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.

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