November 10, 2009

Wisdom for a tuesday…

yesterday this arrived on cue in my Google Reader. Gordo nailed it so hard that I actually sat up and couldn’t function for about 10 min after I read this.

Who Are You Emotionally?
Where do you go to when you are under stress?
Physically, what does it take for you to feel stress?
What’s your definition of ‘fun’?
In a group, what is your single greatest fear?

Each of us will have slightly different answers to those questions but there are certain themes that run through the human experience. These themes can help, or hinder, performance.

I have done a lot of training camps in my time. Camps are fascinating experiments in social psychology. If I want to know who you really are, then getting you really tired and watching… the answers to the questions above become apparent.

Do you default to anger or openness?

At Epic Camp, we have a saying… when all else fails try anger. It’s a powerful emotion but you don’t want to get there too soon! We don’t make very good decisions when we are angry.

Now some races don’t require much in the way of decision making. Part of what makes me a good ultradistance athlete (and an effective “trainer”) is that I have a strong psychological governor against high intensity exercise. Call it a fear of blowing up. This fear actually served me VERY well over the years. Each time I blew, I would learn the lesson. As a result, I have always placed very consistently relative to my fitness. You could say that I’ve maximized my expected value from my racing.

My pals that are good at winning — they note two things:
#1 – you need to put yourself in a position to win
#2 – you need to be willing to lose

The points above are useful if you happen to be (close to) the fittest person in the race. However, you need a lot of skill (and fitness) not to beat yourself when you apply them. When you beat yourself, learn the lessons.

Physiologically, the athletes at the sharp end of the course are closely matched. However, it’s pretty tough for the rest of us to tell who we are racing. To have our best day requires getting the most out of ourselves. How do we do that?

Going at an appropriate speed for your event has a certain “feel” and these feelings change as the race progresses.

Do you know how fast you will be going?
Are you used to how that feels?

Most athletes have SEVERELY limited pace awareness and, for most of us, triathlon is a pretty slow sport! Ask any novice to describe how they expect their endurance _training_ to feel and compare than description to the description of a world class endurance athlete.

There is a GREAT video of Ironman Canada out there where they hooked a microphone up to Paula for the entire race. At 20 miles into the bike she is CRUSHING the field and chatting with the camera team. Totally comfortable. Later on she’s in a lawn chair on the marathon! Now, her tactics worked, she won the race. However, what strikes me is how easy lawn-chair-marathon-pace looks two hours into an Ironman… for one of the greatest endurance athletes of all time!

We have GPS, heart rate monitors, power meters, watches… often we have not integrated these tools into our spatial awareness. The pressure of water against our bodies; the pressure of our feet on our bike shoes; the speed that the world is passing us by — these are important queues.

What does 12-hour race effort feel like for the first two hours?
What does 2-hour race effort feel like for the first ten minutes?

When we hear “race pace” most of us default to quite a high intensity — even if you are training for a 1-hour event, “race pace” is not going to feel that difficult for the first 15 minutes, or so.

By figuring out what your likely race effort will be — you will be able to see if you are making your life more difficult. Most the athletes that I work with can improve performance by 5-10% by learning how to pace more effectively.

If performance is a goal then we need a heck of a lot of talent to make up for habituated stupidity. When we are under high levels of stress we will default to our deepest patterns.

Are you building the patterns required to achieve your performance goals?

So we need to train our brain about how our optimal paces are going to feel and we need to be emotionally coherent enough to manage those paces. With smart race simulation workouts we should have a reasonable idea with what’s feasible (or at least what’s unlikely to be feasible!). We can then use our gizmos to improve our execution.

Even when we have the right effort dialed in, we are going to have to deal with sensations of fatigue. If we are pacing any distance appropriately we are going to fatigue.

Have you ever considered the mental specificity of your training protocol and life habits?

Mentally, what habits and patterns are you training during each day?

Besides a common stamina limitation in most of the adult population, one of the reasons that I tend to steer clear of intensity driven protocols is their effect on reinforcing our mental limiters.

Think about it.

If I tell you that you’ll have to wreck yourself daily for weeks then you are likely to accept it – perhaps even embrace it with a HTFU baseball cap! You’ll get injured and maybe blame yourself for not being tough enough.

If I tell you that you’ll have to moderate your approach and serve a multi-year apprenticeship of moderate aerobic training with strength work to address your personal limiters. You’ll likely tell me that it requires a huge leap-of-faith on your part.

You might have a decent season on a wreck-yourself-protocol but are you likely to achieve your ultimate potential? Within my own team the #1 reason for underperformance, injury, and DidNotStarts is a lack of moderation in approach.

We make our own luck with the amount of stress we bring into our lives.

So coming back to fatigue…

  • Does your training program train the mental skills required to cope with the fatigue associated with your goal event?
  • What event duration are you most psychologically skilled at?
  • Do your mental skills line up with your physical skills?
  • What are you willing to change in order to improve at your chosen race distance?

The questions above are important because the majority of athletes are not physically limited on race day. Equipped with our gizmos, we can look at our late race performance and see that it was slower then we might have predicted from our training.

Self-management limiters are tough to admit — there is a fair amount of social stigma around being a head case!

If it helps then I’m just as much of a head case as anyone! I have simply gained clarity on the way I am, and trained to enhance the way I want to perform.

Being a particularly hard case, I had to ride across America to learn how to completely accept fatigue. Even then, things change, we get older and racing well is challenging. That said, I tend to get what I deserve (physically) on race day.

Do you think smiling female athletes are deeply enjoying the physical sensations they experience late in an Ironman race?

Racing fast requires coping with certain sensations, many of which are uncomfortable. Outwardly, the best female athletes seem to transcend the stress. I never quite pulled that off — the best that I’ve achieved is learning to accept fatigue.

To gain control over our surroundings and ourselves – I recommend that you practice acceptance of the feelings, particularly fatigue that is specific to the nature of your race.

I don’t know how it feels when YOU crack. However, I do know how it feels when I crack!

I’m good for about an hour of significant duress. If I am having a good day then I can last a bit longer. Likewise, if I am close to the end of the event/main set/interval — I can typically hang on a bit longer.

So I need to build my race strategy to reflect my current mental skills. As well, I can choose events/training strategies that gradually extend my “zone of discomfort”.

If you find yourself breaking down then you might have exceeded your capacity to tolerate discomfort. This is a BIG issue for long duration events.

It is worth remembering that life is our longest duration event!


seriously…. that just happened.

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