“If I only knew then what I know now.”

How many times have we all said that at some point in our lives? I’ve been thinking about that a lot since Jason asked me to share some “secrets” to success in triathlon.

I originally decided to write about developing a willingness and ability to suffer, one of Jason’s and my favorite topics. It’s certainly heroic to think of ourselves as athletic warriors, impervious to discomfort or even outright pain. Carbon-armored gladiators. But a Spartan willingness to suffer without a framework for when and why it’s appropriate is precisely how you derail a training session, a race, or even a season.

So, let’s focus on training smart instead.

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Remember that TLC song, “Waterfalls”? You know the one, “Don’t go chasin’ waterfalls, please stick to the rivers and lakes that you’re used to.” Here’s the triathlon version: “Don’t go chasin’ pelotons, please stick to the training plan your coach gave to you.”

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I’ve wasted so much useless energy over the past few years chasing Strava trophies or even my own ego-driven insecurities. “Am I faster than him?” “Can I beat that time?” These are the wrong questions to ask yourself.

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All I did was tire myself out unnecessarily while failing to accomplish key training objectives that a coach whom I paid laid out for me. Speaking of, hire a coach! Especially if you’re a busy professional who happens to be results-driven. Why waste time trying to create the perfect training plan when someone can do it for you? (I’ve been a Fortius Coaching client since 2009.) That doesn’t mean you should tune out of your workouts, which I’ll get to later. The more feedback you share with your coach, the better he or she can craft workouts that help you improve.

Now on to the real secret to training smart. And it’s so basic! Develop a nutrition plan and get plenty of rest. Boring, right? I know. If I could go back in time, one of the first things I would do is see a sports nutritionist (I’m currently a client of Dr. Philip Goglia) to identify my metabolic type (protein-fat efficient, carbohydrate efficient, dual metabolism) and create a food plan that helps build lean muscle, lose extra fat, and enables a strong race-day nutrition strategy.

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You can train all you want, but if you don’t know how to fuel and if you’re not rested enough to perform to your peak . . . you might as well be cycling with a flat tire on your rear disc wheel.

Ah, equipment. What a perfect segue! I love it when that happens. There is so much confusion in the triathlon media, forums or social media about what to buy and why. Taking my personal time machine back about six years, I’d invest heavily in the following as my top priorities:

1) The best triathlon bike I can afford while still being able to purchase an expert bike fit, a power meter, and then a rear disc wheel. In that order. For the disc, you can rent one on race day as a potential cost-saving move.

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2) A sports watch that can read swim, bike, and run data. I’ve used the Garmin 310, 910XT, and soon I’ll be the proud owner of a Garmin 920XT. Cannot. Wait.

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I monitor all kinds of data every workout, but it’s important to caution that you can get lost in the info too. A good coach will tell you when to unplug and just swim-bike-run for the fun of it.

Sure, there are lots of other things you can and should purchase. A great wetsuit immediately comes to mind.

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But start with the highest priorities first and you’ll be in a better position to improve as a triathlete.

My final “secret” to smarter training is to focus on improving the second most-important organ in your body besides your heart: Your brain. I train my brain in every single workout.

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That means I constantly observe what’s happening in my body during an interval, or if my mind is wandering, or why my legs are screaming at me to stop during a hard run session. The more scenarios I encounter and process mentally during a workout, the more experience I’ve accumulated. In the world of videogames, where I work for a games developer, that’s called “XP,” and in certain games that XP helps you become physically stronger. It’s no different on the race course. You will encounter so many unexpected challenges during a race that you may not have trained for, but if you learn how to remain calm under pressure, draw from your XP stores and adjust your tactics, faster races will follow.

If I only knew then what I know now . . . .

Ryan Schneider is a six-time Ironman finisher and a member of the Wattie Ink Elite Team. When he’s not marketing video games for Insomniac Games as its brand development director, Ryan writes for Ironman.com and Lava Magazine Online. He occasionally blogs too at http://ironmadman.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @theironmadman.

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