlete who sees the description of the training session, thinks about all the things they have ever read about triathlon, things coaches have told them, ignores it and focuses on timing/km’s and pressing their watch a LOT, then turns the Training Peaks box green.

  3. The third athlete who sees the intent of the training session, constructs one or two ideas to help them (individually) move towards the session goal, then turns the Training Peaks box green.

All athletes in this instance have varied levels of simplification, then complete the session, but only one has understood anything. The third athlete simplified their route to the outcome by reviewing the goal and keeping themselves on track with a couple of cues. To get to this point you have to educate yourself as athlete (with or without the assistance of a coach) and appreciate how to simplify processes to achieve an outcome, appreciating that sometimes you might also fail. BUT in the first 2 instances above, have those athletes really achieved OR just completed?

When you train almost everything you do, regardless of the setting is driven by your own choices and actions, even if your coach or other athletes are present. Seek understanding and everything should become easier.


Practical Example:

Swimming is undoubtedly the most technical of the 3 disciplines in triathlon, but most athletes don’t understand what they need to improve or what to focus on to improve it. This often results in a few things:

  • Thinking about too many things.

  • Not knowing how those ‘things’ can be improved.

  • Forgetting about everything and trying to swim fast, keep up with others or survive.

  • The intent or goal of the session is lost.

Sound familiar?

Imagine your coach sets you a pretty standard endurance pyramid swim workout with different paced intervals :-

2x [400m @70%, 300m @80%, 200m @85%, 100m @90%] - I would guess that a lot of triathletes would see this and complete this workout with about 3-5s/100m average difference for the whole set. I’m no mathematician but a 20% differential in pace should give you a greater range. If not then why don’t you just swim the whole thing at 80%?

But as a coach the more important thing is that I want the athlete to do more than that. I want them to:

  • Identify that there should be a greater pace differential and what pace to begin at.

  • Identify 2 things they do with their swim stroke to assist in changing their pace as they progress in the set.

  • Give themselves 2 cues to help keep their stroke stay on track as they progress their pace.

The outcome is more likely to be achieved! Even if it isn’t, learning should have occurred.

So what’s the point?

If you can’t simplify things in a process like this either as an athlete or coach, then there probably needs to be some greater understanding around how to achieve the goal - and that’s ok. We should all be looking to constantly learn more or find better ways to improve. Maybe think about this the next time you do a swim/bike/run workout.