Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Quiet Confidence


I want to share with you two of my favorite inspirational pieces:

This first one was sent to me by a friend right before I went to Kona in 2011.  It's a video called Quiet Confidence by the TCU baseball team.  I don’t play baseball but everything in it connected to me and all the hard work I did to get to where I was going.   You can view it here.

The second one is a post consisting of two videos (and some text).  The first video is about the quietness of success.  In the words of Owen Cook, success is like a quiet set of daily tasks.  The second video is the speech given by legendary soccer coach Anson Dorrance at Mia Hamm’s induction into the hall of fame.  In it, he talks about the origin of his famous quote:

The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion when no one else is watching. 

You can view the post and videos here.

(and if you are looking for a great read relevant to an athlete in any sport, Dorrance's book Vision of a Champion is well worth it)

I’ve thought a lot about quiet confidence.  Years ago, an athlete was talking to me about an upcoming race I was going to do.  It was an important one.  She was trying to impart a little last minute inspiration when she shared with me something her coach had said to her.  He said that the athlete you need to worry about isn’t the one talking or acting big about themselves.  It’s the girl in the porta potty before the race psyching herself up. 

Be that girl, she said. 

Quiet confidence is just that.  But in today’s world oversaturated with social media, blogs, tweets, Facebook posts – we’ve lost the art and even the value of quiet confidence.  It begs the question – if you don’t write about it, does it count?  If you don’t capture the workout on your Garmin, did that personal best happen?  If you’re out there racing not in a sponsored kit, do you matter?  Honestly, none of these questions matter.  All that matters is what’s in your head, heart and soul at the end of the workout or race.  That’s the stuff that confidence (and champion performance) is made of.

Quiet confidence or the quietness of success is something that has been happening for many years, before any social media existed, before any records existed.  Besides sports, the one area where I know this to be true is: parenting.  In no other endeavor in life will you experience less validation and gratitude than parenting.  On a daily basis, you bust your ass.  You sacrifice.  You give up everything for the good of this little person who does not so much as say thank you – not until they are well into their adult years, if that.  Parenting is just not one of those extrinsically rewarding jobs.  Rare is acknowledgement of the good work we’ve done.   

Yet you wouldn’t think twice about giving it your best effort.  The long hours, the pain of childbirth, the repetition of answering the question that never quits (why?) – you do it, again and again.  Without getting any “thing” in return.  Parenting truly is a quiet (though at times very, very noisy) set of daily tasks that you do to get success – raising a meaningful, responsible, engaged, curious and intelligent person ready to take on the adult world. And what you learn about yourself through the parenting process is just as valuable as that success. 

Sports are very much the same.  The work that you need to be doing over and over again is the quiet stuff.  The boring stuff.  The stuff that no one else wants to do because it’s hard, it’s repetitious, it’s cold, it’s dark or you just plain don’t want to.  I’ll go so far to say that probably 99 percent of the “stuff” Mia Hamm did to become one of the best female soccer players of all time was quite boring.  Drills, skills, strength, strategy, visualization, attention to detail, recovery – the boring, “small” details that are not sexy.  That you don’t necessarily brag about.  You would never tweet about it on Twitter.  Could you imagine?  Just finished a killer set of agility drills & cones.  Can’t wait to do it again tomorrow!

Since when?

We live in a world where you have to go hard, go all out, go big.  Do what’s fun, sexy and challenging.  We want it social, we want everyone to notice.  Look at what I did.  What we want is validation.  To live a life recognized.  For what value is life when it goes unnoticed? 

Plenty.  The same value that has existed in the lives of parents who have raised children quietly for thousands of years.  Or the athletes who have worked when no one else was looking.  This is the work that counts.  Even if no one is there to validate it – it matters. In fact, it matters more.  It’s the voice in your head pushing you.  It’s the other voice saying you can’t.  And then talking back at it with you can because you just did.  Going through that dialogue over and over again until you’ve proven – to the most important person, yourself, that indeed you can do anything.  That’s how you win races.  That how you set personal bests.  It comes from a place of quiet, inside of yourself.

I enjoy social media, at times.  These days, I’m mostly interested in Twitter, following researchers, top coaches, business leaders to read the articles they share or find priceless gems like the pieces I mentioned above.  I share photos and experiences of my child on Facebook, more like an interactive baby book for my family to enjoy.  Yet for all the good I find on social media, I have to be careful about filling my mind with too much junk.  It has a way of making us doubt ourselves, doubt our plan by comparison of what everyone else is doing.  We get annoyed by what we read, we overinterpret, we compare.  What it comes down to is that we engage in a lot of mental processing that is totally unnecessary.  Social media makes us live out loud and fills our heads with a lot of noise.  This is not the noise you find in the mind of a champion.

As I get older in the sport, I find what I’m doing less interesting to talk about.  Rare are the days I’ll blog about a bike ride or a swim set.  I’ve sat down and I’ve tried.  Maybe one day I’ll reignite that passion but for now, it’s not there.  I’ve tried to recall the breakthrough sessions on the track or the sets in the pool where I’ve chased Timmy’s feet for 4000 yards but recalling it is never as exciting as being present.  What happens between my two ears to make all of those sessions happen is a private conversation, one that I’ve learned that sets me apart from everyone else.  It’s the stuff that gets me through races.  It’s the stuff that makes me gritty and determined.  It’s the reason I don’t listen to music.  I want to hear the thoughts.  I want to feel the pain.  I don’t want to distract myself.  I want to go to that quiet place in my mind where I just get the work done.  There are no great stories to tell about this work.  It is work.  It is mostly “boring.”  I do it.  That is the stuff that gets me far ahead of everyone else.  It’s fairly simple.  And that simplicity is my secret.  It’s not very convincing, I know that.  There must be magical things you do to be confident, to believe in yourself, to know you can achieve what you set out to achieve.  Not really.  I just get the work done and stay focused on myself.

That’s not to say that there isn’t value in sharing our experiences.  And some athletes have an inspiring and entertaining way of describing their adventures - which I enjoy.  But never let your experience be governed by what you’re going to say or what you need to say.  Success isn’t about writing stories.  It’s about experiencing things, the good, the bad.  From these things you build confidence.  Quiet confidence doesn’t worry about what anyone else will think.  Doesn’t spin something on their blog to make themselves look better.  Doesn’t feel like if they don’t share it, it didn’t happen.  Is never embarrassed by what they’ve done.  Doesn’t make excuses for themselves.

This season, build confidence from the quiet moments where it’s just you out there.  Where no one else hears about what happened.  Write your own story in your head.  Or, make space for more quiet in your head – then enjoy it.  When the work is done, file that work or that feeling away in the folder labeled “confidence.”  Get in the habit of accessing that folder when you need it.  That’s what you need to learn.  Look less to be motivated by the reaction or feedback of everyone else.  Turn inward instead.

I fear that social media is making us less independent.  Less capable of pulling ourselves together, getting ourselves going when we need to.  Do we rely too much on the feedback of others? On the assurance that others give us that we’re doing a good job or that our work matters?  Imagine the world before we were so connected.  Everyone lived on their own path.  People still accomplished amazing things.  You did your workout, you took a shower and moved on in your day.  You didn’t scrutinize data.  You didn’t post stats on Facebook.  The only tweet was from … a bird.  Believe me, this world once existed.  Our lives were just as exciting just much less recognized.  There’s still value in that. 

We can all go back to this place – less connected, more quiet.  Remind ourselves how to build confidence up from within.  Go through a week of not sharing anything about your workouts or yourself and see what happens.  Learn to motivate yourself, reward yourself, praise yourself.  This is empowering.  Every morning you wake up before 5 am.  Every time the wind bites your face this winter during a run.  Every session when you ride yet another mile that takes you nowhere on your indoor trainer.  These are the quiet times.  The most important times that will build you up to becoming a raging success in your mind.  Confidence – unshakable.  Mental intensity – unbeatable.  It’s the person who’s doing that, who’s been doing that – that I’d be most afraid of next year. 

What would you do if no one else was watching?  Imagine a season with no blogs, no tweets and no awards afterwards.  No results.  No scale.  It’s all about you, your feeling and the voice in your head.  Would you still give it your best?  Would the pursuit still be worthwhile?  It’s that internal drive of doing it because you want to, because you crave top performance and want to see just how much you can eke out of yourself – that’s  what matters.  If we could all tap into that, with no fear of what others think, with no cares about what we’re going to say after it all happens, embracing the small and often boring steps leading to success day to day.  If we could tap into that, we’d achieve quiet confidence.  We’d all know what it’s like to be a champion. 
       

Friday, November 16, 2012

Drive


I recently finished the book Drive by Daniel Pink.  It’s an interesting read on understanding motivation.

The first part of the book is how motivation works.  This part would be particularly relevant to anyone in a position of management.  What actually drives motivation is contrary to popular belief.  Incentives are often used in the wrong way at the wrong time. This book provides convincing examples that our current way of seeing motivation is simply not supported by research. 

If you’re interested in hearing more about this, here’s an excellent video with Pink talking about the research behind the ideas presented in this book:


Pink explains the different types of motivation (extrinsic vs. intrinsic) and how rewards influence performance.  On simple tasks, contingent (if-then) rewards are effective whereas with more complex tasks, contingent rewards lead to poorer performance.  This is extrinsic motivation.  It doesn't always work.  Yes, you become motivated by what you receive.  But it comes at a cost.  Rewards can be addictive; once offered, the reward becomes expected.  Because of this, people may be motivated to make riskier decisions and take shortcuts to achieve that which will bring the reward. 

Not surprisingly, intrinsically motivated people tend to achieve more than those driven by rewards.  In Pink’s words, the most successful people often aren’t directly pursuing conventional notions of success.  They’re working hard and persisting through difficulties because of their internal desire to control their lives, learn about their world and accomplish something that endures.  When rewards are not offered, performance improves because the reason for doing the task is driven by intrinsic motivators: mastery, purpose and autonomy.

In terms of athletics, Pink's chapter on mastery was the most relevant.  It starts by defining autoletic experiences, or experiences in which the activity is its own reward.  These experiences tend to lead to flow.  During flow experiences, the task presented is never too challenging or difficult.  It stretches the person slightly above where they’re at making the effort a powerful reward.  It’s that feeling of being so engaged in what you’re doing, so totally in the moment that you don’t even notice the passing of time.  Flow happens here. 

In support, Pink lists a great quote by middle distance runner, Sebastian Coe:

“Throughout my athletics career, the overall goal was always to be a better athlete than I was at that moment – whether next week, next month or next year.  The improvement was the goal.  The medal was simply the ultimate reward for achieving that goal.”

This gets at the question we, as endurance athletes, often get: why do you do it?  If you’re like me, you have a hard time putting it into words.  It’s the challenge, pushing my limits, because I can, because why not?  I don’t necessarily get anything tangible for doing this.  In fact, the opposite tends to be true!  I spend a lot of time and money to do this sport.  I rarely get anything “real” in return.  Unless you count the deep satisfaction I get from achieving goals, setting personal bests or performing at the top of my field.  These are intangibles.  To me, these are very powerful motivators.    
 
The most successful athletes seem to be driven by these intrinsic rewards – the intangibles.  Extrinsic motivation can come from wanting to win awards, acquire sponsors, not disappoint others.  With enough attention on these, an athlete’s performance can feel controlled by extrinsic factors.  I see this often when athletes get too wrapped up in social media.  At the end of the day, no one really gives a crap how you do – that’s a brutally honest way of saying that if you’re not getting paid to do this – heck, even if you are getting paid – at the end of the day – win or lose – you are still a good person/parent/spouse/friend, still alive.  The world doesn’t end.  It takes some perspective to see through the constraints of extrinsic motivators.  Once you do, though, you’ll feel immense freedom in your pursuits.

Intrinsic motivation works.  From what I’ve seen, athletes who are intrinsically motivated last the longest and perform the best for themselves.  And that’s key – they are entirely focused on their enjoyment of the experience. What they get externally from it is second to what they feel internally from it.  Intrinsically motivated athletes tend to be more confident, focused, relaxed and satisfied.  When an athlete is worried about or driven by external factors, they behave under the constraint of worrying about how their behavior will help or hinder their ability to get the external reward.  They worry they are not doing enough.  They worry they are not fast enough.  They worry that they won’t be able to do what they need to do to get what they want.  They: OVERTHINK.  It’s very complicated and, as you can imagine, stressful.  It drains the fun out of something which should be an enjoyable experience.  I often tell myself I get to do this!  The awesomeness of the opportunity is what drives me – anything I get as a result of it really does feel like icing on the cake.

Pink also suggests that success en route to mastery comes most often to those who have grit: a perseverance and passion for long-term goals.  We all know those athletes, the gritty ones.  In the face of adversity, they see it as their advantage.  Any obstacle is an opportunity.  Any time they are at the bottom is a chance to prove how good they are by rising to the top.  Years ago, I remember a story about Craig Walton who after forgetting his bike shoes at St. Anthony’s, did the bike with his running shoes and went on to win the race.  Craig Walton was gritty.  It would have been much easier to give up (certainly he had a great excuse!) but he pressed on – why?  Perhaps this race was a step in his process of mastery.  Or, as Julius Erving said: being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.

As you can imagine, then, mastery is painful (and not surprisingly, Walton injured his hamstrings after his epic display of grit).  It’s doing difficult things.  It hurts!  When I think back to all of my years in the sport, the workouts I remember are the nasty ones.  Not the comfortable or easy ones.  The days where I cried.  The days where I remember it being so hot and humid that I could have (and probably should have!) just gone inside.  The long run I did one year on Christmas Eve morning when it was negative two degrees!  But the sun was shining!  The feeling you get at 7800 yards during the monster swim.  These are painful things – not just in my body but because they push my mind places it has never been.  Uncharted mental territory is scary!  But when you go through it, you learn the language of how to deal.  How to deal is effective in racing when things aren’t going right.  And when was the last time everything went right in any race? 

Mastery also takes time.  According to psychology Anders Ericsson, mastery takes a minimum of 10 long, tough and challenging years.  Ten years!  A difficult concept to grasp in our HERE - NOW society.  How many athletes out there want to get to Kona?  It took me 8 years to get there.  Not 8 years of flying all over the world to qualify – but 8 years of doing the work necessary to prepare myself to compete at the level it takes to qualify.  Progress can’t be rushed, you’ve got to put in the time!    

You’ve probably heard of deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice is what you do along the way to mastery.  Deliberate practice has the purpose of improving performance.  When an athlete complains about doing drills, my response is performance improvement is often boring!  And the athletes who accept and work through that are the ones who usually succeed.  The ones who get impatient, switch paths or try to find other short cuts – they usually keep falling short.  

Years ago, Beth Shutt (now rising pro, then decent age grouper) stayed at my house.  One thing that stood out to me was Beth’s patience and attention to detail.  Beth stood in my kitchen stretching every day with a timer set on her watch for how long to hold every stretch.  Boring and time-consuming?  You bet! 

But spending the most time on the boring parts of performance improvement is what leads to mastery.  To actually improve you need not only practice but repeat that practice, seek feedback, focus on your weaknesses and understand the improvement process will be painful and difficult.  So few people commit to this level of work because it’s not sexy.  But the bottom line is that it works. 

Things like this fall into the category of what Daniel Chambliss, sociologist, called the ‘mundanity of excellence’.  From his article Champions: The Making of Olympic swimmers, Chambliss said:

“The champion athlete does not simply do more of the same drills and sets as other swimmers; he or she also does things better. That’s what counts. Very small differences, consistently practiced, will produce results.”

Chambliss asserts there is little difference between champions and everyone else.  Everyone else who chooses not to work on mental preparation, skill or seemingly insignificant details of the sport – they are choosing not to win.  Champions, in effect, choose to win by doing what others don’t want to do.  They create winning opportunities in practice every single day. What if you tried to make yourself into a winner every day?  What would you do?  

About 8 years ago, I went to a running clinic with Jennifer Harrison and top notch runner, Dave Walters.  After looking at form, Dave talked about the mental game.  He said to ask yourself what you wanted to be this year.  And then ask yourself what would that person do.  Back then, in my case, it was what would a national champion do?  Start every day asking yourself that question and all of a sudden the little things you can do on a daily basis will add up to that big thing you are looking for. 

Now here’s what’s so puzzling about being motivated by mastery.  According to Pink, mastery is not something that be achieved.  You can pursue it but you can’t actually touch it.  Which means we are chasing after something intangible.  Even golf legend Tiger Woods can never reach mastery – there will always be that next level, a tweak to his stroke or a new competitor to challenge him. 

Why, then, would someone pursue something that is impossible to reach?  It’s the draw of the idea of it – the challenge, the allure.  If you enjoy the process, why not chase mastery?  In sport, we often hear about the idea of chasing that perfect race where it all comes together.  A few years ago, an athlete who had been to worlds, completed many Ironmans, disclosed to me that she does the sport for that.  She was seeking the perfect race.  But does it exist?  For many of us, the thrill of the process of finding out can be what keeps us coming back to endurance challenges.

And I think this is why we last.  Because this pursuit will never get old.  Seeking the best out of yourself, finding that next level, enjoying the experience – when your experience is anchored by these feelings, it will always be enjoyable.  It will always be motivating.  The moment you stop feeling enjoyment from it, is the moment you’ve lost your motivation.  Motivation definitely ebbs and flows throughout a season.  A few low days does not mean it’s time to quit the sport.  But if it’s becoming a chore, it’s probably time to leave it – for now.  The best thing about athletics is that you can always come back to them when you’re ready. 

The topic of motivation is timely.  Here in the Midwest, winter it settling in upon us.  It’s about to get very dark and very cold.  For months.  The days where you need to get up early to drive to the pool in an icy corner, run outside with the bite of the wind on your face, endless circles going nowhere on your trainer.  It’s time to dig deep within the motivation well.  Know your reasons.  Why are you doing this?  Look inside and ask yourself.  Find your motivation and drive!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sponsorship 101


In the past week, I’ve gotten a few questions about applying for sponsorships.  I thought it might be helpful to pass on some helpful tips for triathletes interested in working with sponsors.

The first question most athletes have is: should I apply for a sponsorship?  Any level of athlete is a good athlete to sponsor.  While some programs are seeking top age group/elite competitors, many are interested in sponsoring motivated athletes with a solid vision of what they can do for their sponsor.  Whether you have age group winning results or just a strong passion for the sport, consider applying for sponsorships.  It’s not just for the elites. 

Next, athletes wonder what they can expect from a sponsor.  Not payment nor free product.  Many sponsors are more willing to provide you with discounts.  Some ask you to wear a race kit or logo.  Some require you to participate in specific races.  Some ask you to pay a fee to buy into a program that provides you a specific brand of bike, shoes, wetsuit, etc.  Some require you to blog about their products.  Some ask you to tweet about their products a certain number of times per week.  Some are teams that ask you to attend training camps.  Know what a sponsor expects and be sure you can meet their demands.

Then, you’ll need to decide which companies you’ll ask for sponsorship.  Look at all of the products you currently use or would like to use: socks, race gear, wheels, helmet, glasses, nutrition, supplements, tires, hydration systems, etc.  Think beyond the triathlon box.  What do you frequently use? Food companies, a local store, a local bank, online services, clothing, etc.  Make a comprehensive list, being as creative as possible.

Next, visit each company’s website.  Many websites have information on sponsorship programs, online applications or contact information for sponsorship coordinators.  For companies without this information, inquire on their “contact us” page, explaining your interest in applying for a sponsorship.  On your list (above), write any specifics required, contact information or deadlines for applying to keep yourself organized in the process.

Next up: it’s time to apply.  

If the company doesn’t have a specific application to complete, you’ll need to find a way to introduce yourself and your intent.  To do this, create a cover letter.  Keep it succinct, professional and with purpose.  Start by introducing yourself (ie., My name is ___ and I’m an age group triathlete).  Then, explain your purpose for writing (I’m writing to seek any level of support or sponsorship for the upcoming 2013 triathlon season).  Next, briefly describe yourself.  Include any results, involvements in the multisport community (ie., coaching, volunteering, teaching, etc), affiliations with sports-related groups (ie., masters teams, running groups, tri clubs) and your location (I live in suburbs of Chicago, with a growing multisport community).
Now, here comes the most important part.  More important than who you are or what you’ve done, tell them what you’re going to do for them.  Start with your upcoming season schedule (In 2013, I plan to race a variety of local and national-level races providing you with widespread coverage in multisport communities).  Then, tell them how you’re going to support their brand or product.  Here are a few ideas:


-Wearing their logo in training and racing
-Distributing product or product information
-Speaking on their behalf at local meetings or outings
-Volunteering on their behalf at local races
-Testing new products or writing product reviews
-Promoting their products on social media
-Reviewing or promoting their products on your blog

Attached to your cover letter should be a race resume.  As with a professional resume, include your name (and contact information) as the header and present the information in an organized, easy to read manner.  You may also wish to include a photo of yourself in sport action.  The race resume should include the following:

-Your last season’s race results (include race name, location, date, placement)
-Awards and achievements (ie., USAT All American)
-Groups and affiliations
-Certifications or licenses
-2013 proposed season schedule

Some companies encourage creativity in your materials but be professional and send the most clean, correct version of your materials as possible.  Have a friend review your materials for proper grammar and spelling.  Be sure to include anything they specifically ask for: pictures, spreadsheets, essays.

Before you send anything off, read the fine print of any contract you’re asked to sign.  There might be deadlines, race requirements, media or education incentives to fulfill or rules for logo display.  Know what you’re getting into.  If you’re committed, representing a brand is an honor but also a responsibility.  Make sure you are genuinely interested in the companies you accept sponsorship from.  In the past, I’ve made mistakes in accepting sponsors only to realize it wasn’t a good fit because I didn’t feel comfortable promoting something I didn’t understand.  Choose your sponsors wisely. 

Above all, see sponsorship as a partnership.  What’s in it for me is not as important as what you’re going to do for them.  If you’re really passionate about a product or a company, you want to tell people all about it in any way possible.  Do your part and do what you say you’ll do.  This goes beyond wearing a kit or having good results, be a good ambassador for your sponsor – your actions and appearance represent a brand not there to speak for itself. 

Many sponsorship deadlines are coming up.  Most companies make decisions by the end of the year.  Some offer yearlong sponsorships, others offer 2 to 3 year agreements.  If you don’t get accepted, expect a letter or email saying so.  But don’t let that discourage you from reapplying in the future.  Many sponsors accept athletes based on geographical needs or specific “markets” they’re looking to fill.  They just might need you in the future.

Good luck!

Monday, November 05, 2012

Finding A Coach


Around this time of year, many athletes start looking for a coach.  Deciding to hire a coach is a big decision – there is money, time and trust involved.  Not only that but searching for a coach can be complicated.  Over the past few years, there has been a boom in the number of coaches.  Learning how to sort through the choices can be overwhelming.  Where do you even begin?

Know what you’re looking for.  Everyone from complete beginners to elite athletes employ coaches for a number of reasons; change, direction, organization, motivation, accountability, variety.  Why are you seeking a coach?  Some athletes want the accountability of knowing that someone is “on the other end” keeping tabs on whether or not they are completing workouts.  Some want a fresh approach to a sport they’ve been doing for many years.  Others need help balancing the sport with their job and families.  And yet others seek motivation.  Knowing what you’re looking for from a coach is the one of the first steps in going about finding one.
 
Look at it like an interview.  Ask questions of the coach that will help you understand if you will be able to get what you’re looking for.  Choose a few potential candidates to interview.  Have a list of questions you feel will yield answers to give you a better idea of who the coach is and what they do best with athletes.  An email is a great way to introduce yourself and send your questions.  

Now, it’s time to write the inquiry.

Start the conversation with who you are.  Obviously you are a triathlete but who you are beyond that is much, much more important.  Do you work a 40 hour a week job outside of your home?  Is it high stress, high energy or low key?  Do you have kids?  What about your commute?  How old are you?  What’s your experience level in the sport?  Have you lost significant weight or do you have significant weight to lose?  Do you have a history of health problems, disordered eating, etc.  Do you have any limiting injuries?  Dietary restraints?  Limited hours for training?  All of these factors will give the coach a better idea of who you are and if they’ll be a good fit for you. 

Next, what do you hope to do?  Finish or win your age group?  Complete a sprint or a few years down the road complete an Ironman?  Which events have you signed up for this season?  What have you already done?  List out some of your results, including splits.  This will help the coach to better understand your athletic performance and if your current goals are realistic.  Be honest about your goals and choose a coach experienced enough to understand what it takes to achieve them.

Then, ask the coach some questions:

What’s your approach?  There’s a lot of talk about high volume/low volume, high intensity, etc.  Know that just because an approach is high volume doesn’t mean that it’s high quality.  And just because something is high intensity doesn’t mean that it’s better than consistent, aerobic work.  A successful approach includes the following: individuality (your program should be tailored to who you are and what you want to do), specificity (your program should prepare you for the specific demands of your peak events), sustainability (your program should promote injury-free longevity in the sport).  The specific details about the approach: volume, intensity, frequency – should change based on who the athlete is and what they want to do.  Approaches are not formulas – they are highly variable and sensitive to the athlete’s unique needs.

Do you integrate data into your approach?  Power meters, Garmins – these are all tools that a coach and athlete can use to supplement their experience.  Find out just how heavily your coach relies on these tools.  Some coaches require you to upload daily and base everything on charts and science.  Others combine science and art.  Still others go entirely by feel – writing workouts based on perceived exertion.  Make sure you are comfortable with the level of data they do or do not use.  

Which types of athletes do you prefer to coach?  This is a question that any good coach must answer.  Some coaches are very much experts and have a hard time diluting their information enough to make it usable for more beginner athletes.  Other coaches enjoy showing someone how to clip in to their bike.  Ask your coach about the flavor of their roster – is it mostly beginners?  Men?  Younger athletes?  What about masters athletes?  How do they adapt their approach/style for the different groups?  Who do they most enjoy working with and who they find most difficult to work with in sport?  

What have you accomplished with athletes?  This doesn’t necessarily mean that every athlete is winning – what you want to see is athletes who consistently improve, reach goals or set PRs.  These days, many coaches list their athlete results on a website or social media.  Take a look around.  Look for success at all levels and success over time.  Many coaches have that one outlier who can win everything or do amazing things with very little training.  Does this mean they are a great coach?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Look for athletes with long term progress with the coach.  Ask for examples.  Also ask: how long do athletes usually stay with the coach?  What are some of the things they’ve achieved with athletes over time

How do you communicate?  How will you receive workouts – by email/PDF, Training Peaks or other site?  How often do they post schedules?  How many changes can you ask for?  What about general communication?  Are you limited to a specific number of emails or calls?  How often can you expect to hear from the coach?  How often do they expect to hear from you?  Any good coach should be seeking as much information as possible to effectively coach you.  You should receive a response within a few hours during typical “business” hours.  They should communicate times when they will have a delayed response rate and prepare accordingly for vacations or other days away.

What else do you do?  Someone who is balancing coaching with working full-time outside of the home might not be as accessible or focused as you’d like.  What activities is your coach involved in?  Do they have office hours?  If your coach competes, ask how they balance coaching and racing.  Are they available on weekends (you race on weekends – they should be!)?  How accessible are they by phone, in person, text, email and which mode is the most important to you?  While coaches need boundaries with their athletes, a good coach should be available (especially during racing season). 

What do you do to further your education?  This is one of the biggest areas any coach can use to separate themselves from what often feels like a market oversaturated with coaches.  As a starting point, there is the USA Triathlon coaching certification program.  Is it a necessary point?  Hard to say.  But it’s at least a start that the coach has a very basic knowledge of triathlon and is being required to do extra work to retain their certification.  Beyond that, ask the coach what they’ve done to further their education.  Do they have other certifications?  Do they attend workshops?  What was the last book they read about coaching or sport?  A good coach stays on top of the trends and continually looks for ways to improve their education base.  While the “basics” of endurance sport will never change (after all, it’s consistent work over time that yields fitness and progress), a coach should seek out different perspectives (even from other sports!) to stay fresh.

How would you go about achieving my goals with me, the athlete?  In this question, you’re asking the coach about their master plan.  Good coaches have a long-term vision for how to approach your entire year.  Coaching is not writing day to day workouts – that’s the easy part!  Building up someone to peak at the right time and work on their weaknesses when it matters most takes careful planning.  How does your coach organize an annual training plan?  What will it include?  How will they measure whether or not you are progressing towards your goals?  How will they help you improve technique?  You’re making a huge investment not only financially but with your time, your energy and your love for the sport.  Make sure the coach has a plan!

What’s your fee?  This is not where to start a coaching conversation but eventually it will go there.  As someone who has worked with several coaches, coaching quality does not correlate to coaching fee.  The most expensive coach I ever worked with was the poorest in terms of quality, reliability and communication.  Don’t be afraid to inquire to a coach because you “think” they will be too expensive.  In my past coaching searches, I made a list of everyone I would ever want to be coached by and then – I just asked.  You have nothing to lose.  Chances are most coaches who are worth it are much more affordable that you think.
 
Ask for athlete references.  A coach should be willing to give you the name of 2 to 3 different types of athletes they’ve worked with.  This goes beyond testimonials on the site – you’ll only find the good stuff there!  Chances are a reference is going to say mostly good things but don’t be afraid to ask what the coach’s weakness is or what’s one thing the athlete wishes the coach would change.    

As with any investment you consider making in life, there are some precautions. 

Expect the good, the bad and the ugly.  Most athletes hire a coach for performance.  That performance might be just finishing or flat out winning – but if you seek performance, coaches assume you are motivated enough to do the work to get there without someone cheerleading you into it.  This is not to say that a good coach never sends a motivational email or a kudos from time to time.  But they should be as interested in communicating the good as the bad.  Remember, good coaches tell you things you want to hear and what you don’t want to hear.  You employ a coach to improve performance.  Doing so requires change and honesty.  Be prepared to be open to this process!

A good athlete doesn’t always make a good coach.  Beware choosing a coach based on what they’ve done in sport.  While someone who has qualified for Kona or achieved elite status might be familiar with the work required to excel at sport, that doesn’t mean they have the ability to effectively communicate or plan what will work with you.  A twenty-something male who can train 20-30 hours a week to get to Kona might have limited perspective when working with a stay at home mom in her 40s with 3 kids.  Choose who will work best with you.  Not who the best athlete is out there. 

Experience matters most.  The coach should have experience.  Whether that experience is coaching or competing, the coach should have an understanding of the demands specific to the sport and how to prepare for what you want to do.  In other words, hiring a cycling coach for triathlon doesn’t make much sense.  Being someone’s first athlete on their roster is also a huge risk.  New coaches should look to partner with more experienced coaches, volunteer with teams or complete mentorships where they can learn the art and the science of coaching.  Practical experience far beats anything you’ll ever learn in a book or seminar.

Communication is key.  Be prepared to communicate with your coach.  In my opinion, more is more.  The athlete who provides feedback daily can be coached more effectively.  Follow the plan.  And if you can’t follow the plan, ask for help in rearranging it.  Keep us in the loop about everything: travel, illness, schedule changes.  If you have questions, ask.  If you have ideas, share.  If you have fears, admit them – we can help!  Overcommunicate – subjectively, objectively, and yes, we’ve heard it all.  Don’t be afraid to tell us that you’re sick, constipated, expecting your period or fighting with your spouse.  All of these can influence your recovery and your fitness! 

Be coachable.  After all of the questions and before you make a commitment, step back and ask yourself: am I coachable?  Coachable athletes are motivated, committed and open to change.  They are what I call “good soldiers” – with the ability to commit to the system, put their head down and get the work done.  At times they might question the work or themselves but in general they are comfortable with someone navigating the ship and their ability to do the work presented to them.  That said, the coach you choose to navigate your ship should be worthy of your trust, your well-being, your performance and your health.  Remember, a good coach does more than write workouts: they provide guidance with recovery, emotions, thoughts, race planning, equipment, nutrition and more.  Coaching is an immense opportunity and responsibility for any coach out there. 

Choose wisely!



Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Season Review


The end of the season is the perfect time to reflect back on the past season and then look ahead.  Before you can even start thinking about where you want to go next year, honestly assess where you went and how it went for this year.  A simple way to review your season is to answer 3 basic questions: what worked, what didn’t work, what needs work.  You can also break down your season into categories; swim, bike, run, racing, training, consistency, recovery, testing/progress, nutrition, equipment, mental.  Answer the 3 basic questions for each category to get a snapshot of how things went.  Sometimes just taking the time to ask yourself the question generates obvious answers that are easily within your control to change or improve.

Let’s now take a comprehensive look at everything that plays into your season’s success.   

Training

Take a look at your training log and ask yourself: how did it go?  Get in the habit of keeping subjective and objective details of your daily training.  Read through a few weeks – were there trends that indicated you would soon be tired?  What led to your best sessions?  Were the busiest times at work also where you got that little niggle in your ankle?  Do you have less time for training when your kids are on summer vacation?  Was there a pattern to your training, balancing work with recovery?  Start to put together your formula from the patterns that emerge. 

Also ask: what were the most helpful sessions?  What did you enjoy the least?  Was there a pattern to your weekly workouts that left you feeling energized?  Do you do better with a long run during the week or on weekends?  How about intensity?  It’s easy for everyone to enjoy intense sessions but did they leave you feeling overworked?  Were long sessions to depleting? Which workouts did you fear the most? Which did you look forward to?  Answers to these questions will help you and your coach better understand the best path for you next season.

Step back and assess the "big" picture.  What’s your plan for training?  Is there a plan or is it haphazardly based on the weather or available time?  Having a master plan helps you define not only where you want to go but how you’re going to get there.  Your training should have specific cycles based on your strengths, your weaknesses, when your peak races occur and the demands required for them.  There should be clear weeks of work and clear weeks of stepping back.  Training should be progressive, building upon what you’ve done in the weeks before.  Plan how to do the right training at the right time. 

Swim, Bike & Run:

How did your swim go this year?  Did you improve your swim pace or did it stay the same?  If your swim held you back, consider your swim form, fitness and frequency.  If form, hook up with an experienced swim specific coach to work on your stroke, once a week for 8-12 weeks.  If fitness, consider joining a quality masters program and learn to work at varied paces.  If frequency, SWIM MORE.  December is a good time to try a swim heavy month: swim 5-6x a week for at least 30 minutes at a time.  More advanced athletes should consider one day where they swim twice.  A powerful punch of swimming like this often boosts an athlete to that next level, at a time of the year where there’s really not much else going on!

How did things go with the bike?  What’s holding you back?  Equipment, fitness, strength or frequency?  If fitness and strength, GET A POWER METER!  An entire winter’s worth of trainer work will take on a whole new level with a power meter.  Include 1-2 shorter, more intense training sessions during the winter where you work on improving your FTP.  If frequency – just ride!  Ride to work, ride to the coffee shop – time in the saddle works.  If equipment, now is the time of the year to look at year end closeouts for deals on equipment upgrades. 

What about running?  What’s holding you back?  Durability, frequency, fitness or speed?  If durability, work on your body composition, look to changing your shoes, strength train with purpose, consider running more off road to protect yourself.  If frequency, simple: run more frequently – short, frequent runs add up!  Even shorter, twice a day running adds up to more running (which sets you up for more speed).  What about speed, is that holding you back?  Stop running long and slow, it will only make you run long and slow.  Do some 5Ks.  Run hills.  Include strides.  All of these things will improve your speed without doing intensive speedwork.  Is fitness holding you back?  Base your training on current heart rate or pace zones.  Stop following heart rate guidelines that were not specifically designed for you.  Heck, stop using your heart rate monitor and run by feel for a month and learn how to trust your inner dial. 

Testing & Progress:

Over the course of the year, you should see progress in your swim pace, bike power and run pace.  What we’re looking for are consistent ways to measure your progress.  Using race splits or bike speed or open water pace are not necessarily useful as these are influenced by things beyond our control; course measurement, wind, hills, current, waves.  Compare what you can accurately and consistently measure.  Doing a bike test on the trainer is something we can replicate over and over again.  If you’re not seeing measurable progress, ask yourself why.  Training?  Illness?  Injury?  Motivation?  If you see a pattern of under-performing or missing your race goals, look to yourself but also look to your training plan.  Also, be sure you are realistically evaluating yourself.  The more of a beginner you are, the bigger the gains you’ll make in progress.  The more experienced you are, the harder you have to work for every single second!

Consistency:

Fitness and progress come from consistency over time.  The more interruptions you have in your training, the less you will continue on an upward trend of gaining fitness.  Illness, injury, work travel, vacations, periods of low motivation – these are all interruptions to overall consistency.  Look back at your year of training and racing – note any interruptions and then reflect on why.  Missed races, missed training days, big weeks that got derailed.  Think about why it happened and then create an action plan should it happen again.  

Travel presents an inconvenient interruption for many working athletes.  With a little research into what’s available and planning, you should be able to work around any days away.  Never underestimate the power of a 20 minute workout on a day when you think you won’t be able to get anything done.  A 10 minute out and back run is better for consistency than taking a day off.  Body strength routines, climbing stairs – you can fake a workout just about anywhere without having too many holes in your schedule.  Plan major work trips or vacations around “step back” weeks so you don’t have as much pressure to train and can lessen your workload. 

Illness is another costly interruption.  Most illness comes from compromised immune function.  Improper diet, poor recovery, excessive training, lack of sleep, stress – these will impair your immune function.  Commit to make changes to not only how you train but how you recover from your training.  Take on only as much training as you can realistically handle with balancing your “real” life demands.  Furthermore, respect your body when it’s sick.  It’s a signal that your body is fighting and needs some rest.  Listen to it and don’t push through. 

Avoiding injury is the goal of every season.  Like illness, there’s always a reason for injury – too much training, too little recovery, poor diet, improper equipment.  Look at when, where and why your injury occurred.  Form an action plan on how to avoid it – commit to spending 10 minutes each night on self-massage, schedule a bi-monthly active release therapy appointment, go to a weekly yoga class.  Address your problem areas, be sure that your equipment is suitable for your body, form, experience level and training load.

Racing:

Assess your race results.  Write them all out in a chart where you list splits, placement, data.  With all of these numbers, a pattern should emerge.  Were you moving up in your age group percentage?  Was your bike pacing improving in similar races on similar courses?  How about your power output?  Were you able to hit your race ranges?  How was your variability?  How was your execution of a fuel plan?  Did you demonstrate ability to troubleshoot and make sound decisions within the race?  Make some notes next to each race about: what worked, what didn’t work.  Keep these notes on record to review next year before your races.   If your race results improved over the year, congratulations, that is the point of training.  If your results stagnated or worsened, ask yourself why?  If you excel at training but struggle at racing, learn how to put together a race plan and then execute it.  Learn how to troubleshoot and strategize while racing.  Plan a routine for the days before the race, night before, morning of and post-race.  Preparation is confidence.  Confidence is PERFORMANCE in racing!  .  

Nutrition

Understanding the connection between what you eat and how you recover/perform is key to better performance.  Look back at times you had your best races, times you got sick – what was your diet like?  Learning when to remove fiber, timing of your meals and how to fuel before/during/after workouts and races is something you must commit to for progress and recovery. The best approach to nutrition is one that is simple and sustainable.  If you are stressed about how to make your special “diet” happen, it’s not worth it.  Furthermore, separate media, glamour and what everyone else is doing from what is actually right FOR YOU.  While there may be outliers who can tolerate extreme diets, in general keep your diet simple, sustainable, well-rounded, wholesome and high quality.  If you’re struggling, consult with a professional to learn how and what to eat. Go to and trust the experts – and learn who is an expert, someone with the letters “RD” behind their name! 

Look at how your weight trended over the past season – did you gain?  Lose?  What about body fat percentage?  Many athletes get stuck on the idea of “race weight” pulling some magical number out of the sky that they have always wanted to see on the scale.  Your race weight is the weight at which you recover and perform the best.  You might run faster at a lower weight but if you are not healthy at that weight, it is not your race weight.  Moreover, understand that you should achieve race weight by race day and not a day earlier.  And, your goal should not be a number on the scale, rather a pattern of eating and health that allows you to train consistently, recover and improve throughout the year.  Be realistic about your weight.  

Recovery

Want to get faster?  Improve your recoverability.  Here’s how:  Train smarter.  Eat better.  Sleep more.  Stress less.  Compression, supplements, massage, recovery boots – all of that stuff is nice fluff to add on top of the other things that you actually must do to recover better.  The quicker you can recover from a workout, the more work you can do.  Take an honest look at the recovery needed to make gains from your training sessions.  Most age group athletes can handle 1 – 2 “key” sessions in a sport per week.  Sometimes “key” means “race specific pacing” while other times it means “intensity”.  Just because something is “hard” doesn’t mean it’s effective training.  Athletes tend to fall into patterns of two days of work, two days of rest or alternating hard and easy days.  Neither is right for you unless it actually works for you.  Learn to listen to your body’s rhythms and cues.

Aside from your pattern of workouts, sleep is critical for recovery.  Not just quantity but quality!  Consider the quality of your sleep during your biggest training blocks in the past year.  If you had frequently interrupted sleep, you perhaps reached too far or recovered too little.  This is useful information in planning out your next season.  If you find yourself having trouble falling asleep, consider doing workouts earlier or spacing out meals further from bedtime.  If you wake up between 1 – 2 am, this is a classic sign that you are not meeting your recovery carbohydrate needs.  Learn to fuel properly before, during and after workouts.  If you wake up around 4 am, this is indicative of disrupted cortisol patterns which can arise from stress (either personal, training or the stress or improper fueling).  Lessen that stress load (which is often most easily done and quickly repaired by removing the training stress).

Nutrition is the other major piece of recovery (I’ve already covered that!).

Mental

You might need some help with this one, as it’s not often easy to see our own weaknesses.  How’s your head?  When you get stressed or tired, where do your thoughts go?  Did you have any workout failures – what happened in your head?   How do you handle setbacks, failures or tests?  How do you feel on race morning?  Do you need to work on your confidence, focus, your perspective?  The mind is easily ignored but the driving force behind your best training and racing.  How to improve your mental game?  Read books, articles weekly on how to become a better athlete.  Put what you read into practice.  Believe in yourself and your abilities.  Stop overthinking.  Stop worrying about what other people think.  Disconnect from social media, learn to listen to the thoughts in your head.  Practice having a quiet mind once a day.  Visualize the athlete you want to be – in training and racing.  Truly “be” the athlete you want to be.  Commit to training your brain at least once a week starting today. 

Motivation also falls under the mental category and can be a major interruptive factor that ebbs and flows throughout the year.  Did you frequently suffer from motivation lows?  Low motivation can be a red flag that you are under recovering.  As your body gets stressed and hormones get imbalanced from training, work stress, personal stress – you get “tapped out” in a sense and find it hard to find joy or desire in doing things you once loved. If you find yourself approaching that edge, respect it and take a step back until you find your fire again.  What about timing – were you on fire in the spring and cooked by the summer?  Some athletes are naturally more motivated to perform well early in the season while others can sustain focus long into the fall.  Consider the type of athlete you are and arrange your next season’s schedule accordingly. 

An honest look at the season behind you is the only way to improve the season ahead of you.  Share this review with your coach to launch a valuable conversation on how to keep striving towards your best performances.  Or, consult with a coach to see how they can help.  Above all, consistently seek to improve yourself!  This means a willingness to change and accepting that change is never easy.  In his book, The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer says, “In order to do things we’ve never done before, we’ve got to do things we’ve never done before.”  A simple way of saying: if you want change, you’ve got to change!  Look at your season to find ways you can change (and improve) what you’ve been doing to get closer to your success!  


Monday, October 22, 2012

Choke


Last weekend, I visited family out in Seattle.  On the way back home, I picked up a book in the airport, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To by Sian Bellock.  Initially flipping through it, I worried that it would be too technical.  A few hours later after finishing it, I found it to be one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

As a coach and athlete, I am very interested in the science of optimal performance.  In other words, how people perform at their best when it matters most.  Certainly this has a lot to do with art and science of an athlete’s training and physiology.  But I’ve found it has even more to do with cognitive science – the mind.  How does an athlete perform their best under pressure?  And if they fall short, why? Choke seeks to answer that.

It helps first to define what it means to choke.  According to Bellock, “choking under pressure is poor performance that occurs in response to the perceived stress of the situation.”  Highly stressful situations cause the athlete to either overthink something that is usually automatic or under-focus on something that needs more attention.  For example, the athlete thinks so intently about their run form during a race that they forget to pace themselves.  Though the athlete may have practiced both pacing and fueling in their training, the stress of the situation caused changes in their own behavior that led to choking.  Bellock explores how and why that happens.  

Stressful situations cause worry.  Worry and self-doubt can impair the brain’s ability to function properly.  When we worry, we try to exert control on actions or processes that are automatic.  For example, a basketball player making a free throw.  Shooting the ball into the hoop is not necessarily difficult – it’s something they do in every practice and game many, many times.  The action has become automatic in their brain.  But unique feelings, pressures or perceptions of that athlete or the situation can turn this very simple task into a choke.  Often because the athlete tries to exert control on the outcome.  In other words, it’s the game winning shot, you’re at the free throw line, the crowd is hissing and your team is relying on you.  At a time when you should just go with the flow and do what you know how you to do, you try to control the outcome and focus intently on making the shot, going so far as to tell yourself don’t miss this shot.  What you don’t want to happen often happens – you choke. 

How then does an athlete prepare for this?  One of the more interesting concepts was pressure training.  Many athletes are able to perform well and execute their plan in training.  However, come race day, they get completely derailed.  Studies have shown that when people practice in an environment with no pressure, when they are put under pressure, they indeed will choke.  Stressful situations, like a race, tend to increase your self-awareness and propensity for trying to control the outcome.   All of a sudden, the “pressure” of your finishing time or nabbing that Kona slot throws you off your game.  You’re hyperattentive to every move you make, you become more rigid, you overthink, you overanalyze, you get scared.  What you’ve done a few dozen times in training – times, paces, strategies, go completely out the window because of the stress. 

How, then, do you prepare for the stress of race day?  Practices where mild levels of stress are stimulated teach the athlete how stay calm, cool and collected.  If you’ve ever read about Michael Phelps’ coach snapping Phelps’ goggles and then making him compete – this is pressure simulation.  Triathlon, being outside and combining 3 different sports, has many opportunities for highly stressful situations – chop in the water, rain or wind on the bike, heat on the run.  Training in low pressure situations (ie., always indoors) does not prepare you for how to handle the stressors.  Getting out there and dealing with conditions can familiarize you with how your body responds to stressors and how to work through them.   Moreover, racing ‘less important’ or smaller races throughout the season gets you used to the physical, emotional and mental pressures of racing – confronting them and learning new strategies for dealing with them. 

Not surprisingly, high performers tend to have difficulty downplaying the importance of high pressure situations which interferes with their ability to succeed.  Often, high performing athletes place a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed in order to live up to the expectations of their fans, sponsors and family.  In the case of a professional, their performance may impact their financial situation.  When so much is riding on their performance, it’s easy to overestimate the importance of your performance and therefore try to control it.  Therefore, perspective, or understanding that you are not defined by one dimension, alleviate some of the pressure you may feel.  Taking a few moments to think of your value from many dimensions, not just as an athlete, may show you that success or failure does not impact who you are permanently, it’s just another part of your experience.  In my own experience, this is why I feel many athletes are better athletes after a major life event (ie., injury, childbirth) – it simply reinforces that there is more to life than triathlon and whether they succeed or fail, it doesn’t impact who they are.

Some of the highest performers can also be the most self critical.  Thinking of yourself negatively or stereotyping leads to poor performance.  For example, perceiving yourself as a poor swimmer or a slow runner can become a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to choking.  Before races, setting aside a few minutes to reflect on your positive qualities has been shown to improve performance.  In fact, disclosure via expressive writing reduces negative thinking.  When you disclose your fear or worries, your brain has the ability to work better and you feel better.  Giving labels to emotions or reactions tends to lessen the emotional distress you may feel from pressure.  Subsequently, this frees your mind from unwanted thoughts and gives you something to focus on other than the negative.  Research has shown that writing about worries or stressors in your life for 20 minutes, every week, helps you focus on the tasks at hand and lessen the incidence of intrusive thoughts.  And intrusive thoughts are exactly what can lead to choking. 

Along the same lines as self-critical, the self-conscious athlete is also prone to choking.  The more you worry about what other people will think, the more anxious you become and the poorer you perform.  In the past few years, I’ve noticed an interesting trend among triathletes.  With the increase in social media, we tend to overemphasize the importance of what we’re doing and constantly place ourselves under the scrutiny of 789287489 followers.  Prior to big races, I encourage my athletes to disconnect from social media to alleviate this “imagined” pressure and focus on what’s really important – performing to please themselves.    

Choking can also be brought upon by spectators.  Athletes are more likely to focus on themselves and their performance when watched by a supportive (friends and family) audience which can lead to a poorer performance – although the athlete might feel like being watched by a supportive audience is actually less stressful.  The reason being that falling flat on your face in front of people you love can be very disappointing.  In other words, we want to impress our supporters.  To make sure we are successful enough to do this, we try to control what we’re doing so we can control the outcome.  When we try to control the outcome, we are more likely to choke.  Some athletes thrive when surrounded by their entire family on the sidelines.  Other athletes tend to choke.  Look back at your race history and decide who you perform better around. 

One of the challenges of triathlon coaching is that we are often working with what I call adult-onset athletes.  Working with someone who learned how to swim as an adult is completely different than working with someone who learned as a child.  Bellock discusses how the later someone learns, the more vulnerable they are to choking under pressure.  Children use a different type of memory for learning.  Adults try to control their performance in such a way that it actually disrupts it.  They overconcentrate and get stuck.  Paralysis by analysis.  When you learn something new, your brain is firing all over the place, trying to make connections and ingrain patterns.  As you approach more of an expert level, the brain calms down, with decreased activity in areas involved in action or performance.  As learning of a new skill progresses, your brain becomes more efficient and works less.  The skill becomes more fluid and less in need of control or attention.  When an athlete overthinks or tries to overcontrol, this interferes with automated skills.  Swimming is a great example as it is largely automatic.  The more an adult thinks about it, the more they tend to become rigid and cause the opposite of what they are seeking. 

Another interesting point: the more time you have to prepare for a performance due to a schedule change or delay, the more likely you are to choke.  During this time, you have time to overthink your performance.  In triathlon, race delays due to course safety or weather are common.  Having a distraction or calming strategy is key to not allowing this time to ‘throw you off your game’ or try to change your plan.  In other words, find ways to keep yourself from thinking (or overthinking) what should already be automatic. 

What happens if you’ve choked?  Those with a history of failure are, not surprisingly, more likely to choke.  As an athlete fears reinforcing negative expectations, they tend to overanalyze and interfere with performance.  So what to do?  The easy answer to preventing a choke is to simply tell someone to relax and let it flow, right?  Wrong – telling someone to relax often causes the opposite of what you are seeking.  Instead, it may help to learn meditation.  Meditation is effective at training the brain to discard negative thoughts.  In other words, when a stressful thought arises – acknowledge it, name it and then let it go.  Don’t try to change it, ignore or take action because of it.  Understand that it does not need to interfere with your performance.  We also know that negative self-talk or thinking about what you might lose from yet another failure can impact performance.  If you’ve choked in the past, don’t dwell on it.  Instead, rewire your brain.  Learned helplessness occurs when you revisit your failures without reworking them.  To get past this, revisit your failure.  Then, write about how you feel.  Next, think about what went wrong.  Lastly, plan performance changes for the next race. 

One of the key points that Bellock makes is, “holding on to thoughts and worries under stress leads to an inability to perform the tasks you are faced with, and learning how to control your mind so that you are able to hone your attention on what matters (and only what matters) is the real key to success under pressure.”  The major takeaway from Choke is that you can tie up a lot of your brainpower with unnecessary worry and perceived pressure in stressful situations.  Learning how to trust your stuff and not try to control the outcome is often the key to high performance.  Throughout the book, Bellock offers a lot of strategies for how to do this – ie., meditate, write about your worries, practice under pressure, reaffirm your self-worth, find a key word, distract yourself or think about the journey versus perseverating on the outcome. 

Bellock presents a lot of fascinating research and many more strategies to help you achieve optimal performance. I’ve barely scratched the surface here.  If you have some time, take a look at Choke to how it can make you a better athlete.  


Monday, October 15, 2012

Taking a Break

‘Tis the time of year to take a break.  The off season.  A controversial topic.  As soon as you say something about taking an off season someone inevitably chimes in with there is no off season!  It’s time to work on your weakness.  Improve your body composition.  Get a head start on next year!  There’s a lot of mixed messages out there.  Knowing what to do and – more importantly – what not to do can be confusing.  

Every September or so, I start to gently encourage my athletes to go away.  Take some unstructured time away from coaching.  It’s as good for the coach as it is for the athlete to take some time off.  During the fall, I look forward to a lighter workload.  Every coach needs time to step away – to find new ideas, to read, to think, to rekindle their passion for coaching.  By the time November rolls around, I’m as charged up about another year of coaching as my athletes are about racing.

Around the same time, as an athlete, I give my body (and mind) downtime.  This time is critical for your physical, social and mental health.  As much as I enjoy structure, there comes a time each year when I enjoy stepping away from structure, from “having” to do something to only doing what I want to.  I lessen the training volume, frequency and intensity.  I forget about how far or how fast and instead think in terms of how fun.  I put away my Garmin, I turn off my power meter, I don’t even look at the pace clock.  I don’t worry about what I eat.  I drink a lot of wine.  I reconnect with friends and family.

After being in this sport many seasons, I can assure you that when you take an off season, you emerge on the other side with the renewed energy and health for your next season.  But this is not easy.  There's the fear of getting fat, unfit and losing feel for everything.  No one believes that you can take time off and still improve your fitness.  But it does happen (it just take patience and confidence).  The more confident, the more experienced, the more successful an athlete is, the more they accept (and look forward to!) the off season.  They take time to recharge their body, reconnect with friends/family and tune out triathlon for a few weeks.  They see rest as a stepping stone to that next level.  Some of my fastest years were years I took about 3 weeks off - completely.  Nothing.  No swim, no bike, no run.  No core.  No yoga. 

“deep rest”

This is not easy.  Triathlon can be a sport of hard-driving, overachieving, more is better and better WINS attitude that has you firing on all cylinders all year round.  Rest is a dirty word.  But the athletes who have been around the longest – consistently cranking out performance year after year – they have mastered the art of rest.  The athlete who struggles with the off season usually falls into one of the following categories:

Insecure: It takes a great deal of confidence and trust to rest.  In order to rest, you have to trust that you'll have the ability to rebuild your fitness to a point beyond where you are at now.  You have to let go of any fear of losing fitness, getting fat or slow – these are all things that may happen to some degree but they can all be turned around once you start training again. 

If lack of confidence is your limiter, take that extra time you have from not training and work on your mental fitness.  You might also consider talking with a coach to find a plan you fully trust so you can let go of these fears and insecurities.  

Losing Fitness:  Many athletes fear losing fitness.  They go from Ironman to marathon to early season half Ironman.  Eventually, they end up producing one stale, underperformance after another.  Or, they get injured.   Any advantage they gain from keeping the momentum going is usually lost through the inconsistency that comes with illness or injury.  They simply never give their battery a chance to recharge.  Hormonally and energy-wise, they get tapped out and plateau (or even start to go backwards). 

Research has shown that deconditioning occurs after just a few weeks and fit individuals do take longer to regain their fitness than those less fit.  However, I’ve done my own research.  And my most impressive gains in the sport came after a long period of time off – pregnancy!  This experience gave me more confidence that you can take time off, rebuild and then exceed your past fitness.  Time off, especially for endurance athletes, is not something to fear or avoid.  Often, it might be just what you need to reset your system.

Obsessive:  This sport attracts a lot of athletes with obsessive-compulsive needs to tick off points in their training log rather than seek performance.  You have to decide which category you fall into.  If you are interested in performance, do what you know you need to do rather than what you think you need to do.  In addition, the obsessive athlete usually has disconnected from other outside interests.  They’ve abandoned other hobbies and their social life.  So the thought of stepping away from triathlon feels isolating and boring.

Obsessive athletes who struggle with the off season tend to focus more on what they can’t do versus what they can do.  I make a list of everything I can (and want!) to do in the off season.  This list contains family festivals, social engagements, work projects, weekend trips, classes and household chores.  I plan out these events as I would my races!  Pour that obsession into something else! I also focus on what I can do that I can’t do at other times of the year – yoga, long walks, family bike rides.  It’s also a great time to try something new.
  
Eating Disorder:  Eating disordered behavior is very prevalent in this sport, in men and women.  Disordered behavior can be restricted eating, obsession with the details of what they eat, eating too well or too little or binging/exercise purging. 

This category is a struggle for many athletes.  So many of us feel that eating as we wish or eating dessert a few nights a week is one of the “perks” of a higher load of training.  And especially with the holidays coming up – it’s hard to exercise restraint or not feel guilty if you’re not burning it off!  But, if you’re training for permission to eat – you’re not training for performance.  Learn to separate how you feel about training with how you feel about food.  Give yourself permission to enjoy yourself, for both training and eating.  There is nothing wrong with “just” doing a 30 minute run and calling yourself done for the day.  There is also nothing wrong with eating a piece of pie (or two) on Thanksgiving – food is fun, food is family, food is comforting.  Let go of the guilt!

So how do you properly implement an off season?  Depends on what happened this past season.   

If you’re coming off a typical season of up to 8 races of mixed distances (not an Ironman), take a few weeks of light, unstructured activity.  How many weeks?  Depends (see below).  And what is a light activity?  Let’s talk about what it is not.  It’s not going out for a 3 hour group ride.  It’s not joining your friend who’s training for the marathon for a 17 miler.  It’s not jumping into a cyclocross race followed the next day by a 5K.  It is going for an easy spin with a few spin ups.  It is running a new trail with a few strides.  It might be going for an easy swim with a few short and fast 25s.  Keep some short “speed” work in there to maintain or improve feel or form for faster movements.  Avoid long and slow.  As endurance athletes we do plenty of long and slow – and for most of us, that is not our limiter!  And, ease into a consistent functional strength routine that is purposeful and specific to the sport.  Don’t just do stuff that makes you tired or sore – do stuff that makes you a better triathlete.

If you’re coming off a late season Ironman, avoid taking time completely off.  Instead, do a cool down to your season.  Your body is used to a certain stimulus of workouts and to “pull the plug” so to speak can create hormonal havoc.  Athletes who completely stop after Ironman tend to get sick or injured upon returning to workouts.  Take 7 to 10 days after Ironman to do light (20 to 40 minute) swims and bikes to cool down from the year.  Then, take some time off completely (if you mentally or physically feel you need it) or slowly rebuild your training.

If you were frequently sick, take a few weeks of light, unstructured activity and consider gaining a few pounds.  Immune function is influenced by diet, sleep, inflammation, improper recovery – and, more importantly, hormones.  If you are frequently getting upper respiratory infections or illnesses, it’s a sign of a system stressed.  Especially female athletes who are smaller, follow a restrictive pattern of eating or train excessively get into a situation of low energy availability where they simply cannot replace what they are burning quickly enough.  They try to exist in this state all year, maintaining race weight at times when it’s not appropriate (nor necessary!).  They become depleted and this creates stress.  Stress impairs immune function. Studies have shown that gaining a few pounds can counteract the stress of excessive exercise, even without making any changes to your exercise routine.  Consider carrying more weight throughout the year for overall health and immune function.  Remember, race weight is only worth it if you can get to race day healthy and ready to race.

If you were frequently injured or had a niggling injury throughout the year, take some time off from the offending activity.  The goal is to fully heal (and further prevent) your pain by getting to the bottom of your injury.  Most injuries are caused by the wrong training at the wrong time, by doing too much too often, poor recovery/diet or by using improper equipment/form.  Consider which category you fall into.  Explore massage, active release therapy, yoga, physical therapy, new equipment, professional fittings, form analysis – hit it from all angles so it doesn’t carry over into another season.  If your injury was a stress fracture, consider evaluating your overall training load, structure and especially your diet.   

Lastly, if your season felt like a series of great training days followed by not so great races – take some time completely off.  You’re probably carrying around too much fatigue.  This might be solved by better training, better tapering but first you need to rest.  This is a hard sell as these are the athletes who are often the most resistant to rest, feeling that hard work or old habits are the key to digging themselves out of the rut.  Don’t keep digging.  First, get out of the hole.  These athletes also tend to be self-coached, lacking the clarity (and restraint) needed to see the most simple solution to their problems – rest! 

Do you need to take time completely off?  Maybe.  But after about 1 week of “nothing” I feel ready to do “something” again.  At that point, I assess my body and mind.  Are all of my aches and pains from the season gone?  Am I sleeping well?  Am I emotionally level?  How does my skin look?  How’s my appetite?  Keep in mind that all of these factors are also influenced by hormones.  Endurance sport is very hard on your hormones.  As our hormones rebalance, we feel a sense of well-being, we feel more rested, our body returns to a more normal state.  Give your body a chance to get there!   If you constantly exist in a stressed state even through the off season, you risk burn out and plateau.  

Before I begin “training” again, I also consider: how’s my motivation?  Am I truly ready to jump back into the swim, bike, run?  Early morning workouts?  The pressure of “having” to do something?  And, can I keep this motivation going through to my peak race?  Motivation is tricky – we have to be sure our motivation to move isn’t fueled by one of the categories I mentioned above: obsession, eating disorder, boredom, etc.  You must consider: what’s the rush?  What are the benefits of starting now versus starting by December 1st?  What are the risks?   If you’re like most triathletes, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to perform.  That pressure can be very motivating causing you to focus, sacrifice and work for your goal.  But this same focused intensity can be very draining.  Be careful not to jump back in too soon.   

When you do plot your return to training, make sure it’s timely.  If your peak race is next October, you might want to hold off on jumping in too quickly.  Athletes tend to be eager to jump on board, fired up to train for their peak race and that burning motivation can easily fizzle by April – before racing even begins!  Most athletes can sustain energy and focus for about 6 to 9 months of structured training.  For athletes who want to return before its necessary, I give them a loosely structured schedule, ask them to set aside technology for that time and give them permission to skip, move or shorten workouts as needed.  The goal is to get to the point where you need to start training with as much energy and motivation as possible.  Don’t burn it up too soon!  

There is definitely value in pre season work, consistency in training and limiting the deconditioning process, yet I think there is even more value in taking a step back, recharging your battery and breaking out of the endurance sport world for some time each year.  The amount of time depends on a lot of factors.  But one thing is certain: don’t rush it because you are unconfident, insecure, afraid or want an excuse to eat more.  Take your time.  Rebuild your health.  Gather fuel for your motivation fire.  If you’re truly interested in performance, look at the overall picture of what it takes to succeed – fitness and health.  And see rest or an unstructured break at this time of year as an integral part of gaining fitness, maintaining good health and becoming a better athlete.

To the off season!  (raise your wine, or cupcake, or bacon...I've eaten bacon every day for the past 5 days...really)