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!