Friday, January 10, 2014

The Holy Grail

A few years ago, I was working with a runner who had come into the store looking for some shoes.  After looking at his gait, I brought out three shoes that I thought would work well with the shape of his foot and the way he ran.  “I’ll try that one”, he said, pointing to the Newton, “but I’m not wearing those two, they don’t make you run better.”  I explained to him that while this Newton may help him feel when he is running correctly, it won’t change the way he runs.  I explained that he would be able to run well in all three shoes I brought out if he changed his stride mechanics, but that I brought these three specific pairs out because they would not cause him major pain in case he didn’t fix his stride.  Some other shoes wouldn’t be as forgiving of his stride, which was exclusively hip movement with no knee bend at all.

But he had come in to find a magic cure for his knee pain, and a golden ticket to faster race times without effort on his part.  Only willing to try certain shoes that he had read about in a magazine, each time he would get up on the treadmill he’d ask if he was running better.  Each time, I told him his knee still isn’t bending and that he needs to try moving his legs differently.  Not believing me, he checked the video I had been taking and sure enough, his footstrike hadn’t changed.  He found lots of shoes that felt comfortable, and in all of them he ran the same way, refusing or unable to change his stride, and refusing to believe that there isn’t a shoe that would make him run better with no effort on his part.  Finally he put the first Newton that I had originally brought out back on and decided that he felt that he was running better in it.  I showed him the video that proved he was still significantly over-striding, but he insisted he was running with better form.  I encouraged him to work on his form on his runs and gave him some pointers and drills to try.  Then I explained that he was in a good, comfortable shoe that would absorb a lot of the shock and spare his knees as much as possible if his current stride doesn’t change.  He bought the shoes, but didn’t seem too happy with me.

This is an extreme example of an athlete looking for that “Holy Grail” of their sport, in other words, that elusive secret that if it could just be found, would catapult the athlete to the top of the podium.  “After all, how did the pros get up there?  They must be doing something that I’m not, or have something that I don’t” the thinking goes.  Unfortunately for those looking for it, the Holy Grail does not exist.  Well, there actually is something that the pros are doing than some others aren’t.  However, it’s not the type of Holy Grail that many would like because it involves a lifestyle, not a quick fix.  I am sure that at least 90% of elite triathletes have made it to the level that they have because of consistent hard work over time, a good plan that is followed faithfully but also intelligently, and the understanding that what they do outside of practice time can have as great an influence on their race times as what they do in the pool, on the bike or on the track.  For example, most elite triathletes consider their diet a vital part of their athletic ability.  Most age groupers, in my experience, do not.  The majority opinion among age groupers is that they train so that they can eat whatever they want.  The majority opinion among elites is that they eat well so that they can support their training.

I realize that I am making sweeping generalizations, and there are definitely exceptions on both sides of that, but it’s largely true overall.  It also might make some laugh that I’m preaching the importance of a good diet to athletes when I have been known for my love for Culvers, among other less than perfect food choices.  I just want to say a quick word about that before getting back to the point, so I’m not accused of being hypocritical.  I do love Culvers, it tastes good, and I admit that I haven’t always made the best nutrition choices… especially during the off-season.  This has affected my athletic ability at times.  It should be known that although I might have Culvers or pizza for lunch sometimes, what isn’t seen is the breakfast of eggs, peanut butter on toast, and yogurt and the dinner of grilled salmon or chicken, steamed vegetables and a garden salad that probably goes with it for the day.  And this past season, my most successful yet, was also my best season nutrition-wise. 

But back to the point… elite triathletes aren’t elite triathletes because of what shoes they wear, or what recovery drink they use, or what bike they ride, or whether they swim with a shoulder driven or a hip driven freestyle, or what coach they have, or anything else of that nature.  A few possess a Holy Grail in the form of raw natural talent, but that cannot be purchased or learned, and by far and away most became elite triathletes because they chose to consistently work hard and make their lifestyles supportive of their athletic goals.

This goes for any sport.  Jordan was known to shoot 1000 free throws after practice ended for the day. 

It’s important to be clear on what I am not saying.  I am not saying that it doesn’t matter what shoe you wear, or what recovery drink you use, or what bike you ride, or how you swim, or who your coach is.  Those things all matter, but they will do nothing for you if you, the athlete, don’t use them in the right way.  I already described how a shoe choice can support a good stride.  A bad shoe choice can definitely injure an athlete, but the best shoe choice will not realize its full potential unless you run in it with good mechanics.  And the best shoe depends greatly on the individual.  

The same goes for bikes.  I raced in the Chicago Triathlon in 2008, and due to unexpected circumstances, I arrived at the start line not having slept at all the night before.  Despite my aero tri bike and aero position, race wheels and aero helmet, I was passed often by men in their fifties who were seated upright on their road bikes.  I just didn’t have the engine that day.  My fast bike setup could only help me when I was fit and strong.  Unfortunately some spend so much time on their bikes shaving seconds that they don’t have time to work on their engines and lose minutes.

It does matter if you adequately replace your fuel after a workout, and it does matter how you swim.  These are very important things, and poor workout recovery or poor swim technique can put a stopper on an otherwise good training program.  However, if a person has a perfect diet, they may be extremely healthy but that doesn’t make them aerobically fit.  Hard work needs to be put in to develop aerobic fitness.  If a swimmer (assuming already has the basics down) finds their perfect stroke, it will only lead them to minimal gains if they don’t work to develop the fitness to maintain good mechanics for the duration of their event.  Hard work cannot be faked.  Proper stroke technique can greatly enhance a swimmer’s ability, but cannot replace a strong engine built over time.

If you do search for the Holy Grail, just make sure you watch out for the killer rabbit 

It also matters who your coach is, but I don’t want that statement to be taken the wrong way.  If you’re on a never-ending search for the best coach, switching each season, you’ll never reach your potential because there’s no consistency.  When I swam in high school, I had four head coaches in four years.  In my opinion, every one of them was a good coach, and I loved being a part of the team.  But from a performance standpoint, it wasn’t the best situation for the swimmers.  Each year, the new coach took at least the first month of the three-month season to get to know us before much personal attention could be given.  They all trained us a little differently, and we could never pick up where we left off. 

In track I had a similar situation with one coach for my first two years and another coach for my second two years.  These coaches were both good, but trained us very differently.  As a 1600m runner in high school, my coach the first two years was big on developing aerobic fitness.  I worked hard under this system and steadily brought my time down from a 6:00 at my first freshman meet to a 4:58 at the end of my sophomore year.  The next two years I trained under a coach who put a much greater emphasis on speed with less on longer, aerobic runs.  I worked hard here too, and eventually I adapted to this program. I finished high school track running faster than I ever had, but my entire junior year was a step back from my sophomore year.  I believe this is because I had never developed the speed to run well under the new training plan, and it took time to get there.  Had either of these two coaches been my coach for all four years, I believe I would have run faster as a senior than I did by training under one style for two years and then another for the next two.

So it is important to trust your plan, give it time, and trust your coach.  As triathletes we can choose our own coaches.  In my opinion, the three keys to a finding a good coach are education, experience and personality.  The personality component means that the best coach for you might not be the best coach for someone else.  Ideally you will pick a coach that has all three, and if so you have likely found a great coach.  You can probably have some degree of success if your coach has two of them, and you’ll likely experience only frustration if your coach possesses just one. 

Once you’ve chosen your coach, it’s important to trust them and allow the plan time to work.  It’s also important to take control of your training, and recognize when something isn’t working to make a change.  Sometimes it’s clear that the coach/athlete relationship isn’t working.  However, if you feel that you’re not progressing the way you think you should be, and your coach has a strong education, knowledge, experience coaching and as an athlete, and works well with your personality, you should look in the mirror first before making the decision to change coaches.  Make sure you’re doing everything right before making the decision to switch.  This is harder for people to do than to blame someone else, and certainly sometimes a great coach and a great athlete (in their ability to work with their coach, not their athletic ability) just don’t fit well together, and sometimes a good coach can do a poor job for whatever reason.  But I have seen many athletes stagnate under good coaches and good plans due to their unwillingness to put in the work or to make lifestyle changes.  I’m not excluding myself as an athlete here at some times in the past.  I’ve seen athletes struggle to understand why they aren’t improving despite their training, but refuse to give up eating fast food 2-3x per day.  I’ve seen other athletes wonder why they aren’t improving as fast as their training partners are, but neglect to work on their mechanics despite clear instruction.  I have personally improved at times, and stagnated at others, on the same plan, depending on my stress levels outside of practice.  Make sure you are putting in the work first, otherwise it’s not a fair assessment of a coach’s ability. 

Consistent communication is the number one way to get the most out of your coach/athlete relationship.  I admit that at times in the past I have failed at this, and it followed that I would perform better when Blake was getting consistent, specific updates about how my workouts were going versus times when he just had to assume I was doing them.  So I understand that sometimes it’s inconvenient to fill out training peaks on a regular basis, but I assure you that in order to get the most out of your coach you must do this. (Or use whatever avenue of communication your coach uses)  I believe that as a coach, I have both the knowledge and experience in the sport to guide triathletes to success.  (I’m by no means the only coach in the area who can say that)  That being said, I’ve had varying levels of success among athletes.  In my experience there has been an almost perfect correlation between the level of improvement and the amount of data and communication I get from the athlete.  The athletes that improve the most are those who respond to my emails regularly, enter their pace data on training peaks for all their workouts, and initiate conversation with me if they have questions.  Those who do not see more modest results, almost predictably. 

As an example, I just had an athlete, who was already at a high level, complete a round of test sets and in 20min worth of work she has improved by over 1 minute compared to 3 months ago.  If the same degree of improvement was seen in a ~1hr sprint distance triathlon, that’s over 3 minutes better.  It’s the equivalent of a 30min improvement in a 10hr Ironman.  For most athletes who are already at a competitive level, I would consider that very successful for an entire year’s worth of training.  This athlete will see higher than average improvement this year because of her commitment to training and her communication with her coach.  She works very hard, thinks about how her choices outside of practice influence her performance, her diet is fantastic, she gets enough sleep, she always updates training peaks with specific data when needed, she asks whenever she has a question about something, and lets me know on the very rare occasion that she misses a workout.  In those cases I can then decide how much, if any, to make up and when.  If someone didn’t know the consistent work she put in, her commitment to the training plan and the lifestyle choices it took to achieve those results, they might be tempted to try to search out her Holy Grail.  “Is she training with a heart rate monitor or power meter?  Which brand?  What bike is she riding?  Does she drink protein smoothies? Soy or whey?  Does she run with a heel strike or toe strike?  Does she run in Vibram five-fingers? Are those zero drop? (they’re not)  Is it her coach?  Maybe I should change coaches, but I’ve been seeing improvement with mine…” These are all points that an athlete should consider in making the most out of their own training, but if they replace the fundamentals of hard work, consistent training and creating a performance lifestyle, they will not create the easy gains that the athlete is looking for.

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