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Dial Back the Intensity During COVID-19

BY Philip Hatzis

Struggling with an athlete who is itching to train hard? Here's how to convince them to dial it back and reallocate their focus & energy.

At this time of year, we (in the Northern Hemisphere) are usually looking at racing, building fitness, attending training camps and riding outdoors in short sleeves! 

2020 is proving to be a slightly different year. 

The science is particularly clear: maintain fitness, don’t build or extend it[1]. There are some papers[2] from Bath University, UK indicating that intensive exercise does not seem to lead to a higher chance of infection itself. However, it does not acknowledge why, after intensive exercise, upper respiratory tract infections are more common. In other words: now is not the time to push, race, test, extend, or otherwise. The science doesn’t support you, and you would be negligent to suggest anything else[3]

From a coaching perspective, life is straightforward: keep training within the athlete’s ability, avoid high-intensity efforts for long durations, keep them healthy and use this time to work on the limiters. 

Maintain fitness, don’t build it.

It is crucial to recognize that for many athletes, always feeling slightly fatigued is ‘normal.’ So this new energized self they are experiencing feels overly fresh. As a result, they may want to train more in order to feel the fatigue of working hard. This is the opposite of what they need to do, as this is a chance for them to really reset. They can work on the other half of their performance equation – the recovery part – which is often neglected, as it doesn’t hold the same bragging rights. 

At a time of significant stressors; COVID-19 and the lack of security of jobs, family support, health and races, we must recognize the mental health support our athletes need. If possible, you should limit additional stress caused by training so as to protect them from further compounding, existent life stress.

For the highly-focused athlete, with arguably more time on their hands, this does not seem so simple. They want to go out and do more. There is a noticeable difference between professional athletes (who, for the most part, are taking things slower) and age-groupers who are suddenly boasting about everesting, colossal mileage and training all the time.

Weirdly, age-groupers, on the whole, seem to be doing more training, are more enthusiastic and are risking more, but for what? When you boil it down, it’s mostly for external validation of their ego and the dangerous social media brag – having extra time to sleep or work on functional movement doesn’t entice shares, likes or follows. 

How do you deal with this overly enthusiastic athlete?

Social pressure means that the athlete is likely to be (mis)guided into normalizing extra, more difficult training. How do you manage that?

There is an excellent TED Talk which highlights how, if people aren’t listening to your idea, either what you are saying is illogical, or how you are saying it, isn’t clear. Given that the science is reasonably conclusive, if we are working with an overly-enthusiastic athlete at this moment in time, we have to review the communication piece. 

You cannot overcome this by an authoritarian approach. You can only change the athlete’s mindset through empathy and questioning. The role you have to play as a coach is to understand their perspective and try and understand why they ‘need’ to obtain external validation of their ego. This is critical as it isn’t solely a COVID-19 problem. This ‘need to train’ above and beyond maintaining their fitness demonstrates an unhealthy relationship with sport.

A mature athlete’s approach, (as shown by the countless pros who are taking a step back,) is one where the athlete can take their foot off the accelerator and still lead a healthy and fulfilled life. Regardless of the global pandemic, there will be a time in the future where this athlete will not be able to train (injury is usually the most common). When they get to that point, the athlete who has grown through the COVID-19 experience will be in a better position to balance this misfortune and become stronger again. 

This could be an excellent opportunity for an athlete to improve their athletic potential. How can you help them realize this? Inevitably athletes believe that the top professionals do loads of training. Therefore, to get better, they assume they need to do more training as well. However, they only see that ‘more’ output.

Media footage or coverage of ‘A day in the life of a pro’ rarely focuses the time spent doing prehab, rest and recovery. They focus on the big sessions, the hard workouts and the headline efforts. The process to get to that point (safely) is to do the small (usually skipped) parts of training, in order to become robust enough to do the hard training consistently. To use the Long Term Athlete Development Programme’s descriptions: an athlete needs to train themselves to be in a position to train. Professionals are a lot further along this continuum than most amateur athletes.

In our experience, most age-group athletes can train enough to perform to a reasonable level. Still, very few put in the time to work on their limiters and deliver what they are truly capable of. With the race calendar falling apart, there is a reduced need to train on anything but their limiters.

Work on the injuries and niggles that consistently appear. Improve their strength and conditioning. Help them learn to love the turbo and holding aero position. Guide them towards stretching more… the list goes on. There are so many areas of improvement that many athletes can do without over-enthusiastically stepping outside the safety guidelines. Given this gift of time, the wise athlete should use it to become better and recognize that the fitness will come. 

The athlete still won’t listen

You must always coach within your own set of values and coaching philosophy. A coach should never feel bullied or pressured to submit to an athlete’s approach. You have to be prepared to let the athlete go. 

Now coaches must look after their own resilience and mental health as well as that of their athletes. If this athlete is not willing to listen or learn, then it might be time to let them go. Nothing is worth sacrificing your own mental health, and they likely have already eaten into your profits when you’ve spent so much time on them! 

By canceling their coaching contract, you will live true to your values, and you are more likely to end up with a stronger community of athletes consistent with your philosophy. Fundamentally, coaching is all about trust. If your athlete doesn’t listen or doesn’t trust you, then you haven’t really got a coaching relationship. So why worry about it anymore?

If this athlete ends up being overly enthusiastic about everything they do and pushing beyond what you feel is safe, your other athletes will start questioning why they can’t do the same. Focus on the ones that believe in you, and you will get more rewarding results.

Act transparently, and in a way that you can look back on with pride

The current situation is clearly unpreceded. However, your reaction should be consistent with any other scenario like this. You should act in the best interest of the athlete while staying true to your values. You should empathize with the athlete’s perspective, but not end up sacrificing your view-points just to keep a client. 

At any time of crisis or stress, communication goes a long way to prevent problems arising. Keep communication channels with your athletes open and let them know you are available. Everyone is in this situation together, and no one has all the answers, so work within guidelines and look after yourself so you can do your bit and help others. Remember to reach out to other coaches and mentors – you will be surprised at how much those conversations can help.


[1] Nadia H. Agha  Satish K. Mehta  Bridgette V. Rooney  Mitzi S. Laughlin  Melissa M. Markofski  Duane L. Pierson  Emmanuel Katsanis  Brian E. Crucian  Richard J. Simpson Exercise as a countermeasure for latent viral reactivation during long duration space flight Volume34, Issue2 February 2020 Pages 2869-2881

[2] Turner J, Campbell, J Debunking the Myth of Exercise-Induced Immune Suppression: Redefining the Impact of Exercise on Immunological Health Across the Lifespan, Department for Health, University of Bath, Bath, United Kingdom

[3] https://tritrainingharder.com/blog/2020/3/exercise-and-its-effects-on-our-immunity

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About Philip Hatzis

Philip Hatzis is the founder and head coach of Tri Training Harder, a UK based coaching company with a base in Portugal. Tri Training Harder believes in preparing athletes for their extraordinary dreams by empowered, highly-skilled coaching. Tri Training Harder helps to put passionate coaches in front of motivated athletes. Receive training and racing tips by following Tri Training Harder on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.