Lots of weird happenings in the sporting world recently, from a former time trial specialist winning a mountainous Giro, to a young girl running a blazing world time in the steeplechase despite stopping to tie her shoe, to a near-Masters athlete posting the fastest Ironman time ever. In this video, we talk about all this and more.
Do Psychological Breakthroughs in Sport Really Exist?
I read an interesting article by Steve Magness earlier this week. Through stats and based on other world events of the era, Magness uses Roger Bannister’s breaking of the 4-minute mile to debunk the long-held belief that this was some sort of magical barrier held in place by a strong psychological “It can’t be done” mentality. It’s an insightful read I highly recommend, so I won’t ruin it here, but I will highlight just a couple examples of what Magness conveys.
The first is that WWII created a huge vacuum in performances (in this case, on the track). Not only was most of the world at war, but men who would normally be training and racing were instead focused on the war effort. Some number of athletes lost their lives or never returned to running post-war. The second is that no such psychological barrier appeared to exist for events that resulted in odd timing thresholds. For example, did anyone view 3:43 for the 1,500m as a performance barrier (3:43 is very similar to running 4:00 for the mile)? Apparently not.
Give the article a read. Cool stuff.
In any case, it made me think back to my own athletic career. I was a competitive swimmer from age 5 through college. Swimming, like running, is a very objective, timed sport. But, unlike running, there is no holding back in swimming. Swimmers don’t swim just fast enough to win their events like what occurs in many non-sprint running events. While running (again, non-sprints) is about tactics and, more often than not, doing just enough to win the event, swimming is all about guns blazing and pedal-to-the-metal from the gun to the finish. Swimming is all about going faster and faster every time a swimmer enters the water.
There are definitive barriers in swimming events. Here are just a few examples I kept in mind in my early-teens (in minutes):
While these are just a few, look at how clean they are! Growing up, I looked at a notorious time barrier in my events and thought, “I’m going to crush that.” Barriers at different ages were goals not deterrents. Those times were things I and my fellow swimmers strove to smash, not things from which we shied or feared. What we tended to shy away from was the daily bashings it took to achieve our goals. For once we set goals and strove to achieve them, the sport stopped being fun. I still enjoyed swimming, otherwise I would not have competed for as long as I did or gotten up at the ass crack of dawn year round. But the “fun factor” evaporated at a young age. Top-level sport is a grind.
The reason, I think, that the 4-minute mile became romanticized and glorified is because it is one of the few events that has had a very even and neat barrier. Four minutes is very clean and easy to rationalize. Dipping below the “00” is a definitive mark that’s easy to quantify. So is 10 seconds for the 100m dash (for men). And, the world, especially Europe, needed something to support, something about which to get excited. How better to inject patriotism and a renewed sense of hope and optimism into a people than through an athlete striving to accomplish something that as yet had never been achieved? Who wouldn’t rally around that?
We’ve been programmed to buy-in to the concept of “breaking through” … something. If we’re not shattering preconceived notions of barriers, then we’re admitting we’re ordinary creatures. That we are less awesome and valuable than the pedestal on which we place the human race and its capacity for greatness. The 4-minute barrier as a standalone metric is really nothing inherently special. Don’t get me wrong, anyone who can break four minutes for a mile is a very, very fast runner. But not mythical. And, it stands to reason that athletes who break certain times that society or the media or some other faction imposes as a barrier upon a certain measured distance of competition in a given sport, look upon those times not as barriers but rather as goals of achievement. It is these goals that get said athletes out of bed day after day after day to subject themselves to endless hours of gluttonous punishment.
Achievement. Because all of the blood, sweat and tears that athletes pore into their sports have to amount to something. Otherwise, why the heck do we subject ourselves to all the punishment? For fun?
Sometimes life throws barriers up in our way that we run smack into. We fall down and maybe at first we can pick ourselves right back up. But sometimes we can't, or it seems like too much effort to even try. Sometimes we come roaring out of the gate at the beginning of the racing season with great excitement and anticipation, but that motivation starts to wane as Summer approaches, just as we are reaching the heart of the racing season. So, how do we stay motivated when things start going south?
The hit to motivation might be due to repeated or prolonged sicknesses that derail our training. Or perhaps our jobs take up too much time and energy, so that the last thing we feel like doing is training. Or maybe you're hit with an injury, or you're hitting some speed bumps in your personal life. Maybe the types of races that are on the calendar just don't appeal to you for various reasons. How do we handle all of this?
First, don't let the wheels come off. While it might seem that all is lost, don't believe it for a second. It is easy to fall off the edge and into the abyss of depression about your waning motivation, your inability to train/race, or what have you. We are used to pushing ourselves hard and training day in/day out. So, when this freedom is taken away from us (injury or sickness) or we become ambivalent to the process (lack of motivation to train or race), it's hard not to let it get us down. The best thing you can do here is focus on what you CAN do and WANT to do rather than what you can't do or don't want to do.
Let's say you're a cyclist, but an injury is keeping you from biking. You have a choice to make—and believe me, you always have a choice. You can either:
1. Do nothing since you cannot do your primary sport. This is what starts you down the slippery slope of losing motivation, getting depressed, gaining weight, etc., or
2. You can find a way to maintain your fitness or at least minimize the loss of fitness so that when you are back on the bike, you are ready to get back at it. This approach can leave you excited to finally get back on the bike.
The second option minimally disrupts your day-to- day routine, so you won't feel like you're floating in space. Instead of cycling, you can try swimming, water running, StairMaster, elliptical trainer, or rowing machine . . . anything that does not aggravate the injury further. Doing something, even at a very baseline, recovery level of effort, is better than doing nothing. Any of the above examples are great ways to keep the heart pumping and your fitness growing. And, since you would be exercising in a way you are unaccustomed to, when you get back to cycling you might find your fitness is actually better than before. The short rest from cycling and the use of your body in a completely different way can help to rejuvenate you and build you up in new ways, effectively making you stronger all-around.
This is just one simple example. Another example can be when you're just "not feelin' it" for working out. Getting up at 0-dark-30 another day makes you want to puke, or instead of hitting the gym after work you just want to go home and enjoy your family. All of this is natural! We need to keep in mind that "fun" and "enjoyment" are two different things. Working out long or hard is not fun. Yet, we derive enjoyment from the challenges otherwise we wouldn't be doing what we're doing, right? If the enjoyment isn't there, your body is telling you that you need a break -- for whatever reason. That break could last a day or a week or longer. But, better to honor what your body is trying to tell you than to fight it.
As athletes, we are creatures of habit. We are used to juggling many responsibilities and being in certain places at certain times. Our training, work, and family require this so that we can properly attend to each facet of our lives appropriately. When one of these facets falls out of whack, it can send our entire lives into tailspins.... if we allow that to happen. But we don't have to! We CAN stay in control.
And that's the crux of it all.
As I stated earlier, we always have a choice to make. If you end up gaining 10-20 pounds while you are nursing an injury, you have to ask yourself whether it is because the injury completely took you out (like getting hit by a car while biking) or if you simply decided to wallow in the misery that can accompany a niggling injury (such as an Achilles tendon strain or patellar tendonitis). In the former case, there is nothing you can do about your inactivity. Yes, you can fight to rehab ASAP, but the road to recovery is long. So, your motivation should be to get back in the saddle more quickly than any doctor tells you is possible. In the latter example, your blinders and lack of flexibility are what is keeping you from looking at alternatives to stay fit.
Each of us hits both expected and unexpected roadblocks along the road of fitness improvement. This is what makes us human. We're not automatons. It is how we handle these roadblocks—emotionally, mentally, physically—that will help shape the athletes we are and the athletes we are becoming.
And, as we get older, staying motivated becomes even more challenging. On one side, we like the challenge of beating Father Time. On the other side, it's an exhausting battle.
If you find yourself lacking motivation, whatever the reason, take a step back and take off your "I'm an athlete" hat. Set it aside. Look at what's causing the friction and address it. Be objective and be honest with yourself. And most importantly, avoid judging yourself. Avoid connecting a sense of self-worth to how hard or how often or how much you train and race. If your body and/or mind are telling you to take a break, take a break. It's perfectly fine. If you're struggling with just one workout because you're having a bad day or you slept like crap the night before, skip the workout. What's the worst that can happen? You will have more energy for the next day's workout(s). Man, that would suck, wouldn't it?
I'll close by saying this. Rome wasn't built in a day; and neither was your fitness. Some downtime will not torpedo your fitness. And, if you find a protracted break is needed for whatever reason, you will gain your fitness back more quickly than you think.
As a former collegiate swimmer and top Olympic Distance pro triathlete, I frequently get asked by frustrated triathletes “How can I get faster at swimming?” The stories are fairly consistent – these athletes feel they put a lot of time into churning out laps in the pool – either alone or with a Masters team, or both – yet feel the reward never matches the investment of time.
The rub with swimming is that it can be the most time-intensive sport from a training perspective, but it also is the most time-intensive from an investment perspective. Very few of us has a pool in our yards or a flume in our basement, so to work out we generally have to drive to the pool and at some of the worst hours of the day – either at 0-dark-30 in the wee hours of the morning or after work in the evening when all we want to do is go home and start relaxing.
Triathletes who are top swimmers typically swam from an early age through high school and even through college. As a pure swimmer from age 5 – 21, I can tell you that as early as age 6, I was swimming twice a day in the summers, 6 days a week. And, in high school, the double workouts extended another 3 months into the high school season. Some ghastly workouts I can recall are things like 10x200m butterfly at age 11; countless 5km straight for time; 10x400IM in college; you get the picture. During weeks of double sessions, we would consistently put in 70-100km per week. In other words, as much as many runners. All this volume led to unparalleled cardiovascular fitness and stroke efficiencies that 10km per week across 3 swim workouts simply cannot touch. Swimmers’ strokes rarely breakdown the way triathletes’ strokes will because pure swimmers can handle a lot more volume and load whereas triathletes will tend to tighten up and their technique will fall apart due to the onset of fatigue and lactate build up.
So, while I could tell you that putting more time in the pool can be a surefire way to improve, that’s not what I’m going to say here. Instead, let’s answer the REAL question being asked by triathletes frustrated with their lack of swim progress, which is this: “How can I get faster at swimming without putting any more pool time?”
One nearly guaranteed way is to take your distance sets of 2,000-4,000 yards or meters and break them up into smaller increments. Rather than doing, say, 5x400 at Ironman target pace, complete 20x100 or 40x50. By shortening up the length of the reps, you will better preserve your technique and hold your stroke longer. This helps you practice better form for longer, creating positive muscle memory. With reps of shorter length comes shorter rest intervals, so there is little negative impact to the cardiovascular benefits that are typically reserved for the super long workouts or straight swims. Now, long reps have their place, too. I’m not suggesting you never do them. But, think of them as strength sessions best used in the Winter. For the above example of 5x400, put the pull buoy between your legs and paddles on your hands to create more load on the upper body. Focus on the stroke and technique rather than speed – save that for when your rep length shortens and you need to be more metronomic with both your stroke and speed.
The workout needs to be at least 45 minutes in length without extended breaks to elicit a nice cardiovascular boost. Even better, the main set needs to be this long. Not of every workout, but certainly of your key workouts and at least once per week. Twice would be better, especially in your final run-up to your key race(s).
Another way is to remain focused when you’re in the pool. It never ceases to amaze me just how inefficiently Masters workouts are generally run. There is so much time wasted standing at the side of the pool, or socializing before jumping in to start a workout, or during kick sets, and so on. Directly out of college, I coached high school girls and boys swimming for 3 years. I broke my teams into various squads based on skill, stroke specialty, and distance vs middle distance vs sprint depending on what the focus was for the day’s workout. I calculated sets so that each group would end its set at almost precisely the same time as every other group so that we could move forward through the workout together and minimize all the wasted time. It worked to great effect.
Making the above adjustments will most definitely pay dividends in your swim training without making you train any longer or more frequently. By being more focused, you will get more out of the time you do put into the pool and, I reckon, you will swim faster come your key races.
World-class marathoners have an average HR of 94% of their Lactate Thresholds (NOT of Max HR). Obviously, their Heart Rates do not start at this level. Rather, they choose a pace they can hold for the entire 26.2 miles or a pace that allows them to complete the second half slightly faster than the first. Throughout the race, as they fatigue and possibly speed up, the HR rises naturally. This cardiac drift accounts for such a high average HR over the course of an event that lasts just over 2 hours. If you were to try to hold this level of effort for a half-Ironman – like many athletes try to – your race will either come to a premature end or result in a disappointing finish time. No matter how fast or slow you will finish your half-Ironman, the majority of your race should be spend in an aerobic state. In other words, below 78% of your Max HR.
While the swim in a half-Ironman is insignificantly longer than the swim in an Olympic Distance race – 1.2 miles versus 1 mile – your strategy should be quite different. After all, you will be racing approximately twice as long. The sense of urgency you feel in an Olympic Distance race should be toned down or absent during a half-Ironman race.
When the gun goes off, you can sprint the first couple of hundred meters until the pecking order is established, but your goal should be to find your place in the drafting line as quickly as possible. This will help you minimize the time you spend in an anaerobic state and translate into more energy and speed saved for later in the race. Once you settle in, your HR should be somewhere in the 65-78% range. If you are comfortably drafting behind someone and feel like you're going along at warm up speed, that's fine. You can either stay put and channel that extra energy into the bike, or you can try to break out and move up a few places in line (or bridge the gap to the next pack of swimmers). But use caution here. It is all too easy to expend too much energy during the swim. A couple more hours into the race, this can come back to bite you in the rear end. You should exit the water feeling slightly winded but like you could also hold that effort for another 1.2 miles. If you're as tired as you are after an Olympic Distance swim leg, you swam too hard.
As you transition to your bike, take the time to keep your HR under control. Losing a few seconds here will not alter the outcome of your overall race. Poise and patience pay off. Be aggressive, but do so within the context of the race ahead that still remains.
The Bike Leg
The bike leg of a half-Ironman lasts longer than the time it takes to complete an entire Olympic Distance race. If you are able to hold a steady pace, then you should pick a level of effort that allows your HR to start out in the 65-78% range and gradually drift up into the 76-86% range. From a power perspective, you're looking at building through a range of 70-85% of FTP. You will read some suggestions that you can go up to and even above 90% FTP. I caution against this because it is very easy to overshoot your effort early on when you're fresh and feeling strong. Better to start in control and conservatively, then be able to speed up and either even split or negative split the bike leg. Start out too strong, and you will be slowing down, thus sending your race in the wrong direction results-wise.
How long you spend above 78% HR or the upper region of the suggested power zone completely depends on how long your race is going to last. Remember, once you tip the balance toward an anaerobic effort – something above 78% - you start to quickly limit the time you can effectively compete at that level of effort. With the run looming ahead, you don't want to expend too much energy on the bike. When you think you have about 2 hours left to race, you can fully be above 78% HR and not worry about negatively impacting your results given you are fueling and rehydrating properly.
Keep your cadence at 90-100rpm. One pitfall athletes fall into is spinning too slowly given the lower level of effort. This only serves to deaden the legs and rob them of energy you'll need on the run. Similarly, if the course is hilly, you should try to spin at 85+rpm on any hills and make sure you keep your HR under control. Sharp spikes in HR can cause massive amounts of lactate to flood the muscles and derail any chance you might have of a solid performance. Likewise, be sure to pedal on the down hills. This helps keep things flowing through the muscles and keeps them fresher than if you simply coasted downhill.
As you near the transition area, shift into an easier gear and spin a little higher of an RPM for the last few miles. This will further help your legs prepare for the run. You won't lose much time (if any) and you'll be better primed for a solid run. Your HR should drop a little bit, which will serve as a brief rest before you dismount. As in the first transition, take your time here. You're about to run a half-marathon, so take the time you need – whether it be seconds or minutes – to properly collect yourself, take a mental inventory of how you're feeling, to squeeze a gel into your mouth or take some sips of a drink, etc. Get your running shoes on and head on out!
The Run Leg
Your legs will probably feel somewhat heavy, since by now you've been racing for the better part of 3 hours or more. Be patient and let your muscles stretch out over the first mile. Let your stride lengthen naturally and, before you know it, you'll fall into a comfortable rhythm. At this point, you'll probably have 90+ minutes left of racing. Given this, you should start the run in the 70-78% range until such time as you've taken inventory of how you're feeling. Once you've got roughly 90 minutes of running left, then head right into the 76-86% range. Don't jack your HR up to the top of the zone, a recipe for disaster. Build up your effort and let your HR gradually rise. Fall into a rhythm and pace that situates you in the middle of the zone – in the high 70s to low 80s of Max HR. On any up hills, gear down your effort to keep your HR under control. As with the bike, you want to avoid sudden, major spikes in your HR to avoid excessive lactate production.
When you feel you've got about 30 minutes left to race, if you're feeling strong, you can turn it up a notch and hit the 84-92% range. If you were running fresh, you could hold this level of effort for about an hour. But since you've been racing for at least 3.5 hours at this point, you're already tired and you're already pretty depleted. Best not to be too aggressive too early. Again, gradually build up your speed to enter this higher HR range. Hold steady and kick it in to the finish.
Your level of effort during a half-Ironman should be thought of as stair steps. You are doling out your effort and gradually raising your HR so you don't overdo it too early in the race. You can always speed up if you have extra energy left. However, if you burn your engine too early, the only thing you'll be doing is slowing down.
Nike's Breaking2 project just happened. The goal was to create the perfect environment in which a top male marathoner could break the vaunted 2-hour mark. Despite none of the 3 runners succeeding, can this even be considered a success itself or was it just a PR stunt for Nike to sell more shoes?