Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Finding The Light

The other day I was thinking about the difference between training last year as an age grouper and this year as a pro.

Like last year, every morning there is work to be done. While last year that work was in an office, this year the work is with myself. Each morning, there is an agenda of workouts waiting for me. Some days there are three workouts, some two, rarely one. The one days are almost a treat. I can leave the house showered! I can go shopping for detergent! Or better yet – for food! I relish my time away from the sport like a vacation day. Because every other day this is my job.

The job has its ups and downs. More downs than ups really. Every day I feel like it is designed to challenge me more. And when you have been in the sport for awhile it gets harder and harder to challenge you each day. This is where a creative and caring coach comes into play. As a result you find yourself swimming 1000 yards with an oversized long sleeve cotton shirt with paddles on your hands swimming 30 seconds slower per 100 than usual and thinking WHAT THE F*CK.

Yes, you say that a lot. I say that a lot. The other day I was told to run with batons in my hands. Why? To correct crossover. Batons? I told my coach that on top of the two page swim workout, the request to swim masters at 5:30 am the next day, and the running with batons I was ready to shove the batons….

You know where.

But I trust the process. There is a light at the end of the season and I am starting to see it get clear. I know it will take time. I know at this level the little things add up to make the difference. And though I need to be frequently reminded, I know my coach designs every challenge with this in mind. Even though I almost cried 3 times in the two page swim.

This year training is tough. Simply put. The progress is more subtle and the confidence building requires careful searching at the end of the day. Finding breakthroughs, victories to celebrate are less clear. Last year when I trained I had many more breakthroughs because those breakthrough workouts were fewer and farther between. It was very rewarding to get on the road fresh and run a personal best! But nowadays I cannot remember what it is like to run with fresh legs. Every run is off the bike because now I have the time for that. And runs not off the bike are usually preceded by a hard bike yesterday.

You can see that I have completely lost touch with the concept of fresh legs.

So the little victories happen less and less. Sometimes this is frustrating. You think to yourself – what is wrong with me. But I realized the other day – that is the point. There is nothing wrong with me. In fact, I’d say the process is working very well.

You see, it is so hard to stress someone taking that next step. After a certain amount of time in the sport and level of performance your body can handle a lot of hard things. Your body is very smart; it will adapt to survive and get through. So it takes a lot more to achieve “stress”. And it seems like the physical stress is not necessarily the stress that the training now is hoping to achieve. Like I said, our bodies can accomplish amazing things. Look at events like Ironman, week-long cycling trips, mountaineering. At a certain point the body will physically adapt if you are smart about nutrition and rest. So what you need to experience and adapt to is a different type of stress.

A psychological stress. Spend enough time overloading yourself with big weeks and you realize your body will break down psychologically before it breaks down physically. Yes, it takes a bit of physical fatigue to put you at that edge where you will psychologically crack but chances are if you keep pushing through it you will realize that your body can handle the stress. You just have to push through the mental wall of resistance standing in between there.

I have found myself up against the wall of resistance many times. The other day in the pool I had this monster workout. It had so many tight intervals and challenging things like IM, polo swim, no touching the walls at turns, no breath….etcetera….etcetera….so many things that at first I thought how on earth will I do this. Then I remembered that the point of the workout was to be so overwhelming that mentally it put me on that edge of crack. The work of the workout was therefore to push through. Not to set a personal best. To just get through it. Try to hit the times but psychologically breakthrough.

These are the victories I have now. Not PR’s in the pool or breaking certain times on the track. The victory is no longer against the clock – it is against myself. Because when you are out there racing as a pro there are less people to chase. You no longer start from behind. You really just get out there and race against yourself. To some extent, there is nothing much that separates one elite athlete for another – except what is in their head, their self.

These days I am training my head. Each day I have a breakthrough mentally. I find something I didn’t know about myself. That when I ask myself are you going as fast as you can the answer is often ‘no’. I am finding there is always more to give. I ask myself are you doing everything you can today to work towards your goals. The answer again is frequently 'no' – so I think about another way I can improve myself. I persistently look for feedback from my head; what are you thinking, feeling, and WHY. I am learning to be brutally honest with myself. Sometimes this hurts my ‘feelings’ more than my arms or legs. To ask myself; why are you ready to cry, why do you say “I can’t”? Is it honestly the pace? Or are you scared of what you might find in yourself if you tried? Is it that you are really just falling behind in the psychological race….

More often than not it is falling off pace with the psychological race. The only race that really counts. I have to remind myself to forget the physical pain or fatigue – just push with my head. Stop fearing yourself or what you might find. Keep telling yourself it is only 4 laps. Just another 10 minutes. Two intervals. Break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks. You can do this. Mind over matter, it’s all in your head. This is your training now. This is where races are won – or lost – in your head.

Now I realize the entire training process is more a psychological stress than a physical stress. Yet as my body recovers quicker and better with each cycle, my head is lagging a bit behind because I have to keep reminding myself that the point of the training is to accept that psychological stress will never stop. There will never be a break. Stop waiting for it to get easier. Embrace the challenge instead. Because in the end racing is really just a one day exercise in psychological stress.

You see this often in the pro race. Rarely does someone blow away the race from the gun. There is always a close battle to be won and lost. Look at the finish line at the California 70.3 a few weeks ago. Who is a better athlete – Potts or Alexander? Can you really say? They are talented world class athletes and perennially fit. To run the last few miles with your competition keeping pace right next to you – want to talk about sitting on the edge of the crack? But who was a little psychologically stronger that day? Who dug a little deeper for that final kick?

That is psychological stress.

As I drove home from the pool after my near crack workout in psychological stress, I was listening to some tunes. I drove away from yet another swim where I had some small victories but no major time breakthroughs. I am patient in the process but still it takes reminders some time that I am on the right path. Then a song came on; some of the lyrics were relevant, and helped me finally make sense…

Every step that you take

Could be your biggest mistake
It could bend or it could break
That's the risk that you take

…Let's take a breath, jump over the side

…How can you know when you don't even try

….Let's take a breath, jump over the side

.…You know that darkness always turns into light

That is the experience of psychological stress. When you are standing at the edge, wrestling with the decision of should I jump, should I pick up the pace and risk explode, should I spend a little now and risk not saving any for later, are you going as fast as you can - when you wrestle and win these psychological struggles in training you trust that you’ll arrive at race day you know exactly what to do:

Take the risk.
Stand on your edge.
One last deep breath.
Jump over the side.
Give it that final kick.
Even when you think you can’t – try.
And trust you’ll find the light.


Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, I know you listen to me beat you up everyday, but there is NO ONE OUT THERE that can do this more than you. And, that is the honest to god truth. Keep believing and keep pushing thru that glass ceiling. (or swimming 1000 in oversized clothes - sorry!)...but if it works....No one will be more proud....
xoxo Jen H. :) hee hee

Kellye Mills said...

What do they say... realizing it is half of the battle? I think just having that awareness about yourself puts you many, many steps ahead of a lot of other pro athletes. There are some that see psychologist to help them grasp that awareness. Continue working on it, and you'll be the one that shines on race day!

Beth said...

It's the hardest part of sport isn't it? I have always thought that the actual training is the easy part and physically racing, even better BUT the mental part of it all is what just about kills you! Putting yourself out there each and every day, every workout, every race wondering "will I be able to get through it this time? will this be the time I crack? will I be able to handle the pain? and if I can't, what does that say about me and who I really am"?

But you've literally been practicing that every single day - just like you said. Once you are a PRO at the psychological stress the rest will be easy!! And it sounds like little by little you are becoming the PRO you want and need to be. I am so impressed and inspired and can't wait to see how it all pays off for you this year!!

CAMI said...

You made me laugh right out loud. And then you made me cry - cause I know that every time your coach gives you something extra, something to push through, you do it! You might complain, or fight it, or even sometimes struggle with it, but you are so strong. So tough - mentally and physically. I'm so glad that you're passing on some of that knowledge and pain. In the process of making you better, you're making me better.

At a completely different level of course :)

Danni said...

Let me just say WOW
You inspire me.

Marit Chrislock-Lauterbach said...


Bravo Liz, Bravo!

BreeWee said...

Well said Fedofosky! AND we must be enduring similar moments in sport because I too have been bouncing all the pro/age grouper thing back and forth with its many different similarities...
YOU are amazing and good and can do it. Shoots, we are in this together this year. You have encouraged me like crazy! Keep going...

kerri said...

This is a brilliant. You made me cry, made me want to go out there and suffer through my run after a tough interval workout on the bike, and you have captured the essence of the mind and overcoming the obstacles to a tee! I am nowhere near your level but really appreciate your honest insight, and your tenacity. I have to save this one and post it in on the fridge.

tri-dogmom said...

Your last couple posts have inspired me. Today I thought about the wizard.

I had speeds sets in swim. I haven't been able to get my 100's under 1:30. Today I did 2 of them at 1:28, AND that was AFTER 2x200(3:07,3:04) and 2x150 (2:14,2:14)

I'm hoping that "wizard" helps me get my 100s down to 1:22-1:24!!

Thanks for the inspiration

Ashley said...

Terrific stuff.
I heard Bobby McGee give a seminar on sports psychology on Friday. He's brilliant too. A couple of things from my notes: "The brain is the central governor of performance. The brain determines what the legs and cardio can do....The biggest reason mental skills training fails is a lack of habituation."
In other words, you've got to embrace and then habitually reenforce the positive thinking and imagry that will carry you through training and race day.
And that's exactly what you've hit on. I particularly like this observation of yours:
"Each day I have a breakthrough mentally. I find something I didn’t know about myself."
I've had the same experience fairly intensely this year.