I raced the Florida 70.3 this weekend and I promise that I will write a race report, but I just felt the need to address this topic first since I've got a lot to say on it.
A lot of times people will hear about how much I train or have trained in the past and say, "I don't know how you do it." What they don't realize is that most of them could do the same thing if they wanted to. It's totally fine if you don't, and I certainly sometimes wonder what the heck I'm doing to myself when I get up at 5am on a Saturday to go ride my bike and have already done at least fifty miles by the time I can smell bacon and waffles cooking in people's houses as I ride by.
How well our training goes is greatly influenced by our motivation to be out there in the first place. The source of this motivation tends to change as you progress from year to year. At first my "training" was more just "working out" and the motivation was mostly just weight loss. It was the first time I'd really committed to eating right and exercising outside of basketball season and was finally seeing results. In the past I'd maybe try eating just salads for three days, get annoyed that I hadn't already lots ten pounds, and go right back to a steady diet of Doritos and Pepsi. But suddenly I was lighter than I'd been literally since I was probably twelve years old and I figured out that running doesn't actually have to suck if you just keep at it and eventually it gets so much easier.
Then suddenly I got the itch to try a running race and a triathlon. So that became my new motivation: training to finish those races. Notice I didn't say do well at those races, but simply finish them. I got all of my information from books and the internet and trained diligently every day, and almost always by myself. The exception to this was riding my bike with my dad, where we would routinely go out and ride probably 30-35 miles and take turns trying to destroy each other by pushing the pace and making the drafter really work to keep up. It is absolutely because of him that I got so strong on the bike so fast.
I had fun at my first sprint and then moved on to my first half ironman where the race nearly destroyed me. Timberman was about 95 degrees with 95% humidity and I spent most of the race wanting to curl up under a tree in the shade and just go to sleep. I crossed the finish line and told my parents that that was by far the most difficult thing I had ever done. They took me out for ice cream and I think it only took until I went to bed that night for me to think to myself, "I bet I could do better next time."
That was my motivation mostly from then on. I always wanted to do better. It worked really well for a few years until suddenly I reached a bit of a plateau and I allowed some disappointments to really get me down. For a long time. It's harder to stay motivated when suddenly you have a race where you trained like crazy and actually started expecting a certain result and you didn't get there. The race was far from a disaster, and if it had been my result merely a year earlier I would've been more than thrilled, but suddenly the expectations got way higher.
Each subsequent race suffered because of it. I stopped being excited about training because once again, what if I train really hard and still don't get the result I want? I didn't know how to deal with that. I did the work but my heart wasn't in it and I lost that desire to push through. Race results got way more disappointing the next year when I was faced with a real injury for the first time and it kept me from running for six weeks. That was three years ago and I feel like I'm still trying to come back from that one little setback. I don't do well with setbacks, but I'm working on it.
I had a brief taste of the athlete I used to be in 2009 when I joined up with QT2 Systems, got a new coach and a new outlook. Things went well. I won my age group in Lake Placid. I was happy... for a couple of days. It was still more than twenty minutes slower than my best race there. My swim and bike were about the same but I'd lost it a little on the run. The motivation waned a bit, and the race results followed suit. Well, a stress fracture that prevented me from finishing the race in Kona surely didn't help, but the motivation wasn't really there before that, either. It only exacerbated a problem that was already there.
2010 was a rough year in more ways than one. As far as racing went, it was like the spark was gone. I suffered through a painful winter on the trainer and running in snowstorms and the lack of sunlight and time outdoors nearly destroyed me. My races went horribly. I started doing things I'd never done before like putting off training to much later in the day and merely slogging through it. Then I had that major real life problem that put the whole triathlon thing by the wayside for a bit and quite possibly threatened to keep me from training and racing indefinitely. I mean, would you want to get right back on your bike? I feared I wouldn't, but then I did, and it wasn't so bad. I'm not afraid. I could get killed walking into the grocery store, so I might as well keep doing what I love.
Going to Tucson for the winter definitely helped me some. It broke me out of a rut and brought back some of the motivation. But towards the end the excessive amounts of alone time really started getting to me and I stopped being excited about the workouts again. So I've been thinking about some of the things I used to think about to motivate myself; some little tricks that usually got me going. Granted, it gets a lot more difficult to stay motivated when you're training just as much but going way slower than before, but I'm learning to accept it for what it is and worry about moving forward rather than thinking about how much faster I used to be. I think my friend Mary Eggers has experienced some of the same ups and downs as I have, and in a recent race report she mentioned that she no longer "grieves for the loss of past performances" and I think that is a great way to put it. I'm still working on letting it go, and I think I'm a lot closer now.
So in that same effort, if I can't be the same athlete in the races, I can at least be the same one I used to be in training. And if I do this consistently, it should mean that I can get back to competing at a high level, right? I guess there's only one way to find out. So as far as getting the training done, some things I used to always think about in training:
-Aside from finally crossing the finish line, there is no better feeling than showing up to the start line being as prepared as you can be and knowing it. I don't think anyone ever feels truly ready, but you can at least know that you've done everything you can. Lately I've experienced a lot more of showing up to start lines feeling like a kid showing up to class without my homework. It's not fun, and the results speak for themselves. I've had disappointing races when I was prepared, but the true disasters have only happened when I hadn't worked nearly as hard as before.
-Everyone remembers the incredible enthusiasm of when you first started training and were excited about everything. It was cool to go swim forty laps in the pool and go home smelling like chlorine for the first time since you took those swim lessons at the Y when you were nine. The idea of riding a hundred miles on your bike was great because you'd never ridden that far before and the whole concept just seemed crazy not that long ago. (I used to be amazed when my dad would come home and tell us he'd ridden 35 miles, it might as well have been a hundred) Then suddenly you're riding that far every single weekend and it's not nearly as much fun anymore. It's just that thing you have to get through on Saturdays before you can take a nap. Sure, some rides are fun, but other times sitting on your bike saddle for six hours is about the last place you want to be. I don't think there's any way to get that initial enthusiasm back, but it is good to keep the big goal in mind when you don't want to be out training.
-If I was in the middle of a run and felt like I wanted to walk, I'd think about specifically why I wanted to walk. Does something hurt? Usually no. Are my legs tired? Eh, kind of, but not really enough to actually warrant walking. Am I going too hard? Nah, my breathing is pretty steady. Thirsty? Hungry? Would rather be asleep? It might be one of those or any combination or something entirely different. But usually the reason was never good enough to actually start walking. I'd remind myself that surely in the marathon there was going to be a time that I'd start to feel like this. What would I do then? If I got used to giving up and walking now, then it'd be easy to do it in the race. So I would tell myself that if I just pushed through now maybe getting through that marathon would be even easier.
-Some mornings you are going to wake up and absolutely not want to get out of bed and train. It happens to everyone. Again, the first thing to do is to assess why this is the case. Sometimes it is a legitimate reason. Like you've only slept for four hours the past couple of nights or there is some work or family stress going on or you're sick or that weird back twinge you've been having is acting up again. If going out to train is actually going to make things worse for you, then of course you shouldn't do it. But I'd guess that for most of us, the reason is more like, "My bed is way more appealing than another 4000 yards in the pool right now." And yeah, it usually is. But is staying in bed going to make help you reach your goal? Again, in some circumstances, yes. But usually, no. My usual mantra on this is to think to myself, when I go to bed tonight I'm either going to have done the training, or I won't. Which one is going to make me happier and help me sleep better? The answer is obvious, and before you know it, you're done the workout anyway and feel a lot better than you would if you got to work and by 9:30 thought to yourself, "Why didn't I just get up?" Skipping workouts has a nasty way of suddenly becoming habit, so try not to let yourself out of it without a legitimate excuse.
-Do your workouts in the morning, almost right when you get out of bed. Now, for some people, this might not be the right approach. I do know people who train at night and have no trouble getting it all in. So if it works for you, that's fine. I find I do much better if I just get up and train right away. It feels great for it to be only 7:30 in the morning and you might already have a two-hour workout under your belt. If you get into the habit of simply getting out of bed and immediately training, you don't even think about it. You just do it. If you start putting stuff off then it gets easier and easier to come up with excuses not to or to have things come up and get in the way. I'm in a fairly unique position where my "day job" is coaching, so I can do it whenever and wherever I need to, so there's no need really to get up at the crack of dawn to work out because I no longer have to show up to the office by 8am. I get asked by friends why I get up so early to train when I don't really have to. I experimented with just waking up whenever and getting to the training whenever this past summer and the end result was sometimes not training until like 6:00 at night for no other reason than I just kept putting it off. It became a habit. In the past, if my workouts went past 3:00 I was not happy. Suddenly it was the norm. I didn't enjoy the day leading up to it either because it was like this thing looming over my head that I still had to do in order to have had a productive day. Your day is a lot more relaxed if by noon you can sit back, all clean and dry and finished with the last shower of the day and know that you don't have any other workouts to do until the next morning. I know people think I'm crazy for starting my long bike rides at 5am when there's sufficient daylight, but if you saw me at 12:30 in the afternoon sitting out in the sun with my feet up and a book in my hands and nothing else to worry about the rest of the day, it might not seem so crazy after all.
-Realize that if you are consistent, the results will pay off eventually. Now, this does mean different things for different people. Some people can work really, really hard and have a twelve hour Ironman, which is definitely not too shabby. And some people can work really, really hard and go 9:30. Some people are just gifted that way and it is a rare few who have the desire, patience and work ethic to get there without the natural talent. But you have to understand that either way, you can still do all you can to reach your potential, whatever that is. And it can vary from year to year. Maybe you're coming back from having a baby or you've had an injury or had to take off last season because work was too crazy. It's okay to adjust your expectations and probably a good idea to do so rather than thinking you can just automatically pick up where you left off. The key is knowing that the consistent effort will result in improvement if you keep at it. The first time I discovered this was when I finally started eating better for more than, say, a couple of days. Weight came off, started working out, more weight came off. You mean diet and exercise really does work if you stick with it? Amazing! The same is true for training. Work hard every day and don't skip workouts without a legitimate reason and you will get faster... as long as you are following a decent plan, but that is an entirely different issue.
-Treat the training as though it's not optional. Don't think that maybe I'll get to it, maybe I won't. Just get up and do it. You'll feel better and again, when race day rolls around, you will know that you've done the work and are ready.
-Just deal with the bad weather. Bad weather sucks. It really does a lot of damage on the motivation to train. It's a lot easier to convince yourself to head out the door for a two-hour ride when it's 75 degrees and sunny than it is when it's 45 degrees and rainy. Either way, you still have to get that ride in. And again, just think to yourself that three hours from now, whether you ride or not, you'll be clean and warm and dry. And you know which is going to make you feel better at the end of the day. It doesn't mean that cold, wet ride will be all that enjoyable, but at least you'll have gotten it done. And if you live in the northeast, it is entirely possible that you could face those conditions on race day, so you might as well practice it. And if you don't, you can at least tell yourself during the race, "This is much easier than riding in those awful conditions on some of those training rides." Buy some good cold weather gear and face the weather. Hose off and lube your bike after. You don't have to do it every time and the trainer is certainly a viable option, especially when the sun just won't come out and you just can't stand the idea of being cold and wet the entire time, but try it sometime. I'd admit my threshold for this seems to have adjusted since I spent so much time in that-land-where-it-never-rains, but I do tend to think of riding on a cold and rainy day as the lesser of two evils when compared to riding the trainer. We all have a different temperature cutoff. Mine changed when I realized that water bottles do eventually freeze if it's too cold. I also find your mental attitude on these rides can help. If you spend the whole time thinking about how miserable and cold you are, it's going to be an awful experience. If you just ignore the weather, ride like normal and let your mind wander to other things or even just think, "Race day will never be this bad and it'll seem easier because of this," then it will be a much more pleasant experience. But again, clothing makes a huge difference. I've had rides in the same conditions where on one I've been fine and the other I found myself shivering like crazy in a McDonalds waiting for my dad to pick me up because I stopped to use the bathroom at a gas station and couldn't turn the key in the door because my fingers didn't work. That's gonna be miserable no matter what, especially when you can't shift or use your brakes.
Those are just some of the things I think about to keep me going. I also used to adapt the "do whatever it takes" to get the workouts in. This has meant getting on the trainer at 4 to be done before some family event or maybe to get a ride in before catching an early flight. Maybe getting up to train somewhere between 3:30-4 every morning while on vacation with the family at Disney world to squeeze in a 26-hour workout week while still being able to enjoy the entire day with everyone at the parks. Maybe being at the pool at 5am to swim before driving up to go skiing with Dad before coming home and still getting in that trainer ride and transition run before falling into an exhausted sleep. It it always fun? No. But you do what you have to do in order to get the results you want to have. Don't treat the training as optional. Get it in however you can. Could I get up at 3:30 on a regular basis? No way. But for a temporary situation it was what I needed to do, so I did it.
I feel almost like a hypocrite for writing this because at the moment I'm not really following my own rules. But today I was thinking about all of these things I used to do in training and how I'd get myself through it and figured maybe by writing it all down it might help me start adapting that attitude again. Or at least help some of you. It's definitely not always easy, even for the best athletes. But it helps to know that the hard work does pay off, not just physically, but mentally. You're going to show up at that starting line either knowing you did all you could or wishing you hadn't skipped those workouts and maybe you'd eaten better and lost those last few pounds coming into race day. Which would you rather be thinking?