12 July 2008

Athletic Inversion & Living The Dream


October 2008 marks the 20th anniversary of Scott Molina's victory at the Hawaii Ironman. Part of Scott's motivation for returning is the desire to get-it-right in terms of preparation, and race day performance. If an athlete as successful as Scott feels that he hasn't quite got it right -- after 30 (!) years of racing -- then there must be structural limitations in the human condition.

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One of the key things that Charlie Munger repeats in his Almanack is the advice to "always invert". I have been reading that advice for three years but only recently started to grasp the meaning. I think what he is trying to tell me...

...to improve your chances of being successful, make sure you figure out what can kill you.

Munger believes that a solid track record of success can be created by sticking to what you know, working hard and limiting your poor choices. Inversion is a method of bringing potentially poor choices, or situations, to the front of your mind.

The books that I recommended in the last few weeks do a great job when it comes to applying this advice in the real world. However, I spent yesterday considering what derails athletic success.

According to Daniels, the two key aspects of athletic success are inherent ability and motivation.

However, our ability to achieve athletic success is a mixture of what we choose to do and what we choose to avoid. Nothing impacts choices as directly as your peer group -- choose associates wisely.

Across an athletic lifetime, there are ample opportunities for self-sabotage. World Champions (like Molina) have interesting stories about personal triumphs. They have hilarious stories about their mistakes. Unknowingly, I have been studying oral autobiographies of great champions/investors/coaches over the last eighteen years.

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How we defeat ourselves in racing



The image above is a histogram of an ironman-distance power file. Don't get too caught up in the details, the picture helps me explain a couple of concepts for endurance success.

The Dead Zone -- the dead zone starts at the average wattage (and heart rate) for a Half Ironman race where you ran well. What is "running well"? I like to define it as within 7% of a fresh half marathon split. Within my own racing, I can come within 5%.

Why do I call it the dead zone? Because if you spend too much time above your average Half IM power (or heart rate)... your hopes of a decent marathon will DIE. The more time you spend there, the greater the likelihood of marathon difficulties.

We shouldn't blame the molecular structure of our nutritional choices, the issue lies with our selected race effort.

In racing, the #1 thing that can kill you is choosing a race pace that exceeds: (a) your fitness; or (b) your capacity to fuel to the finish line.

The likelihood of a superior performance increases the more easily you start the day. Consider:

Swim -- once you are swimming an easy to steady effort, you will find that you need to massively increase effort for a tiny increase in pace. You won't believe the scale of this relationship until you actually try it for yourself. In fact, a number of athletes strongly resist learning this knowledge.

As the saying goes...
...you can bring athletes to the lake but you can't make them negative split with a heart rate monitor attached...

The test workout is 5x800 meters (each one faster than the one before) -- best done open water or in a 50-meter pool. Check your average/max HR per lap against your pace per lap. Compare your workout average pace/HR with the average pace/HR for the final two laps.

Bike -- providing you choose humble gearing (a BIG assumption), you have the option to moderate and totally control your effort. If a former World Ironman Champion like Scott Molina can ride with a 30/27 then you should be able to suck-it-up and be realistic about your gearing needs.

Run -- if you blow on the run then the time penalty is MASSIVE, the cost of a marathon meltdown is disproportionately high. At Ultraman, I have pulled back 10-minutes per MILE, off athletes that run into trouble.

Does your prior race record show that you have the experience, fitness and competence to "race" to what you think is the limit of your fitness? I put "race" in quotes because very few people ever race an Ironman.

So what is a realistic effort for you to aim for on the bike? Here is a test workout... 3x40 mile loops, no long climbs, no drafting, with less than 90 seconds of stopping between each loop. Do each loop faster than the one before -- if you pull that off (and aren't wrecked) then Lap 2 is a good guideline. If you can't descend the laps, or if you are totally worked at the end, then even your slowest lap is too fast.

Download your data from this workout and look at your actual heart rate and power profiles. That is your benchmark for IM -- given that you are swimming 2.4 miles and running a marathon as well... you are likely to need to step _down_ from that actual training data. Similar to the swim test set... you will feel a lot of mental resistance when faced with this information. Many don't want to know.

No doubt some of you think that I am nuts to recommend a 200KM race simulation ride -- does your prior racing track record show that you have the knowledge to determine appropriate pacing?

I did a series of race simulation rides in 2001 -- they were extremely tough and the lessons are still with me! For some reason, lessons learned alone, in training, tend to stick with me longer than repeated errors made in the heat of competition.

A word on averages, fast triathlon cycling is about learning to optimize your speed on the LOWEST possible wattage. An athlete that can go the same speed as you on 80-90% of your power has a huge advantage once the run begins. We all tend to focus on the big numbers, however, the athletes that are most impressive are the ones that go quick on low power. Learning how they do that can give you and edge -- some ideas... aerodynamics, fast in the slow bits, avoiding spikes, bike skills, relaxed at high speed.

Even armed with the above knowledge, it is near impossible to apply it when stressed and surrounded by people making poor decisions. Socially, it is far safer to fail conventionally than 'risk' success in an unconventional manner. I have numerous podium finishes that result from (what others call) cycling 'weakness'.

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Q. What is the #1 killer of athletic success in training?
A. Fatigue.

I have been working with athletes for ten years now and the greatest challenge that we face is managing fatigue. Athletes that successfully manage fatigue are more consistent with their training (and happier) thereby increasing their ultimate athletic success.

Here are some tips for improving how you manage fatigue.

Chasing Fitness -- Chasing fitness happens when you sit down and calculate the "fitness" required to meet an athletic goal. You then train at your goal fitness level, rather than your current fitness level. We do this in a lot of different ways -- solo athletes, do this by chasing Personal Bests in workouts; group training athletes, do this by seeking to "win" workouts with "faster" athletes.

My experience is the best training partners are slightly weaker physically, stronger mentally and very fun to be around. You then let the group dynamics lift your fitness.

As for the effect on your training partner... remember that most of your competition isn't consciously seeking their personal best, they are controlled by moment-to-moment emotions.

Chasing Averages -- I've nuked myself a few times with this approach, most recently last week. Here is how it works... you sit down with a recent lab test, or race result. The data is "real" so you have confidence that it will provide a reasonable benchmark to what you should do. You then pull out the exercise physiology textbooks and calculate the precise intensity that you should hold for the workout. Then, for an unexplained reason, you add 5-10% to the intensity and 10-20% to the duration! Fortunately, I cracked fairly early in that workout!

Another word on why averages are misleading. Have another look at the chart above. The average of that ride was 253w. About 6% of that ride was less than 100w but less than 2% of the ride was greater than 400w. With heart rates/power/pace, there are always more very low values than very high values. The longer, and more variable, the workout the greater this effect. As well, my brain always seems to "normalize high". If you ask me to guess the average power of an effort that I just completed (when I watched the screen a lot), I am nearly always 5-10% too high.

What does this mean?

A - If your goal effort is 180-190w then you'll probably average ~175w if you execute correctly.

B - If you set your powermeter on "average watts" and try to hit a number then the majority of your ride will be well over that number and you'll fail to notice (highly costly) power spikes.

No Man's Land Training -- A fit athlete will have the capacity to train every session a little bit "too hard". Taking the three main physiological markers, AeT/LT/FT, the mid points between each of these, should be avoided, with particular attention being paid to the mid-point between AeT and LT. There is a big increase in recovery requirement (and hardly any training benefit) from training slightly over these points, as opposed to slightly under. See the attachment from last week for more info.

NOTE -- intensity moderation is easier to apply to others than ourselves! Having a coach review workout files (post fact) can help you stay sane.

The final three points are sleep, life stress and nutrition (including drug/alcohol use). These are huge in terms of their impact on the amount of fatigue we carry around in our lives.

Sleep -- an extra hour of sleep, every night.

Life Stress -- consciously choosing to do less, in order to achieve more.

Nutrition -- eat real food.

The more simple you can make your life, the greater the chance that you will be able to execute successfully.

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Living The Dream
Q. My description of a dream job would be: one that involved endurance sports, is active, flexible, challenging, and has a good potential for return on my investment of time and money. Very, very, very difficult to find something that meets those requirements, I think. I've contemplated becoming a race director, opening a gym/training facility for endurance athletes, going to school for ex. science, or getting a job with a company in the industry. All have their appeal. But its a huge set of steps between considering these possibilities while still in school and taking the plunge and leaving a steady job and income to try some venture of my own devising.

I've been reading your blog for a while and you seem pretty qualified to answer my question, which I am getting to. I've asked enough questions to realize that asking "how do I get that dream job" has just as many answers as there are people to answer; that is, everyone has a different story, and while they do help, they won't help me figure out my own plan. So my question is this: what is the most important skill/trait I can cultivate now and while working in engineering to help prepare me for the kind of profession I am contemplating?
Because of the high value we place on personal freedom, jobs with large degrees of freedom, rarely come with a high return on capital (human or financial). That said, when I look at the things that are most important to me (freedom, fitness, health, nature, love), these items do not cost much to acquire. They did, however, require years of preparation in terms of planning, positioning and effort.

The opportunity to build personal capital in your 20s is valuable. However, when I look back, even more valuable was: (a) being surrounded by a group of highly intelligent people that enhanced my desire to work; (b) the acquisition of a wide range of skills and the opportunity to apply these skills in a range of situations; (c) instruction (by example) of the level of commitment/effort/perseverance required to achieve challenging goals.

When I look for people to associate with, I ask myself, "does this person have a track record of achievement backed by work ethic and strong personal values?" Spending your 20s focused on the creation of that sort of person would be time very well spent.

More specifically for your goal, my advice is to focus on building your expert credentials, as perceived by your target market. Share your knowledge freely as it has little value if hoarded. The market will let you know if your experience has value and relevance.

Sharing your experiences, also improves your communication skills. In the field you are considering, effective communication is important.

Within your expert credentials, three things to consider:

Image -- always present yourself the way you wish to be seen by your target market. Be aware that most people will quickly see through a lack of authenticity. Remember that what takes decades to build can be pulled down very quickly. Respond slowly, and thoughtfully, in environments you don't control (such as other people's internet forums).

Within my own life, I have found it much easier to eliminate choices that don't fit my desired image than create something that doesn't exist. If you chip away at the items that don't fit then you will find that, over time, you end up with a "self" that is in pretty good shape. Over the last few years, I have taken a hard look at the aspects of my life that run counter to honesty, kindness and health. I work daily at the elimination of small things that are inconsistent with these values.

Put yourself in the right peer group, learn to enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done and gain control over the little things that are inconsistent with the person you want to become.

Perception -- there is the way we see ourselves, and the way others see us. From a business point of view, an understanding of how others see us is very useful. What aspects of your story resonate with your target client base? What special, or interesting, knowledge do you have to share? Sharing genuine experiences of an interesting life is probably the most popular form of soft-marketing you can do. We share a love of interesting stories.

Knowledge -- do you know what you don't know? Do you know what you need to know? Do you have multiple approaches available to help your clients? At the beginning of our athletic journey we know so little. Start by figuring out how the different approaches work, and don't work, for you. Work with the best people you have access to. Solidify your knowledge by sharing, and teaching, it.

Most of us get into trouble when we stray into areas where our knowledge is limited. Even as you achieve expert status (whatever that means) resist the urge to opine on all range of subjects. Focus on sharing experience in the areas where you have specific, and relevant knowledge. One of the nice things about being part of a smart team is that you have the ability to bring in support when clients ask questions outside of your core competency.

The ability to ask for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. One needs to be self-confident to admit one's limitations.

If you put yourself "out there" then there will be people waiting to sling arrows, or anonymous comments, at you. By sticking to what you know, it will make it easier to handle it when people seek to bring you down. Remember that our critics exist to criticize, no matter what they say, they have little interest in helping us.

While you are building the above be aware that the more successful you become the greater you are at risk for being hurt by various forms of cognitive bias. One of the reasons that I study under different teachers is to keep my "toolbox" filled with more than one approach for each problem.

Many experts become so immersed in their own dogma that they lose their intellectual freedom. I have had some very intelligent people agree with me in private, but note that they can't change their opinion because of the weight of their past public record. We share an irrational bias against people that change their opinion. Always give yourself the freedom to change your mind in light of new information.

I didn't answer your question directly because people that create world-class financial returns from triathlon are more scarce than World Champion triathletes. However, there are many examples of people that create an enviable lifestyle in our sport, and I believe you will find that much more rewarding than outsize financial returns.

Hope this helps,
gordo

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