Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Definition: Success

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.

31 comments:

Andrea said...

Thank you!

Molly said...

LOVE this!!! :)

Jenna said...

Excellent Post!!!

Jennifer Harrison said...

Ah! I could not have said it any better! So, this is what I will say, "DAMN RIGHT!"

:)
Amen!
HELL YEA!
DUH!

Ok...enough from Miss Daisy. You have to listen to me all day everyday as it is! xo

Ange said...

Absolutely. Great job.

Caroline said...

I really enjoyed reading this - Jen Harrison sent the link to it my way (I'm one of her athletes). And it was exactly what I needed to read right now. Thank you for putting into words what it truly means to be a successful athlete.

jennabul said...

Perfect. There are lots of things in life that work this way as well =)

TriEVIElon said...

AMEN, sista!

It's interesting about success, patience is truly key.

I am working through a foot tendon injury I got shoveling snow of all things. I trust that the my coach's "break in" plan for running will work. Is it frustrating to run 30 minutes and stop? You BET but I know he knows what's right and I know it will work. You are so on the money - it's not about obsession, it's about trust. Trust in yourself, your coach and in the investment you've made. Your body will respond if you respect it instead of opposing and resisting it.

BTW, you are the most adorable pregnant woman I've ever seen! Love your blogs on being knocked up. As someone who is a confirmed aunt for life, I am fascinated....

Marit Chrislock-Lauterbach said...

BRAVO!

Teresa said...

Hi Elizabeth,
I swing by here every so often, and the title of this post caught my eye. Your post captured me, as a coach and as an athlete. I understand every detail you are describing and each makes so much sense. I am passing this onto a few athletes (hope you don't mind) because you explain it so well! Thanks for taking the time to write such an important blog that will help so many....if they listen of course ;)

tn

Stef said...

Wonderful post!

ADC said...

:)))))

sallyaston said...

I just came across your blog for the first time- fantastic. I love this post. I hope you dont mind but I quoted you in my blog: "Pacing is knowing how much to give and when to give it". I love it! :-)

ShutUpandRun said...

Great and really motivating. I love what you said about pacing and trusting yourself. I try to remember to run my own race, but being competitive by nature sometimes you push too hard. I got injured in the fall and it was because I was simply pushing too hard. I am a bit smarter now, but still have lots to learn...

Melissa said...

Are you referring to the rest periods in this sentence?
"The best athletes are dedicated more to spaces between their training than the training itself."

Most of my buds are good at pacing. I do see guys getting caught up in the faster pacing if it is a group setting. I have even been victim to this at times but it's mostly a guy thing.

Great blog. Definately forced me to take stock on my own training habits. Thanks for reminding me that I'm doing most of it correctly!

Mary IronMatron said...

So many wise points in here. This post is a keeper!
In some ways it's a hard post to read, too. I see myself through all of it (which is what I know you intended us to do)--sometimes in a good way--sometimes in a really, really not so good way. Good reminders--good points to hold on to.

Jason said...

What a great post. Thanks!
There is no secret -just patience, pacing, periodization and recovery.
That is now on my wall with my goals as my own daily reminder because you know, sometimes common sense isn't as common as we'd like it to be...

IronChick said...

RIGHT.ON.ELF!!!
-Catherine Button

Janet said...

This is just what I need to read right now. My goals for this year were to stick to the reasonable and well-spaced plan I laid out from the beginning, and not get sucked into other people's plans and races that didn't fit with mine. I was starting to look over my shoulder a little, which is never productive.

Thank you! This really helped me re-focus.

E.L.F. said...

Melissa: rest periods, yes, but more importantly what you do to recover from each workout. This means having food/drink on hand after your workout so you don't find yourself 2 hours later drinking a latte for recovery or skipping breakfast after your morning swim because you were running late. Also, while I know everyone has family, jobs, other stuff...it means not scheduling a 5 hour gardening session after your key long run. That kind of stuff. Recovery after each workout so you can benefit from it, not just get it done.

Leonora said...

Wuaoooo...
Love it...!!!
Great post...and...
learn a lot...
Thanks you...!!!

Di said...

Great post!

Thank you!

Dianna

GoBigGreen said...

Thanks, Liz. I think the biggest thing I have learned from being more focused in this training stuff is knowing when to ask for help:) Not necessarily serious stuff, but help from a spouse, a friend, a coach...
Good stuff!

Aubree said...

Great read. Thank you for sharing!

Aubree said...

Great read! Thank you!!!

Wes said...

My problem is I don't care to get bogged down in the details. I'm happy doing whatever I'm supposed to be doing. I guess the key is figuring out "supposed to" in an intelligent dispassionate manner that will help me achieve my goals.

Nice post, Liz!

jennifer said...

Excellent. You must be an awesome coach. :)

Harvey L. Gayer said...

WOW! I am just stunned and speechless. That was phreaking well written and thought out.

Michael @badassdadblog said...

"The only secret is – there is no secret."

You just watched Kung Fu Panda, didn't you? :)

Nice post. Thanks for writing and sharing.

Vern said...

Thanks for an excellent post! It defines the essence of smart training that all athletes should take to heart. I'll bookmark this post and come back to re-read it!

My Life and Running said...

My first time to your blog & what a fantastic first impression. Nice post!