Fifty Shades of Pink

I have in the past talked about aspects of motivation and in particular, techniques to help the demotivated athlete rediscover their mojo.

Today, I’m asking a far more fundamental question and propose my own hypothesis.

Why do we do it?

That question is often the starting point for goal setting, if you know why you do, or want to do something, then you are a good way toward setting goals for your achievement and describing the goal or your progression toward it, using SMART objectives. That’s where we can often find our motivation to train – we understand why we do it.

So, just for a few moments, before you read on, ask yourself why you do it. None of us train ‘triathlon’ or train ‘Ironman’ we train our swimming, cycling and running. So, answer that for yourself.

OK, if you have immediately read on to this paragraph, put your hands on your head and stand in the corner of the room. Go on!

So, now we’re alone, here’s what I think.  For the vast majority of us, we do it because we love it.  We love the feeling of moving through water, being out on our bikes, even when the big climbs hurt and we love running, sometimes through the forest but other times just through the paved streets, on our way home.  Is that right for you, or not?

So, if we are doing these things that might be summarised as ‘training’ because we love them, or in some distinctly personal way, gain joy from them, why do we insist on measuring our performance in purely quantitative terms?  We are constantly chasing times, PBs, SBs, PRs, Strava segments, FTP, CSS, KOM, W/Kg, MPH, m/s, m/s/s? If you climb a few places up the finisher rankings well, great but unless you’re a podium contender, is anyone else really taking note of the twenty age group places you’ve gained since the same race last year?

What’s the point? Really?

I hear you trot out that “the you of today is ‘better’ than the you of yesterday”. OK I get that. But is the best way to measure a better you, to know that you ran down ‘Back Lane’ 2 seconds quicker than last time you were out and are now 4th out of those you follow on Strava for that segment? Is that you??

I propose that the better me, is the person that enjoys training today, even more than I enjoyed it yesterday.  If my motive to train is because I enjoy the activities, then surely enjoyment is the key metric to measure my improvement? After all, if I’m enjoying my training, I’m much more likely to want to do my next session and create training consistency, which seems to be the universally agreed predictor for a good race day performance.

Welcome to ER – your new performance metric!

Emotional Response (ER) is the label I’ve given to the joy of training.  It captures the feeling you get while you’re out there, as the sun rises over the hedgerow and it also reflects the feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment you feel when you’ve finished your planned (or unplanned) training session.

So how will we measure it?  I don’t expect yet another numerical scale to do it justice, after all, emotion is personal and the joy you experience from each session is unique.

I propose a colour chart.  What better scale than shades of pink?

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The range is personal to you but I’d suggest that when you feel like shouting “again Dad, again!” like a child who’s just gone down a giant water slide for the first time, then your way out there over to the left.  If you spent most of your session and the rest of the morning wondering why you bother, then you’re somewhere over to the right.

If you find yourself over to the right for several sessions, days or weeks, then you’re either heading for, or are already demotivated, feeling a loss of mojo and skipped sessions and inconsistency are almost inevitable.

That might be a good time to talk to your coach about making some changes to your training that might affect the volume, intensity, location, timing, balance or focus of your sessions and overall plan.

If pink is likely to clash with the colour of your favourite tri suit, then make up your own sliding scale to express for your Emotional Response (ER) to your training sessions.

How does that feel?

Paul

GI Tri Coach

Lovin’ It

As a coach, I am a great believer in athletes performing high quality training sessions. I don’t remember the last time I heard any coach promoting the proliferation of junk mileage, so that in itself isn’t really worth writing about.

What I have in mind is the departure from time to time, from all the structure. Getting away from the metrics of distance, time, speed, pace, cadence, heart rate, stroke length, wattage and personal best performances.

No, sometimes, you have to switch to an entirely new qualitative paradigm – Joy.

If you’re training for an Ironman, depending upon your base level of fitness and experience at the distance, you’ll be training for anything between eighteen and twenty-four weeks, putting in ten to sixteen hours, or even more for some people.  I know some athletes who can tell you to the metre how much swimming, cycling and running they did in 2016.  What I’m left wondering though, is what proportion of those they actually enjoyed.

When we start in this great sport, most of us have a background in one of the three – not everyone but most.  That original sport – let’s say it was running, you did because you loved it.  Maybe you worked your way up to a marathon? You ran and ran and ran because you loved it. Right? Do you remember that time?

Eventually though, you looked for something else, either something more, or something different.  And here we are, on the GI Tri Coach blog…

Training for triathlon, particularly Ironman, is an arduous task.  It usually involves at least one sport that really, deep down, you just tolerate, or endure.  You grind through sessions without loving it, ever dreaming about it, or even looking forward to it.  That’s usually where it starts.  You’re not really looking forward to a session but you do it anyway. Reluctantly.  Eventually though, you pluck up the courage to do it – you skip the session.  Soon enough you don’t only skip the session you hated but another one, that you used to quite like and before long, your training plan looks like a chess board and motivation is something you’re now finding hard to define, let alone locate.

That might sound entirely familiar to you but hopefully, not quite yet.

One of the things I have been doing with athletes lately, is breaking down the structure.  Taking away performance targets or even session durations. Not all the time of course but once in a while – on a lighter week.

I have for years now, used this technique when re-building from scratch, trying to recover an athlete from despondency but lately I have used it with the most consistent and capable athletes.

Why?  Because even the best athletes need a break. Not a break from training but a break from expectation.

When did you last feel the love for your sport?  Swimming through the water, feeling it rush over your body as you slip through a hole in the water so narrow, you thought you’d lost weight?  Ridden toward the low sun and the only sounds were the tyres on the road surface, the chain over your gears and your rhythmic breath and the only thought in your mind was “wow, I love this bike!”?  Been running down a trail, the light casting shadows on the path as it passed though the bare winter branches, birdsong up ahead only mildly obscured by the crunch of your shoes beneath?  The sheer joy of it all.

If you’re planning to go out training this weekend. Try one of those sessions above.

Feel the joy!

It might help you keep to your rigid training schedule for another few weeks, until once more, you say “no more” to structure and “yes please” to lovin’ it!

Paul

GI Tri Coach

Homemade Energy Bars

Ahead of my upcoming ultra, I thought I’d have a go at some homemade energy bars.

Not a lot of science went into this project…Clif, High 5 and Powerbar, fear not!

This is not a food blog and it isn’t going to become one but somewhat ironically, this is the first of three food themed posts you’ll see over the next few days….

3-ingredient date bars:

1 cup pitted dates

1 cup toasted almond flakes

1 cup dried cherries

Gaps in the cup of dried cherries filled with chia seeds (well, I had come lying around, so why not? other than there are four ingredients in the inaugural batch!).

Put everything into a food processor, or like I did, spend a good while going at it with a kitchen knife, having failed to make a blender do the job:

 

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When it’s really fine and starting to clump together, use your thoroughly washed hands to form it into a tight ball, then roughly form a slab by repeatedly pressing, slapping a tapping it back into shape:

 

Wrap it in cling film and refrigerate until you’ve forgotten about it.  When eventually you remember again, take it out.

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Cut it into ‘bite size’ squares and wrap in greaseproof kitchen paper.

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They’re ready to take on the trail.

Despite looking like something passed by a squirrel, they taste REALLY good!

The second batch sticks to the ‘three ingredients’ principle and uses apricots instead of cherries. This one is ‘rough cut’ as I suspect these will be like peanut butter…. Some people like smooth, others like crunchy. I’ll let you argue over which way is best!

The thing is…. Dates will stick to just about anything, so switching out or adding ingredients shouldn’t be a problem. Just make ‘em how you like ‘em!

Keep running for longer!

Paul

GI Tri Coach

Back to basics

In a recent mail sent to all the athletes I coach 1-1, I reminded them to take this opportunity at the end of the season to break up their routine and have a little fun in their active lifestyle.  This might include some time out on a mountain bike, trail running or hiking.  The most important aspects are to really enjoy what you’re doing and break up the training schedule that you’d followed in the previous months.

In our end of year reviews, one athlete reported that despite planning their session timetable jointly, it didn’t really work for them and that it compromised their life away from triathlon.  Another reported that their plan actually felt stale by the time they reached peak training volume.  Neither of those scenarios are likely to promote the very best performance from the athletes.

There is a great opportunity while enjoying yourself, to re-evaluate what works for you.  Do you still want to do that early morning swim on Thursdays?  Have any other aspects of your life changed in priority such that you really need to rethink your plan?  Keeping a note of the activities you enjoyed the most during the off season and when you like to do them, might help inform your training plan for 2017.

The other thing to think about at this time of year is testing.  It’s important to know where your fitness levels are in order to set your training zones when your structured training re-commences.

Having only just finished my race season (ignoring the ‘just for fun’ ultra I have in a few weeks), one might expect that I’m in my best shape.  For my swim at least, nothing could be further from the truth.  This week I completed a Critical Swim Speed (CSS) test, to re-baseline my swim sets as I look forward to performance gains next season.  What I discovered was quite shocking but having given it just a moment of thought, perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised at all.  My CSS pace is now 6 seconds per hundred metres slower than it had been in Spring.  Why is that?  Well, 2016 has been a transitional year for me, coming back from significant injury that had me confined to crutches for the latter six months of 2015.  What was most important for me, was performance assurance, not pace.  I needed to get in the water and out on the bike, without fuss. In order to do that, I structured my plan to be simply two open water Iron distance swims per week, (Mondays and Wednesdays).  I’d swim in the 1:05 – 1:10 window each time and succeeded in making that a normal outcome.  In my two iron distance races of the season, I swam 1:05 and 1:07 with change, so in that respect, mission accomplished. Having plodded all year though, I shouldn’t be surprised that I plodded through the 400m and 200m time trials that set my CSS pace.  Using this new slower CSS will however, give me a realistic starting point as I work in the pool to make my 2017 goal of a 60-minute Ironman swim, a possibility.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be working with athletes to establish their current CSS pace, functional threshold on the bike and lactate threshold heart rate for their run sessions.

If you need help to understand how to set a CSS or establish your bike and run thresholds, comment below and we can look at those in detail in a future post.

Paul

GI Tri Coach

Brutally Honest

I spent last weekend in North Wales in a role not as a coach but as a member of a support team for a friend of mine, Paul ‘Bear’ Machin.

As you might expect from someone who’s adopted name is that of a large carnivoran mammal, he’s not your ‘average’ bear.  The task at hand (for him at least) was the matter of a double Iron distance extreme triathlon Double Brutal.

Brutal is so tough that unlike regular Ironman, you’re allowed outside assistance. To form his three-person crew, I had been teamed up with Bear’s former coach, Viking warrior princess, Mari and long distance swimming legend Hazel, who’s the youngest person to have swum the English Channel.  No pressure then!

Arriving on Friday evening, I was confronted by the most horrendous weather conditions I could have imagined, having left in my VW T5 day van, which was to be my home for the weekend, in just shorts and a tee shirt.

 

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With best laid plans Bear had set up a base-camp of tents and van parking positions that should have provided us the perfect on-course set-up to support his epic undertaking.  The weather had other ideas all but destroyed the camp and its content with high winds breaking tent poles like twigs and torrential rain soaking every piece of food, clothing equipment and morale. The only thing standing was the Viking warrior’s tent, which she kindly pointed out to us more than once over the course of the weekend.

The race briefing was a tense affair, the gravity of the undertaking was as obvious as the split in the crowd between the ultra-endurance athletes and their support crew:

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The Brutal (just the single event) was recently voted “The toughest triathlon event in the world”. So for his next trick, Bear was to do it at double the distance.

The 2016 event included three races in one, with a half, full and double distance races all commencing at the same time, with athletes leaving the water and out onto the mountainous bike course in a steady stream, back to the red-capped double brutal swimmers who were the last to emerge.

Having done some long distance swimming myself in the past, I’m somewhat dismissive of the double iron distance swim of 7.6KM but as a start to the day, its challenging enough.  The bike route is particularly difficult, departing Llanberis and heading out on a lap of Snowdonia, that takes in Pen-Y-Pass at 1,178 feet, just the 8-times for double participants.

setting

The nature of the course dictates that ‘normal’ Iron distance cut-off times don’t apply.  Armed with energy drinks, bars, solid food, hot drinks, milk shakes, clothes changes, additional lube, bike spares, tools and a bag of Werther’s Originals to keep the crew happy, we headed out onto the bike course.  Our plan was to drive the route backward to meet Bear at pre-agreed locations around the 29-mile loop.  Almost immediately the main problem presented itself.  We couldn’t get there before he did.  While the long grinding climbs slowed cyclists, they made up much more time on the sweeping descents and once a few hold ups for trucks and busses that were navigating the winding roads were thrown into the mix, we were moving at a snail’s pace in the crew van.

A few hand gestures, gasps of exasperation and ‘informed’ exchanges of information later, we switched to Plan B – leapfrogging Bear (and all the other cyclists), by driving the route.   This gave us at least a fighting chance to reconfirm his requirements, make ad hoc additions to his support and of course cheer him on as he powered past our chosen lay by on non-feed stops.  I drove the van while Hazel and Mari worked the various support needs for each stop as swiftly as possible before Bear rode into view and with F1-like efficiency gathered whatever he needed and rode away again, leaving us to pack up and pass him, in time for the next scheduled stop.  For the whole day and through the night, we continued in this manner, feeding, hydrating, clothing, lighting, maintaining and cheering his ride until finally, he rode into Llanberis for the last time.

The end of the bike felt like a goal in itself.  Anyone who’s ridden a century knows that feeling of a job well done.  This was well over double the distance through extremely tough terrain.  Like all extreme events, the drop-out rate is high!

There was no time for celebration though.   Mari sprang into action and paced Bear on his ascent and descent of Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain, posting one of the fastest times of the day before rounding out her own accomplishment with a 5-mile lap of the lake, itself a challenging trail route for the most part.  I took the opportunity to grab a couple of hours of sleep and readied myself to accompany Bear on laps 3 and 4.  The two laps totaled 10.5 miles and I was pretty happy to have made it around without crying.  Hanging my drenched kit out to dry, I chilled out with a milkshake in the company of a couple of athletes I coach, who were also at the event, taking on the Brutal half, which itself includes the ascent and descent of Snowdon as part of the ‘run’ route.

Feeling pretty relaxed, I returned to the event route and our make-shift support camp, to see Bear pass at the commencement of lap 7 of 8.  He was starting to tire and asked if I could pace him around the next lap.  Confirming that he meant me to start running ‘NOW’ I overcame my natural tendency to think of ten miles of trail to already be an acceptable training day. I quickly pulled back on my only set of running kit from earlier, which by that time had the odour of something that had spent time in the enclosures of both baboons and camels and started to tap out a pace that Bear could hold with encouragement. That’s when he slipped in the suggestion that I might help him on the last lap too… In for a penny…in for a pound!

 

We used a variety of run / walk / hike techniques playing the ultra-runner’s favourite mind game of “run from this fence post, to that bush, then we can hike the hill…”

run-course

In what felt like no time, we were around lap 7 and heading out onto the final lap.  As we came through the timing mat we were joined by another competitor also starting his final lap.  Bear looked at me, no words were spoken.  A nod, we picked up the pace and held it.  This isn’t the kind of pace that causes you to hear the sound track from Chariots of Fire but it did say, “there’s no WAY you’re taking this place on the finisher list, buddy.”

When in pitch darkness for the second night in a row, the climbing was over and we commenced the final descent, I began to feel giddy.  Yes. I was pretty happy to have put in a 20-mile day but of course I hadn’t done the whole thing.  I shared the euphoria with Bear “you do realise that you’re heading to the finish of the Double Brutal, don’t you?”  “Yeah, I knew it was in the bag when we were still on the bike.”

“We.”  He did say “we”. We were a team.  Hazel, Mari, myself and of course Bear. For that weekend “we” were Team Bear.

After 37 hours 20 minutes and 8 seconds, Paul Bear Machin, YOU are Double Brutal!

Mirror, mirror

The end of the triathlon season is almost here, or if you’re one of the fortunate readers in Australia or South Africa, in fact it’s just starting!

Thinking about how your season has gone is possibly the most important early step toward having a better 2017.

After crossing the ‘A’ race finish line, stopping your Garmin 920XT and doing that mini-bow to allow a volunteer to place the finisher’s medal around your neck, you’re filled with emotions that can range from a terrific high to dejection.  That’s perhaps not the best time to consider your racing future, unless of course it’s to check that you have your credit card to pay for your Kona slot tomorrow morning!

For most of us, Kona is just a manufacturer of reasonably priced bikes and it’ll take some time before all of the training and the race itself can really sink in and be truly meaningful.

The process of reflection is useful in all aspects of our lives but as an athlete or triathlon coach, its invaluable.  All too often, decisions are made in a moment that set the course of the following season, or even end an entire triathlon career.  The “never again” feeling happens to everyone at some point but in most cases, it’ll pass.

Before I discovered triathlon, I had convinced myself that I was ‘a runner’, evidenced by several painfully slow marathon finishes.  Sunday night would be “never again” but by Tuesday, I’d be scouring the back pages of Runner’s World looking for another race to enter.

For the athletes I coach, we’ll close out the season with a process of reflection that considers not just their race day performance but the entire training process, including each aspect of our athlete – coach ‘contract’.  For some athletes their own reflection (or perhaps even my own) will conclude that as they pursue their 2017 goals, a different coach, or no coach at all, is their best way forward.  Like high school sweethearts, coaching relationships don’t last forever and understanding what’s best for the athlete has been something I have come to learn and accept.

As a coach, I reflect on the relationship itself, often focussing on my own communication methods and style, as well as the feedback I get from the athletes themselves.  I’ve had athletes who want to provide detailed feedback and discussion for every single session, to those who hide the ‘bad news’ of skipped sessions until the end of the week and in the extreme, those who consider a couple of lines in a text message sufficient to structure their near term training.

I need to decide who I want to work with and how I want to work with them and to ensure that they’re a good match for the athlete’s own expectations and practices.  Ironically, while these sometime sound like a perfect match in the beginning, they turn out to be a mismatch.  After all, if everything went to Plan A, we coaches would be redundant!

My season’s reflections as an athlete and coach are of course entirely separate processes, though one may inform the other.

Some of the things I’m looking at with athletes are:

How was training for their main event over the duration they spent training?

Did their weekly training schedule fit with their lifestyle and commitments?

How satisfied are they with the outcome?

What are their strengths and weaknesses (compared to what they had considered at the start?)

What surprised them?

Do they feel that they’d like to set a goal for next season?

How well did we work together?

Would they like my help toward their next goal?

There are of course many tributaries to these questions, depending on the athlete and what we already know.   The main thing is that once the season is done, the door is open for the athlete and coach to freely walk in, or out of, without pre-determined obligation or expectation.

From here, 2017 looks exciting already!

Use alcohol in preparation for your A race

We’re are at the peak of race season for the Northern hemisphere, so most of my athletes are getting close to their A race.

In this short blog, I’ll be promoting the use of alcohol in the lead-in to your ‘A’ race.

Now that I have your attention, I’d like to further explain that I’m not suggesting a dram of whiskey to calm the nerves, I’m talking about frequent and liberal use of alcohol hand gel to protect yourself from infection.

I work in a large office with hundreds of people sharing the environment every day. Access is mostly by elevator, or flights of stairs where constant use of the handrail is compulsory to comply with the company stair code, in addition to internal door closers necessitating the use of push plates and grab handles.  All that adds up to a festival of viral and biological cross-infection – not what you need leading into a race!

Without fail, every time I contact one of these common-to-all surfaces, I cleanse my hands with alcohol gel. Right now I hear ever cough and sneeze across the open office and note the areas and people to avoid. Over the top? Maybe. Particularly seeing that my own A race isn’t for months.

Be fit and healthy on the start line and directly improve your chances of achieving your race day goals!

Paul

GI Tri Coach