I'm not looking too gorgeous or svelte here, so you'll have to take my word that I am, in fact, gorgeous and svelte in real life. snicker. In addition to not looking my best in this picture, it's also clear that my form sucks. I am leaning back and sticking my belly out as I attack the downhill. Still, I like this picture because my face is registering that I am definitely hurting, but I'm doing it, man! I'm doing it!
Some people love to train, but really don't like racing that much. Some people like racing, but only reserve it for special occasions because their higher priority is one, particular A race. And then there are some people who love racing so much that they can't bear to live without it.
I respect athletes who fall into each of those categories, but frankly, I'm of the third.
When I was "just" a runner my running friends did not think it weird at all that I raced incessantly. Of course, that would be because the majority of them did the same thing.... Runners, at least in my experience, tend to race a lot, sometimes even twice in one weekend. If you do this in the running community you are not scoffed at as idiotic. Rather, you are revered, at least to some extent. You are recognized as someone very tough, very intense, and very committed to your sport.
No so in the triathlon community. When I began triathlon and hired a coach, it was made clear to me that if I wanted to achieve at a high level, I would have to stop racing so frequently. The A race dictated everything else; other racing was done only in support of that larger goal. Reluctantly, I agreed to stop. I understood the reasons why I should not race every weekend.
- It would tire me out for the week so I couldn't complete my "key" workouts.
- It would expose me to greater risk of injury.
- It would tax energy systems that should not be taxed until the "race" phase of training.
- It would cause me to never race well, because I would never allow myself to hone in on one race, build for it, taper, and then execute. All of my racing would be lukewarm, and not on fire.
They are sound.
The thing is, though, when racing was taken from me, I lost my fire altogether, and I couldn't seem to get it back.
When racing every weekend I had developed an edge that drove me. I wanted to win. I was fresh to the hurt of racing and not intimidated by it or shocked by it. Most importantly, I was indulging a passion that made me feel alive.
Without racing I became dull and my workouts became lackluster. When I did race I was shocked by the pain of it, and I let that shock slow me. I had a rather lame season of sub par performances that year in both triathlon and running. I briefly contemplated giving up triathlon altogether, just so I could start racing frequently again. Instead, I switched coaches to Jen, who listened to my woes, heard me, and promised she would encourage me to race as often as possible while simultaneously not allowing me to be stupid and not allowing me to jeopardize my chances of competing at a high level in triathlon.
My MOJO was BACK.
I want to take this in two directions now.
One direction brings me back to a post I wrote in January about a coach's responsibility to understand WHO she is coaching and working with as opposed to steamrolling over the individual in favor of the "system." As I stated earlier, some individuals do very well when focusing on one A race and racing only in support of that A race. Some individuals love to train, but want to avoid racing if possible (although to be honest I know few of these athletes. They are uncommon). Finally, some people (like me and many athletes I know), thrive on racing.
If you ignore a person's basic temperament and passion, then you end up with an unsuccessful, unhappy athlete, even if you are using incredibly sound principles to guide them to success. You have to work with the person first, and do your best to figure out the right formula of THAT person + your training protocols to get the most out of that particular athlete. It's not really "coaching" if you simply only take athletes that mesh seamlessly with your favorite protocols, and it's not really coaching to take on athletes and expect them to conform to the way you know works best. Frankly, I believe any Joe can do that. A truly excellent coach has to work hard to "get" who she is working with so that she can honor the individual and keep his passion for the sport alive while simultaneously adapting protocols to get the athlete to achieve at the height of his potential. True coaching is an art, not scientific implementation.
The other direction I want to take this, though, has nothing to do with the individual. It has to do with the benefits of racing as a training protocol.
Frequent racing is not just an indulgence.
Frequent racing is not just for fun.
Frequent racing has physiological and psychological benefits that cannot be acquired simply when training, and I would argue that if you have your athletes racing infrequently, you are doing them a terrible disservice.
The interesting thing about all training is that the physiological and the psychological are wedded. You can't completely separate the two. What I mean by this is that the physiological adaptation that takes place following a workout carries with it a psychological adaptation as well. Psychological adaptations, in my opinion, include things like attention span, confidence, self-reproval or self congratulation, and adaptation to suffering. In short, just like we become physiologically adapted to the stress of working out, we become psychologically adapted to the stress of working out as well.
In Fitzgerald's Brain Training for Runners, he discusses how fatigue related pain is the brain's way of attempting to convince the body to voluntarily slow down or stop in order to save itself, and the body, from imminent disaster. The thing is, though, our brains are programmed to send out the pain signal long, long before the body is actually in peril. As we become more habituated to pain, we literally train our ourselves to stop responding to this signal with such force, and we are able to run through it more effectively. Just as you stop flinching every time a gun is shot if you hear a gun shooting incessantly for an hour straight, you stop reacting to the pain signal the brain sends out with such urgency if you expose yourself to that signal again and again and again.
There ain't no better way to get the brain to bring out that signal then to race and to race hard. You can execute many a breakthrough workout, but I would argue that a workout can never really compare to the brain message of pain sent out during a race. In a race you are exposed to a different level of pain that can only be replicated in a .... race! In short, to race well in your A race, you need to have habituated to the brain signal of pain. You need to hear the signal, know it, feel it and run right the fuck through it--and you can only learn to do that if you actually race.
I find the athletes that are able to pull out great performances even when they don't race a ton are those who have a long history of racing in the past. Your basic elite triathlete most likely competed in high school and/or college in one of the three sports--or in all three--or in rowing or skiing or whatever. In high school and college the coaches don't pussy foot around their athletes and have them race only three or four times in a season. The idea of that is comical! In high school and college sports you race hard and you do it every damn weekend. The elite triathletes who have a past as a collegiate athlete have vast experience racing. They can re-adapt to it more quickly than those who have not been confronted with it at all.
I understand that as athletes age they can't take a ton of racing abuse, but to shun racing and its benefits in terms of brain adaptation to race pain also seems ludicrous. I also understand that newbie athletes, though they really need racing the most, run a huge risk of injuring themselves if they go at it too often. Still, I would argue it's imperative to have newbie athletes race at least one every month or so. To have them race less than that risks having them race poorly not for lack of training, but for lack of adaptation to race specific pain.
On that note, I need to get my ass on the bike.