Listening to Your Inner Wisdom
Listening to Your Inner Wisdom
While walking Rocket this morning (she’s my sweet BorderDoodle training partner), I crossed paths with a neighbour driving to work, whom I hadn’t seen in a while. He slowed for a brief moment and rolled down his window. Knowing I am a triathlete, he asked: “How’s your training going?” For a split second, I really wasn’t sure how to answer.
You see, I’ve been taking a few weeks off training lately. The last two three weeks, completely off in fact. No swimming, biking or even light running of any kind. Aside from two walks a day with Rocket, no training at all. I’m busy at work and getting the yard ready for the winter. I even spend time eating chips and drinking beer, sitting on the couch now and then. After all, football season is back and that’s really the only time I turn on my TV all year. I even bought myself a nice bottle of Scotch, though will likely nurse it for a year or two. All with zero guilt.
While not everyone is into extremes obviously, in the triathlon world, social media pressures can all too easily become a daily reminder that you’re not taking your training seriously enough. That you don’t measure up as an athlete, if you don’t post your Strava ride stats or your Training Peaks CTL training volume and intensity daily. As this is a form of self-inflicted guilt, of course, many ignore this form of peer pressure and do it for themselves. But there are just enough not-so-subtle jabs out there to create a slight, constant questioning in the back of one’s mind.
Comments on social media are often the worst. “I’ve been working out for six months in advance of my first triathlon next month, but I’m feeling a little tired this morning … do you think it’s ok if I skip one workout? I don’t want to take a break, but it’s getting really hard.” Responses to such innocent questions from newbies blow my mind. “Be careful. It really depends. I’ve been known to take a day off every few months, which is usually fine… your training shouldn’t suffer too much.” You learn to roll your eyes and ignore those comments and try to give the odd thumbs up to the few of the others who seem to sincerely care with no ulterior, narcissistic and clearly insecure motive.
Is it human nature to be so desperate for external validation and support that it will rely on strangers’ opinion to such very profoundly personal issues, or have our societies simply driven out the ability to seek any form of answer within ourselves? When did we start losing trust in our own internal wisdom?
So why did I chose to take such a (relatively) extended break? A quick retrospective is probably in order. Let’s see, I trained like a dog eight months straight and needed to ramp my fitness back up like a roller coaster, following a series of unfortunate events that included: i) Suffering from overtraining syndrome after 2021 (I could probably end this post right there) ; ii) A stroke (for Pete’s sake, really?) in the Spring just two weeks before a race; iii) Long Covid keeping me tired and coughing incessantly, still to this day; iv) An ankle sprain; and for good measure v) Tachycardia (did I mention Covid?), keeping my HR over 200 bpm on even the shortest and easiest of brick runs off the bike. Doctors tell me that isn’t exactly recommended! That last one, right before a scaled down Olympic distance race which was to be a form of consolation prize to myself to salvage the season, but from which I had to withdraw as well. Suffering from a little FOMO all season, seeing everyone race around me, was the nice little red cherry on top.
Strictly results-wise, 2021 saw me learn to swim, compete in three Half Ironman races in four months, earn a top 5% Ironman ranking of all athletes in the world and finish first in Canada in my age group. Now that was fun! Couldn’t wait for next year. Let’s compare that emotional high to my 2022 results. Let’s see … oh yeah, nothing!
Despite all that effort through those above-mentioned challenges, I didn’t even get to race even a single race this year. That still bugs me a little. I LOVE racing! And truthfully, I hate training. Why do I, then? Like I said, I love racing. I have no problem admitting that I train this hard mainly so I can race. So it’s not hard to imagine that the thought of jumping right into off-season “base training” immediately, made me want to toss my cookies. What kind of person could stay motivated and want to start base training after all that? Not me.
I was not depressed, I was just pissed off. OK, and probably mentally tired. Which is more than understandable. But the anger, frustration and probably disappointment, will fade soon enough. Those three emotions are almost gone, actually. I learned years ago that the best thing to do when feeling negative emotions, is not to ignore or bury them, or busy myself, but to still my mind and just hold space with myself. And allow the emotions to go through me. Feel them. And empathize. This still is not one of my strengths (I’d make a horrible yogi and not just because I am as flexible as a tire iron), but at least I’m getting better at it.
Meanwhile, I do miss pushing really, really hard. Especially during those last, brutal “build” weeks right before, and of course during, my races. And I look forward to doing that again. Which is, in fact, exactly what I was aiming for. Wanting to miss it. I didn’t want a few easy days, or even a couple of weeks off without looking at my Training Peaks account. In this case, two weeks wouldn’t cut it. I wanted a longer break. As long as possible actually. Perhaps not full year, but I figured a couple of months would be about right, before getting back into any form of training. And I knew better than ask people’s opinion online. Actually, I did start drafting a question about what the ideal amount of time off should be in these circumstances, but I deleted it before posting. My poor coach probably thought I settled into a cave to hibernate. But somehow, I knew she’d agree with me.
If you’re not a competitive (or competitive-minded) triathlete, you may be wondering why bother with an article espousing the virtues of listening to your gut and taking break from training. Probably sounds quite logical. If you do happen to be such a triathlete however, you know what I’m getting at. But, you may also wonder why take so much time off. The answer is that it’s simply because I chose to be kind and patient with myself and to trust my SELF. To listen to my inner wisdom, which required stillness and in my case, enough time, to make sure I was getting the message right. Learning to create the neuro-muscular pathways to perfect technical movements, such as a high elbow catch in swimming, or listening to your body that is telling you it needs more sleep, are skills no more important than learning to listen to your gut when it’s trying to tell you you need a break.
It is way too easy in this world to always strive, compare yourself to others, judge and not know how hard to train. And when in doubt, do more, just to be sure. And when you get results (initially), that whole approach is reinforced. There is a reason why virtually everyone who tries various forms of periodization training or to apply the scientifically-proven 80/20 principle (80% low intensity training and only 20% high intensity) fail miserably. Fail to listen to their body and perhaps most importantly, their inner wisdom, and push too hard. Leading to sub-optimal results at best and overtraining syndrome at worse. As an honorary lifetime member of the “I need to learn the hard way” club (aka I’m really pig-headed), I unfortunately have experience with the latter. And I would like to avoid going down that road again at all costs, thank you very much. The best coaches will tell you: it’s about training the mind as much as the body. And then, learning to listen to both. Too many people ignore their instincts. Setting aside your mind’s temptation to quit too soon, s a way to push through big efforts and pain, may be fine. But not if you’re going against your best judgement, you gut, your inner wisdom.
Others can do or think or claim what they want. But I desparately want to know what’s best for me. And there’s only one person who can answer that. Not a stranger on Facebook. I had to look within. Now there’s an interesting thought. Maybe Carl Yung was onto something after all. The wisdom and answers always lie within. So no one or two weeks off for me. How long exactly then? Still not sure. But I’ll know. I can feel it coming. Won’t be long now.
Oh, and I also have one specific motivation to stop for a long enough time. I firmly believe it is required in order for me to reach my Half Iron goal for 2023. Going Sub-5 (hours). More on that soon. You might be thinking “What? Stop training that long in order to reach that kind of goal?” Yep.
So my response was quick and came with a smile. “How’s my training going?” Right on track!
What’s the most important training metric?
Most Important endurance sports training metric?
I was particularly struck today listening to an interview with both Jan Frodeno’s and Kristian Blummenfelt’s (two of the world’s top professional triathletes today) coaches on GTN’s YouTube channel. When pressed on what metrics Olav Aleksandr Bu places the highest importance when coaching his athletes, I simply loved his answer. The Norwegians, you see, have been recently held up as the country that places perhaps THE most importance on the valid gathering and interpretation of scientific training data and the almost obsessive-compulsive use of these performance metrics. Even Frodeno’s coach respects greatly Bu’s approach.
I’ve had, for some time now, a great interest in the importance of one’s emotional state (read: not psychological) and how it relates to one’s both internal locus of control/sense of agency and motivation, as well as its impact on training and performance writ large. So yes, I am talking way beyond simply measuring one’s subjective sense of well-being (although that may ultimately be the most important) in order to define whether or not someone happens to be happy on a particular day. A touched a fair bit on this in my recent book One Foot in Front of the Other. I am talking here about the power of deliberatively focusing on emotions when training and competing and how and when to best do so. This is my point. Not ignoring them, pushing them aside or running from them. Not dismissing feelings, basically.
I’ve also focused a great deal the last year or two on emotional mindfulness in my teaching high-performing executives in the Canadian Federal Public Service. Not that I cracked that egg mind you, but I’m getting there. Here, I am talking about recent work being carried out on how to coach vulnerable, authentic, curious and courageous servant leaders, rather than know-it-all micro-managers. But I digress. Back to sports.
When Norway’s Olav Aleksander Bu was asked what are the most important metrics to keep in mind when training his athletes “…what numbers he listens to the most…” and “… what is the most important data he looks at every day…”, his answer was, while not surprising to me, one of the first times I heard it from such a highly esteemed coach. Clearly a leader himself, he demonstrated great wisdom, vulnerability and courage to share, or perhaps simply having nothing to hide, when he answered the question with one simple word: Feelings.
Sure, periodization (to name an obvious one) and countless other scientific research-backed theories and practices in high-performance athletics training will continue to be scrutinized and leveraged for performance gains. This is not the point of my post. And needless to say, we know how athletes can push themselves through mountains of pain. But here we are, funny enough, just now looking at emotional response seriously. Are the old military ways of “shut up, suck it up and take the pain” finally gone?
This is not new you might tell me. And you would be correct of course. But in this field? The commitment, kindness and utter wisdom of certain coaches never ceases to amaze me. At my age, my radar is fine-tuned and believe me when I say I have heard too many claim they have all the answers, know what is best and push without even knowing why sometimes. Because that’s the way it’s always been done to achieve greatness? Sorry, I don’t buy it anymore. Today, when I hear a coach speak, I don’t look for a know-it-all salesperson making promises, or an abusive, oppressive drill master personality claiming the best way to get strong. Rather, in addition to drive, commitment, work ethic and steadfast determination, I also look for a commitment to critical thinking (a.k.a. science), combined with humanity, modesty and curiosity. Yep. Together, these traits are the furthest thing from being soft. In fact, they are strategic and rigorous.
My somewhat limited, though not negligeable, social sciences research background, combined with my over 35 years of on and off coaching experience, tell me that we haven’t even scratched the surface in my humble opinion. I am sure some people will dismiss this and think it is all way too touchy-feely to be discussed seriously. “No pain, no gain” after all, right? But as I mentioned, considering emotions is not soft at all. It’s hard. Scientific. Data. Much more than a slight new age edge to be gained. I believe it is critical. Just ask virtually any olympic, world champion or professional athlete how better they could have performed, if they were pushed not less, but better. Smarter. And I’m not just talking about those whose flame burned out way too early in their career, having been pushed inhumanly hard and incorrectly. What a travesty. It is simply unforgivable how poorly too many athletes have been treated, or rather, abused. Too much has been written about this already. One can only hope that one day, smarter will not be equated with weaker.
Let’s see here: How can I help an athlete become the very best on the planet? Oh, I know! Break them down. Treat them like crap. Suck the very thing that gave them their potential right out of them. The joy and their love of sport. Better yet, beat it out of them. Forget they are human. That is but a liability. Push them like a machine. Yeah, that’s it! It worked on the other side of the Iron Curtain in the 20th Century after all, right? We built pyramids with no tools that way, didn’t we? It still works in the U.S. Marine Corps, no? Yeah, that’s it! My opinion is that this retarded approach is not only passé, it doesn’t even make sense to achieve one’s potential in sport. In fact, it’s probably a guarantee that one won’t. Aside from the fact that it should be illegal, it is small and narrow-minded.
Why would we purposely only consider a small portion of all the variables in the equation? and suggest that feelings are best left to therapists to deal with, not coaches. Then obstinately and defensively dig our heels in and act tough. I’m pretty sure that’s a telltale sign of insecurity. Defensive anyhow. How did these people get the right to coach children, or people at any level I often wonder? Coaching is a privilege. And a two-way growth experience. Yes. Two-way! And how can we in 2022 still believe that ignoring the very aspects of what makes a person excel is the way to make them excel? Sorry, did I miss something?
Considering emotions/feelings is not being less “demanding“. And it is clearly not unscientific. Quite the contrary. Thankfully, psychology and mental health, in general, is increasingly de-stigmatized in society. And it’s about time, as there are way too many variables in the overall equation. So, it’s about time we bring in at least a few more from this field. We haven’t even identified them all. Is wisdom not arriving at the point where you realize you don’t know anything (or at least everything)? Norwegians are not ushering in a new age softer, kinder, gentler approach to training. No. They are just smart. They can think out of the old box. Considering athletes as human beings. Now there’s a novel idea! But as we increasingly see in politics, business and in social media everywhere online now, we have come to realize how threatening intelligence and science is to too many in 2022.
I suspect that Olav Aleksander Bu can push athletes to limits even they did not think they could reach. Wait, let me re-phrase that. I know he can. Need proof? Well, actually, we already have that don’t we?
So what is setting the Norwegians apart and perhaps even the reason for their high-performance endurance sports meteoric successes? Not ignoring, but placing feelings above all else.
Check out this great GTN video of these two amazing coaches and be sure to cue up to the 24m30s mark or so to listen to Olav Aleksander Bu’s response to the question: “What is the most important metric you look at every day when coaching your athletes?”
My hunch? This is gonna change everything!
Access the full interview here:
Now a Rudy Project sponsored athlete (discount anyone?)
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1st in Canada and Silver Ironman All-Word Athlete status
The 2021-22 Ironman All-World Athlete rankings are officially out. Barely missing out by a few points on Gold, I was awarded Silver AWA status, placing me among the top 5% globally of all Ironman athletes in all distances. I also finished 1st overall in Canada in the Ironman 70.3 distance.