Ask 220: Training non-responder

In our latest instalment of Ask 220 we take on a question around whether it’s possible to be a non-responder to training.

Dear 220,


I’ve been doing triathlons for six years. I don’t have a coach, partly because my club is on the other side of the city and partly because of a busy family and work life. However, I’ve digested lots of triathlon articles and have worked out a decent training regime for sprint and the occasional Olympic distance triathlon:


Monday – Interval sets in the pool or long run (12km).

Tuesday – Rest.

Wednesday – Interval sets in the pool (40mins, e.g 100 or 200m lactate threshold intervals with 15 or 20 seconds recovery).

Thursday – 8km run.

Friday – Speed run intervals, e.g 1km at above race pace, with recovery till HR 100 then repeat x 4-6 orFartlek – 5m intervals alternating between slow jog, race pace, and 3k pace.

(On a coach’s advice I try to keep my run cadence around 90)


The result? NO improvement! Even focussing on Fartlek/interval running for 6-8 weeks I have experienced zero change. You can set your watch by when I arrive at the finish line. I’m consistently in the bottom 30% for the swim and run, and around mid-pack on the bike. Am I a non-responder, and if so, what do I do about it? Take up chess? Is there a reliable genetic test for this? Or is there something magic a coach can do with me, above and beyond the training regime I’ve described?



While I am not a coach, not a day goes by where we do not assist in structuring, or restructuring, an athlete’s training program, to assist with their return from injury. This advice is based on nearly two decades as a physiotherapist managing injured triathletes, cyclists and runners and nearly three decades of being an endurance athlete. I could provide tips for tweaking your schedule but in all honesty I know nothing about you. This would in effect render any advice useless.

One thing is for sure – there is no such thing as a non-responder. The human body will adapt to the stresses it is placed under as long as that load is tolerable. The perfect combination of stress (intensity and duration of exercise) and recovery will allow the body to become stronger over time. That ideal ‘Goldilocks’ zone of exercise (not too much, not too little) is different for every athlete. This is why I will always have work to do as a physiotherapist: athletes are consistently training in excess of their body’s capacity to manage that load!

Without intending to sound harsh, writing a program on paper is simple. To give you credit, the program you have prepared does seem well structured, varied, and considers many of the requirements needed in a triathlete’s training diet. You’ve clearly done your research. However, there is a big difference between putting something together on paper, and preparing (and adjusting) a schedule to culminate in an athlete’s improvement in performance. This is the most vital element.

I am also impressed that you are considering your running cadence based on current evidence. That said, I recently read an article on Rory McIlroy’s golf swing and it hasn’t resulted in any improvement in my golf game. Having your running technique evaluated and addressed by a qualified running technique coach and having a professional bike fit, will both ensure that your running and riding are efficient and that your body can adapt to your training load.

With respect to structuring your week of training, ‘coaching’ is not simply the writing of a program. In fact, that is the easiest part of a coaching role (there are a heap of programs available on the internet). Instead it is the tailoring of a schedule to suit your individual needs that is the real science behind preparing an athlete for competition. This role can be as simple as talking to you and helping you to adjust your program because you are tired after working until midnight or sitting up with a sick child; or as complicated as reviewing your power data on Training Peaks and setting customised sessions focusing on addressing weaknesses in your power profile.

The two key points are:

  1. That a program is ‘customised’ to suit you and your demands (goal events, biomechanics, injury history, occupation, family demands, availability of time etc); and
  2. There is communication between you and an advisor to ensure that the program is flexible, and is working for you.

Our advice is that you do your research, interview your short-list and decide upon a learned advisor to make sure your training program suits your needs, gets you to the start line in one piece and helps you achieve the results you deserve.

Best wishes, Blair.

Blair Martin is a physiotherapist and founder of The Body Mechanic, a workshop dedicated to helping Sydney’s triathletes, cyclists and runners hit the start line in one piece.

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