Recently, I was talking with another coach about athletes. Not specific athletes, just patterns in general that they display. A hot topic is always what makes a successful athlete. It begs the question what defines success but often I find success is defined by that individual. Success might be finishing the event, setting a personal best or even winning a national championship. How, then, does the athlete achieve their success?
Athletes fall into categories. Spend enough time working behind the scenes with athletes, peeking into their psychology, reading between the lines of their post-workout feedback, watching them train and you realize that the successful breed is not successful on accident. They possess certain qualities. Whether they are running 9 minute miles or 6 minute miles, there is no doubt what makes them successful. It is not speed. It is not the fastest equipment. It is not sponsorships. It’s a mindset and a way of practicing.
Successful athletes are dedicated. Yet few understand what dedication is. By definition, dedication is complete and whole hearted fidelity, commitment. Successful athletes are committed to themselves and a logical training plan. What does it mean to be dedicated to yourself? With the athlete, it means eating right, sleeping enough, surrounding yourself by a supportive system. Many dismiss the importance of treating themselves right and recovery. You can have the best coach and do the best, biggest training in the world. But if you don’t recover from it, it counts for nothing and gets you nowhere. The best athletes are dedicated more to spaces between their training than the training itself.
The other part of dedication is commitment to a logical training plan. Logical being the key word. Many athletes blur the line between dedication and obsession. Obsession is what makes you ride 6 hours in the winter when you are training for a summer Ironman. It’s not only unnecessary but illogically doing the wrong work at the wrong time. Obsession is what makes you push through illness, injury or heavy fatigue. Obsession makes you think you always could be or need to be doing more. These are the athletes who just don’t get it. It’s not even about more is less, it’s about not having that off switch that tells them when enough is enough. Their obsessive need destroys them. From what I’ve seen, obsession about training and racing fills a psychological void for them or hides an eating disorder. If you have a void or a disorder, you cannot train it away or hide it. Get some treatment instead. You’ll end up a better person and athlete.
Successful athletes have tunnel vision for themselves and their goals. They see other athletes out there but they are not their concern. True, they know their competition and arrive on race day ready to respond to them. But there is a fine line then between knowing your competition and caring about your competition. How many times have I heard that someone feels inadequate because so and so is running 17 miles right now while they are only running 10. Or that the other so and so is riding 4 hours on their trainer. Wasted energy is all that this is – psychologically and emotionally. What so and so is doing has no relevance to you. The most successful athletes focus more on what they are doing and how they can do it better than anyone else.
Unsuccessful athletes cling to the ephemeral idea that there is always something better out there. The grass is always greener, in a sense. They are never satisfied. No good workout is ever good enough. No coach is ever giving them the right workouts. No split is ever fast enough. They are always chasing. And in chasing, they waste a lot of physical and emotional energy. They have no ability to be here now. I believe this comes from the fact that we have too much information and too many choices available in our modern world. We never have to accept where we are. We can always search for something better. Successful athletes are not always searching for clues or the next best thing. They appreciate where they are and see the room they have to grow. They realize progress takes time. They know that the better they get, the harder they are going to have to work for smaller increments. Above all they accept where they are and have patience. Few have this. Which is why few are successful.
Here it is – the secret ingredient for all athletes who have successful races - pacing. So few athletes know how to pace themselves. And how ironic that this is often true in their real life and sport life. How many of us take on too much, spread ourselves too thin and wonder why we are always run down or dissatisfied. Pacing is knowing how much to give and when to give it. The best athletes trust that if they start slowly enough and build into it – they will finish stronger. The unsuccessful fear failure so much that they feel they need to give it their all in the first mile, first half, whatever – and then fade. They don’t trust that their best performance will be there. They are disconnected from themselves. They have no intuitive sense of how to give out energy, they just know all or nothing. I’ve said it before – many of the athletes in our sport are all or nothing. They are either balls out or walking. They don’t know the in between. Pacing always works but the unsuccessful either don’t trust it or never have the patience to try it.
The successful athlete knows, then, that training at a varied pace is what works best. If the plan says goes easy, they go easy. If it says to ride for 2 hours, at 2 hours they are dismounting their bike in the driveway. They go easy enough on the easy days so they can truly go hard on the hard days. This begs the point that very few athletes trust a plan enough to go easy or know what it means to truly go hard. Hard is not defined by a number, a heart rate or a watt. It is hard. If you don’t know hard, then you have never been there. Why not? Fear of pain, fear of evaluation, fear of failure or simply not knowing themselves. Another reason is that most athletes train so much junk at a junky pace that they carry cumulative aerobic fatigue into every workout. This fatigue prevents them from truly going hard – and, consequently, from breaking through or making progress. And that is why being dedicated to a logical training plan works. And why most other plans do not. If you are always killing it in a group workout, you are not training at a varied pace. If you are always riding 5+ hours and running 10+ miles, you are not training at a varied pace. Many athletes either go too hard all the time or too easy all the time. They have no sense of in between. Yet if your race is over 90 minutes, you will need to have that in between pace or else you will defer to going too hard and blowing up or going too easy and not breaking through.
Successful athletes have discipline. Discipline is not just getting up every day and doing your workout. True discipline is knowing when to hold back, knowing how to pace yourself, it’s all of the above. Know why a few have this? It requires patience and humility. As such, it requires a lot of training alone and having tunnel vision for your goals. If you are always training with others, and you are in a competitive sport, it is very difficult to hold back. Try it. Go to the next group ride and sit in. Unless you have rock solid confidence, you’re worried that people think you are slow, your competitive ego tells you I could take that guy any day so why am I sitting on his wheel. The unsuccessful athlete struggles with this. They lack the confidence, experience or maturity to know their biggest competition isn’t sitting in that group ride. He’s sitting on his trainer focusing on his workout and visualizing himself crushing the competition. He isn’t wasting his time or energy doing that before race day. The disciplined athlete can go out and follow their own goals in a group workout or any workout. They know that timing is everything – doing the right work at the right time. This is discipline.
Successful athletes know that training isn’t complicated. There isn’t a secret formula or a magic plan. Progress comes from consistency, trust and recovery. Yes, there are shitty training plans and coaches out there. But for the most part, we all know what we are doing. It is an art based on science. Like another coach told me yesterday, it’s not rocket science. It’s common sense based on sound principles that have stood the test of time; pacing, periodization, recovery. Yet very few trust enough to believe that. It can’t be that easy, they say. There has to be a secret workout that you do to get fast or a certain mile pace you need to run. The only secret is – there is no secret. That simple statement will truly baffle some that read this. They prefer to overcomplicate and keep searching. And that is why they are not successful.
Success is a destination. It is not hard to find. Chances are you have the end point on your map already. Why, then, do so many chase after success but so few get there. Because most end up injured, lost or burnt out before they even have a chance to arrive. They end up driving in circles, listening to too many directions or try to take too many shortcuts. They spend their time on detours rather than just following the logical path. While all the rest are out there waffling, obsessing and searching, go your own way, trust your own voice and follow your plan.