When dispensing training or nutrition advice, any good coach will include a disclaimer. While sound training principles are grounded in exercise science and/or proven training methods, the degree of an athlete’s physiological response can vary greatly based on the athlete’s physical makeup, life stressors, and history with athletics in general and endurance sports in particular.
It’s this last variable—athlete history—that I find most interesting. I spent fifteen years coaching high school runners. Generally speaking, as long as I could get them to practice, they would do what I asked and their times would take care of themselves. I didn’t really have to take their histories into account, because for the most part, they had no histories. Now, though, since I primarily work with adults, I am continually grappling with the powerful pull of my athletes’ pasts.
George, with some of his athletes at the 2005 state track meet. Nick Stephens, second from the left, was a six-time State Champion. Also pictured is Dick Buerkle, George's fellow coach and former Olympian and world record holder.
The experiences that athletes have had prior to working with me manifest themselves in two ways. The first is physical. Athletes that have spent the bulk of their athletic careers doing the same things over and over will not see an improvement if I ask them to do more of those same things. Even if they diligently complete all of their workouts, push when it’s time to push, hold back when it’s time to hold back, update their Training Peaks consistently with thorough commentary, and do all of the other things that coaches appreciate, they still may not get any faster if I’m just having them follow the same old paths. Of course, the physiological goals are the same—increasing stamina, building strength, etc.—but the way that we go about accomplishing those goals must change if the athlete is going to continue improving over the long haul. This is particularly vexing with athletes that I have coached for more than a couple of years. Not only do I have to determine when they have maxed out their improvement under a particular approach, but I have to see past the sideways looks they give me when I ask them to do something completely different. It’s true in sports and it’s true in life: what has always worked in the past may not work in the present.
The second way that athletes’ histories show is mental. All of us who have done any sort of training for more than a few months have established preferences. Whether we admit it or not, we tend to want to do the workouts that we enjoy the most, regardless of whether they will make us any faster. (Granted, “enjoy” may be the wrong word here given the masochistic nature of endurance sports; perhaps I should say that we want to do the things that we wrongly or rightly believe have served our purposes.) I’ve had several athletes add workouts and even change the workouts I give them because they want to stick to what they feel has worked for them in the past—even if it hasn’t—rather than try something new. Often, they don’t even realize they’re doing it. They’ll change a VO2 max workout to a LT workout by reducing the intensity of the workout and adding thirty minutes (or vice versa). They’ll accentuate their “show muscles” rather than their “go muscles” by substituting a pushing exercise for a pulling exercise at the gym. They’ll stack two workouts together into one big, epic workout thereby reducing the effectiveness of each individual workout and throwing off their schedule for the next several days. Such athletes mean well, and they figure that they’re doing things that will make them faster because they’re working really hard.
Mental history presents a unique issue when working with multisport athletes. Many triathletes and duathletes got into multisport by way of another sport. Many of us have roots in swimming, cycling, or running; we learned to do one sport before we learned to do three. Maybe we were swimmers growing up, but we lost the taste for chlorine. Or we were cyclists, but we could no longer stomach the danger of pack racing. (This is my story.) Or perhaps we were runners, but we couldn’t seem to complete training cycle without getting injured. (This is also my story.) At the very least, many of us were athletes of some sort prior to completing our first triathlon; we spent a lot of time at the gym, or on the tennis court, or practicing layups prior to deciding that it would be cool to go for a hard run after cycling and swimming. We bring the mindsets that we established in those other sports with us to multisport. When cyclists start running, they tend to want to go hard for several days on end and then take a week off, such as Grand Tour riders do. When runners get in the pool, they want to swim lap after lap in Zone 2 as if they are doing a long run, even though that’s now how swimmers improve. Swimmers will cut a run short if they sense that their form is starting to fall apart, even though minor form failures in running are expected and won’t wreck your pace the way they do in swimming. Those who come from outside of endurance sports want to do every workout and be in “good shape” all the time, when in fact, the notion of periodization dictates that there will be times in the year when endurance athletes need to strategically lose fitness in order to gain more fitness later. (This, by the way, is the subject of my next blog post!)
George, with ITL athlete and All-American Eddie Ferguson at the Lake Logan Triathlon in 2014.
Photo credit: Andrei Lozovik
Do you know your athletic history? Have you considered how it changes your approach to endurance sports? Have you thought about how you may be passively or actively doing things because you prefer them, even if they’re not the things that will make you faster? Let us know your experience in the comment section or on our Facebook page!