Thursday, April 28, 2011

Don't Know Much

You learn something new every day in parenting. Every day. You think you know things about having a child. You spend nearly a decade in careers teaching children, caring for children, learning about children. And do you know what you know?


Grandmothers are excellent sources of “you didn’t know that” parenting information. You mean I’m not supposed to let Max stand up against the edge of the tub throwing blocks into the tub while I take a shower?

No. Dangerous.

But don’t you know that is my only hope for hygiene?

Each stage of parenting prepares you for the next. Remember when you thought just having the kid was hard. Or getting up every 3 hours to feed them at night was difficult. Or when they started crawling your whole world had changed. As Max enters each new stage – we are now in stage 9 months – he presents me with new challenges. The latest: pulling himself to stand against everything. Including the toilet. Which should from now on always stay closed because you will find him with his lips on the seat and hand in the water.

Lid closed. That is, until he learns how to open it.

Ladies, if you are out there in a search to select the person which you will reproduce with, here’s a tip:

Whomever you choose, make sure you are totally comfortable with creating a mini version of them. I have myself a mini Chris. Chris who will spend hours taking things apart – which is much more fun than putting them back together. Chris who loses socks like there is a giant hole in our house that devours them. I’ve already convinced myself that I only make boys so the chances are a Mini Liz, in my eyes, are very, very slim. Mini Liz would be a monster to fear from day one. The mini Chris is not a monster to fear unless he finds himself in slow moving traffic. So I’ve got about 16 years before my mini Chris turns ape shit crazy on me.

Today, in an effort to change the scenery for the child, we went to the bookstore. We would have gone outside but I have a weather flash for you: 44 degrees, 20 mph gusting winds, April 28. "Spring." So it’s been winter since October and if I spend one more minute trapped in my house I will go searching for that sock hole as an escape route.

As a stay at home parent, you find yourself feeling trapped in your house a lot. There is the schedule. Around here we do not mess with the schedule. I rely on the schedule. I rely on nap time from 7:30 to 9:30 am and again from 1 to 3 pm. For what? Sanity. That gives us a window from about 10 to 12 pm to leave the house. Considering it takes us about 45 minutes to get ready to leave the house (somebody likes to drop the surprise poopy the minute he gets dressed for the day), we don’t leave the house very often.

But today, we left with grandiose plans of sitting at the bookstore with decaf while Max crawls on a new floor, placing new germs into his mouth, building better immunity. But as I’ve learned many times now in parenting, the best laid plans can become quickly derailed. And smelly. Nothing spells buzzkill like a poopy diaper and a rookie who forgot the diaper bag (I hate that thing, I don’t even carry a purse now I have to carry an entire bag of shit for someone else, it’s not enough that I carried him already for 40 weeks?!?!).

Back at home.

Max had his 9 month appointment the other day. He’s normal. As normal as a kid who can find the dog’s collar and then sit on the carpet dipping said collar into a puddle of barf (whose?) can be. He weighs in at nearly 20 pounds and stands at 27 inches. The doctor informs me he is in the 40th percentile for weight and 11th percentile for height. When I tell Chris this, he is devastated. He fears his destined to be short son will get picked on by taller kids.

Something he should have considered before he married someone who stands at 62 inches.

Anyways, he’s got a 90th percentile head. Which means he’s got lots of brains which I’m pretty sure in Chinese means that he is going to be smart. I’ve already been told that his cowlick implies smartness along with his high forehead. I don’t need test scores to tell me my kid is a genius, all I need is a Chinese grandmother-in-law.

Who also warned me to stop feeding the boy or else he will be like that baby in The Enquirer who weighed 105 pounds.

Speaking of feeding. Here’s a fun adventure that I get to go on for possibly the next 18 years of my life. Meal times. Max eats anything and everything. Yesterday he ate chicken curry with quinoa, jicama with tofu and beets, bananas, sweet potatoes. He’s a chow hound. He got that from me. His latest trick is blowing his food back out his mouth. Did not get that from me. If you have a friend who is having a baby, forget giving her a pretty blanket, give her an old towel. Or about 100 of them. Because I must go through a 100 old towels a day by the time I wipe the mouth, wipe the floor, wipe my own shirt. Do they sell adult bibs? I need one.

All of those towels means I’m only one credit away from earning my PhD in laundry! Oh it’s been a tough course. But I’m certain I will pass my oral exams with flying colors. Right after I separate them from the whites. Did you know you can spray Zout on anything to make it better? Including your entire day.

Where was I......

Another place we like to escape during the neverending winter is the coffee shop. Remember when I was just married with no kids and declared that children should not be allowed in coffee shops? I’d like to rescind that statement. And request that the REST of you GET OUT. I went to Caribou. It was one of those with the nice fluffy chairs and tables that Max can cruise along. It was like the freakin’ library. Everyone was plugged into their laptops typing and studying and whispering conversations with their tablemate.

Psssst…..I actually took the time to SHOWER today and put on UNDERWEAR so I could LEAVE my house for 30 minutes of fun that did not involve attacking the dog’s water bowl or knocking over candles so don’t give ME a dirty look when my kid squeals because eating a paper napkin is the best thing he’s tasted since kibble.

And we buy high grade kibble, thank you.

Strange thing about moms in the coffee shop – it’s like a weird mom on mom dating scene. I’m telling you that being a mom who stays at home with a child can be a very lonely thing. So you leave the house, you go for coffee and you see another mom sitting there. You’re playing with your child and from another table, she starts talking to you. At first, you don’t realize it but then, you leave and think…

Was she hitting on me?

Yes. Moms do this. They hit on each other to see – potentially what can I get from this woman. Conversation? Advice? A play date? Confirmation that I still know how to carry on a conversation with another living thing (dog not included) that does not include the word NO or something set to song.

You can set anything to song – anything, mommy just needs a few minutes to go to the bathroom in the key of C.

Speaking of song – we’ve been going to music class again. I have reason to believe that Max is a musical genius because the librarian at storytime told me so. And because at music class you don’t have to sit still and look at books (not for Max). You see, there are kinesthetic learners who need to run in a circle while learning. I watched a kid at music class do this for 3 minutes straight and it made me dizzy.

Max loves music class. He really likes the teacher but I don’t blame him. She has a great voice and her boobs are HUGE. Hey, he just got off the boob so…it’s on his mind. There are a few other kids ages 3 and under in the class, including a set of identical girl twins. Sometimes I think parenting is hard and then I see the woman with the twins walk into class. On one day, it was pouring rain. The center is about a 5 minute walk from the parking lot. She walked in look like she had swam there. As soon as she got the girls settled, one started running around the room with her pants around her ankles. When she got her pants up, the other one dropped her pants and started running. I asked her if I pretty much just witnessed her entire day – and she said yes.

Today’s bookstore outing lasted 45 minutes. We’re back at home now and minutes away from nap time. Soon he’ll get slightly fussy after something like a block hits him in head. Fussiness like that tells me he’s ready to be zipped into a sleep sack and put down for sleep. If only we could do the same thing to fussy adults. Nap times go well – he talks himself to sleep and not much wakes him except barking dogs, big trucks or lawnmowers. I’m just a little disturbed that Tuesday is garbage day, Wednesday is lawncare day – is this necessary? 10 – 12 folks. If you have something noisy to do around my house please limit it to the hours of 10 to 12. And for crying out loud – DO NOT RING MY DOOR BELL!

Some time last week I realized Max is trying to eat his way out of the crib. Once he entered the why lay in the crib when you can stand stage, we lowered the crib. Realizing he cannot climb his way out, he has chosen instead to eat through it. The beautiful crib of chocolate-colored wood perfection is no longer perfect. But neither is anything else since about 1 minute after bringing Max home from the hospital. But that nursery should looked damn good while we were waiting!

Hey, here’s something else I didn’t know about parenting. For every year you have a child, you remove one more thing from your house until by the time they are 18 you are left with nothing but a couch. Most of the accessories in our living room are now put away or have been moved to higher ground. And…sorry, I had to interrupt to give a stern no to Max while he decided eat through the living room table. Brought the kid to tears! That’s it, I’m not saying no again! I want him to be my friend, not my child! Yes, I’m joking. Could you imagine? Are there people out there really scared of their kids? Make no mistake, kid, you are under my command. At least until you’re a teenager. Then you can deal with your father.

Ah. Nap time has begun which means my clock to get things done starts ticking. Once Max wakes up, it resets the cycle of eat, poop, play, eat, sleep all over again. But I have exciting things planned for this afternoon. I’m going to open up the kitchen towel cabinet. Oh yes. The other day it was the dishwasher (simply opening the dishwasher door was a BIG hit until I found him eating a piece of old food on it…), yesterday the cabinet with the pots and today – towels. It’s never too early to start studying for your doctorate in laundry.

Meanwhile, I’ll eat some lunch (without a bib) and get some work done. During this time, at least once a week, I will have the shit scared out of me while some random toy goes off loudly in the toy bench (LOOK OUT! THE TRAIN!). If I do have to go upstairs, I will tiptoe by the door because you never, ever wake the sleeping baby.

Yes, it goes on like this every day, day after day. There are 365 days in a year. I've counted. And yes, that is a lot of parenting!

There’s a lot I don’t know about parenting. And those parenting classes? Who comes up with that curriculum? I remember watching a video on how to give a baby a bath and thinking – this is the most difficult task they chose to teach us about for parenting? Because bath time is the easy part. It’s the other waking hours of the day when you need to figure out how to entertain them (let’s roll this orange across the floor), keep them safe (you don’t need to have the blender cord in your mouth) or how to put away several loads of laundry a day (actually you don’t, keep it in a big pile on the dryer and take it as you need it).

Have I earned enough credits yet for my PhD in parenting?

(I know, I know…wait until he starts walking)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ups & Downs

Training is such a series of ups and downs sometimes. We have good days followed by bad days followed by really bad days. The days where you are swimming your 200s a full 40 seconds slower than usual – that’s 10 seconds per 50. How is that possible? The days where holding 20 watts below threshold feels like 20 above. Our bodies have a rhythm that is unpredictable and reminds us that we are not always in control. Sometimes the body will do what the body will do – no matter what you want from it.

In the past week, I’ve had my share of ups and downs. Last Sunday was a long ride that left pieces of my legs and spirits out at Fermilab. When I got home, I rode up the driveway, all 10 feet of it, and told Chris that was the only part of the ride I enjoyed. Note to self: next time summer surprise attacks us with 85 degrees and nonstop wind – stay home. Or, if you go outside, at least put on sunscreen. It’s April and I already have the cycling jersey tan. The heat was bad. The wind was worse. It was unbelievably windy which around here is a touch below gale force winds. I was doing some race pace intervals when I found myself spinning out over 100 rpms in 53-12. Thank you 40 mph gusting tailwind.

After that glorious ride, I had a run on the track. The entire family went to the track; me, Boss, Chris and Max. You’ve seen my dog. Sometimes just looking at him cracks me up. It’s his ears, his expressions, the fact that he has no idea he’s only 10 pounds. Imagine seeing him running around the track. We did a lap together and wouldn’t you know – that little shit took lane one. Then he took a pee in the long jump pit. It gets better: you know it’s a rough day on the track when your Chihuahua is keeping up with you. Running was like running into a wall of wind. I might have spent an entire 100 just running in place. I did a bunch of 200s. Boss outsprinted me in the last 10 meters of one and then sat out for the rest of the run. Looks like someone could use a lesson in pacing.

When I was done, I was disappointed in my power on the bike and times on the track. Intuitively I know the weather played a big part in that but at the same time – no one likes to disappoint themselves. The greatest pressure is the pressure I place on myself. I could care less what other people think – I just want to meet my own expectations. When I let myself down, I take it hard. The rest of the night I pitied myself for a bad workout. This happens sometimes. You just need to wallow in your own overdramatic angst. When it doesn’t happen from time to time I know that I’m too comfortable or too confident. It’s good to be shook up. Keeps us honest.

Eventually I got over it by eating a bunch of jelly beans.

On Monday, I turned over a new leaf. Time to get over myself. I had to. I had a killer week ahead. I took the name of a competitor in an upcoming race and asked myself – what would ____ do ? every time I was faced with a choice; like going to bed versus staying up to do whatever I do to stay up late or forgetting to eat only to realize 5 hours later I haven’t eaten. What would ____ do? She always does the right thing. She always eats. She’s in bed by 9 pm. Dammit, she’s such a perfectionist! In all fairness, I don’t even know her. Regardless, these strategies are very effective. Not only in putting a fire under your ass to do the right thing but create a bit of fury for your competition.

On Wednesday I had redemption for my bad Sunday workout: bike test. The workout of truth. Gulp. If the numbers aren’t good, I’ll accept it and work harder. If the numbers are good, I’ll accept it and work harder. There never comes a point in this sport where you rest. You just keep bettering yourself. I woke up like Christmas, today I get to do a bike test. I paid meticulous attention to my diet the last few days (what would ___ eat? Not jellybeans). I slept a lot. I got up that morning and drank 100 percent fully loaded coffee. Roughly one gallon’s worth. I brought in the babysitter.

I don’t know why but I love the bike test. It’s a burn in the legs that I find hard to match when you’re outside because of wind or coasting. I love the grind of going hard and that point 5 minutes to go where the voice starts talking in your head. It’s the voice of negotiation – we can back off a bit and no one will ever know. No one except for yourself. Which is sometimes the worst because then you have to live with knowing you gave it less than your best.

When I get to the last 5 minutes I convince myself it’s only 5 x 1 minute hard to go. Ssshhh! Don’t tell myself that there is no recovery. Useless details you don’t need to know when you’re up to your eyeballs in lactic acid. I never understand how in the last minute you have to literally kill yourself for one more watt but that is what happened. But that was the watt that mattered most. Because it was the watt that qualified this test as my best bike test ever!

I'm recording that for women who want to know what can happen after pregnancy. I first tested 3 months after giving birth. In the past 6 months, I’ve gained 12 watts but lost 10 pounds. So if you’re wondering about the pattern of how fitness comes back to you, there’s an example. And in those 6 months it’s been hard at times to believe that I could outdo what I’ve done before in the sport. I’m different. My body is different. I’m older. But none of that has ever taken away my belief that yes I can. That’s all we really have is our own belief. Nothing motivates us more. Whatever you do in this sport, do it with confidence. That will count more than anything else.

Next up was a run off the bike with specific pace directions. Jen means business when she tells me a pace. I don’t ever ask for a pace; if it’s hard I go hard, if it’s easy I go easy. I ran with the Garmin and learned a valuable lesson in the difference between average pace and average lap pace. Big difference. Average pace is you racing against the entire pace of the run. Painful lesson when you’re trying to run a x:xx mile.

Friday I woke up feeling great (shameless plug: e21 Recovery) but almost missed masters. Max’s nap time got delayed by his I’ll just stand in the crib crying until you come sit me back down routine. Speed feeding, dressing, get to the gym and in the pool only 5 minutes late! At the start of each year I set swimming goals. This year one of my goals is to break a certain time for the 200. Today we did 200s. I got within 2 seconds of my goal but dammit cannot break through the barrier. On the last one, I put on paddles to breakthrough, come on already! Once I see it on the clock, I know I will be able to do it sans paddles. I just have to get there first. I came in at 7 seconds better than my goal and finally – FINALLY – know what it’s like to stop at the wall and see a time in the x:xxs for a 200. I’ve never seen that time before. And it looked really good! This is what I love about sport – constantly we go places we’ve never been and learn new things about ourselves, even as adults.

That seemed like enough work for the week. Right? On Saturday, I was told to run 10K. Seriously? Is this punishment for sending late payment for April? I woke up to rain and 43 degrees. One day spring will come! Lucky for me there was a 10K across the street at the Arboretum. I run there all the time. I know every hill, false flat and turn. During the warm up, my legs felt great. I knew they would. The law of running says that every run you have that feels like ass is followed by a great run. Yesterday on my run, my legs felt like ass!

The gun went off and my plan was to ease into the first 2 miles which contained two serious hills. From there, it was time to lock in a steady rhythm up and over the rest of the hills. As expected, a group of 10 men surged out to the front and I was left hanging between them and everyone chasing. I spent the rest of the race running alone, just like any other training run out there. I found a solid rhythm and held it. Toward the end, I thought about easing up because I was running first woman with no other women around me. But I looked over my shoulder to see three men charging toward me. Then I said to myself what would ____ do? The answer: she would try to chick as many men as possible. I held them off through the finish line and chicked all but 11 men.

I don’t do racing as training often because I find it hard to be at your best when you’re not at your best. But sometimes it’s the kick that you need. It’s one thing to race on fresh legs, another to race on not so fresh legs. The latter is much harder mentally but then again most breakthrough performances are when you master your head on top of being physically ready. Sometimes training feels too comfortable mentally. You can’t simulate three men breathing down your neck. But then again, if I ride on my trainer with Boss, Max and Chris standing behind me that might come close to it.

Once I got home, I had a 90-minute ride with some race pace efforts. When it was all said and done, I laid on the living room while Max sucked on my salty knee caps. I know, it’s disgusting but not as bad as when I found him sucking the carpet on the stairs.

A few days of ups and what arrived on Sunday almost on cue – the downs. I woke up Sunday morning grumpy. Chris said you are in a bad mood, do you want a hug. I said I don’t need a hug, I need someone to pedal my bike for 3 hours while I sit on it. I did not want to run. Nor ride. I had to do both. It was 37 degrees outside. Eventually I went for my run. It’s funny how one day you can be holding a pace 3 minutes per mile faster than the next day. My legs felt that great.

When I got home I convinced myself I needed to ride 3 hours instead of sitting around eating waffles and bacon. I ended up on the trainer. My legs were tired but I knew that I had to get through it. Quitting or not even starting would have been much easier but if it was all easy – everyone would win.

And so goes a week of training. Some days are up, some days are down but in general it is an upward trend. Someone once told me that in a week you should be able to hit 80 percent of your workouts. If you hit them all, you’re likely not working hard enough. If you hit less, you’re probably overtraining. If you do 14 workouts a week, you can expect that 3 might not go well. I’m usually there. I keep it all in perspective and know that getting up the next day, after rough training, is what being a champ is all about. It’s easy to train when things are going well or the numbers look good. Not as easy to get over yourself and move on when things aren’t going your way.

Next week promises to be more challenges but also hopefully more breakthroughs. Everyone has ups and downs in training. The breakthroughs make even the hardest training days feel worth it. And true, it's hard to stay encouraged when you’re stuck in a rut of downs. I’ve been there. I remember the one week of bad swims including the swim my lanemate and I swore we would never talk about again. Or the week where I had to do my 13 mile run on the elliptical because my hamstring was barking. But training is fickle like that – it’s up, it’s down but you do the work, you make the right choices and trust it will come together when you need it most. Confidence in yourself and the plan for success on race day.

For next week? It’s not time for rest yet and we’re getting closer to big races so that means the work is getting more race specific (read: hard). I noticed next week two of my favorite words: track brick. Something like ride hard, run 800 meters, repeat many times. There is nothing more true than the track. You’re fast or slow, you’re either ahead of or behind your Chihuahua. Not that I plan on bringing Boss but if he does show up, I’m taking him in the final 100 meters.

Bring it little doggie. BRING ------ > IT!

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Lessons Day 3

Today was the last day of the coaching mentorship.

The morning started with short-term and daily planning. The details. We viewed some of the specific workouts the elites were doing. The “secrets” if you will. Of course the workouts aren’t really a secret. There are hard workouts, easy workouts, strength workouts. Nothing shockingly new here. But I never thought there would be. There are no secrets, just work that needs to be done. That work should condition you for your peak race. As you get closer to your race, that work gets more race specific.

The secret to coaching, then, is the art of applying the work at the right time to get performance at the right time. It’s rather simple, But sometimes the simple is the least understood, or the least accepted. It can’t be that easy. Triathletes are filled with misconceptions of this coach or that coach has the secret workout to make them faster.

After working with 4 coaches in the past 10 years, attending coaching seminars, reading countless coaching books, here’s what I’ve learned: there’s only so many ways you can write a zones 1 to 2 workout. And just because a workout is boring, or slow, or simple doesn’t mean that it’s not what you should be doing. In fact, it’s the boring, easy, simple that often gets the athlete to the next level. Doing it consistently over time leads to progress. Skip that simple work and you end up going somewhere that your body can’t handle. As the swim coach told us yesterday, “I believe in not taking your body some place it’s not meant to go.”

On the weekly schedule there are hard workouts and easy workouts. What's a hard workout? Like any other hard workout; hill repeats, mile repeats. No secrets. Do they swim hard every time they swim? No. Do they run track every week? Depends on the phase of training. How many hours of training a week? Depends on the athlete. Moreover, volume wasn't as important as frequency. Through high frequency they gain a great deal of conditioning.

How do they handle it? After all, up to 30 workouts a week is no light load. But they increased to that level of “more” over time. Some of these athletes have worked with their coach for several years. There was no instant fix nor instant rise to the top. Any new elite (or even athlete!) needs to be prepared that progress is a slow process. It took years to condition their body to safely handle a higher training load. Training load must be increased patiently – give your body a chance to adapt. Adaptation is the process that keeps you healthy. The increased training load then allowed them to have the fitness and skills to compete at the higher level.

The last part of the discussion was about race specific training. Look at your peak race and find out everything you possibly can. In today’s age of information, you can find race reports, profile charts, pictures, videos – seek every piece of information possible about what you might encounter: terrain, temperature, humidity, typical wind speed/direction, water type, concrete/asphalt/off road, course lay out, turns, course lay out, sunrise – this list could go on.

Next, we visited the exercise physiology lab. It was a hollow place where the wind whistled through the pipes that ran across the ceiling above neatly organized research equipment. The exercise physiologist discussed his role in working with the athletes. He helps them to understand the challenges of different race courses and then strategizes how to handle them based on research. When the Olympics were in Beijing, the two biggest obstacles were the heat/humidity and air pollution. He helped the athletes prepare for both. Research articles sat in holders on the wall. I grabbed one of everything, mentally putting it on my growing list of things I need to read (along with the half dozen books I ordered from after listening to coaches talk this weekend).

We had the opportunity to run on the Alter G Anti-Gravity treadmill. The benefit of the treadmill is that you run with less impact. When you’re coming back from injury (rehab) or just looking for a gentler alternative to running (prehab), this $77,000 treadmill would be a very useful thing. How does it work? You put on a pair of compression shorts, step into a “bubble” that is over the treadmill. The lower half of your body is then zipped into the plastic bubble. Then, it calibrates to your weight. As you run, you can reduce the pressure in the bubble chamber which drops your body weight. It goes all the way down to 20 percent of your body weight.

As I was running, I realized that if I weighed 22 pounds, I would be damn fast. At 20 percent my body weight, I felt like I was light on my toes and running on air. One of the other coaches bravely dropped the pace to a 3:39 mile and ran like Road Runner trapped in bubble wrap. I bravely ran an 8:00 per mile which at altitude feels like 3:39 to me. As I moved the pressure back to my normal weight, I felt so heavy. If anything, it was a good exercise in the relationship between weight and running fast. To run better, I have come to the conclusion that I need to lose 30 pounds. And here I was thinking I had only 4 pounds to go to my weight pre-baby.

We also got to use the Wattbikes. Think Computrainer meets spin bike. Except you can bring your own saddle and pedals. Much cheaper than the treadmill (about $2500 each) and hooks into a main computer that shows excessive amounts of data about your pedal stroke, power output, etc. You can plot out the force you put on the pedal at each part of the pedal stroke for every single pedal stroke during your ride. You take 90 revolutions per minute multiplied by a 60 minute ride – that’s a lot of data.

The day finished early which allowed me to get to the pool during open lap hours. I hopped into a lane and noticed a workout on the white board. It was for the modern pentathletes. I started doing the workout when I realized the athletes next to me were indeed the modern pentathletes. They had started around the same time as me so there were a few 50s where we were actually swimming in sync. I switched my hard efforts to their easy efforts and swam my little arms off to keep up with guy in the next lane. 4000 meters later, I declared it one of the best swim workouts of my life. I was swimming in the Olympic pool with Olympic athletes. Heaven? Yes, surely.

Afterwards, I sat in the hot tub. Two of the athletes hopped in and started talking about their day. They had already been fencing, did a fartlek run and then after the swim they had to go to the sports med building to get some work done on their legs. Just another day in the life of an Olympic athlete in training. Yet as exciting as that sounds, I think it would be draining. Day in, day out your life, your job is your body. That’s a lot to ask of it. It demonstrates how truly different their bodies are. Not only do they have the engines but they have the durability and the drive.

In the morning, I go home. As both an athlete and coach, this has been an exciting opportunity. I’ve spent 3 days living a version of the Olympic dream – in a beautiful setting rich with the resources you need for athletic success. Olympic medal success. And if you don’t achieve it? I’m not sure around here it has much to do with genetics, talent or skill. It has a lot to do with health but also attitude, mental toughness and wanting it. One of the coaches was telling us about the breakthrough year an athlete was having because this year - they were finally taking it seriously. How badly do you want it? If I had to post a quote on my mirror, I would have that one staring back at me every single day.

Will the US get medals for triathlon performance in 2012 in London? There’s a lot of great coaches behind the athletes and a lot of great athletes. Will it all come together? I suppose that’s the risk that any of the 100 athletes living here onsite are willing to take. They dedicate four years of their life to one day. One day – no do over, no redemption race. What if you raced your peak race this year like it was your only chance, that one day?

How badly would you go after it?

While I spent a few days learning about training for the Olympics, what’s going on here isn’t about Olympians – it’s about how to excel at a sport. Some athletes might excel to winning their age group, setting a new PR or simply getting across a finish line. Seeing sport at this level only proved to me what I’ve known all along: that if you want something badly enough, you need to have a plan of how you’ll get there and then you need to follow that plan with 100 percent focus, passion and intensity.

The past few days were all about learning how to put together that plan for an athlete looking to excel. To me, it doesn't matter if that athlete is beginner or elite, there are commonalities in what makes a successful plan and athlete. Sometimes as coaches we wonder if we’re doing the right thing for our athletes – is this enough, is there a better way. The other participants and I agreed that the past few days, we got a lot of confirmation. Confirmation that as coaches, we are doing the right thing. And that when the right coaching combines with an athlete doing the right things, you get performance. Great coaching parternships are where two talents (coach & athlete) meet and commit to a common goal: performance.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Lessons Day 2

I’ve spent two days living like an Olympic hopeful athlete. I’m living in the dorms with the athletes, eating at the dining hall, working out with them in the same gym. When I got here, I wondered if I would look out of place. But what I’m realizing is that I look just like any other athlete. Whether they are built big for power, younger, older, built small for speed, using a wheelchair, an athlete looks many different ways. What is the same is how they act. Acting like an athlete around here means wanting it more, working for it harder, sacrificing whatever you can. You get here because of talent. You excel here because of what you do – every day.

There's a wall of these quotes. In fact, I can't even go to the bathroom around here without a quote staring me in the face. It's inspirational but at the same time I can see how it's a tremendous pressure. Commitment, winning, success, doing it for yourself, your nation. This inspiration - or is it pressure - is posted on every bathroom mirror and every door. How would you handle it?

We started the morning on deck. The Olympic pool is beautiful masterpiece of 50 long course meters. It invites you to swim. I’ve met the coach before and he reminds me of the classic swim coach – laid back, it is what it is, we do this because it works end of story.

There were 7 triathletes doing the workout, some bigger names, some up and comers. We watched them go through a 4700 meter workout. Today they were doing a toned down taper-like workout because many were racing this weekend. There were some 50s, some 300s and some kick at the end.

We asked the coach a lot of questions and what I learned about the swimming didn’t surprise me. It’s something I’ve learned from trying to figure out my own swimming over the years. Here’s what I'm hearing: technique is important but it’s not everything. The secret to faster swimming? Just f*cking swim. Of course he didn’t say that. But it seems that so many try to think or pay their way to faster swimming when they just need to go swimming. Swim often and swim consistently. Whether it’s high volume or high intensity, follow the program and stick with it.

Now it’s true if you have lousy form you’re just going to end up fighting yourself in the water. But even technique work doesn’t have to be that complicated. Choose one approach and stick with it. How many people talk to this coach, read that book, go to this clinic, then ask the person next to them at masters. Too many swimmers in the kitchen! Pick one, change one thing at a time and give your body a chance to make progress.

Patience. It’s a dirty word with so many athletes but it’s the common thread of the best athletes out there.

The coach didn’t pick apart strokes. In fact, I could look at any one of the swimmers and identify a few things they could do to improve their stroke. But a lot of what I’m seeing around here – whether it’s right or wrong – is that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. They might make small adjustments but if so and so can swim successfully with a little hitch in their kick or a lope in their stroke – then let them be. Changing it might result in that little extra or might result in a total disruption of the athlete’s “feel” and confidence. That’s a big risk, especially to disrupt an athlete's feel.

Around here, what an athlete feels is taken very seriously. We heard about one athlete who doesn’t run off the bike in training because they want all of their running to feel fresh and light. That feeling is important to their confidence and success in racing. Whether it’s scientifically right or wrong to avoid running off the bike, if the athlete feels they need it – it’s taken seriously.

All of this reminds me of something I read in Matt Fitzgerald’s book, Run (a great book and one that several of the coaches around here have referenced). Fitzgerald said to ask yourself what types of training experiences you think you need to feel confident about a race. Think about that – and then have the discussion with your coach. An Olympic medalist had a run loop that he did before a race. If he could do it in xx:xx, he knew he was ready. Every athlete has that pre-race workout, that experience in which they have learned their body lets them know they are ready. This feeling of readiness builds confidence. Confidence is everything on race day.

After swimming, we spent time talking with a coach of a few of the top athletes. They covered periodization and long term planning. There are many approaches you can take – whether you subscribe to a linear approach, a non-linear approach, a 10-day training cycle or a 6-week work cycle – the bottom line is that it has to be an approach that fits the athlete. Not that you make the athlete fit into the approach. So many athletes seek out different coaches or approaches because they think – that’s what I need! Honestly, the best coach is the one who looks at the athlete and says – based on your training, your history, your personality, your goals, THIS is what you need and I’m going to tailor the approach to meet those needs. Again and again, I’m hearing how it pays to develop a long-term relationship with a single coach whose style and experience you feel most comfortable with. Give that coach time to observe you, learn about you and then develop you into the best athlete based on what you do and what they see. This does not happen in one season. It takes time.

Again, Fitzgerald’s book was referenced – the Type of Responder chart. A coach needs to understand the type of athlete they have and how they respond to training in order to be successful with them. Some coaching inquiries I get from athletes include this question – are you a high volume coach? The better question is – are you a high volume athlete? And if so, prove it. Show me the data, the results and health history which reveal that when you are given high volumes of training you excel. Some athletes need high volume, others need low volume with high intensity, some can climb to world class on nothing but aerobic training with intensity two weeks before their peak event. There might be one destination in our sport – the finish line, the medal, whatever – but any wise coach/athlete knows that there are many, many different ways to get there. And none are right except the one that works for you.

There was a lot of talk about test sets. In my experience, athletes either love or hate test sets. They love them because of the challenge, the opportunity to see where they’re at. They hate them because of the challenge and they have to see where they’re at. Tests can be real confidence shakers. And test results are sort of like racing – even when you try to control for everything, there are factors beyond your control. There might be wind, poor sleep or it might just be an off day. And as far as which test set to use – again depends on the athlete. There are oodles of test sets out there. Even one coach might have a dozen test sets. Whichever you use, use it repeatedly so you actually can measure progress. Coaches must also be cautious of doing workouts to see where an athlete is at versus doing a workout to condition them for a race. Benchmarks are good but if you’re mentally and physically draining the athlete from that benchmark set, you take away from more important training for racing.

The day wrapped up with some talk about running. In triathlon – at the ITU level – or even nowadays at any level if you want to be competitive in your age group – it’s all about the run. The foundation of better running is of course better running mechanics which lead to better run economy. Two athletes with the same ability but one has better economy – the more economical runner always wins. How to become more economical? Doing the right type and amount of drills, plyos, etc.

Treadmills were discussed. Treadmills are very useful for locking in a pace, providing a less injurious surface and – if you have kids/time constraints/weather issues – very convenient! However, treadmill running should be limited. You run faster on the treadmill so you’re more likely to get injured. The treadmill also does not allow for glute activation. Glute activation is key to faster running. The treadmill belt pulls the leg back for you – so no glute activation is required. When you get outside, that’s a weakness. On the treadmill the potassium pump also doesn’t get activated. As a result, when you get outside, you have a harder time overcoming inertia.

The coach talked about an interesting study. Athletes had to run on a treadmill for 12 minutes at threshold. They were given one of four things to thinks about: 1) a dissociative thought, 2) an outcome thought, 3) a technical thought, 4) told to focus on what the body is feeling and staying in the moment. Who used the least amount of oxygen? Those told to stay present in the moment and think about what they’re feeling – not those checking the pace on their Garmin nor those disassociating to ignore the pain, nor thinking about the outcome. This reinforces what I’ve felt about running all along – it’s a lot more about feel than we want to think it is. The coach then said that so many triathletes have a sense or urgency or panic about the run whereas the best runners simply let it come to them, it’s a feel. They’re not looking for PRs in workouts, they’re looking for feel.

We also talked about pacing. You can determine the outcome of a race in the first two minutes. Go out too fast – good-bye good race. For every 1 percent you go out too fast, you lose 2.5 percent of performance. Most run too fast off the bike because the pace of the bike confuses us when we switch to running. Learn to conserve yourself and truly hold back. The best races (unless we’re talking something under 6 minutes) are done with a negative split.

We ended a busy day at 4:30 pm which gave me exactly 30 minutes to get into the pool before it closed to the next team using it. I was in the pool by 4:39 pm and then experienced altitude swimming in all of its long course glory. Needless to say, I don’t think my swim pace will get me an invitation to the Olympic team any time soon. I did some spinning on a spin bike before calling myself all triathloned out for the day.

Tomorrow is the last day. We’re going to try the Alter-G treadmill (YAY!) and learn more about day to day planning. By the way, I learned today that some of the athletes here are doing 24 to 30 workouts a week. That does not include recovery modalities – we’re talking pure swim, bike, run and strength. It’s quite a level of work and commitment. But then again – when you’ve got these facilities, resources, the time and you’re chasing the Olympic rings – it's takes that level of dedication, and even risk. Like one coach said - for four years, they need to put everything else on hold - life, everything and instead do everything it takes to get there. Take that risk, take the commitment seriously.

Would you do it?

Monday, April 04, 2011

Lessons from Day 1

There is no greater adventure than learning, is there? You hear a different perspective, a question is raised, maybe you simply hear something repeated that you already know but the information takes you to a new place. It makes you look at the same thing from a different perspective.

Today was a great adventure in learning.

Before it started, I spent some time walking around the campus. Throughout there are posters describing each of the Olympic sports – shooting, volleyball, handball, cycling. And modern pentathlon – nothing to do with a javelin. Try training for fencing, a 200 meter swim, 15 shows jumps of 4 feet high and 4 feet wide on an unfamiliar horse (what if you couldn't ride your bike?) then biathlon (run/shoot).

Could you imagine packing for that race?

The program kicked off with a talk from an OTC sport psychologist. I am a firm believer that what sets apart the good from the great athletes is not good genetics, not hard work, not coach but what goes on in the head. Yes, it helps to have all of those other things but if you’re head isn’t on straight, all of those things won’t take you anywhere.

First, we talked about pressure. What is pressure, why do athletes feel pressure. By definition, pressure is a constraining influence in the mind. Hearing this, pressure sounds negative and threatening. As a result, it can have quite an impact on an athlete’s performance.

When an athlete let’s pressure impact their performance, they are unable to bring their best performance when it matters the most. When an athlete perceives pressure, their mind goes into overdrive, like a runaway freight train. This overthinking mind can take your attention away from the moment and lead to poor performance.

Something I see often with athletes is attaching their performance to their self-worth. When the outcome is linked to your self-worth, you are in grave danger as an athlete. Fear of failure then takes your attention away from the actual race as your mind gets bogged down in comparing yourself during the race, worrying about what others will think of you, obsessing about the outcome (which you cannot control anyways).

What’s on board the runaway freight train? Judgments, expectations, distraction. The high performing athlete learns to control this by learning to focus and pay attention. How is this done? First, by understanding how to set goals. All too often we set an outcome goal (I want to win, I want to break xx hours). Outcomes provide motivation and direction but you cannot control them. The moment you start the race, put the outcome goal aside. Instead, focus on precisely what you need to do to get there – the process.

You are in total control of process goals. Process goals tell you how to race, what to attend to. Rather than “I want to run fast” you say to yourself “snap!”, a cue to remind you to snap your foot up off the ground to reduce contact time, which leads to faster running. These attentional goals are task-specific cues, they help to keep your mind focused and under control. They avoid the “chatter” that happens when the train runs through our mind. You control where you put your attention – you can’t control the weather, other competitors or outcomes but you can control the action you take every moment out there.

The sports psychologist explained the importance of training focus, training re-focus and training mindfulness. Especially in triathlon. In triathlon, our biggest psychological challenge is the risk of monotony. The longer the race, the easier it is to lose yourself in your head because there is nothing there to grab your attention. You have to deal with your own head. If not, you get lost in your own storyline. The moment you do that, you’re not present anymore. You’re not focused on taking action.

In training and racing, always ask yourself: what’s on my mind. Unless you know, you can’t do anything about your performance. Cues to put into your mind: swim long and strong, cut through the wind on the bike, pop on the run. Most athletes focus on pain, challenges, conditions and monotony. None of these are controllable or productive for better racing. You must become aware when you’re doing this and then have the skill set to bring your mind back to just this swim stroke, just this pedal stroke, just this stride.

Next up we learned about metabolic efficiency. It’s a topic often covered in coaching seminars but today had a little different twist. We talked about how psychological nutrition really is. The foods you choose and portions you take – these are psychological. Think about what food means to you, what it says about you. Now think about all of the things – good and bad – food can mean to an athlete. Take that athlete and make them 14 years old. A girl, a boy, someone who knows that to run fast you have to be light. Food is a very psychological and personal thing.

The goal of metabolic efficiency is to teach your body to become efficient at drawing upon fat as fuel. Though the discussion was focused on ITU racing, this is something I see as problematic with the average person doing Ironman. The typical western diet is so filled with sugars, carbohydrates that most people spend their day riding the blood sugar rollercoaster. In Ironman, this is a recipe for gut disaster. Teaching your body to draw from fat as fuel is imperative for long course success. How you do this – well, it’s complicated but let’s just say the crux of it is fixing what you take in as daily nutrition. Improve the quality of what you eat, then focus on the volume of what you eat, then focus on when you eat.

The speaker then went to lunch with us. He took us through the dining hall as if we were Olympic athletes. I was expecting the dining hall to be packed with super wholesome high power anti-inflammatory foods. Instead, what I found was a smorgasboard of both good – and not so good – delights. Sure, there were plenty of healthy options but the unhealthy options were there – ice cream, cold cereal, chips. If you don’t have a strong defense against temptation, I could see how this would be very problematic for an athlete living here.

We walked away from lunch with the simple suggestion from the speaker about what would solve most people’s nutrition problems, just learn to eat. Many athletes think they need to refine their race day nutrition to have better race performances. It all goes back to what you eat every day. Focus on proper nutrient quality and timing throughout the day. Then, make changes to your race fueling.

After lunch we learned about training zones and lactate testing. This is something – like nutrition – covered in every coaching seminar but with a different twist. We learned to read different test results, charts, then how to manipulate the athlete’s training to improve their weakness based on testing results. I also learned there is a small tool you can buy to test an athlete’s blood lactate on the spot. I plan to get one of these and then use it on my husband. The benefits of living with your coach!

While we all agreed that testing is important, it’s not always necessary. At times, testing results can create confusion for an athlete. Using the right tests at the right time and understanding how to present the results to an athlete based on who that athletes is, not the type of coach you are, is important for success. We agreed that the more advanced athlete does not need a heart rate zones generated from sophisticated testing to understand how to run tempo pace. They are typically in tune with it. However, the beginner athlete often needs the different tools to better develop body awareness.

We also talked about athlete development as a long-term process. The speaker brought up the notion of ‘coach-hopping’ which is a struggle of any coach. The process of learning about an athlete is not short-term. It takes time to understand an athlete and then develop them to their full potential. Unfortunately, athletes get impatient, get persuaded by friends or always think there’s something better out there. They also closely tie their self-worth to their performance. If their performance isn’t exactly where they want it to be, their self-worth and confidence is threatened. They over-react and hop on to the next best thing. We agreed that athletes need to understand up front that success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to reach your full potential. Most importantly, you must be patient and mature enough to give it that time. The speaker also mentioned some athletes chase their success so hard and fast that they burn out. Performance improvement needs to be strung out over time to increase your overall success and longevity in sport.

We wrapped up the day with a talk on the tactics, skills and performance benchmarks required for successful ITU racing. Clearly this style of racing more closely represents criterium racing than time trialing. What are some of the top guys on the circuit doing on the bike? Try popping around 23 watts/kg at over 134 rpms. When you learn the numbers behind the athletes, you realize what a completely different level of athlete we are talking about. There are good athletes. There are great athletes. And then there are future Olympians.

After the sessions, I went running with Jennifer. There are 3 participants in the program, and I know one of them from racing in Missouri many years ago. We went for an hour long run where I felt like I would vomit my heart out on every single step. She wanted to bring the Garmin along and I assured her we would not exceed an embarrassingly slow pace out there. There is no need to document it in Garmin data.

We then took advantage of the Strength & Conditioning gym which was filled with athletes. I sat on one of the spin bikes, easy spinning, while watching a young woman practice her discus throwing form. It’s just throwing a frisbee-like thing, right? She painstakingly broke down each step – over and over again. Then she went back to doing step ups with a weighted bar. Fascinating to see the level of commitment to refining the little details.

Looking around, what I wanted to know was the stories. I want to know how each athlete got to this point – not just what their sport was but why…and how. How did they get here. I recently read Apolo Ohno’s book and what I took away from it was the extreme level of intensity it takes to not just get to this level but to succeed. Many athletes become “Olympic tourists” – they get to the games. But few become Olympic medalists. I want to learn the stories stories behind the future medalists.

Tomorrow kicks off at 7:30 am on deck with the swim coach for a session. I'm like a little kid right now - do I have to sleep and wait? Considering I don't sleep well at altitude, it's going to be a long night of waiting!