Several hot topics which deserve some time and attention.
It is pretty clear that most athletes strive for perfection. They look for better ways to train, to eat, to fuel, to sleep — anything that can improve race day performance is addressed. Every rock is turned over. And, this makes sense. Athletes have to care about what they are doing in order to strive to be the best they can be.
The challenge is when striving for perfection leads to a rigidity in life, an unrealistic view of where things stand and a highly critical nature where any misstep is viewed as catastrophic, where any slight deviation from the Master Plan makes the athlete become fraught with guilt.
Striving to be your best is a great attribute when properly honed and channeled. Perfectionism typically falls into one of two buckets. The first step is determining what type of perfectionist you are.
The first type is perfectionism is externally-imposed. What this means is that athletes see others — coaches, peers, friends, parents, etc. — are exerting the pressure upon them to be perfect. These types of perfectionists feel that an incredibly high standard of performance must be met in order to feel valued and appreciated by other people. The pressure is to work toward extremely difficult goals in order to please others and have them feel proud of you, because this is the only way to affirm you are on the path to achieving high standards of excellence.
The second type of perfectionism is self-imposed perfectionism. This type of perfectionism is defined by athletes who set their own high standards for performance, against which they evaluate and judge themselves. Striving toward these high standards and their perceived importance in order to attain perfection is central this type of perfectionism. If tempered and kept to a healthy dose, this can be a positive attribute to have.
With externally-imposed perfectionism, the risk is that athletes never feel like they measure up, that no matter what they do or how they perform, it’s never good enough. This can lead to ‘choking’ in competition because athletes can get paralyzed by worrying too much about the expectations and outcomes. Pressure from others — real or simply perceived by the athletes — will lead athletes to becoming frustrated or pissed off when mistakes are made. Burnout occurs more frequently with this type of perfectionism as well, because athletes are dealing with their own expectations as well as those of others (again, real or perceived). This leaves athletes feeling like they can never please those around them; even words of encouragement can be dismissed and cast aside.
Self-imposed perfectionism tends to allow for a healthier mindset in athletes. When athletes create high expectations for themselves, they are in control of those expectations — setting them and adjusting them — which allows for less anxiety when thinking about them and striving to achieve them. There is typically a higher level of motivation and balanced mindset. Yes, falling short of expectations or goals is disappointing. But, athletes can typically have a heart-to-heart with themselves and tell themselves they did everything they could to achieve whatever the outcome. So, while disappointment can still be experienced, athletes who deal with self-imposed perfectionism tend to use that as motivation to prepare better for the next competition.
Some athletes will say, “Well, I fall into both types. So, what do I make of this?” The key is to determine which of the two perfectionisms is primary and guides your athletic journey. By identifying which type is primary, you can better cope with the associated emotions and feelings which are elicited, so you can minimize the influences that detract from your enjoyment and performances, and maximize the motivational aspects of striving for perfection.
If you seek improvement, then it is fair to assume you possess some perfectionist tendencies. Understanding what these tendencies are and how you react to them will help you better cope with unrealistic expectations and any disappointments you will surely experience during your athletic endeavors. At the end of the day, you should derive enjoyment from the process of self-improvement, whether your goal is to complete your first race or become world champion. Fundamentally, the journey should be the same, regardless of the stakes.
The off-season. For some athletes it is already upon us; for others, it is imminently approaching.
Some approach it with disdain while others look forward to it thoroughly. I find a lot of how athletes approach the off-season is dependent on a few factors. First, how well did you race? If you raced well, then the off-season is viewed as a reward for a job well done. If you raced below expectations, then the off-season is a purgatory that leaves you between seasons and you can’t wait to get the hell out of it. Second, how long was your race season? Racing takes a lot of mental and emotional energy, way more than training, so if you raced during most of the calendar or raced often (or both), you’re probably mentally and emotionally crispy on top of any physical staleness you may surely feel. Third, how brutal was your last off-season? Were you socked in with terrible weather and, thus, had to train indoors more than usual, or did you try some new things in training in an attempt to up your game, and those things left you a bit ragged some the Spring. Regardless, at some point each of us turns our attention away from what has been and starts to focus on what will be.
“Off-season” is the accepted terminology, yet it’s not my favorite description of the time spent between racing seasons. “Off-season” intones that it’s time to take it easy. In some cases, this is true. In others, it’s time to focus on foundational hard work that tends to fall by the wayside once the racing season is upon us. To me, the off-season is that short period of time after an athlete’s final race when he/she pulls the ripcord and takes a few weeks of down time – time completely away from the primary sport. No training allowed. Sleep more, be lazy, complete some overdue projects around the house. Any physical activity is deemed fun rather than a workout, because this is the time to recharge the physical, mental and emotional batteries. This is a critical point in time that should last no fewer than 2 weeks and could last as many as 4-6. Be honest with yourself in terms of where your head is at and trust your gut, not your guilt. Your body will let you know when it’s champing at the bit and ready to go at it again. Honor this. Because the whole point is to get away from daily structure and rules and limitations. Be freer!
This time away from training is also a great opportunity to review your previous year’s training plan – What worked well? What kinda worked? What didn’t work at all? What have you learned over the past months that you want to incorporate into your upcoming year’s training and how will you do it? What are your high-level goals for next year and how will those impact your training? As an innovator, this is arguably my favorite time of the year because I get to wipe the slate clean and start building my master plan from scratch.
So, what happens once you’re done with you off-season down time and ready to get back at it? I find “preparation” to be a better catch-all term for that time between racing seasons, because once we start training again, it’s all geared toward preparing for the following racing season, right? You’re no longer taking time off; you may or may not race (for example, a snowshoe race in the mountains as a fun, low-stress diversion from a long ride or run in cold weather); and you’re most definitely working hard (right???). You are absolutely preparing your mind, body and soul for the rigors of the next racing season and also laying the foundation for achieving your goals for the upcoming season.
As I state above, you want to be champing at the bit to start your training again. Don’t force it. If you’re forcing it, your mind is telling you that your body’s not ready yet. Better to extend the down time an extra couple weeks and allow yourself to be in the right frame of mind. Once you start working out again, spend the first 2-4 weeks gradually ramping things up again. Increase workout frequency first, then worry about duration and lastly worry about intensity. This first prep period provides you a perfect opportunity to get back to strength training, too. Especially as we get older and into our Masters years, strength training takes on a more important role in our training regimen.
Lastly, the more time we have between the end of one racing season and the beginning of the next, the more careful we need to be. There’s a difference between being strong in January and being race ready. We want to avoid being race ready during the period of the year with the least amount of daylight. Use the extra prep time to really work on your aerobic engine. Becoming more efficient at L2 (or Zone 2) will serve you well and is foundational to going faster for longer in your races. This doesn’t mean you avoid interval work, but the percentage of your volume spent doing intervals should be lower than when you are trying to sharpen up for actual racing.
Before you know it, we will be into next year and our first races will be right around the corner. Ideal preparation begins with honoring all of your hard work from this year before you start cracking the whip again as you prepare for next year.
Given you can race a 70.3 or 140.6 year round, this article is timely regardless of the time of year. In some respects, successfully completing a long-distance triathlon is simply an equation of “putting in the time” so that you can ensure, barring an unfortunate situation, you will be able to cross the finish line. But, in my 25 years of coaching endurance athletes of all walks of life, I’ve seen plenty of athletes – those whom I coach as well as many whom I do not – torpedo a goal due to what boils down to a very small number of errors. And, these mistakes are all ones that could otherwise be avoided. Maybe you have made some (or all) of these yourself!
So, here is that short list of avoidable mistakes.
Too Much Training
If some moderate amount of volume and long workouts are good, then more of either -- or both! --should be even better, right? Right! Wrong.
Regardless of my explicit instructions to my athletes, a small percentage of them seem to always think that “more is better” and do extra credit – adding more workouts to the weekly schedule or extending multiple workouts because they feel they need to or because they’re “feeling good”. Not only is this added work unnecessary, it also goes against the well-laid out plan and also negatively impacts recovery. While simple in premise it is also the most commonly forgotten fact –- improvement occurs during periods of recovery and not during periods of hard work. Yet, how many endurance athletes completely ignore this?
Do this once or twice, OK (I guess). Do it often, and the result is that you will arrive at your goal race overly fatigued and, thus, not able to bring to bear all of the fitness you spent so many months building. Stresses from training are cumulative and add up over time, so deliberate recovery days and days off are so critical to balancing all that hard work out. Without proper – and enough – rest and recovery, you are doing yourself a disservice.
Planning a Nutrition/Hydration Strategy That Works
Long course athletes need to replenish the calories they burn and the fluids they lose during a race, and at a rate they can absorb. Learning what works and how much of it is required takes a lot of practice over many weeks. It is deliberate work. You would be surprised how many athletes fail to properly prepare in this area as they do in their training. Or, how many use race day to do things completely at odds with what they practiced in training. Failing to dial in your nutrition and hydration strategies can lead to utter disaster on race day.
Depending on how well- trained you are and how hard you are exercising, the body has approximately 60 to 180 minutes of stored muscle glycogen to access as fuel during exercise. So, while you may need very little or no supplemental nutrition during a Sprint or Olympic Distance triathlon (or any athletic event lasting less than a couple hours), supplemental nutrition and hydration should be considered mandatory for longer training sessions and races. Very straightforward and simple guidelines are as follows: 200-300 calories and 16-24 ounces per hour. I'm finding that decoupling nutrition and hydration on the bike leg seems to work best. Drink water (or add a fizzy tab for a little flavor), and then take in your calories via bars or homemade "cakes" or whatever solid food works for you. Worry less about wholesomeness and more about what sits well in your tummy. Then, on the run, switch to gels and liquid calories -- again, whatever works well for you in training replicate in races.
It is important to switch up the nutrition sources because, like a muscle, the receptors which help determine how to best process the calories can get overworked and fatigued, and then they shut down -- they need a break! When this happens, bloating, nausea or worse can set in and your performance will take a nosedive regardless of your fitness. Changing up how you get your calories minimizes this risk to a large degree (I will not say wholly).
Notice the above ranges. They are ranges because every athlete is different and your own requirements can also change one long training weekend to the next. Try different approaches and fuel sources to see what your body likes best, especially in conditions similar to those in which you will be racing. The less you leave race day to chance, the better.
There’s a saying, which I’m sure you’ve heard: “If you don’t do it in practice, you’ll never do it in competition.” Exactly. Putting in enough volume is important, yes. But, if you train slowly and then expect to race quickly, it will never happen. And you will end up disappointed come race day. The whole point of training is to practice what needs to happen on race day so that it actually does happen in the race. Crazy concept, I know. In training, come to understand the correlation between RPE (rate of perceived effort), HR (heart rate) and power (on the bike and, now, even the run) so that you know precisely what your realistic ranges are for each leg come race day. If you train at 15mph on the bike but expect to hold 18mph come race day, that’s just not a realistic “mind over matter” expectation to set. Testing every 4-8 weeks depending on time of year is important to track progress and also reset training zones so that you are training as realistically as you can to achieve positive race day results.
Race Day Hype is a Killer
So, you’ve prepared the best you can and have avoided the first 3 mistakes listed. You’re all set to light the race on fire, right? Not yet. Properly preparing for race day is one thing. Even if your lead-up to your key 70.3 or 140.6 race is spot on and you are a well-oiled (and rested) machine, there is one more, even more nefarious, obstacle standing between you and crossing the finish line in a state of euphoria rather than dejection.
Pre-race hype is arguably the biggest black hole of energy suck on the planet. I’m always amazed at how many athletes walk endless miles through the athlete village or race expo every day to buy more gadgets or the most recent and scientific doo-dad that will ensure a world record performance. It is one thing to casually walk through an expo to burn a small amount of time and take your mind off the upcoming race; it’s completely another to get sucked into the buzz and allow it to leach your focus and energy, which will only serve to de-focus you from the task at hand.
Athletes get so excited about the expo environment and being surrounded by all the other like-minded athletes, that they risk ignoring their race day plans altogether. Sure, go to the expo. But, make one round, buy whatever it is you want and then go ahead and use them in training – after your race is over.
These mistakes may seem obvious and easily avoidable. However, they are not. Even the best athletes in the world have made these or other similar mistakes at some point. We’re human, not infallible. That said, being cognizant that these traps exist and can be relatively easy to fall into, allows us to better identify when we are starting to fall so we can better catch our balance and avoid the spikes at the bottom.
In closing, remain confident in your preparation and stick to the plan you and your coach have put together for race day!
Do Psychological Breakthroughs in Sport Really Exist?
I read an interesting article by Steve Magness awhile back. 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, many tied to a very 'clean' time value, but all subjective. 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 same can be said for events in other sports. Take, for example, the 40k time trial on the bike. Largely, the goal is to dip under an hour. 3 hours or 4 hours seem to be the most common time barriers to dip under for the marathon. For the Ironman, just about any round hour time barrier can be chosen. Why not 55:17 for the time trial, or 3:26 for the marathon, or 11:47 for the Ironman?
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, back when Banister ran, 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 are 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 -- or an hour for the 40km TT, or 3 hours for the marathon, or 10 hours for an Ironman -- is a very, very fast athlete.
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 has to amount to something. Otherwise, why the heck do we subject ourselves to all the punishment?
On the cusp of my 50th birthday, this is a great time to reflect back on my athletic career, which began at the ripe old age of five. Literally thrown into the deep end of the pool to follow my older siblings into the sport of swimming, my parents held no aspirations for me beyond learning how to save myself should I ever fall into a body of water deeper than I was tall.
I did end up sticking with swimming, and turned into a nationally-ranked swimmer from age eight through my collegiate career. I parlayed that into a near decade-long career as a pro triathlete, focusing on the Olympic Distance and finishing with a best ranking of top American/6th overall in the ITU World Cup Series. Along the way, I won more than a dozen races, and placed 4th, 3rd and 5th respectively at the World Sprint Championships, Pan Am Games and Goodwill Games. Currently, I compete as a Masters cyclist. Results include multiple state champion titles as well as 5th at the National Hill Climb champs.
The older I get, the more tricks I try to hold on to the power, speed and vitality of my youth. While I still feel like I’m a young buck, there are chinks in the armor which prove otherwise. Volume is not an issue, but I am unable to train as intensely as I used to. I can pump out the watts, just on a less frequent basis. The body needs more TLC between hard workouts now than even five years ago.
I’ve also realized the growing importance of strength work. Every year I hit the weight room, but invariably I cast the strength work aside anywhere from January to March. This year was the first year where I remained dedicated to it without stopping. And it made a difference; I just felt stronger and sturdier overall.
I learned a lot this year. The main thing being this: Be disciplined enough to pull back and insert more rest and recovery. Through much of the Fall/Winter, I only biked four days per week. I lifted weights three days per week religiously. I cut back on the number of long weekend rides and complemented them with a second interval session instead. Week-to-week, I felt great. Rarely did I have a bad day of training and the upshot was that I could spread my recovery weeks farther apart, thus creating periods of more load before needing to back it off.
The proof of this approach came in the annual kick-off to the Colorado cycling season, the Frostbite TT the first weekend in March. In 2017, I won the Masters race but was nearly two minutes off the overall winner's time. In 2018, I again won the Masters race, was 80 seconds faster than the previous year and finished only a handful of seconds behind the overall winner with the second-fastest time of the day; the overall winning time was near-identical both years. My power was higher and I felt really solid.
Whether it is myself or the older athletes I train, I’m not convinced that the sharp decline starts to occur once we hit age 40. Or even age 50. We are part of a generation that will be proving 60 is the new 40. What is critical as we age is to continue challenging ourselves, to not slow down. It is imperative that we consistently work on sprinting, and VO2max and threshold intervals should be part of the training diet year round. Strength training will help you retain muscle mass, and ensure your bones and connective tissue remain strong as well. Most importantly, discipline with deliberate rest and recovery days will accelerate your recovery between workouts so that you can press hard when you need to. Think of your workouts as an EKG readout – you need the peaks (hard workouts) and valleys between them (rest and recovery), because the alternative is a flat line. And nobody wants that!
Getting older does not have to equate to being slower. Eventually, sure, but later in life that what we are told to believe. As you think about your own training plan, identify ways you can do things differently and more effectively. Worry less about the vanity metrics – how many hours you put in, how many vertical feet you climbed, how many hard intervals you did, and so on – and instead focus on what will allow you to squeeze more out of what you do choose to do. I can just about guarantee your results will improve with a refreshed approach and mindset.
There is a lot of racing going on right now in some pretty hot, miserable conditions. Ironman Canada temps were in the mid-90s. The Tour of Portugal is seeing temps well above 100. That's not only uncomfortable for a long day of racing, but also downright dangerous as the body's ability to keep itself cool is overridden by the heat. Athletes are complaining of heat exhaustion and heat stroke-type symptoms, including nausea and extreme dehydration, and some athletes are weaving off the course and into ditches. This is dangerous on multiple levels.
You want to be 100% fit and ready for your important races. Sometimes that is enough; sometimes it is not. Humans are creatures of habit. In racing, this means we typically compete in largely the same races year after year. This is how we choose to benchmark our performances, our fitness and our improvement one racing season to the next. On the surface, this seems to make sense, but the logic is flawed.
"I just ran a 10k and my time was so slow compared to what I did last July on the same course." What was race day like last July compared to this July? If it was 85 degrees last summer but 100 this time around, your result will naturally be slower this year given the same level of fitness. And, not by just a few seconds; it could be a handful of minutes or more depending on how you cope with the heat. For example, I can cope with high heat for an hour or two. But, I've pushed myself over the edge often enough where beyond that I break down fairly quickly. My heat tolerance is quite weak compared to what it used to be. So, I do my best to minimize the health risk when I need to go out in the heat of summer. For example, I will start a long ride at 5am so I'm only dealing with the rising temps in the closing 1-2 hours. If it's a short ride, I don't worry so much.
Back to racing. Sure, you can compare the same race year-to-year to possibly - possibly - gauge your fitness. But even then your performance is affected by weather conditions, and not just the heat. One year's Super Bowl Shuffle 5k might be greeted with temps in the 50s while the next year it could be 20 and snowing. You shouldn't expect a better or even similar result in less favorable conditions -- hot or cold, windy or calm -- but how many of us refuse to cut ourselves that slack? Not too many of us.
Another trap athletes fall into is comparing early-season tune-up race results to those of key races when they are supposed to be 100% ready. In this type of situation, maybe this will help you get through the winter and spring. Think of your training during this period as a slow and gradual progression that holds you over until it is time to turn the screws and get down to business. While it is true that you gain the majority of your fitness during the initial 3-5 months after a prolonged break from training (4+ weeks), you can still view your improvement curve as one that rises gradually now and then spikes in the weeks approaching your most important race(s). That spike is resultant from the addition of race-specific training that sharpens your fitness, smooths the rough edges and brings everything in your program together to a nice, solid peak performance.
Now, that being said, I don't mean that you should simply dawdle along until next June. You can't afford to shoot your plan full of holes. But your resolve can be more relaxed and you can cut yourself some slack at this point. If you are too focused now, then you run the risk of hitting the brick wall called Emotional Burnout just about the time you should be getting excited about what you're trying to accomplish. Bad news when this happens.
Training is the means to the end. If you're training faster than ever before in February, be careful. You may not be leaving yourself anywhere to go but down (meaning slower) when it really comes time to kick things into a higher gear next summer.
So, cut yourself some slack! Training is a means to an end, not the be all, end all. You're trying to do the best you can and, typically, that's enough. Sometimes it is not; and the factors which impact our ability to perform are sometimes beyond our control.
Everyone has an opinion on just how big (or small) a problem doping in sport is, and everyone has a right to his or her opinion. But, the argument breaks down for those who take the stance of defending sport as clean and contend that athletes must be considered clean unless there is absolute proof to the contrary. Yes, they demand incontrovertible proof of cheating to declare any given athlete in any given sport a cheater. This is a strawman stance at best and, at the least, defies logic.
Life is not linear, nor is our desire for the physical pursuits we choose. At some point, the rigor of what we are doing outweighs the enjoyment we once received from the pursuit, and it might be time to reevaluate why it is we do what we do. It is also important to understand our motivations behind these pursuits, so we continue to do them for the right reasons. This video is a gut check about training and competing.
Elite athletes who cheat are making a bed in which they ultimately will have to sleep -- if not now, then certainly down the road. Circumvent and play the system as they may, the impact of their failed morality boomerangs back to hit them square between the eyes -- always. They may not ultimately get caught cheating. But, whether it be a failed test, a whistleblower dropping dime, a life-threatening malady like cancer, severe depression or worse, being held to account will happen for each of them in turn.