Regardless of how gifted of an athlete you are, there will be times in your career where you struggle or can’t seem to generate the same performance as you have in the past. This is normal, yet can often be regarded as a “slump” or “rut” by most athletes. If we simply think about the law of averages, it will say that you must have bad performances along with your strong ones to generate an average level of play/performance. While this is the case in every athlete, its often the times spent on the bottom that will dictate how far we advance in the future.
Its extremely difficult to be on form year round. While some may say it’s impossible, I would refrain from using that term as people said breaking the 4:00min/mile, hitting 60 home runs, or scoring 100 points in a basketball game were impossible as well. While I won’t say its impossible, I will acknowledge that the odds are against it. While its statistically likely that athletes will have low levels of performance throughout the year, for some reason they fail to acknowledge this. While hard work does often lead to success, it should be assumed that “smart work” is built into the equation. If “smart work” is built into working hard, then it implies that an athlete understands the process and can work hard in whatever the task may be. Even if that means the task is recovery.
In most situations, athletes will reach peak performance and begin to chase better and faster numbers. Inevitably they will fade as the peak passes and athletes will be left in a “slump” of working hard (but not smart) and seeing lower numbers in return. While numbers are extremely useful and powerful in the build up to a peak, they can often times be the downfall of an athlete once their peak has past. Athlete “X” will begin to think why should I work so hard if my numbers continue to fall. Am I not good at this sport? “I will never get better at this rate.” Its thoughts like these that can devastate an athlete and leave them in a bad spot heading into their valley or off-season period.
The Trap of Extrinsic Motivation
Using the numbers as your sole indicator of success is going to leave you miserable as they start to decrease. Mix that with telling individuals your numbers all the time (social media) and you will be in a world of hurt when you think not hitting numbers is making you look vulnerable to others. This is real, I’ve seen it happen many times. When we begin to only discuss numbers as a form of improvement, then eventually those same metrics will begin to work against us and our enjoyment of the sport. What is a better approach to numbers is to know that they are key in your build, but just noise in the off-season. A good coach will pay attention to your numbers for you, but they should move far outside of the cross-hairs on your journey to an off-season.
While a number of 200 athletes isn’t significant in the grand scheme of things, there are some tactics I have found useful across many of the athletes I’ve coached the past several years. Here is a quick list of ideas that could possibly help you.
1. Pre-Season Build
- Numbers are added back into athlete discussions and begin to set goals
- Numbers progress in terms of workouts and target interval training
2. Peak Season Build
- Numbers are a driving force in performance
- Steady discussions on increasing performance
3. Race Season/Maintenance
- Numbers are goals for optimal performance
- Specific training sessions based on numbers
- Focus shifts more towards race tactics as needed
4. Post Season
- Numbers are discussed for a final time in terms of year progress
- Specifics fade away quickly
- Numbers collected for coach, but not looked at by athlete
- Generally no structure
- No stress
If you can understand the power of numbers and their purpose in a training cycle, they can make a world of difference. While they are powerful, they can often lead to chasing numbers well beyond an athletes peak and therefore wreak havoc on their mind. As soon as athletes open up regarding numbers to others, they often feel pressure to constantly produce them or otherwise feel inferior. While there is plenty to be gained by data and building into the peak of your season, it takes a smart, dedicated athlete to continually make progress by often times taking a step back when the time is right.
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When looking to build an athletes ability or potential for events, a coach must look at both the macro and micro levels of the athlete, but also the athletes plan and their race schedule. When looking from both angles, you begin to see a clear picture of where the athlete is and where they want to go. This blog will serve as an inside look of how the day-to-day training and the yearly goals come together to help shape a training plan and athletic results.
Big Picture View
The most important part of actually starting to design an athletes season. What are their goals and where are they starting from. From this point, a coach should be looking at a calendar in a way that periodizes their training between base, build, peak, recovery. These are generic terms that you would find in any strength and conditioning textbook, but they serve a purpose as an athlete can only peak and build for so long. Although we all wish we could constantly build and get better everyday, we often need rest periods mixed in to adapt and prepare for another build in the future. Once the athletes goals and race schedule are put in place, a general idea of how to build the athlete and when should take place. In other words, a yearly idea of what the athlete will be doing begins to take shape.
I’m going to be honest here. You ever go into a science lab and look through a microscope with 20 different zoom levels? That is basically what an athlete is as well. An onion with many layers. At the mid-level view, an athlete will begin to show their strengths and weakness in terms of power, pace, training volume, history, thresholds, v02, etc. This is basically what makes up an athlete at any given time, the things you can see from a general look at weekly data. From this view as a coach, you start to see what you may focus on in the big training blocks of the season. You may start to see that this athlete needs more run volume or swim volume and therefore that will be the dominating focus of the base/build season. Essentially, where an athlete currently is starts to help give the big picture view a focus.
Alright, lets start getting down to the nitty gritty of the athlete and looking at numbers such at FRC/FTP/TTE. These are main indicators of success/limitations for a cyclist and should be kept track of daily or weekly. At different parts of the mid and macro levels, these numbers will be the focus for day-to-day training. They will guide daily workouts and be the main focus for short term improvements. To track this you will be looking at time in training zones, stress put on the body at different parts of the workout, and looking to train specifically for demands that are needed in races or to achieve the next training level. This is where a coach with data analysis comes in to ensure that you are maximizing your day-to-day training and getting the most out of your time.
An area that takes a lot of digging, but can often shed light on bigger things happening within an athletes performance. How much time did they spend above v02 max in a workout, How many watts are contributing to aerobic vs anaerobic, what is the athletes efficiency rating at 80 degrees vs 90 degrees. At this level its easy to get paralysis by analysis. Thats why I would strongly recommend any coach only look at a couple key charts that are useful to the athlete at certain times of the year. This is where it can become very easy to overcoach during the wrong portions of the year… but it can make all the difference in the correct portions of the year.
Painting the Total Picture
Possibly the best thing about all of this is that as you look deeper and deeper into each athlete, they begin to look more and more different. Sure, the big picture view for many athletes is the same. “I want to peak for Summer Months or “X” race”. However, one athlete may be a sprinter while the other may be a TT specialist. As you peel each layer away, you start to see where each athlete is individually and how to best cater to their needs. At that point, you have many different things circulating between big goals and periodization along with daily metrics and weekly focus. Its a handful to keep track of, which is why I often feel that coaching is more of an art than a science. Yes, science guides us in our decisions for maximized results, but how you put that science together is the true key to coaching in my opinion.
As an athlete and a coach get started, there are many different layers that should be peeled back in order to properly build towards the athlete’s goals. By looking at the big picture you can get a good idea of how to train generally speaking, but its only when you start to dig deeper that the true progress can be made. While I understand the need for generalized plans, a customized coaching plan will look at an athlete from many different angles and ensure that progress and performance are matching up with the overall intended outcome of the year.
This weeks blog is going to be straight to the point. Situations that come up routinely as an athlete is prepping for a race which can be fixed in an instant for faster results. I will give a small explanation of each, but this blog should serve as a quick read for instant speed.
#1 The Tires on Your Bike
Everyone is consumed by if you have Zipps, Hed Enve, Flo, Boyd, etc wheels. I will tell you right now that it doesn’t matter what kind of wheels you’re running if they have slow tires on them. Don’t spend thousands on wheels and then put slow tires on them. There is plenty of data out there on slow vs fast tires, but a fast tire can have about a .5-1 mph difference in your overall speed.
#2 The Tubes in Your Tires
We are all used to Butyl tubes because this is what most bike shops sell. However, latex tubes (while a bit more expensive) are available through bike shops or order. Just like the tires on your bike, they can make a difference in speed. They absorb more of the deflections of the road and therefore, keep your tire on the ground. Rolling resistance of a tire comes down with latex which results in faster times.
#3 Clean Your Drivetrain
A clean drivetrain (chain, cassette, crank, pulleys) can help save 5-10 watts. This takes about 10-20 minutes to clean, and can help in your bikes efficiency. It also looks better which must be worth something right?
#4 Fast Transitions in Triathlon
While we often look at building fitness and ability to perform aerobically for our endurance athletes, transitions is an easy place to make up a ton of time with little practice. I’ve seen athletes miss out on podiums or wins because of slow transitions. If you can set up your equipment to be 100% ready and put things on while moving (race belt, hat, etc)… you can get faster with little work.
#5 No-Tie Run Laces
I understand some individuals don’t like the feel with these, but if you haven’t tried them, they are essentially laces that keep your shoes tied, but are flexible enough to fit your foot in the shoe easily. These can cut down 20-30 seconds in transition and help you to a faster time overall.
As you go through Cycling or Triathlon training, without a doubt a coach will help you maximize your overall fitness and performance. With that being said though, there are small things that add up to a faster time overall. these five tips should help you save a couple minutes off your next race and have you feeling better about your overall results as well.
Generally speaking, every athlete I’ve worked with will at some point tell me they feel awful before a big race. To be honest, when first starting in this industry this often made me nervous as I wanted the athlete to feel great all the time. However, after realizing that both the coach and athlete have a job to do, I’ve come to recognize this message from the athlete as a clear sign that they are in fact ready to race. While the athlete will be questioning their abilities, from a coaching perspective, this shows that the athlete is ready to peak for their event. I will touch on the reasons why below.
Breaking the Body Down
I’m going to keep this very simple. In order for the body to adapt and grow, it must be stressed beyond its normal capacity. This process requires the body to break down in order for the athlete to build up. When going into a peak for performance, the body will be breaking down in a specific manner which is often accompanied by a lot of stress. The peak stress often takes place 10-16 days before an athletes “A” race. As an athlete, this is often symbolized in a workout that was supposed to be longer or more intense, and you just not being able to even consider meeting the objective. So close to the race, this often means you begin to question if you are fit and this leads to the difficult conversations with your coach. This is normal.
It will often take an athlete 5-6 days to fully recover (dependent on build and fitness level). So, when going into a 10 day taper for example, the athlete won’t feel great until about 4-5 days before their event. This takes a lot of trust from an athletes perspective, but the reason why its important is because you can only maintain peak form and fitness for so long. If for example you started feeling awful 3 weeks ago and shut it down, you would risk recovering too early and then lose fitness and possibly even become stale before the big day. Therefore, this peak requires a close eye from your coach, but also the trust from an athlete. At no point should an athlete be pushing through extreme fatigue, but if it is being managed correctly, then most of the time you should be feeling a bit rough 2-3 weeks prior to your big race.
When Should You Feel Great?
Ideally you’ll start feeling great roughly 3-4 days before the race. You want your entire build to peak out for 7 days with the race day being located somewhere within that time frame. When referencing the week of peak, I’m simply using the experience I’ve obtained by working with many athletes over the past years. Generally speaking, the best results I’ve seen as a coach come from athletes that only start telling me they feel great within the week of the race, not before.
What to Expect During Build
The reason I wanted to address this is because as athletes come in with big goals, they often have the idea of becoming a machine and feeling invincible as they near competition. That simply isn’t how it works. Sure you’ll have some days where you feel like you’re unstoppable, but for the final build before the race, you’re more likely to feel like garbage than an amazing athlete. This often eats away at the athletes mind and begins to play tricks. It even played tricks on my mind as a coach when I was first beginning. However, after having dealt with this on hundreds of occasions, its now a welcomed sign in my eyes as I know the athlete has put in the work and now all they have to do is rest and enjoy a strong peak for their big race.
Fitness building requires the body to break down. In order to adapt and become stronger, you must break down your body so it can build higher. With a big race as the seasons goal, this often means that you will feel awful leading into it so you can feel amazing on race day. You must trust the process and the coach in this situation. While it can be hard to do, often times a coach should have data on your build and be able to justify their plan. If you can trust the process and let the body recover, you should experience one of your best races to date and successfully make it through the peak build!
For further listening, please follow the link to hear what our sports psychologist has to say on the mentality of.tapering:https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/pod-016-the-taper-effect/id1032003448?i=1000353401773&mt=2
When looking for a coach for your next endurance event, there are many options that you may find. These options can range from a free training plan found on google all the way up to a coach with his/her PhD in exercise physiology or a similar field. So what is the difference? Is a personalized coach worth it? That will depend on the readers goals. I hope this blog serves as a strong starting point in helping you choose the best plan for you.
I used generalized costs and ideas for each coaching platform. In my experience as a coach and by keeping a close eye on the market, I find that these prices and ideas are generally close, but that they may differ from coaching company to coaching company. The best thing you can do as a reader is research any coaching companies that you are interested in and find what their plans offer and what the cost is. I speak for no other coach than myself. This blog is designed simply to give a birds-eye view of what coaching plans may offer… not what they absolutely will offer.
Generalized Training Plan (Free)
For the sake of this blog, this will be the entry level. You can self-coach yourself, but I will start the levels with the general training plan as it was designed by someone else. This plan will have some sort of progressive structure to it and will on a general level build the athletes time training. While it provides a calendar view and an easy schedule to follow, it will lack in any specific programming for each individual athlete. While better than nothing, it leaves plenty to be desired in terms of personal performance.
Generalized Training Plan for Purchase
This is similar to the plan above, but it should have something more to it. Whether it is training stress that is progressing, or a plan specifically built for a specific race, this plan should be a little bit more in depth than the free training plans you can find. Many races will have plans for purchase that are specifically designed for their course. Another option is asking a coach to build you a generalized plan for a specific race. These are all options and this step is another step up in the training plan hierarchy.
Coaching at an Entry Level for Individuals ($50-$150/month)
This option should be better than a generalized plan for each athlete. At this level, the coach either has experience in the sport or has an entry level certification. While each coach will differ, many will use an email system for prescribing training or a coaching software (i.e Trainingpeaks). This type of coaching may have hands on interaction depending on where the coach and athlete are located. Some coaches may use data analysis at this level, others may not. This should help performance a touch more than a general plan
Coaching at a Moderate Level for Individuals ($200-$400/month)
This is where I feel coaching really starts to pay off for most individuals. While this is simply my opinion, I view this level as the real starting point for individuals focused on getting better and dedicating some time to the sport. At this level your coach should have some experience and be seeking continued education. Data analysis and customization should be taking place at this point. There are tools that begin to be integrated on a basic level to help maximize each individual.
Coaching at a High Level for Individuals ($400-$800/month)
By this level, you should be working with someone that is a full-time coach. Simply by making this their career, they are more available for communication, have more time for data analysis, can spend certain periods of each day specifically on each individual, and leave no stone un-turned. While this level of coaching carries a higher price-tag, the level of attention to each athlete should be high and 100% customized.
Coaching at a World Class Level for Individuals ($1000+/month)
Basically everything you’d expect. At this level it is the coaches career and they are driven to produce results. The experience and education of the coach is high and they have resources as partners that can help the athlete achieve their max potential. No stone is left unturned at this level as every detail of performance is tracked and accounted for.
There is no right or wrong coaching package for everyone. Each individual is different and therefore they should be seeking out the plan that will work for them. Whether you are a first time couch to 5k athlete or someone looking to win a world championship, coaches can help you along the way. There is a need for beginner level coaches just as there is a need for experts. Everyone serves a purpose in this industry and helps it grow in the right direction. By understanding what your needs are as an athlete, I hope you make the right decision in your coaching and truly enjoy the experience of getting better in a manner that suits your lifestyle!
Enjoy and Happy Training!
As the 2017 race season gets into full swing, we are constantly seeing race results with top performances, and others that leave something to be desired. As a coach that has trained many athletes for these style of races, I am starting to see a troubling trend that needs to be addressed. We are treating these events as sure things that we will crush vs races of attrition that we must sustain. I hope that through this blog, you will start to see that while you may be physically prepared for the demands, the right mental approach will help you reach the best results on any given day.
Sports of Attrition: Cycling/Running/Swimming and Triathlon
One of the biggest issues currently in the sport is not giving it enough time. With endurance sports, it takes time to build the aerobic engine needed. Whats neat regarding the aerobic engine is that it peaks around the age of 20-22, but it doesn’t necessarily decline at a fast rate until you reach your 50’s. This means, that as you age, you will generally get faster if you continue training (up until your 50’s).
Lets look at top races such at Ironman Triathlons or races such as Paris Roubaix for cycling. How old are most of the winners or top performers? Generally speaking, they all are in their 30’s and have done races of this magnitude many times in the past. What you will rarely if ever see is someone coming into the sport and winning in their first try. To be honest, most Ironman Pro’s have done roughly 20-40 Ironman triathlons in their career. Yet we have individuals who have done 1-4 of them and expect top performances. They are races of attrition, you must learn how to handle the demands of the day. Another great example is cyclists that race 5-8 times a year. While this is better than 1-3x a year, you’ll quickly find that the more you race, the better your chances of getting top results. This isn’t a fitness thing, its a learning how to read a race and execution thing.
The Actual Race
You have a coach, you should be fit and prepared. But what you can’t control or gameplan for is the actual events that will happen on that one single day. Training is a closed environment that is controlled. Racing is an open environment with many new factors being thrown into the mix. The only way to mimic being around other people is to constantly put yourself in that position through racing.
What I fear we have done in the industry is put the focus on instant gratification vs being steady over the course of a race. There is nothing exciting about being slow and steady and having a great result. Everyone wants that “wow” factor that gets “likes” or “kudos”. While its great to have an amazing discipline, we must remember that the end goal is the finish time or placing at the end of a race. While it may be boring and require patience, in my time as a coach, I have found that those that can control their emotions often have the best results.
These races are long and many things can go wrong. By keeping yourself grounded and well within your fitness parameters, you are much more likely to handle adverse conditions with control. As soon as you go beyond your limits and something negative happens, self doubt instantly creeps in and can derail your entire race/event.
By The Numbers
In a lot of these races, slow is steady and steady is fast. Lets look at Ironman, Long Distance Running, and Cycling races by the numbers.
Ironman: The attrition component of ironman comes in during the last 20 miles of the bike and run section of the race. How many times have you seen someone limp home off the bike and then start the run portion much slower than they have anticipated. Is this a question of fitness? Possibly. But more likely is that they either pushed too hard early or missed something (such as nutrition) that is going to cause a drop off in performance. The ideal Ironman performance has the athlete running the last portion of the marathon. If you can pace yourself easy enough to reach the last 13 miles running, you are going to be in for a great day! This seems so easy when you are starting the day or going through planning, but without a doubt something will pop up throughout the day or you will push too hard early. Whats amazing is that most Ironman competitions start with 2500+ competitiors, but I would guess that only 100 of them are running those last 13 miles to their potential. Its a game of attrition. Can you make it to those last 13 miles running? If you can, you’re setting yourself up for an amazing day.
Example of numbers:
Pushing it with lackluster run
4:40 run (capable of running a 3:30)
Total time with 10 minutes of transitions: 10:50
Relaxing with strong run
Total time with 10 minutes of transitions: 10:00
Long Distance Running: Just like the Ironman example above, the amount of people that start a marathon vs the amount of people still running to their potential at mile 20 is like night and day. If you have a coach, the fitness shouldn’t be an issue. Rather its properly managing those first 20 miles in a sustainable pace with a focus on keeping everything in check. Same thing can be said for the first 20 miles. Athletes are running too fast chasing some number, or they are neglecting nutrition or other factors. The goal to a fast marathon is a strong last 6 miles. No matter how fast you ran the first 20 miles, if you start walking at mile 21 then you aren’t going to be hitting your goals.
Cycling Races: This is a little bit differently because tactics play a larger role. However, I would urge anyone getting into cycling races to look at the size of a peleton at the start of the race, and then after the race. On most courses, the field size will be reduced simply because of attrition. There is more luck involved with cycling due to flat tires and crashes, but you can help reduce those odds by being positioned in the front of a group. If you’re in the front of a group, the ride tends to be smooth and evenly paced. If you are on the back end of the peleton then you have to work much harder due to the yo-yo effect and surging. Simply by positioning yourself in the right section of the peleton, you can help reduce your effort and maximize your odds. Beyond that, you save your energy for the last “key” sections of a race where you need your strengths. In a rolling terrain race of 50 cyclists, I would guess that simply by sitting up front, the field will be reduced down to 30-35 riders by the end. You have instantly upped your odds and you have saved legs by not having to surge as much as those at the back. Its a sport of attrition and all you’re looking to do is keep your legs as fresh as you can for as long as possible.
Mental Side of Attrition
words from our sports psychologist Craig Willard
- What a world we live in! Within seconds, you can check the ER wait time at a local hospital, order a pizza, find the answer to a question you have been in a heated debate with your friend about or even order see how long it is going to be before the rain falls. All of this, at your finger times gratifying your "need" instantly. When it comes to sports and competition, progress doesn't happen in seconds nor minutes. In this area, we need to become patient. I understand, you want it and you want it NOW just like everything else. Be impatient, just be impatient about being patient. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither is your fitness level. Those who are patient win out. Remember, you have a coach. Their job is to keep you on track for your goals. What is your job? WORK! and work you must. You are paying your coach to do the back office work on your fitness so let him while you just do what you are prescribed to do. By minimizing the amount of things you focus on, you will be able to provide more energy to work harder in your training. The more you worry about keeping up with someone else, the less energy you have to train with. Mental strain is as bad, if not worse, that physical strain, on your performance. Be the badass you are by being patient and minimizing your risk to injury and mental strain. It starts with the foundation, focus on the task at hand, stay present and be a beast!
The world of endurance sports rewards those that stick with it longest. By being able to train year after year, you are improving while others around you fall off. You are constantly improving your odds within your age group or category the longer you can stick with the sport. Beyond that, the same things can be said for each athlete within a race. Yes there are key points of a race where you must go for it, but many of these races have high attrition rates that must be managed. Often times it isn’t those that can go fastest, but rather those that can sustain a pace for the longest. While being fast and sustaining a pace often result in the same outcome, the mindset is vastly different and can help you in your endeavors of endurance athletics.
As we begin to inform our athletes of numbers for training and racing purposes, they will eventually fall down the rabbit hole of comparing their numbers to other individuals, or asking if “its good?”. If you want the cliff notes version of this blog, read this next line and then stop. Your numbers are specific to you and the demands of the race you are targeting. By focusing on numbers that are outside of our control or trying to constantly compare ourselves to others, we are taking mental focus away from our day-to-day training and creating un-needed stress. After reading this blog, I hope you can see that numbers begin to get very specific and should only serve one purpose, to get you ready for your race.
Functional Threshold Power (FTP)
I get it, this number is the biggest comparative number in all of cycling. How big is your…. threshold? While threshold does play a large factor in cycling performances, it isn’t the only number and its only specific to a handful of events. Will a 400 watt FTP be stronger than a 300 watt FTP? Yes, in terms of absolute numbers it will be. But if the 400 watt FTP cyclist weighs 180 lbs (81.81 kg… 4.88w/kg) and the 300 watt cyclist weighs 132 lbs (60kg… 5 w/kg) then then 300 watt FTP rider will destroy the higher power rider on any climb of significant distance.
The problem with this is that in todays athletic arena, everyone wants to to be faster, stronger, more athletic than everyone. The 300 watt FTP athlete would become discouraged if they only did flat time trials and compared themselves to the 400 watt FTP rider. However, if both of those athletes were to go ride a mountain, the 300 watt FTP rider would prove better. Instead of focusing on their numbers and how to maximize them, they have become obsessed with comparing themselves to others that are better on a certain type of race course.
Chronic Training Load (CTL)
- A rating of stress on the body which can be used to gauge fitness over time
The birds-eye view of general fitness that gets blown way out of proportion. What is your CTL? How fit are you? The problem I have with CTL is that athletes want to take it as an absolute of how fit you are, but really its only the size of the canvas you have in which you can begin to paint your picture.
The problem with CTL is that if it isn’t specific to your race demands, its only a false reporting of your readiness. For example, if you’re an Ironman athlete and you have a CTL of 110-125, you may feel like that is a great level of fitness. However, if you skewed the number by doing hard 30 second to 1 minute efforts, then your fitness isn’t specific to the demands of your race.
Therefore, whenever anyone starts comparing their CTL to anyone else, I often ask what type of specifics is that person using to get there, and what are the demands of the race that warrant that training. Secondly, are their parameters set correctly to allow for an accurate CTL? There are more pieces to the puzzle than just “how fit are you?”.
Training Time Per Week
This athlete is training a lot, why can’t I train that much? Or… This athlete hardly ever trains and is faster than I am, are we training correctly? The second question is fair to ask as a coach can be challenged from time to time, but again, understand that your specific race demands matched with your own physiology will create a plan for how to best maximize your odds of success. How athlete X trains may be completely different than how athlete Y trains because of these two factors. Then, even if you are targeting the same race, your training time may be completely different due to having different strengths and weaknesses. Someone that is severely lacking on the run may focus far more on building miles, but a lot of running for 1 week is 6-8 hours where as a lot of cycling for 1 week is 12-16 hours. The differences in time may be drastically different at several points of the year because of the plan to address weaknesses or training for specific demands you must meet for the event.
Mental Focus of Your Own Numbers
As I mentioned above, focusing on uncontrollable or “what everyone else is doing” is detrimental to your training and your overall ability to perform at a high level. High Performance Coach Craig Willard and your very own Jeremy Brown actually do a great job talking about focus, and what it really means, over on Performance on Demand. Check out episode 10 for a deep dive!
Non apple listeners
Each athlete has their own specific physiology that will need to be trained to meet specific demands of a race. By focusing on other individuals numbers and constantly chasing them, you could be diverting the focus you need to actually build your own. Beyond that, often times athletes have different strengths and weaknesses that can influence their training and what their numbers look like at any given time. It suits the reader to know that many different factors play a role in preparing for an event/race and by solely looking at any one number, you may find yourself tumbling down a rabbit hole of little significance.
As athletes, we put in all of the training to perform on several days a year. Often times, we spend so much time training that we become obsessed with our training numbers. Sometimes that means hitting “cage bombs” in baseball, setting new lifting records in the weight room, or logging more miles each week while running. While improving training is critical to performance, we must remember that all of the training is only meant to prepare us and maximize our odds on race day. It will require proper execution to maximize your odds when it truly counts.
As a coach, all we can do is maximize your odds as an athlete. Individuals get into this mindset that just because they have a coach, they will win events or shatter records. If this were the case, you’d have a lot of coaches being fired as there can only be 1 world record and 1 winner in any event. As an athlete, you need to understand that 50% of the responsibility for a great day comes back to you. A coach can’t ride your bike or swing a baseball bat for you, its up to you at a certain point to perform. In order to maximize your potential as an athlete on any given day, you must be aware of the parameters, but you still must make the decisions as obstacles present themselves on race/game day
Knowing Your Strengths
Inevitably, there is something you’re better at than others. When we have strengths but we neglect to use them, we are limiting our odds of success. For a cyclist who is a breakaway artist, anytime the race comes down to a sprint, his odds are severely reduced for success. For a lightweight triathlete, anytime you pick a flat course that is windy, your odds of success have fallen a little. For a baseball pitcher that has a 100 mph fastball, throwing a 85 mph change up routinely may minimize your odds of success. By understanding your strengths on race or game day, you will begin to shift the odds in your favor for making up ground or bettering the competition.
Speaking specifically about endurance sports now, we need proper nutrition on race day in order to execute a race properly. Anytime you go over 1 hour in an event, you will need both hydration and calories to sustain effort. As you go longer, nutrition will play a large role in how well your race unfolds. For those athletes that neglect nutrition, they will never live up to their training potential and will become frustrated. Nutrition is the great equalizer in long distance races and without a proper nutrition strategy in place, you will constantly be fighting to keep your odds of success high.
Using Numbers as a Guide
As you head into a race, you will have numbers or a plan that would maximize your odds according to training. What you need to understand is that those numbers aren’t fixed. You may come out with extremely fresh legs and have the ability to push harder, or you may come out and experience lower numbers due to other factors. Whats important to note is that a race plan or strategy is based off of your training, but training is a fixed environment while racing is an open environment. Its critical to know that in a race, factors are changing constantly that you must adjust to. Sticking to numbers all the time could leave you behind and regretting that decision.
While training can prepare us for most of the demands of racing or game day, you will still need to adjust in order to maximize your odds of success. Training is often done in a controlled environment that we are comfortable with. As soon as race day gets here, we must adapt to our environment and aim to hit our potential. By focusing on things such as past training, proper nutrition, and knowing your strengths, you can begin to give yourself an edge over the competition. While all of these factors can help, at the end of the day you are out there on your own and you need to adjust on the fly. Each obstacle you come across is going to either benefit or hurt you. If you can aim to make the right decisions, you will have maximized your odds of success and will be proud of the effort you put in at the end of the day.
I notice that a lot of coaches ask for their athletes to be mentally strong or focused at races or events. However, what does that actually mean. As athletes, we have all been in situations where we felt we thrived and others where maybe we fell behind our expectations. What is it that contributes to this? Most people talk about mental toughness as its some mythical experience, but I’m here to tell you that you can control it and it is trainable. Hopefully at the end of this blog you can have a better understanding of what it means and how to better control it.
Day in Day out: Confidence
Much of mental toughness comes from being confident in what you are doing. Being confident comes from knowing you can handle a situation because you’ve been through it plenty of times before. Like a student giving a final presentation or an athlete in the final game, confidence comes from having been in the situation before and believing in your abilities. As a coach, we try to put you in certain situations multiple times prior to a race so that you are confident in your abilities to handle the stress. Once you’ve continually handled certain workouts, you should feel good about replicating that again on race day. While physically we try to put you in these situations, mentally you can put yourself in race day settings as well with key #2... visualizations.
This can be done without ever leaving the house. It can also be done while in practice. When you were a kid, did you ever take the winning 3 pointer of the NCAA Championship in your driveway? Did you ever throw a Hail Mary in the Super Bowl while in your front yard? This is actually an amazing skill and tactic for building mental toughness. While we show up on race day and the conditions are outside of our control (weather, wind, etc), we can control these things in our visualization training.
Whats important with visualizing is that you include all 5 senses in order to fully trigger your brain and connect it with the experience. You want to taste the sweat and hear the wind… this is all important. If you know race day is going to be tough condition wise, you can mentally prepare for this and train the brain to be comfortable with it. This is a critical skill that is seldom used.
Note: If you are injured, this can actually help you maintain form while you’re unable to train. There are many scientific studies showing athletes getting better technique wise through visualizations while injured.
Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning
Probably the most important part of mental toughness in my opinion is setting yourself up for success. Have you ever watched the last 2 minutes of an NFL game where Tom Brady has the ball and is down by 6? How about Michael Jordan in the final seconds of a game? Yes, these are some of the greatest of all time, but they excelled in these settings because they were within their individual zone of optimal functioning. To demonstrate this, people often ask why didn’t they perform like that throughout the entire game and dominate from the beginning?
The IZOF is a well supported theory in sports psychology. It states that different athletes do better at different levels of arousal. I’m sure you can support this in your own experiences. Some athletes you know may do great when they are relaxed with low pressure while others seem to get better when under more stress. For each athlete, they have their own level of optimal functioning. Knowing when you perform best is a key understanding of your own athletic abilities. If you know that you perform better while relaxed, then you need to be focusing on relaxation techniques prior to big moments. If you know that you perform better while the pressure is on, then you need to motivate yourself and build arousal levels prior to the event. By entering into your individual zone, you are more likely to unlock that “flow” state of performing and hit closer to your potential.
Often times sports psychology gets thrown to the side because its not tangible. People associate skill and performance to physical attributes while we all know that the brain controls those movements. When talking about mental toughness, its important to know that it is controllable and can give you an edge in any race/event you do. By understanding some of the components that make up mental toughness, you should be in a better position to build your own and reap the benefits as you go through your racing calendar.
One of the perks of being a coach is working with an athlete that has true potential. As an athlete myself growing up, I always heard of a pitcher with potential, or a speedy running back. I wondered what the scouts considered “potential” and what they deemed to be not worthy. So, while this may not be the best representation of what they had in mind, I’m going to give you my input of what it’s like to work with athletes who show high levels of potential in their sports.
This is probably the portion that you really wanted to read about when you clicked on the title. The number is 6 or 7. 6 or 7 days a week of practicing your skill or sport with meaningful focus. It isn’t your v02, your mph on a radar gun, your 40 yard dash, or your cycling FTP. While those help, they don’t win you events all on their own. When we think of athletes with potential, we think of Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, and Tom Brady. But if you look at what developed them into the pinnacle of their sport, its the hard work and focused training they put in 6-7 days a week. While we all get caught up on improving our numbers (there is a place for this), sometimes we focus too much on the outcome and not enough on the process. So lets get to the meat of what it means to coach an athlete with potential
What is possible? If you want to know my response, the answer is I don’t know. I wish I could give you an exact response, but I don’t know if the human body has ever truly been maximized. An exercise physiologist would tell you that if you had a v02 of 95 then you possibly could have maxed out (you can count on your hand the amount of athletes ever with V02’s this high), but what if we can go higher and we are just stuck chasing this number. In my mind, an athlete with potential isn’t one set on any specific number, but rather is so engrained in the process of focused training that they constantly keep improving. Yes there is a point where your returns on investment with training won’t be as high, but the athlete that keeps focused on the day-to-day efforts will still squeak out those last few areas of improvement.
The Top Athletes
Heres the thing, all top level athletes/CEO’s/Teachers/Engineers/Etc didn't just fall there. While genetics do have some roll, environment and your mindset towards challenge and risk make up a huge percentage of the equation. While genetics may allow for improvements to come faster, hard work and continuous effort is what allows for improvements to continue. So it doesn’t matter where you’re starting from, what matters is if you put in the continuous work. As a coach that has worked with over 150 athletes the past 5 years and seen countless athletes across my lifetime, the athletes with the highest potential are those that work hard. For them, their ceiling isn’t defined by some number, their ceiling is unknown because they continuously break through it.
There is no overall winning or failure in athletics. Yes there is a winner and loser on any single day, but the battle is always on-going. If you are constantly putting yourself in a position to win because you’re scared of failure, then you are limiting the challenge and risk of your endeavors which will ultimately limit your potential. As a coach, I want to work with athletes that continuously focus on the efforts at hand, don’t get lost searching for an outcome, but rather are dedicated to the process of continued excellence. If you were to examine each of my top 20 athletes currently, you’d find many different age groups, male and female, body compositions, v02’s, etc. What you would notice though is that they each have the unique ability to keep building each week both physically and emotionally toward the goal of continued performance. They all focus on the process, and they are all my fastest athletes….and that to me is not by coincidence.
Derek Dalzell is an endurance coach with Master Degrees in Coaching Sports Performance and Sports Management. With certifications as both a USAC coach and personal trainer, Derek hopes to share general training principles that individuals can learn from and use in their development as athletes.