In case you haven’t noticed, we’re getting into the thick of racing season. The best time of the year. All of the workouts in the dark, runs in the cold and suffering on the trainer finally unfolds in a display of you’re either ready to bring it on race day or you left it at home. I love watching the races unfold, I love race reports, race plans, splits, results and … I love racing.
This year, I have a unique view of races. I’m on the sidelines. And so, I’ve spent a lot of time studying and watching athletes from the other side – without my own views as an athlete clouding it – and I’ve learned a lot of things. I see the results, I read the race reports. When you’re on the other side – the coaching side – you really get a good sense of what it takes to be successful.
Every athlete has their own measure of success. One persons win is literally a win. Another person’s win is a smile across their face while finishing nearly last in their age group but knowing for them that they absolutely nailed it. Success is totally personal, only defined by the athlete and the meanings they place on what they are doing out there.
While success is highly individual, what brings an athlete to that success is not. Some athletes chase after success elusively because they don’t get it. Others run right into it over and over again because they get it. I’ve coached all types of athletes and the ones that nail their goals have good reason.
Here are some of those reasons:
1 - Success is not about who coaches you, rather it’s about how you choose to be coached. Not all athletes need to be coached. But for the successful who do work with a coach, they truly want to be coached which means they trust and follow the plan. Coaching is not a choose your own adventure. It’s not – I’ll do a little bit of what they say and a little more/less of what I want. You can’t expect anything of the plan if you’re always changing it. If you’re always changing (or doubting) it, ask yourself do you really want to be coached? If so, then get the most out of it by trusting and following it.
2 – Successful athletes are consistent. In general they lose very little time (and therefore fitness) due to injury, illness, low motivation, other life things. This says a lot about their time management, how they attend to their recovery, how they take care of themselves. I coach everyone from students to cardiac surgeons. They all have different demands on their time, yet the successful ones make the time to be consistent with their workouts. Even if it means getting up early, staying up late or saying no to other commitments that will eat up their time. Why? They know that in the end, nothing matters but consistency. Doesn’t matter what equipment you have, which coach you use or how bad you want it – if you can’t consistently do the workouts, you won’t make progress.
3 – Success is about setting goals and then actually doing the work to achieve them. Dreaming up the goal or even writing it down is the easy part. Getting up day after day to do the work – knowing that the work of performance improvement is sometimes boring, uncomfortable, monotonous - is the hard part. You hear this a lot – just do the work. I say it a lot. When you tell someone to just do the work, you tell them what to do and what not to do. Don’t evaluate yourself in a workout, don’t overthink the workout, don’t be your own worst enemy. Just do the work.
4 – Successful athletes know how to set and maintain their own fire. They want it (a PR, a win, those extra 10 watts) – bad. Their fire focuses and motivates them. If they have a bad workout or race, the fire doesn’t go out, it burns hotter. Because of this fire, when they get out there in a key workout or race, they focus, they execute, they (usually) succeed. They use this success to build the fire stronger. Fire makes them fight, fire keeps them pushing through to the finish line no matter how the race is going. It is 100 times easier to give up on yourself and your goals then to keep igniting your own fire. Most athletes take the easy way out. This is why few are successful.
5 – Successful athletes make it look easy but – it’s not. Success hurts! It really hurts to breakthrough. It really hurts to work up to your potential. There is the physical discomfort of pushing but also the mental discomfort of experiencing and then overriding that pain. This is not easy work. The work that goes on in the successful athlete’s head is probably more painful than the work in their legs. Their legs do what their mind tells them to do. Legs will not go if your mind is settled in on how much it hurts, how hot it is, how hilly it is, how it is so hard! Of course it’s hard! If it was easy everyone would be number one.
6 – Successful athletes step up – to the challenge, to the race, to the competition. The race director says no wetsuit, they say no problem. It’s just another obstacle to overcome on race day. They are confident they can overcome anything because they are prepared both mentally and physically. Many athletes show up to race day physically prepared. Few are mentally prepared. Perhaps because they don’t step up in training. It’s raining, I’ll run on the treadmill. So, will the race be on the treadmill too? It’s windy, I’ll ride the trainer. Will they cancel the bike if the wind exceeds 10 mph? Step up so you are physically prepared and so you can learn to be mentally prepared for dealing with whatever is thrown your way.
7 – Successful athletes have perspective. Bad days, bad workouts, off races. We all have them. That’s what makes the good ones so good. The bad ones are just part of being a human animal – our bodies sometimes have an unpredictable rhythm, so be it. No formula can predict performance. And no single bad workout should derail the confidence you gained from months of (consistent) training. Keep it all in perspective. If you swim feels off one day, give it a day to turnaround. If your race goes poorly, look at it, learn from it, and then move forward. And by all means, don’t be surprised when a bad workout or race happens. You can have the best training data in the world but sometimes…it just doesn’t come together on race day. That’s what makes all of this so exciting – no guarantees, you never know. If we did know, there would be no point in racing.
8 – Successful athletes have mastered the basics. They go into workouts hydrated, they eat well throughout the day, they know how to recover with food and sleep. These basics are the building blocks to successful workouts. If you go into workouts underfueled, if you don’t recover by eating well, you will never make progress. Yet it always surprises me how many athletes will keep running into the same brick wall with eating and drinking – how they will waste their time and money with coaching, traveling, training and racing when it all comes down to something as simple as putting the right food/drink into their mouth at the right time. It’s really not that hard but sometimes adults will overcomplicate the easiest and most logical thing because they don’t believe it really can be that simple. It is!
9 – Successful athletes control the controllables. While there are many things in training and racing that we cannot control, there are so many things we can control (our fueling, our preparation, our mindset). Blaming failure or a bad workout on something uncontrollable really doesn’t make sense. Coming back from a race and saying “I didn’t feel like drinking” is like saying “I chose to throw away 3 days of my time, 3 months of training and $1000 in race and travel fees.” Flush. You control you. You make choices out there. No one can control the weather, but you can control your pacing, your hydration or what goes on in your head. When you let yourself get defeated by the uncontrollable, you lose control and … lose the race. You make this choice. The successful athlete never chooses defeat.
10 – Successful athletes are resilient. They bounce back from setbacks, injuries or obstacles. They know that all of this is part of the process of bettering yourself. You cannot find your limit if you never push there and that pushing is a risk. When injury occurs, they do what they can to address it, prevent it and keep looking forward. They look at downtime as an opportunity to work on a weakness or focus their energy elsewhere. They understand their body enough to know when it’s saying rest or when it’s just saying that was hard. They understand because they listen. They let go of the obsessive need to do everything on the schedule because that’s what it says to do in favor of doing what is the best thing for their body based on what it is saying to them.
11 – Successful athletes set realistic expectations. Their goals are grounded in confidence and preparation. In other words, they know the pace or performance they are capable of because they have done it in training. Remember, nothing magical happens on race day. If your 5K pace is 7:45 per mile, don’t expect to hold 8:00s off the bike in a half Ironman. That’s not realistic, that’s delusional. Successful athletes set goals that stretch beyond where they currently are but realize there is a timeline for progress. You don’t magically drop 5 percent body fat nor 1 minute per mile in a month. These athletes also accept how weather, terrain and time of the year will influence their training or racing pace. If it takes a 5:30 half IM to win your age group on a hilly course and you do that, the successful doesn’t lament about it being “slow”. They see (and celebrate) that realistically on that course, on that day, that was a success.
12 – Successful athletes learn lessons. They make mistakes – who doesn’t – but they learn from them. Some athletes run into the same brick walls over and over and over again. Whether it’s pacing, nutritional, it’s like they are addicted to the drama of their failure. The successful athlete reflects on the race, goes through what worked/what didn’t worked, learns their lessons and integrates those lessons into improved performance next time. If you keep making the same mistake, ask yourself why you are choosing not to fix it.
13 – The successful athlete is their own biggest motivator, cheerleader and fan. We all need a little motivation from time to time but if you need boom boom rah rah every day to do a workout – you’re just not that into it. Successful athletes just have that drive that keeps them into it. They know their purpose, they are excited to do the easy workouts, the hard workouts – and they are just as excited the next day after a bad workout as a good workout. Motivation fluctuates but they don’t have entire weeks of I just didn’t feel like working out. Sure, you can do that but don’t expect to set a personal best at your next event. Go back to consistency. You need it to get anywhere. And to stay consistent you’ve got to be motivated. That comes from within. No matter what a coach, spouse or friend says to you – it’s not going to get you as fired up to get out there as what you say to yourself.
I coach athletes of all different ages and abilities. Some are training for a local sprint, others a marathon, some for Ironman. When I step back and look at the successes, despite all of their differences there are commonalities. Success is less about the workout details, the weekly volume hours, the miles you put in. It’s more about what I’ve listed above. And all of those things come from the athlete – not from the coach. In fact, what I’ve learned, is that the coach is just a mentor who guides the athlete to develop into their own success. The coach themselves does not create the success. Remember, there is no magical wizardy to coaching. It’s the artful application of a little bit of science and a lot of common sense. The athlete makes choices every day on whether or not they will be successful. The coach only has so much to do with this. As you set off into this new week, what are you going to do to be more successful?