The other day, I was reading an article about success. In it, the author talked about the recent appearance of Aaron Rodgers on David Letterman. In case you don't know, Rodgers was named the MVP of this year’s Super Bowl. I didn't know this either until I read the aritcle. Admittingly, I’m not much of a football fan. I'll confess: I was watching Puppy Bowl while everyone else was knee deep in Doritos and first downs. But I am a fan of successful athletes and better understanding the process of their success.
Though his sport is football, Rodgers said something that applies to any sport:
The things you can’t measure give people the most success.
We, as triathletes, are a sport obsessed with measuring. Whether it’s critical power, heart rate, distance, cadence – if we can measure it, we will. No sooner will we dismount our bike than we’re uploading a file to see if we did what we really set out to do. We look for meaning in the numbers. We’ve created fancy charts to compare ourselves. We plug all of this information into programs with sophisticated calculations to tell us if we are stressed and should go easy the next day.
(this has never made sense to me. Think about it: a ‘score’ has to tell us we’re tired? Whatever happened to just listening to our body?)
Just the other day, Training Peaks upgraded to include even more measurables. Nothing against Training Peaks; it’s a highly functional tool for coaches and athletes. The amount of data you can record, however, is mind-boggling. You can track everything from your meals, your body measurements, sleep quality, life stress, fatigue. We have power meters to measure our power data. Garmins to collect our run pace. Heart rate monitors to peek into our hearts. As if all of that weren’t enough, I introduce to you SwimSense, now able to capture data from of every.single.lap. I looked at one of these downloads the other day and while the comprehensiveness of the data impressed me, at the same time I felt lost. I didn’t know what to do with all of it.
My fear with all of this data and technology, the measurables, is not just that we lose the ability to feel, but rather lose the ability to respond and adjust while training. That we cannot notice and interpret our own trends while training. We shouldn’t have to wait until after the workout to go back in and see – wow, I did a lousy job of pacing. Or, I warmed up in my zone 2 heart rate. These are things we should be receptive to noticing and then adjusting within the workout. If you wait until afterwards or always wait for a coach to tell you that you’ve done those things wrong, to me, it’s too late. Coach won’t be there during the race. Viewing the data after the race won’t really count. You’ve got to be able to think for yourself and act for yourself when it matters most.
What is our obsession with measuring? Does it validate our efforts? Did the ride really happen if we lose the power file? If the Garmin says we climbed 2000 feet in that run, we come back and it felt hard, does that give credence to our feelings? Do we use data to give us a sense of confidence? And when the data doesn't go our way, does it eat up our confidence? Or maybe we set goals, and perhaps we wait for the data to tell us we are ready to achieve that goal. Whatever happened to just going for it. Just doing the work and taking a leap of faith. Maybe sport involves too much science to be overruled by faith.
Or does it?
After working with all different athletes, what I’ve noticed about top performers is not that they are innately gifted. Nor do they need to have a high V02 max. Their power to weight ratio isn’t always above 4 watts/kg and they don’t need to swim a sub 1:15/100 yard pace. Having any one of those things does not guarantee anything. It’s how you put it all together that counts. I’ve seen athletes with all the right ‘numbers’ fall completely short of their goals. And others with decent numbers in training absolutely blow me away with their results. If success was simply a matter of needing to push 250 watts at 21 mph for 56 miles in order to win the event, then more people would be winning. If success was a formula, then those triathlon calculators would be all we need. Why even bother to race – take your training data, plug it into the calculator, fastest athlete wins.
But that’s not always the case. While the measurable give us an estimation of how we could perform, execution is really what matters. And it takes a lot more having the numbers proving you can ride fast in order to execute a perfect race. Or the winning race. Or just setting a PR. Whatever winning is to you.
We can measure speed, watts, heart rate, pace but you simply cannot measure the things that matter most when it comes to success. Beyond training, these are the things that allow you to execute that "perfect" race. Things like passion, confidence, faith, drive, grit, attitude, pain tolerance. You can’t measure how bad an athlete wants it. You can’t put a number of someone’s confidence. Grit doesn’t occur at a certain percentage of threshold. And passion? Well, if you don’t have it then the best numbers in the world will do nothing more than help you to fall flat in every race.
When I think of my best performers, athletes who consistently hit their goals, I see the things you can’t measure that matter the most when it comes to success; passion, confidence, perseverance, a can-do attitude, maturity, self-regulation, balance, drive. Above all – they are intelligent. Someone once told me the best athletes are thinking animals. They have that animal drive but in the heat of the competition they are still thinking to make best decisions, pace themselves and execute a plan.
None of this can be measured.
Don’t get me wrong – there is a place for tools, measurements, data. In training, it shows us trends. In racing, it keeps us from being a dumb ass. Anything feels good for the first 20 minutes. Sitting well above threshold during that time is not intelligent racing. But then again, you shouldn’t need a tool to tell you that. If the athlete learns in training and then listens in racing, they’ll know. The body has a way of telling you where you need to be.
We spend so much time on collecting and analyzing data, yet so little time on working on those immeasurables. When it comes down to it, the immeasurables will be the most valuable. Knowing you can hold xxx watts doesn’t matter if your game is thrown off by rain. Being confident that you can handle whatever is thrown your way will help you to adapt and overcome in that rain. Spend a month downloading your power data, and you might improve a few watts. Spend a month writing down one thing you did well every day, and you will gain confidence to deal with the unexpected. Better yet, to deal with yourself.
Which is more valuable?
Training the immeasurables is something we don’t often do. It’s too touchy feeling. I can hear it now - performance has to be more linear and predictable, Elizabeth. There have to be magical bike workouts to make us strong, a set number of weekly training hours required to win a race, a set of 100s that will tell us if we are ready. After working with hundreds of athletes - let me tell you – performance is not predictable. Success is not x + y = z. Just because someone can nail that tough bike workout doesn't mean they are going to bring it on race day. Success has nothing to do with your pace and everything to do with your mindset. Of course you need to train, train smart and consistently based on realistic goals. Beyond that – the immeasurables take over. You need the drive, you need the confidence. To pull it all together on race day you need to know you’ve trained the immeasurables.
But where’s that download? Can someone show me the file from their brain during the last threshold bike workout? When it got hard, where did your head go? When you suffered a setback, what did you do? When you fell short of your goal, what happened to your confidence and drive? What did you hear from the voice in your head? This is what matters. This is where you make that connection between the work you do and achieving your goals. Do you consistently give up, do you lack faith in your training plan, do you make excuses, do you get flustered by the unexpected, do you negative talk, do you turn every little ache into a career-ending injury.
How do you manage yourself and your head?
I’m not against the measurable. I coach with data and use it myself. Data identifies weaknesses and tracks progress. Nothing is more revealing than data. You either put out the watts – or not. You either warmed up properly or blew yourself in the first 10 minutes. Data never lies. But success is multi-dimensional. To be a successful athlete you need good data but even better body awareness. You won’t get far on numbers alone.
You see, there is something that data and numbers will never do – it will never feel, think or respond. It might give you the confidence that you are ready to hold a pace but whether you do or not – that’s all in your head. It’s being able to display confidence under pressure, tuning out distractions, working up to your potential no matter what happens out there. These are all things you must do in a race. No race is ever run perfectly; there are other competitors, obstacles, weather conditions. You must be able to feel your way out of those situations and think through them. When it’s 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity, relying on your Garmin to pace that half marathon is not going to lead to a desirable outcome. You have to have the athletic maturity, confidence and intelligence to figure out what to do – and then...do it.
For the next week, I challenge you to work on what you can’t measure. Do one thing every day to build your confidence. Reconnect to your passion for the sport. Improve your attitude. Become more adaptable. Find balance. Get gritty. Find all of this within and then use it. Become more responsible for your success in sport. Don’t wait for the workouts to make you better. Don’t wait for the numbers to tell you that you're ready. Start now. Make yourself better, one thought, one action at a time. Disconnect from thinking that success is one magic number, diet, pace or set away. Reconnect to what is inside of you that matters more. You can’t measure it but you do need it to find that success.