10 February 2008

Reflections on Overtraining


Our photo this week is Team MonGo at Ben Lomond Saddle above Queenstown, New Zealand. Monica and I went for a hike last week and were treated to some amazing views. Our “hike” turned into a pretty solid workout and I managed to convince my training partner to take the gondola down to save my legs. At the top of the Gondola, we ran into Epic Vet Eliot as well as his dad. They were on their way up as we were finishing. Eliot’s mohawk makes him pretty easy to spot from a distance.

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An Epic Camp provides plenty of opportunity for self-reflection. My hour long final podcast is a reflection of my internal dialogue when logging big miles. As you can probably tell from the podcast, I am comfortable spending time alone and find my idiosyncrasies amusing. Molina thinks that this is a characteristic that long-term ultra junkies share. We are the funniest guys we know but aware that we probably overestimate our amusement value to others.

This past trip, I had Scott chat me through his career – starting from 100 mile run weeks (at 15) through to his athletic peak (at 25) then winning Ironman Hawaii (at 28) then retiring (at 33). Homeboy is one durable athlete to hit it hard for 18 years. Suffice to say, he is comfortable being tired.

The Terminator needed an overhaul when he retired and he spent five years working as a personal trainer and lifting weights. That takes us to 38 and I arrived in his life at 40. The “fastest” that I have seen him was Epic Colorado in 2003 when he was 43 years old – he was fast across all three disciplines and could hang with Clas/me (no sweat). Clas had the fastest run at Zofingen and I ran 2:49 at IMC that year; we were in Podium IM shape.

The rough timeline is important for some of the points I will make later. I may not have got it exactly right but my listening is improving.

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The closer you get to your ultimate physical potential; the greater the “payback” that will be required when you exceed your body’s ability to recover. As you approach your maximal race fitness, there is a divergence between athletic success and physical well-being/longevity.

Fitness is a very powerful drug that programs deep athletic memories. Almost by definition, athletes with the ability to take themselves beyond reasonable levels of training/fatigue are at risk for overtraining. In fact, some successful elites may even tell you that overtraining is essential for success.

I’m not sure those words are what the champions mean. Here’s my shot at it:

  • Completing a lot of work is a requirement for success in any field.
  • The closer we get to our maximum capacity to “do” work, the closer we are to completely ruining our ability to “absorb” work.
  • As a species, we are poor at seeing much further than the current moment – especially with a stack of endorphins coursing through our veins.
  • Take all of these together – mistakes are to be expected and overtraining is a “normal” hazard for the endurance athlete.

Scott had more success than pretty much anyone in the history of our sport – he’d make anyone’s top ten list for race victories.

His payback period was five to ten years. I am nearing my third anniversary of hitting the wall and I wonder…

  • Have I paid back enough?
  • Have I learned my lessons?
  • When will the Old G re-appear?

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Five years until he got back to triathlon training and ten years until he was really rippin’ it up again.

Years… not seasons… not months… not weeks.

This struck me because I had five months off in 2005 (April to August) then eased back into hour-per-day training for a few months before starting back with structured triathlon training in December 2005. Across 2006, it was touch-and-go with quite a bit of residual fear in my body. If you have ever had an injury then you’ve likely experienced the fear of re-injury. Overtraining is a spiritual and immune system “injury” with a similar psychology.

All across 2006, I was looking for a sign that I was “healed” and that soon I would be able to get back to the training that I remembered.

An important note – the training that we remember is our lifetime best performances blurred by the passage of time. A long term training log is a wonderful tool for a reality check. I use it often with my most headstrong athletes (and myself). Lifetime bests have the deepest chemical signatures – check the facts before making assumptions about how you “used to be”.

In 2006, my training was erratic and I used the cushion of working in my business to hide from reality. Perhaps I was past it, perhaps I was still tired, perhaps I was cured of my desire for mega-miles.

Long time readers will know what happened next, I went to Mark and Brant for some help putting myself back together – both physically and spiritually. I re-established my connection with nature and saw some of the patterns that caused my fatigue.

I thought I was healed – more accurately… I hoped that I was healed. On many levels I was healed. Without a doubt, Mark’s training protocol gave me my health back – I highly recommend his method if you are seeking to break a cycle of fatigue, injury or overtraining. The combo of Mark and Brant is an amazing duo – I have no idea how, or why, it works but (for me) it was really something special.

…but the fear remained, along with an emotional component of fatigue. Each time I would become fatigued, I was waiting to fall into exhaustion.

In life, we most often get what we expect and this probably held me back. My fears also prevented me from following my heart with the sort of training approach that I enjoy and have found effective. There were a lot of self-rationalizations that went on in my head but, in reality, I was scared.

If you read my Ironman Canada 2007 race report then you know what happened next… total public meltdown and my worst race performance relative to fitness in five years.

That was followed by four months of depression that culminated in three weeks in the tropical paradise of Noosa where I struggled to get out of bed. A few things got me moving:

Commitments – last October I made a commitment to Monica that I would do at least one hour of activity every single day for the rest of our life together (walking counts!). As an athlete, or an athletic spouse, you either understand why that is important, or you don’t. As my love for, and understanding of, Monica grows; I see how lucky I am to have a life partner that understands me better than I understand myself.

Personal Responsibility – nobody “made” my situation, it was the direct result of choices I made. I did my best to take small concrete actions that moved me back towards the life I want to live. Getting out of bed each morning is the most important thing that I do. If I can get that done then 89 out of 90 days, everything flows from there.

Acceptance – with most of my recovery challenges, my healing progresses most rapidly once I accept that I might never get better. By ceasing to resist my fatigue, my mood, my challenges – I start to improve. I don’t think that we ever “overcome” or “conquer” our fundamental challenges in life – we learn the patterns, habits and strategies that are effective to keep us moving forward.

All of these thoughts occurred to me because last week, training felt different to me. Epic made me tired but it didn’t make me scared. I commented about my improved form to Molina and he said that he didn’t notice any difference (or anything impressive). On reflection, that made sense because the change was on the inside.

It was a lot of fun to have my health back and enjoy training with the guys. I need to remember that as the memories of Epic return to me while training.

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I suppose my point is one that Mark shared with me. The factors that lead to breakdown accumulate across many years (often in parallel to increased athletic performance). Any improvement, from rock bottom, will feel like healing.

The greater your success leading up to the breakdown, the longer your recovery will likely take. Be patient in the early stages – my impatience through the early years of overtraining is what led to hitting the wall.

The stages, for me, were:

  • Breakdown;
  • Total rest;
  • Resumption of light activity – this is where health and biomechanical issues can be addressed;
  • Resumption of unstructured triathlon training – address patterns/habits that lead to breakdown;
  • Resumption of triathlon training balanced with equal periods of scheduled recovery (this step is very rarely done – it was the key to a rapid return to fitness in 2006); and
  • Resumption of elite triathlon training that is balanced with extended transition and early season training.

Adult athletes should remember that stress and fatigue that builds up outside of sport can often manifest itself as athletic overtraining.

I’ll keep you posted.

g

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13 June 2007

More On Personal Planning


This letter will focus on a recent conversation with a buddy of mine. He was asking me for advice on Personal Planning. Our photo this week is Richter Pass on the Ironman Canada course. Two things that I think of every day (maybe every waking hour) -- Monica and Ironman Canada.

Oh yeah, Mat is reviewing my websites (GordoWorld.Com, Byrn.Org, CoachGordo.Com) as part of his summer internship. We will be simplifying the articles and streamlining navigation. If you have any favourite articles then please print and save at your end. For republishing and/or non-commercial uses, please drop me a line in advance.

Books that I've recently read (all good): The Last True Story That I'll Ever Tell; All Marketers Are Liars; and Through Our Enemy's Eyes. Currently reading "Ghost Wars".

One business book and the rest are background reading to evaluate what our leaders are saying about the threat from terrorism. I think that there is room for improvement on how the issue is being framed.

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Before we shift to the topics, a bit of a personal update. This weekend, we're doing a high-altitude training camp across the Rockies to Winter Park. My version is...

Saturday -- 210K Boulder to Winter Park via Trail Ridge Road; easy run PM
Sunday -- 180K Winter Park to Rand, return; easy run off the bike
Monday -- AM Swim; PM Easy Run
Tuesday -- AM Swim then Long Run; drive back to Boulder

Tuesday marks the 11th day of my first specific prep training cycle. If things go as planned then I'll have six days with 5+ hours of training; a long run; and four decent swims. The main focus of this training block is my riding.

The lads don't know it yet but the Sunday ride will have a 10m draft zone -- following last week, a couple of them mentioned that they wanted to get their noses in the wind. So this will be a perfect opportunity for a Reality Check. Several sustained hours of 128-145 bpm are very different when the heart rate isn't being driven by repeated high power surges.

The new arrivals at altitude will change Saturday to: AM long course swim; drive to WP; Berthoud Pass Ride (10K climb starts 9000+ ft); easy run PM with the group. The long ride on Saturday has an extended piece over 10,000 ft (to end a 3+hr climb) and that is VERY draining when you aren't fully acclimatized.

A future letter will cover my thoughts on altitude -- my practical altitude experience (real, artificial, sea level to 20,000+ feet) is broad from both mountaineering and triathlon. I have had plenty of different experiences and will share my views for you to consider.

Oh yeah, the pool is around 8,500 feet so it should be entertaining watching a bunch of fatigued triathletes use three-stroke and flip turns! I doubt that we'll be going very fast.

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Personal Planning -- Part Two
A friend asked: When you were tired in 2005 and knew it was time to take a break from triathlon, how did you know what to do? I have so many questions in my head about the future that I don't know where to start. What is the best plan for me?

Here's what I meant to say. There are several aspects of this topic that are important to me:

The first thing to do is write down EVERY question and issue that you have. Make it a two column table. In the second column, write about how each topic makes you "feel" -- there will be a tremendous amount of self-knowledge there.

Know that I strive to do the best plan for "me". Telling you what to do would be a mistake because you don't need to do what I would do. "Your" job is the same as mine, figure out the best plan for "you". Don't follow what I do, per se. That said, my case study might give you some ideas -- plus I enjoy writing about me! Remember that I had a lot of good fortune over the last few years -- I probably just got lucky! You mileage will vary.

In Spring 2005, I was not willing to consider that it was time to take a break until it was apparent that I couldn't do _ANY_ material training.

To move out of denial, I had to get very tired. Monica had to walk me around the block to get my body moving again. I did Swim Camps (Chop House Challenge) and started training for the Leadville 100. I was completely missing the numerous, very clear, signs that I was fried.

More than enjoying training, what I really love is personal achievement. Sitting around fried doesn't offer me any of that. So... I dropped training and moved on to something else, where I had a shot at some personal achievement. Not everyone is achievement oriented -- I think that most people would prefer to be liked. I also have a strong desire to be accepted but my self-acceptance is high enough that my main thing is achievement. A more spiritual way of presenting this would be a constant search for my ultimate potential -- perhaps I'll get there some day. For now, I tend to have a desire to "win" at most of what I do.

Once I moved past denial, I came very quickly to acceptance -- I nearly always do. I think that I skipped "anger" but you'd have to ask Monica about that. More on this topic HERE - a very good read.

With acceptance in hand, I looked around at what I could do. At that stage, the two best "options" in my life were Monica and Chris (my business partner). I asked Monica to marrry me and I listened very careful to what Chris told me was happening in the business. When you have a relationship with a high energy entrepreneur then there are always opportunities around. In speaking with Chris I realized that a problem that we had (too many good deals, not enough money) had created an opportunity to form a new company. My Hong Kong business attire was pulled out of the closet and I spent two years helping him establish the new company.

The lessons as I see them:

***When you are unable to do the work required to reach your goals -- it's time to take a break. The will to win is nothing without the will to prepare. I was struggling to get out of bed!

***Lives are fluid, change is natural and should be (at a minimum) accepted. Part of the reason that I warn people against public goal statements is that it takes massive self-confidence to change direction once you've made a public statement. There is a very strong social bias against changing course. It is one of the toughest obligations of leadership.

***My best plan at June 2007 will not be my best plan at March 2008. I always have the ability to change my plans. My goal is to make the best choices (today) given my skills, opportunities and desires.

***The plan will change but your core values are likely to stay the same. Knowing what is truly important to you; knowing what gives you satisfaction -- this knowledge will ease you through the periods of transition.

***Transitions are VERY tough -- I've been divorced, changed careers (3x), relocated internationally (4x), lost my health (2x)... all challenging things. However, through it all, I always enjoyed spending time with "me". Sticking to our personal ethics really helps in difficult times. It's why I avoid associations with people with weak ethics -- in both finance and athletics it can be tempting to spend time with the ethically slack.

The fact that you were asking me about my "break" means that you need to take one. Here are some other points for the overtrained athlete to consider:

If you continue then you won't improve -- you've seen your performance stagnate, or decline. More of the same will generate the same results. You are wasting valuable time.

Accept that you may never achieve your goals. You certainly won't achieve them by following the same path. In my journey, this acceptance was very liberating and opened up many new, and rewarding, paths/relationships for me.

If you take a break then you can put yourself in a position to benefit from the return of your drive, your health. What is different for me in 2007? Two main things -- long term financial stability and the massive support that I receive from Monica. Many athletes are drained by a lack of financial and emotional stability in their lives.

Stability matters, in 2004, the difference between Tom and me was 0.35%. In other sports the differences are even smaller.

The road back:
***2005, regain health and create stability
***2006, see if I could "prepare" again
***2007, gain support of a mentor with strengths that matched my blindspots

I've "won" well before August 26th -- I'm enjoying playing a strategic game with my body. Finance is the exact same game with contacts, emotions and intellect.

Many who win, never win anything at all -- this is especially true of those that lose their personal ethics, most commonly these days through fraud or doping.

Cheers,
gordo

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18 May 2007

Never Follow, Averages and Overtraining


This week I am going to expand my thoughts on both overtraining and effective investment. I'll also explain a little something about averages in training and racing.

Our photo is the "Dixie Chicks", three great ladies that came to Mitch's desert camp and made it fun for me. Their passion for the sport was contagious and they added a lot to the week.

An offer to gLetter readers from Albert at Coffees of Hawaii. From May 21-28, you'll be able to get 20% off everything on the website by using the code "gordo2007". Choose your order, then enter the code at checkout. My favourite product is the Hawaiian Espresso.

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Never Follow
A reader asked for some more information on my advice to never follow poor investment decisions (in people, in shares, in companies, in ourselves).

Read Hedgehogging by Barton Biggs. Tons of good stuff in there -- written by a man's who's world contains people where a net worth of $25 million is a reasonable starting point. The insight into the mind-set of the financial elite is interesting but the real value, for me, came from his reminders on investment strategies that work.

For example, in his firm they have a policy that they review every deal that falls X%. If they still believe that it is a good deal then they must double their position. If they can't convince themselves of that point then they sell immediately. You can apply this point to any situation in life -- I use it on people, discipline with human capital is more important than financial capital.

Tip Two -- Common mistakes that we make are: (a) giving more value to things that we already own (bad deals) ; and (b) over-estimating our ability to influence a situation (save an investment, improve an employee). These concepts are laid out quite well in Mauldin's book, Just One Thing.

Another issue that we face with our Bad Deals is that they distract us from doing what we are really good at. Put another way, we gain very little from turning a poor employee into an average employee. However, the star members of our teams (and portfolios) can impact total performance in a meaningful manner. The mere fact that we tolerate dead wood can hold back the star performers (See Collins, Good to Great).

Put simply, whenyo u think that you can fix the situation... you probably can't and, even if you can, you'll make more money backing your winners and investing in your strengths.

Finally, don't fool yourself into thinking that markets are transparent. My investment portfolio consists of:
>>>Money Market Funds (low fee, very low risk);
>>>CDs from very highly rated organizations;
>>>Ventures in which I play a positive role in enhancing equity value;
>>>My house.

That's it.

In the past, I have had the opportunity to invest in collective investment schemes that were managed by the partners of my old investment fund. That was a great deal, quite profitable and my role was limited. I also benefitted from the extended bull market in prime UK housing (that is continuing) -- I can't take much credit for that.

The partners' investment scheme and the housing boom succeeded by giving me leveraged upside, with limited downside -- they were options on future outcomes. Create, and take, options whenever possible. Consider where you can create options in your own life. I tend to keep a number of opportunities rolling at any one time. This gives me flexibility and exposure to a range of situations.

Another good lesson from Venture Capital is that if you invest long enough then you'll nearly always hit a home-run eventually. One homerun, when combined with fiscal discipline, creates many options for how you will spend your time.

It all sounds so easy, doesn't it. Well, there are probably a thousand qualified people for each seat at the elite finance table -- so you need to be smart; work your ass off; enjoy working and a bit lucky. From the outside, opportunity may appear to be what holds you back (the entertainment industry may appear like this to some). From what I've observed, most people lack the combination of work ethic and work enjoyment. I've given (and continue to give) people the opprtunity to learn/succeed. Even when you offer a hand up, most folks are content to stay in their current situation -- out of fear, inertia or some other driver.

Final thoughts... when you take the return of the financial services industry (as a whole), you'll see the participants strip out the excess return for themselves. It's a highly efficient market for the participants of "the game". That's my final book recommendation for today, The Game, by Adam Smith.

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Averages
What follows is a chat about simple averages -- not normalized, not weighted. Unless I specifically write otherwise, I always mean the simple average when I write.
E.M. wrote... I just heard your talk on power on Ironman talk podcasts and found it quite interesting... I am actually glad I did not look at the watts during the race because (from training) my expectations were to bike in the 240-250 range vs the 225-235 range.
A buddy that worked at Nasa once explained to me why we spend nearly all of our time above the average pace/watts/hr for a session. It has something to do with the fact that sometimes we go _really_ slow but we never go _really_ fast. He had a nifty equation that explained it all.
The above athlete's experience is what happens in the real world when we pace correctly... our actual average is lower than our training average for that goal effort. Specific to that example, sitting on 240-250w for the bulk of the race will result in an average 10-20w lower. Many athletes get caught in the trap of chasing average watts -- you can get a bit depressed, or very tired (!), with that strategy on race day. Dial in your sustainable effort and accept the power/pace/speed that results. Honest race simulation workouts help avoid surprises.

It is similar with running. For me to average 4 minute per K pace in a race, I need to be able to sit in the 3:50-3:55 per K range for the bulk of the race.

By the way, this discussion isn't meant to say that one needs to train faster -- rather, I'm pointing out that on race day, most of us find that our "steady" pace over 8-18 hours is slower than our steady pace over 20-60 minutes. I spend a lot of time helping athletes learn this point.

What feels "easy" for the first five hours of racing... just might be your sustainable pace/power/effort for the entire race. It certainly is for the first three hours of your day -- no need to open up by swimming at Half Marathon heart rates. You are killing yourself.

A final thing to watch for in training -- let's say you want to hold 128-135 bpm on a workout. Early in the day that might result in an average of 127-129 bpm. After you are warmed-up, say, 133 bpm. If you are seeing averages close to 135 bpm then you've been training above your target zone most of the main set.

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Overtraining
Coach KP and Dr. J were swapping ideas about overtraining, reaching for excellence and other ideas. It's always nice to "listen in" (via email) when a couple of smart guys share their experiences. Anyhow, after reading their thread, I talked it through with Mark Allen (I was in Santa Cruz this week). What follows is a mix of Mark, the guys and my own thoughts.

The lessons and benefits of being overtrained ALL accrue the FIRST time you go through that process and (if you are lucky) learn the nature of "bad fatigue". You will also see that fatigue is a state, not an emotion. The highest performing ultraendurance athletes have a low (to nil) emotional attachment to fatigue. I expect that the shorter the duration of the event, the more important a low emotional attachment to pain becomes.

Guys like Dave Scott, Mark Allen, Scott Molina, Peter Reid -- I imagine that they have low attachment to both fatigue and pain. I have no idea what _really_ happens in their heads but I know that my experiences meant that I was open to completely frying myself. My early warning signals sound "faint", or are ignored. My buddy Clas is even stronger than me -- therefore, his overtraining experience was, ultimately, deeper than mine.

In hindsight, I received all the overtraining "benefits" when I took myself to an over-reached state (see Going Long for an explanation of the difference). Basically, over-reaching is using race specific overload to create race specific fatigue in a desire to generate physiological and mental benefits. Over-reaching is an essential part of ultraendurance performance.

My lack of experience with "appropriate overload" led me to choose to go "too far" resulting in overtraining. It is really tough to see that you've gone "too far" until you get there.

Similar to learning how to differentiate pain, some people learn how to differentiate between types of fatigue. Good fatigue, silly fatigue, dangerous fatigue, fatigue that can be ignored and fatigue that shouldn't be ignored. Thing is... we are constantly changing and challenging ourselves to make decisions on uncertain information.

Many athletes relive, recreate, actively seek... highly stressful experiences such as overtraining -- they crave the chemical buzz associated with high stress. This pattern is a poor strategy for success but can produce high level results. A deeper level of success is available if we are conscious enough to learn from our mistakes.

Mark shared... picture a horizontal line -- at the left side is "out of shape"... at the right side is "maximum potential" -- one hundredth of an inch to the right of maximum potential is completely overtrained. Athletes that come closest to their maximum potential have the greatest risk of overtraining. I see this in my own athletes.

Here's the kicker... most people are so far from their maximum potential; so stressed out from their life choices; that to pile on the additional stress of "training right"; "physiologically optimal"; "true build training"; "going hard"; and/or "training like a pro". Achieves only two things...

#1 they get sick/injured; and
#2 they get very tired.

You are left with a person that faces simple exhaustion, rather than being overtrained. So they get nuked AND fail to get the benefits from pushing their limits. It takes many years of preparation to gain value in screwing up... a paradox of endurance training, I suppose.

To an athlete with an experience of being deeply overtrained -- effective training feels like being constantly undertrained. I've felt completely undertrained for the last thirty weeks, while using Mark's protocol. However when I think back, I can remember thinking very clearly that I was at my maximum limit for what I could absorb. It is just like looking back at a well paced Ironman race, at any given point could have gone "harder" however at the finish you know that you gave it your all.

I did an aerobic run test Tuesday morning before I met Mark. 5:59 average across three miles with last two miles at 6:00.36. The last three benchmark runs that I have done have all been life best performances across the distance (6 miles off the bike, 33-flat; Half Marathon off the bike, 1:16; Aerobic Test, 5:59). Everything that I am doing is contained in this blog -- there's no secret training happening. I'm doing less than previous years but (I suppose) absorbing more.

Most people fail by never giving themselves a chance to perform. Too much effort, too short a timetable, and a lack of preparation. Short bursts of mis-directed passion -- one night stands with "effort" rather than an extended courtship of "excellence".

That's all for this week,
gordo

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26 March 2007

Where You Want To Be


Our photo this time is my buddy, Greg, on top of Everest.

You know, I never really thought about why a guy would carry an Epic Camp sign to the top of the world. However, with a couple of years to think about it... I've developed a theory.

Greg and I worked together for a few years. Looking back, I think that Greg hired me as more of a life and general endurance advisor than a triathlon coach. Greg's got a knack out of getting the most out of his "team" and he very carefully put together the pieces required to give himself a shot at climbing Everest.

Managing a team of people for an individual goal is an interesting concept -- you can apply those skills to Everest; the Olympics or a race like Ironman Canada. It takes many, many people to put together an individual performance. Many don't even realize the role that they play.

So a little story, after IM-New Zealand in 2005, Greg comes up to me at the Awards Dinner, thanked me for my support and said, "g-man, I'm RIGHT where I want to be". Monica was there with me and there was a lot said by our TOTAL silence to that statement.

Greg had just completed the race in 12:30. Knowing a little bit about mountaineering, Monica asked me my opinion about the likely outcome of his expedition. I said that it was most likely that this would be the last time we would ever see Greg. We spent the next few months reading Greg's Everest Website waiting to see what would happen.

What I didn't know what that Greg's "taper" is best summed up by this picture. Not exactly, keeping the feet up. He'd deliberately shagged himself and used an Ironman as a practice summit day.

Crafty fella!

Turns out that he was right where he needed to be -- he got the photo (via the North Ridge) and his team left the mountain in one piece.

As for his tri-coach... I didn't start proper training again until NINE months after that race. Greg should have been worried for me!

An interesting lesson -- I delivered exactly what he wanted without even knowing what was required of me. Further, I thought that he was heading to disaster, while I was actually sliding deep into the valley of fatigue (from a 2nd place overall placing).

My students teach me a lot -- it does take me a few years to learn their lessons...

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Are you where you want to be?

It's worth considering that question from time to time for many reasons. I'll lay out that athletic case this time. Perhaps, I'll write about life philosophy some other time. That's more about being the person that we want to be.

The longer days of April combined with increasing fitness are exactly what many of us will need to tip ourselves over the edge in terms of training.

Before full blown overtraining sets in we have to ignore many repeated warning signals. Here are a few:

***Muscles that are persistently sore to the touch
***Chronic inflamation of tendons or muscle insertions
***Chronic GI distress
***Staleness in training
***Increase/Decrease in sleep pattern
***Increase/Decrease in weight or appetite
***Sugar cravings
***Low/High heart rate relative to effort
***Injury -- true accidents are few and far between

I know a number of very fit people that have lived with the above for multiple years. They are so fit that no one would ever consider that they were shelled.

If you have a couple of these then you can rest now and pull yourself back from the brink. Or... you can keep the same pattern going and end up with the same result. I did for five years and my results were good, very good, better than I ever thought possible! So pushing through things can work quite well... then I was forced to decide if I truly wanted to move to a higher level of performance.

April is when we start to see more frequent "nuked please help" posts on the internet. When they pop-up remind the person to: (a) rest; and (b) learn from what toasted them. I wouldn't spend much more time than that -- most of us (myself included) have too much invested in our existing patterns to change them until we are REALLY ready. It took a six-month nuking for me to realize that, perhaps, there could be another way to play things.

Which brings me to...

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Where I happen to be.

I did a race this past weekend and, in a few days, I'll type up a report for posting over on the Planet-X website. I'll also send along my ergomo data file -- if it downloads OK -- I broke my download cable and am standing by for a new one.

So my build-up and the race went really well. Best case scenario for me -- my one hour bike power and my running vVO2 Max are both at lifetime bests. This off a "stagnated" aerobic run test -- Mark writes about plateaus here...

What would you do if the most versatile male triathlete of all time took the time to write a series of articles explaining how best to train? What if his protocol appeared too simple to be true? What would you do?

I started by reading them -- scroll down on that link to get the articles.

When you read them -- watch how you tend to want to argue with him. How you think you are different. How it might not apply to you. Then ask yourself, "Who is arguing?"

There is deep power in the consistent application of simplicity -- however, our minds find it near impossible to fathom. As I remind my athletes, our greatest challenge lies in learning to over-ride our instinctive desire to screw things up for ourselves.

As I was powering along at life best watts -- the main things on my mind were circles, joy and breathing. There isn't much better than racing through the desert when we are fit.

So what to do next? Well, I'm going to do the most difficult thing possible.

I'm going to stop "trying" to get faster and return to an endurance focus for the next four weeks. It's super tempting to get leaner, train harder and go even faster. My base is deep so there is a pretty good chance that I could be ripping by May.

However... I'm looking for something really special on August 26th and that's going to require some patience. So, just like after Epic Camp in January, I'll ease off, hit the gym and be smart.

I'm telling you exactly what I am doing, there are no secrets and, yet, it is very tough (for all of us) to follow a simple protocol. One of life's little ironies.

Choose wisely,
gordo

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07 August 2006

Unloading

Before I get stuck into this topic. A few thoughts that I’ve had on doping. I don’t usually think about the topic much but with Floyd in the news all my non-athlete pals keep talking about it to me. Stepping aside from the specifics of Floyd…

It’s not surprising to me that some people choose to cheat. Physical prowess doesn’t imply ethical strength any more than physical attraction does. I think that it is in all of our natures to ascribe high character to high achievers. However, I don’t think that achievement is a good predictor of ethics.

It’s possible to waste a heck of a lot of energy thinking, talking and debating ideas/people that we will never really know. I have enough going on with trying to figure myself out – spending time worrying about a well-known stranger is something that I try to avoid.

When we look for motivation from outside of ourselves, be it guru, coach, athlete, mentor, hero… we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. Lasting motivation comes best from the inside, from seeking to be our own heroes. While world champions show us what’s possible – the very human mistakes of others remind us of the need for personal ethical vigilance.

What I saw from watching and reading about Floyd this summer was the guy’s work ethic. The joy and satisfaction that he received from “working” struck me as unique – not winning bike races. The joy of work is a fundamental aspect of achievement and satisfaction.

Do I worry about doping in our sport? Not at all. However, I might if I was a true professional seeking a financial living from relative race performance. Being clean and just missing in a field that you didn’t trust – that would be tough. I can think of a number of ITU and IM athletes that have good reasons to wonder what might have been. At my level, it’s not a concern – it’s possible to beat pretty much every doper by out-training them. Even if you can’t beat them on the playing field, you’ve won a far greater victory within yourself.

There’s no deeper defeat than letting yourself down. If you want to punish someone then bringing that knowledge front and centre can be a lesson that’s hard to swallow. We can come up with all kinds of rationalizations but, ultimately, it comes down to a single event, a choice, a decision.

As for Floyd, I sure wish that the referees would stick to their own protocols. When the drugs police can’t be trusted to follow their own rules, it is bad for their own image and authority. Public credibility is tough to build and easily lost.

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There are a number of challenges that face most aspiring athletes. The two most common oppose each other and that’s why (I think) a lot of training discussions can become emotional. On one hand, most of us are training at a level that is less than optimal for overall performance. On the other hand, even at this lower level, the greatest challenge we face is recovering from our training, not stacking more onto ourselves.

This article isn’t directly about those topics – I’ll cover the physiological progression at some stage, perhaps when I am tapering for IM Canada in a couple of weeks. What I want to talk about here is something that I’ve noticed in the very best agegroup and elite athletes that I’ve coached, trained or simply watched from a far.

Here goes…

The most impressive guy that I’ve raced consistently over the last few years is Cameron Brown. To be honest, I haven’t really raced Cam (ever) but, perhaps… someday… you see, he started at a higher level than me and just kept improving. Cam’s been consistently improving, year-in year-out from a very high level. Taking an 8:20-guy and making him _even_ faster is a pretty challenging thing to do. In fact, simply staying in 8:20 shape for a series of seasons is a very challenging thing to do!

Scott knows Cam much better than me so I asked him… “what is the change that Cam made to his program over the last couple of years”. Scott told me that probably the biggest change was that when he “rests”, he really rests. Quite often, elite athletes will do easy training on their rest days – keeping the volume going. I imagine that Cam does this but, watching from a distance, I also see that he schedules decent periods of time where he takes deep recovery – whether he wants to or not.

Within my own training over the years, work and fatigue have “forced” periods on me where my training volume is far less than what I would like to be doing. In fact, whenever I am resting I get pretty restless, somewhat grumpy and a bit down on myself for slacking. The last two weeks have been hard at times because I’ve been traveling, working and (happily) agreeing to social commitments. I rarely have a social life outside of my personal Top Ten list as I find it incredibly fatiguing.

One of my social commitments was a talk that I (very happily) gave to a group of athletes here in Edinburgh. Public speaking is an area where I’m only “fair” and I like to practice whenever possible.

As well as talking… I was listening to myself…

“The key is to see if you are improving. If you are getting better then you are heading in the right direction. If you are on a plateau then things might need to change.”

“When I used to work, my #1 thing was simply to avoid taking a zero. If I could do that then I’d be OK.”

I used to be quite poor at listening while talking. Probably still am… if I am not the one talking! J

All this is interesting to me because I have been “forced” to rest much more this year than in previous years. Not surprisingly, the last time I was resting this much, was the last time I was working a lot in Scotland (summer of 2002). 2005 wasn’t so much resting as a complete lack of training!

When I’ve been on my training camps, I have hit the steady-state volume as hard as I could handle (that tolerance has been variable, but increasing). When I have been working here in Scotland, I have cut the volume to 25-50% of what I’d like. I suppose that it is natural to always wish that we could do more, go faster…

Something that I haven’t done for more than six years is that I have raced once a month and done that as fresh I could manage. “Fresh” being a relative term when you log 24+ hours of travel in the four days before a race (did that a few times, don’t recommend it). I tried to train through a couple of races but that didn’t really work so well for me – I don’t have the depth of fitness to quickly bounce back from hard training or racing.

Some things that I’d like to share…

My power/pace isn’t at lifetime best numbers (a year off will impair fitness, no surprise) but my ability to achieve relative intensity is much higher. In other words, my top-end isn’t great but I can get there much more easily.

There were long periods in my development (2000-2004) where I carried so much fatigue that I’d struggle to get much out of my mod-hard zone. For me, these were valuable times to my overall development but I may have pushed a bit too far at times – of course, that’s likely the only way that we learn how far is too far.

I’ve been using training camps that are followed with weekly recovery and training blocks – much smaller blocks of training than the typical 3-4 week cycles. Each cycle has my overall fitness improving.

I’m able to fit a few other things in my life. I’m less “one dimensional” than I used to be.

I find all this quite interesting because if I am going to be a long term athlete then I will probably want to cycle my intensity through the years; peaking at 40, 45, 50 and 55 years old (say). By “intensity” I don’t mean how hard I am going in training – I mean the sacrifice, focus and dedication required to be my very best.

My Top Ten goal is to be fit and healthy – not world athletic domination (wink). Because I am willing to compromise, it is easier to beat me most of the time. However, when (and if) I am on-my-game then it’s tough to beat me. The level of commitment required to go <8:30 style=""> I used to be haunted by that knowledge but I seem to have transcended my fear of never getting back there. I’m fortunate in that I simply like training and racing too much!

Some more things that I’ve noticed and I could be wrong here on the guys that I don’t directly advise. But, quite often, an unexpected set-back can set the tone for an athlete to breakthrough…

***Norman won Hawaii the year he had an early season injury, DNF’d Ironman New Zealand and was “behind” the whole way.

***My good buddy, Kevin Purcell, won his agegroup in Brazil, following a year with significant downtime due to foot surgery.

***I took close to a year off and got myself back into 8:36 shape within six months.

***When he was 65, supervet Ron Ottaway became one of only three men 65+ to go under 12-hours in Kona. That race performance followed a winter where he was forced by injury to keep volume low for close to three months.

***In July, Clas Bjorling went 8:15 in Roth following a month off (April) due to shingles.

Of course, perhaps what all these guys have in common is that they pushed themselves right to the limit over a long time. There needs to have been some pretty serious training, to get adaptations from a month of zeroes.

As an aside, Ron would want the record to show that he is 10+ years without a zero.

OK, those guys are rock stars. What does that have to do with the average athlete? Here’s another consideration…

Something that I notice in many endurance athletes is an active desire to hammer themselves silly. There must be an element of the endurance mind-set (or our culture, or our personal programming) that leads us towards self-damage in the search for fitness.

Fatigue is part of the training process and deep, deep fatigue is an essential part of ultraendurance training. But here are some things to consider from time to time…

Do you have a good feel for exactly how tired you are? How deep have you dug the hole? The highly motivated athletes that I know, generally, underestimate the fatigue they are carrying around and overestimate their ability sustain hard training. I include myself in this category. It is only when I rest that I realise just how fatigued I was.

How many times have you heard someone (perhaps yourself) say… “I don’t like to rest, I feel sluggish when I rest”. Personally, I believe that there are a lot of Top Ten agegroupers that could be Top Ten overall if they only freshened up from time-to-time. It is also a shame to watch some of my elite pals train their asses off then underperform at their key races. If you are doing it right and not getting the results that your training indicates then consider if “more” is really going to get you there.

Nobody really knows who trains and who doesn’t – I believe that most people can be out-worked if you have enough drive and time. When our results are deviating from our commitment – we are often trying too hard. It’s a tough message to believe but I’ve been beating some folks for a few years and I think that they’ve been out-training me. Of course, several thousand aerobic hours over the last six years must count for something.

Back to you…

What are your goals for sport?

Why do you participate?

Why are these questions important to everyone?

If your goal is performance then is your program making you better? Are you improving on the program that you’ve been following for the last one, two, three, four… years?

It’s very difficult to change ourselves – but we can change our advisers and, through them, our approach.

Some programs can make you get more tired than good. I have pals with programs that work great for them but I wouldn’t last two months on their protocol. Remember that there is no one answer and there is a lot of grey out there.

That’s why I like to look at the impact of the program, the coach, the approach… over a number of seasons. I gain a lot of satisfaction with helping athletes head in the right direction over time. I make plenty of mistakes and there are some folks that I can’t help. However, there are some athletes where my guidance has made a difference and that “difference” is what coaching is about for me.

Now you might be simply sitting on a plateau (that happens) but… if you’ve been consistently training for a couple of years with limited progress then you’re likely being hampered either from excess training stress or a lack of recovery. I’ll cover this more in an up-coming piece (Good, Better, Best – that will lay out my case for the physiological progression that I seek with ultra endurance training).

Realistically, the vast majority of athletes (in any sport) are in it more for personal satisfaction, than relative performance and this includes the most successful elites if you dig deep enough into their motivation. The best athletes have an internal satisfaction that comes from working towards and achieving various goals. If that’s the case then consider if being shelled most of your year is actually improving the quality of your life.

But you say you “need your training”… I know all about that but our training can also be a crutch behind which we fail to deal with other issues (emotional, nutritional…).

That brings me to the most important consideration of all…

“My People”

Scott started talking about “my people” a few years ago in something I read of his on the internet. I’ll let him talk about “his” people in his own words – he is part of “my people”, though.

Who are “my people”? For me, they are the people that I’ve met along my journey with whom I could deeply relate and share a laugh. I’ve found them in finance, on beaches in Greece, in the hills, on the trails, in triathlon and at Epic Camp. On the surface they might look pretty well-adjusted. However, inside they are prone to evangelical devotion to their passion (work, booze, running, triathlon, mountaineering, whatever).

My tri-people… we are in triathlon as a lifestyle choice. That’s a cliché and doesn’t quite capture what I mean… more bluntly… training for triathlon is a socially acceptable addiction versus what we would certainly be doing if we were forced to stop (over-eating, booze, drugs, chasing ladies…).

Here’s where a good mentor comes in… constantly choosing a path that runs the risk of losing the exercise drug is pretty darn risky. The more you rely on your training for sanity, the more you’d do well to heed that tip.

Thing is… people like me, people like “my people” are prone to ignoring well meaning advice until it has been learned directly, repeatedly and painfully. I spend a lot of time assuring my crew that preventative rest is essential as well as performance enhancing.

When we are reaching for the highest level and smoke ourselves – a shattered immune system can feel like living in a very deep, very dark cave. Learning how best to schedule recovery is something that many (including the author) struggle with.

Of course, you could also say that it isn’t until you’ve pushed yourself over the edge that you really breakthrough. I think that there is something in that as well.

gordo

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