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!