Sunday, October 28, 2018

7 Common Strength Training Technique Mistakes

I started off my career as a personal trainer before I started focusing more on triathlon coaching. All of my client interactions were in-person, which allowed me to make real time adjustments to their posture, technique, and how hard to push them on any given day. Given physiological feedback, I could determine if their form was starting to break down as we added weight, or reps, or sets. I could also easily prescribe any variation to an exercise that wasn't working for their body.

With triathlon coaching, most of my exercise prescription is done online, and I have to be able to trust that my athletes will do their strength training with the correct form, that they can determine the appropriate rate of increasing load, and that they know the difference between a hard exercise and an exercise that may hurt them. Even though I'll continue to lose sleep over this, I've started a list of common strength training technique mistakes that I've noticed over time. This list is by no means all-inclusive, but it's at least a starting point to make sure you're preventing injuries or imbalances that could be caused by these simple mistakes.

1. Plank: Lower Back Sinking Down: You probably know that sticking your butt up into the air is not the right way to do a plank, but be careful of your back sinking down too low as well. My favorite cue for this one is to engage your core by actively pulling your feet and your elbows towards each other as hard as you can. With this level of engagement, you might not be able to hold the plank as long, but you'll get more out of it. Make sure your elbows are directly under your shoulders too.

2. Calf Raises: Feet Rolling Laterally: This is a common mistake because rolling to the shorter toes on the outside of your foot is the path of least resistance. Your body will always try to take the easy way out when you're not paying attention. Focus on pressing through your big toe to engage your gastrocnemius (the big calf muscle). You'll also find that if you have trouble balancing on one leg, pressing evenly through all of your toes will help solve that problem.

3. Overhead Press: Arching Back to Push Heavier Weight: You might be doing this because your body has convinced you that it's a good way to lift heavier, or you might lack the shoulder mobility necessary to do an overhead press. Either way, save your lumbar spine and don't do it! Stabilize your lower back to the bench by engaging your core.

4. Squat: Body weight shifts forward, into toes (rather than back, into heels): This picture is an exaggeration of body weight shifting forward. Your feet could be completely flat to the ground, with the majority of your weight in your toes, and that would still be wrong. Give your knees a break and activate your posterior chain by placing your weight in your heels. It should feel like you are sitting back into a chair. In fact, you can practice, by sitting back onto something until the right feeling sinks in.

5. Squat: Not squatting low enough: If you don't squat to at least a 90 degree bend in your knees, the force of the weight won't transfer from your knees to your hips. This range of motion is what allows activation of the glutes, and takes the stress away from your knees. Don't forget to brace your core!

6. Deadlift: Rounding your back: I don't even have a "wrong" picture for this one because it hurts my strength-coaching soul to even replicate. Your spine has a natural curve that you should maintain when you deadlift, but don't excessively round your spine to pick up the weight. Engage your lats and your core, and let your legs actually help you do the lift.

7. Pushups (or anything in the prone position): Straining your neck to look forward: It seems natural to look forward, but not only are you putting unnecessary stress in your neck, you're closing the neural transmission along your spine that allows your brain to communicate with your muscles. Focus your gaze to the ground for better results.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Hard Work as a Crutch

If you're a long course triathlete, hard work is the nature of your sport. In contrast, sports such as baseball or golf are primarily skill-based sports, while endurance sports are on the other end of the spectrum, with fitness taking precedence over skill.

When you're a beginner, and you first start working hard at triathlon, you see results. Then you work a little bit harder, and you see more results. So we begin to train our brain that hard work is the key to improvement. Additionally, if you experience any level of success, the coinciding mindset is that more success is better; therefore, more work is better because it will lead to more success. The problem is, eventually this curve evens out and there's a limit to how much hard work we can actually benefit from before we start doing more harm than good.

Aside from the general nature of triathlon and beginner mentalities, what I believe limits our long-term success more than anything else is using hard work as a crutch, born out of insecurity. The first cause of insecurity is comparing yourself and your training to others. You see other people doing more so you become insecure about what you're doing and stop listening to your body. You might compare your training plan to your friend's, who is doing the same race as you, and you start adding in arbitrary extra workouts that have no focus, and only add to your overall fatigue. You might compare your speed in training to your competitors' and start doing your aerobic workouts too hard, which decreases your ability to do your speed workouts fast enough to actually build speed, and you dig yourself into a hole.

The second cause of insecurity is a negative response to falling short of a goal. When you come off a race where you expected to see a certain result, you resolve to work harder either as a self-imposed punishment for your lack of results, or out of fear of repeating that performance. When your training becomes a result of a fear-based mindset, your focus shifts away from your perceived exertion and from the cues that your body is giving you regarding your response to training stressors. Losing the connection to your physiological cues and effort level decreases your ability to pace yourself in both training and races, and limits your ability to build fitness at the most appropriate rate for your body. As you become more fit, the trend should be less effort (input) at the same pace (output). If you cannot objectively observe your internal responses to pace or power, you have no way to determine if your RPE is decreasing for that given pace or power.

So how do you go about fixing this problem? You have to be confident in your connection to your body, and be objectively dialed in to your perceived exertion and fatigue.

First, develop RPE. Every sport goes through a phase where technology and data evolve more rapidly than our ability to develop relationships with them. In triathlon, we get hooked on our fitness level and we drive ourselves crazy watching our CTL fall during recovery periods. We want to brag about our FTP, and our VO2 max, and show everyone on Strava that we are the kings and queens of that hill segment. But since the path to fitness is less effort at a given pace or power, if we are on an unending quest to prove ourselves through our numbers, we lose touch with developing actual fitness that can be expressed in racing. There are no ideal, one-size-fits-all fitness markers that equate to success. The best athletes know exactly how to push their body right up to their current physiological limits, then back off, recover, and let the body absorb fitness. If the focus becomes proving yourself in training and attaining the highest fitness number, you've shifted your goal away from expressing your fitness in a race.

The need to prove yourself in training is born out of insecurity, so the next step is to figure out the cause of your insecurity. You may not trust your coach, or yourself. Are you afraid of failure? Afraid of success? Think about what would happen if you "failed" (whatever your definition of failure is). Write down the worst case scenarios, and then you might notice that these scenarios are either not that bad, or not realistic. Being afraid of success might be more difficult to admit. It's possible that you don't think you deserve to be successful. List the athletes that you believe to be successful and write about their positive qualities. Then write down your positive qualities. Do you have anything in common with these athletes? I think it's important to visualize your success and consider what stories you want to be able to tell in the future when asked about a race, or a season, or a career. Maybe you want to be able to tell stories of overcoming odds, incredible discipline, or spreading inspiration. When you can visualize your goals, you get a more clear understanding of how to reach those goals, and better focus and attention to detail in your day-to-day training. With a clear focus, you don't need a crutch, and you become a more resilient athlete and person.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Ironman Chattanooga Race Report

Ironman Duathlon Chattanooga was my 6th ironman finish, and the 1st one where I FINALLY got my nutrition and hydration right. All I wanted was to give myself the chance to fight at the end of the race. I wanted my stomach to be settled, my body to be hydrated, not bloated, and to stay patient on the bike so that at the end of the marathon, I could run myself into a deep level of pain and just hold on for dear life.

I found out on the plane on the way to Chattanooga that the swim was canceled due to flooding and high levels of bacteria in the river. I think I may have some pre-ironman-flight PTSD because 3 years ago, I found out that Ironman Maryland (what would have been my first ironman) was canceled on the plane on the way there. I'm already in a tapering/emotionally unstable state, so I didn't handle this well at first. When Ryan looked over and saw my face, he asked me if I was ok. I let out a few words that might have formed a sentence if they were arranged in a logical order, but I'm pretty sure I at least included both, "swim" and "canceled," so he got the idea.

I typically swim about an hour for the 2.4 mile ironman distance, which puts me in the front of the pack heading out onto the bike. In my pre-race research stalking of my competition, I determined that I could probably get out of the water at least 10-15 minutes faster that most of the girls I'd be racing against. Since biking is not my strongest leg, it's nice to have a head start. Qualifying for Kona is always my goal at an ironman, so losing the swim made my chances for qualifying significantly smaller.

So I proceeded to throw a pity party for myself, complete with some F words and some crying.

Then the next morning, I got up, put on my big-boy pants, re-wrote my race plan, and focused on what I always tell my athletes- control the controllables. I couldn't fix the swim problem, so I wasn't going to waste any more energy on being upset about it. I sent my athletes an email because I wanted them to be with me through this, so that they could be stronger than me and skip right over the pity party step, when something out of their control happens to them in a race. I had to acknowledge that this situation didn't change my goals, so I had to change my mindset. I wasn't going to let an opportunity to qualify for Kona pass me by because I was too busy feeling sorry for myself.

Pre-race team visualization

On race morning, we lined up for our time trial bike start, and I was all in. I've had a few significant opportunities to learn from my mistakes, with regards to nutrition, hydration, pacing, and execution, and I was determined to get it right this time. I know to the milligram the amount of electrolytes I'm supposed to be taking in, to the milliliter how much fluid, and exactly what my power output should be to give me the best chance to run off the bike.... blah blah data blah blah. I'm so dialed in on data for my athletes, but when it comes to my own performance, I can't be bothered by it. However, having this information available to me, makes me better able to focus on guiding my performance by feel. I follow the numbers in training, then use them as a loose guideline in a race. When it comes down making performance decisions, I listen to my body 100%.

When your quad is trying to bust out of your shorts...

While only glancing at my power periodically, I finished the bike leg at the exact wattage I needed to ride at, and 303 TSS. I knew there were a few girls in front of me because they started first and I never saw them, and I knew there were a couple girls right on my tail as well. I'm not used to any of my competition being behind me getting off the bike so I wasn't sure what to make of that. But either way, I felt good getting off the bike and was slightly distracted by some weirdo running next to me in a cowboy costume yelling things like, "I'll see you in 3 shakes of a goat's tail." I asked around to see if that could have been someone else's husband, but no one claimed him, and he started yelling that he belonged to me for everyone to hear.

Stage 1 of costume changes

At this point, Ryan was on phase 2 of his pre-planned costume changes. The first stage involved a cowboy hat and a whip. I didn't ask him how far in advance he started planning his ironman spectating performance, but it was long enough to give him time to research cowboy sayings, so we'll just leave it at that.

Fully invested

Every time I went down an out-and-back portion of the run, I could see that I had some competition right behind me. This is the first ironman, probably because of the duathlon format, that I actually felt like I was in a race the entire time. That takes a lot more mental energy to stay focused, which is an experience that I'm glad I have under my belt now. The last 8ish miles of the marathon are hilly and I could feel my body wanting to slow down, but I knew I was somewhere near the edge of the podium, and I wasn't about to give that up. Then around mile 23, the girl who had been on my ass all day (who is now my new friend and potential training partner), ran up next to me out of an aid station and that was all I needed to turn it on.

Ryan put the costumes aside at the end of the race to let me know it was go-time.

I put myself in the exact situation that I visualized and I was ready to go. I started running as hard as I could up that hill, thinking that I wasn't sure if I could maintain that pace, but I was determined to find out. My legs were on fire, but they weren't slowing down. Somehow, my last 3 miles of the marathon were my fastest 3 miles, and I ended up finishing on the podium, in 4th, and in a whole lot of pain (aka happiness).

The 1st and 2nd place girls took the Kona spots. I know it would have been different if the swim wasn't canceled, but I had no business placing on the podium in a duathlon and I was proud of the way I handled the race mentally, and how well I executed physically. And now that I know I can run that fast at the end of a marathon, next time I get to go even faster.

I have to give a shout out to my coach, Mike, who has to put up with a whole lot of my bullshit. I definitely don't make his job easy, and he probably breaks out in hives every time I tell him that I ignore my power meter, and only use my race plan as a loose guideline. We're on year 3 as a team, and we've both had to adjust our methods a bit, but the progress is undeniable.

I hope I tell them this enough, but I am endlessly inspired by my athletes. I get to watch them fearlessly fight for their goals, each in their own unique way. Whenever I'm at a low in motivation or confidence, it's easy to look at what they're doing and let them pick me up.

And last but not least, it has to be obvious how perfect my husband is. On the surface, triathlon looks like an individual sport but it never has been for me. Ryan is just as invested in this as I am, and we are stronger, faster, and tougher as a team.

New Bio, who dis?

As I've witnessed myself shift and change, I've been experimenting with some new coaching strategies. Most of my athletes know that ...