7 weeks to go…stars in the dark

A good week for training. Started badly though. Went for a run and after 25 minutes felt dizzy and blugh. Did another 5 minutes but no better so turned round and headed back. Next day’s intervals not much better. But a swim on the Thursday was pretty magic. My coach has this theory that swimming during marathon training makes you a better runner. I dislike swimming so I wish she was wrong but unfortunately she really does know what she is talking about and legs and head felt great afterwards. I also had a sports massage from Joseph on Friday who is fab (apart from the regular reminders to stretch!) so went into my long run on Saturday feeling good. Which was handy cause running in a storm is hard work. Managed 16 miles ambling round Richmond Park. Sunday was just 10k home from meeting friends for coffee in Richmond. My friends looked at me like crazy setting off in the rain to run but I promised I was ok because I love running in the rain. Something so liberating about it. It is a pretty good strength to have too seeing as it can rain quite a lot on London.

It was a good run to use to reflect on my strengths. Because although in training (and many sports psych sessions) we tend to focus on our weaknesses, on competition or race day we really need to know our strengths, so we can use them to our advantage.

It is one of my favourite sessions to do with athletes. Most are so humble that they look at me in horror when I initially ask about their strengths but once we get into it and break them down into areas they find they have loads, and start to feel much prouder about how good they have become.

We start by doing a strengths audit. This is a list of all those elements which make us feel confident we can achieve our goals. Proactively identifying strengths is helpful as we are prone to a number of cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias where we are more likely to notice things which support what we already believe or negativity bias where we focus more on negative information than positive. Countering these by promoting positive elements, reminders and memories can help us overcome these biases to stop downplaying everything good and seeing it through this negative lens. The strengths audit is also great for a confidence boost. Even if we don’t believe we have a natural talent for our sport, we can still see the elements which help us perform well in it. And it helps us focus on our own skills and mastery, not on those of our competitors.

This one is easy to do as a list but to make it resonate a bit more I raided our Sporting Brain Box to do my strengths audit as ‘Stars in the Dark’. This gives you what you need to put your strengths up somewhere you can’t miss them. I’ve just stuck mine up right above my desk.

Stars in the Dark

Stars in the Dark gives you 10 silver stars. We are looking for at least one strength from each element:

  • Fitness
  • Strategy
  • Skills
  • Tactics
  • Mindset
  • Support

If you struggle then you can get out your training diary to see which sessions you always nail, or look through your phone to see who gives you the best support with your sport. If you really struggle then think about other areas of your life which may highlight transferable strengths. And if you still struggle (and many athletes, especially if they are in a bad period within their training will find this hard) then talk to other people about where they see your strengths coming from. It could be a coach, partner, parents, friends or club mates. The benefit of this is knowing your strengths are strong enough to be recognised by others should mean they can be pretty confidence boosting for you to remember in the build up to and during competition.

So with my Stars in the Dark staring down at me I’m off into Brighton Half Marathon this weekend.

8 weeks to race day…Weaknesses

Tramill screenLast week’s training went ok – I’m not great on sticking to paces outside so when one of my sessions called for different paces throughout I thought I should do it on the treadmill. We have a treadmill in the garage so at least I didn’t need to fight to be allowed to hog one in the gym for ages but even still 100 minutes on a treadmill is the longest I’ve ever done and was mentally really tough. And really annoyingly I was using imagery to get through the session visualising the screen showing 100 minutes when I’d finished it and didn’t realise the number of digits was limited so as I finished it clicked over from 99:59 to 00:01. Cue big sulky bottom lip! But the session was definitely one to consider a ‘gold medal session’ to give me some confidence when it comes to Paris race day.

The storm squashed my weekend racing plans as the Winter 10k round central London was called off. I was recording a podcast the day before though which, as it is a running podcast, actually meant I had to run 10k with the athletes on the show so added a 12k run home from that and I felt like I’d got a decent session in to replace the race.

When I got home from the run I found out my shy 3 year old had managed her first swimming class – for weeks she has refused to get in the pool – so this was a really big deal. We went straight out for celebratory dinner – I want her to learn that we celebrate success – especially when we have had to be really brave and leave our comfort zone.

And leaving that comfort zone to confront our weakness is the point of this week’s reflection. A key session I will do with athletes as their sports psych is to consider their strengths (we will look at this next week)  but I never need to ask their weaknesses – so many athletes are perfectionists that they are highly attuned to their weaknesses and consider them over and over again.  They can reel off a long list.

But being aware of them is different to actually facing them and working on them. And that is vital to perform at a high level. We want to focus on our weaknesses in training so we can benefit from our strengths in racing.

I know my biggest weakness is my ability to make excuses. I am really good at justifying what I have done to block out what I was supposed to do. So if I have a 1 hour run at 7.5mph I might do the run, but only at 6.5mph. I’ll argue to myself it is good enough I did the run. And it is – but not if I want to get faster and stronger. I will offer myself the excuse the day got too busy and no-one can run a business, look after their family and train effectively. But you can if you put away your phone and get off social media thus freeing up lots of additional time.

As Project Paris is all about trying to do everything properly I’m trying to address these weaknesses so my mindset must switch from finding excuses as to why turning up is good enough to finding excuses for why I must turn up and train properly.

Much of dealing with our weaknesses can come down to why we are racing in the first place and the values (see last week’s post) we have behind our racing. We can use our purpose and our values to address each weakness. My values are family, achievement and courage.

If working with an athlete who makes excuses we would list each excuse that they have used over a couple of weeks in their training. And then we proactively address them with our counter excuses. For example mine would look like…

Excuse… Countered with..
I’m so tired, I won’t be able to do the session properly I’ll need to be brave during the marathon when I get tired – this session will be good practice for that moment.
It is good enough to do a bit of it – it doesn’t need to be perfect I need to follow my coach’s sessions if I am to achieve my goal
I’ve got a deadline that matters more I knew I would have a book deadline when I entered this race. I can do both and I’ll feel more invigorated to write once I’ve run.

Practising these over and over – not just in the moment – will help to embed them as thoughts which automatically start to counter my excuses.

9 weeks to race day…Values

Green week 4Another green week. :0) I’ve now hit my goal of four green weeks. Some of this is more focus and effort on my part – some of this is down to working more closely with my coach so the training which goes in matches my workload better – giving me fewer excuses. I did procrastinate all day Sunday about a horrible 70 minute treadmill session but actually, as usual, once it was done I realised it wasn’t that bad.

I got my long run in by running home from a talk I was giving at the Olympic Velodrome. I think you know you are in marathon training when you look through your diary and get excited at events being held a bit of a distance away as it gives an opportunity for a sneaky run!

Another project that got me running this week was a cool new podcast I’m involved with. It is called Mind over Muscle and is being produced for London Marathon by Audible. Ant Middleton is the main dude on it and I have already enjoyed hearing his perspectives around mindset. Mara Yamauchi is also working on the show and I plan to bug her for some marathon tips closer to the race. I don’t want to ruin any surprises in it (it starts on Thursday 6th Feb) so won’t go into what we have been up to but I am really enjoying working with runners who wouldn’t usually have a sports psychologist. Seeing how some simple (but of course evidence-based) recommendations can make a big difference to someone’s mindset is really encouraging to remember why we do the work we do.

One of the other areas I really enjoy doing as a sport psychologist is helping athletes understand their values – not just in sport but in life. It is pretty rare that we get the time or headspace to really think and identity what matters to us but actually, if we truly understand where our drivers come from, what we really want and where our passion and purpose lie, it is much easier to make authentic (and thus stickier) sporting decisions.

For example, an athlete who really values trust, communication and creativity would struggle to feel comfortable with a coach who had very rigid rules and told the athlete what they thought they wanted to hear rather than what they actually thought. However, an athlete whose values were discipline, dependency and happiness may be quite happy with this approach.

To ensure I’ve picked the right goal and to keep these values front of mind I did my own value mapping. We can use a list of 56 common values to begin and the aim is to filter down to between three and five. It is really difficult. Most athletes will want to retain about 20-25.

Achievement Effectiveness Honesty Quality
Affection Efficiency Hope Recognition
Ambition Empathy Humour Respect
Autonomy Equality Independence Risk-Taking
Beauty Excitement Innovation Security
Challenge Faith Integrity Service
Communication Family Intelligence Simplicity
Competence Flexibility Love Spirituality
Competition Forgiveness Loyalty Strength
Courage Freedom Open-minded Success
Creativity Friendship Patience Teamwork
Curiosity Growth Pleasure Trust
Decisiveness Happiness Politeness Truth
Dependability Harmony Power Variety
Discipline Health Productivity Wealth
Diversity Helpful Prosperity Wisdom

For me, after lots of reflection, the three that drive my journey in life (and sport) are family, achievement and courage.

They can then be built into my marathon process: I want to impress my family – I want my daughter to be proud of her mummy. I want her to learn that if we set out to achieve something we see it through to the end. We don’t quit when it gets tough – instead we summon up all our courage to overcome the difficulties.

This can filter into self-talk so I can draw on mantras like ‘Make Hattie (my daughter) Proud’ – ‘Be Brave’ – ‘You wanted this’ and they should all help to keep me going when it gets really hard.

I have a race this weekend – the Winter 10k round central London. I’ve run it at least 3 times before so I know where I tend to tire out and where I tend to make excuses to slow down. I’ll be practising these value driven mantras to see which ones really resonate and work to shut down the excuses.

If you’ve read this far and want to work on your own values I’d love to chat about them on twitter: @josephineperry

 

13 weeks till race day… motivational philosophy

Richmond 10k medal

So the first proper week of training for Paris Marathon. It went well. I really love having a goal, especially one I’m genuinely excited by. I know why I am excited. My favourite psychological theory (yes – I realise how sad that makes me) is Self-Determination Theory. It says that in order to feel fully motivated for anything we need three pillars in place:

  • Community – we need to feel part of what we are doing, have friends in our sport, have experts we can call upon. We need to feel like part of the gang.
  • Competence – we need to feel like we know what we are doing in our sport and we have the skills to carry it out.
  • Autonomy – we need to be able to choose our own goal and choose how we get there. We really need to feel like we control our own destiny.

To stay fully motivated then I need to make sure I have the three pillars in place and I do:

  • Community – I have got this through being a member of a club (I’m a member of Serpentine Running Club which as one of the biggest clubs in England has lots of people to inspire me), using social media (I follow loads of amazing runners of all speeds and sizes and distances) and have built up some brilliant friends who run so I feel comfortable talking about running with them. I’m also married to a runner so very little negotiation is required to get a Saturday morning Parkrun in or to have a weekend taken up with races. And two of my closest friends have said they’ll come over to Paris to watch me run which will be awesome (and a good incentive not to be pathetic!)
  • Competence – If I was attempting something like fell or mountain running I’d be completely out of my depth. But running a flat road marathon on a course I’ve done twice before is fine. I know I have the physical skills to do that. My journey will see if I have the psychological skills to do it in the time I want though. I’m keeping a training diary so I can give myself evidence of my competence as a runner.
  • Autonomy – I picked this goal myself. I love the race; the atmosphere, the course, the weather at that time of year and I promised my daughter she could go up the Eiffel Tower after she missed out due to fog last time we went to Paris. I’ve also picked my own time goal. One which isn’t too unrealistic (I hope) but fast enough it will scare me into working hard.

With these in place my motivation is as high as it could be. And that is probably why (alongside having this blog for some accountability) I achieved my first ever fully Green Week on Training Peaks. Never been done before.

Green training peaks

I also got to finish the week with a race. It was a 10k in Richmond Park. I ‘warmed up’ with a 5k jog to make it count as my long run and then went harder for the 10k. Chatted to a lovely guy for the last 2k who told me he was coming back from ACL surgery and so instead of taking it so seriously like he used to now he was grateful for every mile he was able to run. A wonderful reminder of how lucky we are to be able to be active and to savour the moments (even when hot and sweaty and your lungs and legs hurt and you’ve just run through a massive pile of deer poo). And it really helped that I had both my mum and my daughter cheering me on the end – it pushed me towards a sprint finish! As a bonus my husband came third in the men’s race and won some wine which I’ll kindly help him drink tonight. 

Next week I’ll explore the start of my goal setting for this race in the shape of an approach to therapy that I love (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and the matrix we use within it to help us overcome what holds us back.

Project Paris…

Paris Logo

I ran my first marathon in 2004. I’ve run one most years since then. But I’m not convinced I’ve ever really tried to run one properly. In fact, I’m pretty sure I haven’t because while being a sport psychologist is fantastic for helping you understand how you can improve in your sport, it is awful for exposing you to your weaknesses. When you spend all day with people striving to be the best in their sports or fields there is no hiding your self-awareness as to where you don’t stack up. I know I have an inner Homer (Simpson) and my spiritual home is the sofa, not the treadmill. I know I negotiate with myself that as long as I’ve done something (even though it is not the session my coach set) then I’m happy with that. As a positive it means I am rarely anxious about my sport and enjoy racing.

In fact, this process; trying to put my sport in context, seeing it as clearly just a hobby and not feeling like my race times define me is a great strategy. It is one I often recommend with athletes who are becoming overly anxious about their sport. But… it leaves me with a niggling feeling I could go faster and I’ll never know. So, for the next 13 weeks I’m going to try and go down the other strategy I sometimes suggest; going all in. Setting a goal that really matters to me, preparing properly, putting in place all the techniques and activities I would suggest to the athletes I work with.

I can’t ever share what we do with athletes, but I can share what I do myself. So over the 13 weeks I plan to share:

12 weeks to go: Explain how I’m shaping my goal

11 weeks to go: Creating my performance profile

10 weeks to go: Developing my goal setting

9 weeks to go: Highlighting how I incorporate my values into my training

8 weeks to go: Identifying my weaknesses – and how I will try to overcome them

7 weeks to go: Identifying my strengths & turning one of these into my super strength

6 weeks to go: Using a training diary properly

5 weeks to go: Developing a magic mantra

4 weeks to go: Working on my what if plan

3 weeks to go: Designing my imagery around the marathon moment I’m most scared about

2 weeks to go: Chunking down my race and planning out tactics for each section

1 week to go: Creating my confidence booster

And to keep myself accountable I’ll be blogging it weekly – because I hope knowing that I have to type about it will scare my lazy self into following exactly what my coach sets. I know it won’t be easy. I have a business to run, amazing clients to see, an awesome three year old daughter I love hanging out with and a book deadline five days before Marathon date (yup – genius planning there!) but I’m genuinely excited about the challenge and knowing there might be someone out there following my journey should give me the kick up the bum I need to stay focused and diligent and consistent until April 5th when I get to run Paris…

 

Social media: Motivator or Monster

Runners World Podcast.pngI was recently asked by Runners World to talk on their podcast about how runners use social media. I love this subject (and spend far too much time on social media myself) so really enjoyed the chat. I haven’t been brave enough to listen to it yet so don’t know if they kept the bits in where Peppa Pig started playing in the background, my daughter wandered in for hugs and when the postman rang the doorbell! I should not attempt to multitask!

Anyway – I usually work with athletes on using social media for their personal promotion, sponsorship and reputation but it was interesting to think about when as amateur athletes we can use it to benefit our sport – and when to consider staying away.

There tend to be lots of extreme views on social media: Either it is amazing or dreadful. I’m actually in the middle – sometimes it can be brilliant, other times not so much.

It can be brilliant for motivation, for reducing loneliness, for finding exciting challenges, for analysing our data to make improvements and for keeping in contact with coaches or other athletes. But it can also increase our risk of exercise addiction, mean we get overly competitive, compare ourselves too much (and usually negatively), become less honest with ourselves and others about our sport (we end up giving a highlights reel rather than honest information), not do sessions properly (as it might make us look slow) and get goal creep where we try to hit online goals instead of real ones.

Community

One of the huge benefits is the feeling of community. I did some research a few years ago into Ultra Endurance athletes (Runners, Cyclists, Swimmers and Triathetes) and found that in order to do the training required (at the right distance and intensity) they often need to train alone and that gets very lonely. They enjoy having social links and a community to engage with afterwards. There is a theory of motivation called Self-Determination Theory and it says that in order to be truly motivated and perform well you need three pillars in place: Autonomy to make your own decisions, Competency (i.e. good skills to know what you are doing) and Community (to know you are not alone). Social media can give you this community is you are regularly training alone.

Expanding horizons

Social media is also a great way to expand horizons – and increase your belief that you could attempt new things. Not only to see amazing races talked about but we might see people who seem a bit like us doing them, we get some vicarious confidence from this and maybe more likely to enter. All the posts about fairly new mums like Jasmin Paris and Sophie Power racing ultras while breastfeeding certainly inspired me to get entering my own races. But, if I’d been in a bad place with my own running, or struggling with a newborn, then actually seeing these amazing runners ‘doing it all’ may have just made me feel like a failure. So how we interpret what we see if usually not based on the content itself but our own perceptions, traits and current life situation.

Holding yourself to account

Social can be a good way to holding yourself to account – and many athletes have talked about how they know they have to finish because they know people will be looking out for their results. So they may well be more compelled to stick with it.

But… sometimes it can be an additional pressure we don’t need. I have spoken to athletes for research who have gone out for a run and been actively relieved when their Garmin ran out of battery as they could just enjoy the run knowing it wouldn’t be uploaded so couldn’t be judged by others. Also, sometimes sticking with a goal is not always right for us. We could be injured, have a period of illness, have a big setback in another part of our life and it makes perfect sense to abandon the goal for a while. Why should we have to explain that on social to everyone. A good rule of thumb is to remember you own your data and you own your story and you don’t owe these to anyone else.

Additional pressure

Some people will certainly find social media inspiring. Seeing amazing races, brilliant venues, fantastic courses and medals can make you want to join in. But it can also cause lots of pressure to be inspiring. And some days we aren’t, we are simply trying to shuffle our way through the day till bedtime. If we are on a ‘shuffle’ day then what we sometimes see as inspiration can become comparison. Comparison is so dangerous and yet it is so hard not to do it. We are all on different journeys. We all have different genes, backgrounds, environments, goals, personalities and preferences. Comparing ourselves to others – especially when we are usually comparing our warts and all self to someone else’s highlights – will only make us feel rubbish.

We need a large amount of scepticism when scrolling through social – and to always remember unless the person you are comparing yourself to is your identical twin, you have had a very different background and journey from them!

Data demons

Sites like Strava can be fantastic for storing your data. You can learn from it, spot patterns and increase your self-awareness of how you cope in your sport. It can be great to look back over to see what you were doing prior to a step up in improvement, or before an injury. But – it can mean every session becomes a competition. If you are naturally competitive then instead of competing weekly you end up competing with yourself or others every day. This means you don’t do the right type of training. You end up going too fast, or with too much intensity or lifting higher weights as you are worried about how people (or yourself) will judge your data. This increases risk of injury – and reduces performance gains. In fact, do it too much and you’ll get burnout and your performance will actually fall.

We can also start to focus on numbers rather than feelings. I interviewed someone who was training for a marathon and in the build up started joining in an online running group who were all aiming to get their weekly mileage up to 100 miles a week. The athlete hit the mileage but got a stress fracture from overtraining and was unable to perform at her best in the marathon.

This can be similar with online groups where you all sign up to a streak of training. They can be really good for some people – I have done a month long run streak (running at least 30 minutes a day, every day) when I knew I was in a busy period and would need additional motivation to exercise. But telling everyone means it is harder to stop when you may need to (with a niggle or injury) and this can cause longer term harm, and ironically reduce how much you can exercise.

When to turn off the social

When you find social media is sucking the joy out of your running turn it off. I remember interviewing a fantastic runner about her use of Strava and she said after a long period of injury she was getting back to fitness and went for a run. She said she loved it. She was by the river and took it easy and came home with a big smile on her face. She uploaded the run to Strava and instantly saw her brother had run faster and her friends had run further. She said she then felt like a failure. That wonderful morning by the river doing the thing she loved the most and it was the data afterwards that sucked all the joy from it.

So use it to make friends, find great races or courses, learn about running from experts but don’t trust everything which is said (or shown) and don’t make yourself vulnerable by giving away too much info.

Learning from the best: Kristin Armstrong

Cyclist Kristin Armstrong won three Olympic Gold medals in the Time Trial in Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016. After each Olympic Games she retired but came back 18 months before the next Olympics. Performance in Mind chatted to Kristin about her drive to keep coming back, the injuries that nearly scuppered her chances and how she now finally has closure.

Why did you retire the first time round?

The first time around I stopped because I wanted I wanted to have a family and I was 37 years old and I thought if I wanted to have a family I should get on with it.  [she gave birth to son Lucas in October 2010).

Why did you return after having your son?

I was active during my pregnancy. That competitiveness never really went away. I could play games indoors with my family and I still want to win. So, I’m pregnant, I’m on my bike and I had a text message from my coach. I was three weeks before delivering and you are just hot and you are disgusting and sick and he text me and said ‘22 months – wouldn’t that be an amazing goal.’ I said ‘what are you talking about.’ He said ‘London’. I am so pregnant and said back ‘are you kidding me – you should see what I look like right now. There is no way I’ll ever be able to compete again’.

After you have your child you feel like your life is out of control. It takes you a few weeks to even think you want to go for a walk or do anything physically cause you are so tired. A few weeks went by and I’m like ok I get this and then once you think you’ve figured it all out your baby changes again. Then my coach hit me with it again and said what do you think?  I’m thinking I need a goal. Even if it doesn’t work out I’ll have a goal and I need to start training again. My only goal for the first three months was fitness, it was just about being active. And I was like oh my gosh this is amazing.

So once that transition happened I remember everything changed. When I did get on my bike I was in a hurry to get home because I had this mum anxiety – I felt like after an hour I had to be home and whenever I went out for a ride I’d never felt this before but I was always looking around. I felt like a car was going to hit me or there was this whole thing around now I am finally responsible for something that isn’t myself and it was a little bit scary actually. I announced I was coming back in November and by January I had a lot of regrets. I wanted to quit. I don’t know why I had made the decision because I just felt so guilty. I had a discussion with my friend and ‘how do you work full time and get through this because I feel so guilty’. She said you just have to embrace mum guilt cause it is never going to go away. I don’t care what you do, you will always have mum guilt. You just have make sure when you are at home be present and spend quality time with your child and be really present with them. You still have to go after what you do want to go after and it is a really great example for your child because you have to work hard. That conversation really helped me and coming back after having a child was very different cause I would travel with the team but instead of having massage after a race I would breastfeed my son because I was racing on the road at six months so before I stopped breastfeeding him. I had my pack and play and my stroller. I always prioritised that I was a mum first and a cyclist second and when I go to do public speaking engagements I talk about how everyone felt sorry for me being a mum and I learnt it became my strength, my balance. Because when I got home from a really bad training day, or a race, your child is there smiling. And Lucas is like I don’t care what kind of day you’ve had, it never really mattered. So what it did was it kept me positive and it lifted me so those athletes who are completely embraced; they don’t work or volunteer; they don’t do anything else apart from their sport; if they have a bad day they dwell upon it and for me if I’ve had a bad day within two minutes of walking in the door I’m having a great day cause nothing matters but your child. Nothing. That was the cool power I had. Nothing really matters cause if cycling didn’t work out I had this amazing family. People who aren’t in that position, if cycling or sport doesn’t work out, they are stressed about what job they are going to have. The stress is enormous, so for me it felt like a secret weapon.

Why did you return for Rio?

I always got asked: ‘Why?’ You won Beijing. You won London. What more do you need in your life. Why would you even risk going after the pinnacle of sport and lose it’ (for they always say you are only as good as your last race) but in the moment that didn’t matter to me.

As a woman athlete you don’t make a lot of money, so I’ve always been an athlete that believed you have to prepare yourself for life after sport because any day you could be finished as an athlete. So I always used to work part time throughout my career and I was engaged in the communities I lived in. Prior to London I was working for a hospital here in the United States and right after I finished London I had a job offer from the hospital and I took it. I was so excited. Finally, normal life. I took the job and for the first year and a half I was in a position that challenged me every day and I could hardly come up for a breath. I had to have a couple of surgeries and after that my position changed within the health system and it got a little slower, I moved too quickly for the new department. My old department did it yesterday and my new department was like, let’s talk about it for a little while. I found that I wasn’t moving the dial I wasn’t reaching anything. I had a vision but I knew at the pace we were going I might not live to see the vision. And I knew in sport I’ve been trained, for every four years you are going to have some huge outcome and some little check marks along the way. I decided to start riding more. My old position my boss was so fast. My pace. Id be up super early and home late. I’m not saying that is healthy but for my personality and as a cyclist I’m so driven and competitive that as much as my mind thinks it would be nice to chill out and relax for a little while that is not who I am. So as much as I wasn’t being pushed enough. I didn’t feel like I was being stretched or challenged enough in life, relative to going to the Olympic games and what I realised was in the business world it is similar to the peloton in cycling you are surrounded by a lot of people who are still trying to find success in life and I found that while every day I was working I was in amongst individuals who had not yet found their success in life and they are always fighting for the credit and I’m like, I don’t really care about the credit. Let’s just do this. It can be your idea, lets go. I just wanted it done. Compared to this I realised being on my bike I found so much joy.

So I would go home and I would be thinking about what is a good answer about why am I doing this. I didn’t mind the question but on the flip side of the question I got ‘oh my god she’s a mum, she’s the flip side of 40, I can’t believe she is doing this. It is so selfish.’ So finally I just came out with ‘it is because I can. I’m healthy, I love to compete and I can still do it at a high level.’ I didn’t need to give any more answers.

I just felt I just need to ride my bike. I don’t mind the pain [she had had three hip procedures by this point]. I just need to ride my bike cause I’m going crazy now. So I started riding my bike. I went to my husband and said “I really miss having a goal. You know like marathon runners pick one of two goals in a year and they work full time. I’m not asking to quit my job or change our lives again but maybe if I chose nationals at the end of May that would be a good goal”

So, I trained for nationals and I win. And when you win nationals in America you qualify for Worlds. In all my years of competing, Worlds have never been in the United States. And it happens to be in Richmond, Virginia. So, I train and show up to Richmond and we have this deal. If I don’t get top three we are done. And I go to Richmond and I get fifth. But I say I am top American. I’m fifth, and I’m going back into athlete mode. I say to my husband ‘I’m fifth because I’m working full time. All it showed me is I’m trying to take short cuts and you know where short cuts take you – they never get you to the top. I’m working full time, I’m being a mum and I’m training half the time I was before and I got fifth.’

I came home from Richmond but by the second week of November I had spine surgery. I didn’t ride my bike again till January 1st 2016. Everyone around me was like ‘why are we going through this?’ But the more of a challenge in front of me, I just respond with more determination. So, January 1 I get on my bike and I train very very hard and I go very part time at my work. I go to Rio. I win. By barely anything, five seconds.

Do you have closure now?

How do you define closure? I don’t think you know what it is until you find it. So right now I’m coaching some of the top athletes in America, two of which I think can medal in Tokyo. That’s closure, I’m not coming back. I ride five days a week. I love riding my bike but the closure I have is that I can sit and love watching a race. I can coach somebody to become a gold medallist. Three years ago if someone had asked me if I was willing to coach somebody who could win a gold medal I don’t know if I was ready to pass it on. Now, as someone said last week, I can’t believe there is an international time trial in your home town that you are organising and you are not racing. Is that not tearing you apart?. I said ‘I have no desire’. And I define that as closure. I feel so fortunate. It is amazing. I love riding my bike but I have complete closure from competing. I’ve done everything. I have everything I have ever dreamed of in sport but it is a really cool feeling cause there is no unfinished business.

I can’t explain why closure didn’t come at two gold medals or after just going for London because after having a kid London was enough for me but it is hard to put my finger on why closure didn’t come and I had to keep going back other than the fact that I could do it and I had the drive. Someone did tell me is you are physically going to be able to do it as long as you want but once your mind goes and you don’t want to hurt every day and turn yourself inside out that is when you know you are done. To train for the Olympics or to be a professional cyclist your brain has to want to hurt every day.

I am starting to see with the athletes I coach it is not about whether they are going to do the physical workout, it is me saying ‘why don’t we work on hurting a little more today’. I have gotton more out of people I coach now because I’ve recognised that not everyone knows how to hurt. As a coach I’m trying to teach people how to hurt and it is ok.

Could the time out between each Olympics have helped you?

I always said my secret was my balance in being a mum but my other secret which I do laugh about is that each time I retired I gave my body a two year break. Think how hard it is to go inside out for four years, 365 days a year. It is incredibly tough on the mind and if we are saying the mind is what takes you to the top I also think back and for those last eight years I really only was on for four years because the other years I rode but it was not intervals or anything that killed my mind. It only helped my mind. And I recovered my body. For two years I was doing healthy exercise. I wonder what would it be like if endurance athletes did take an 18-24 month period where thy totally regrouped, refreshed and recovered and then went forward again. How much stronger would they be? I have always been intrigued by what did those breaks do for me.

 

Learn from the best: John Levison

JohnLevison1Endurance sport is tough on athletes; lots of training and preparation, a long day out at a race, needing to fuel properly and maintain consistent energy. Something I’d never thought about is about how all of this also relates to those putting on races; the people behind the scenes who direct, set up, marshall, referee, draft bust or time races for us. Chatting to John Levison really highlighted this and I felt learning from his routines, perspectives and knowledge could give us all a lot to chew on.

John is basically ‘Mr Triathlon’. He has been around triathlon for almost as long as the sport has existed. He not only runs Tri247.com – the website most UK (and probably other country too) athletes go to for news on the triathlon scene – but is regularly found at races as the go to race commentator. His knowledge is deep and having spent so long in the sport he knows the courses and athletes inside out.  I jumped at the chance to pick his brains and learn about what goes into commentating a race and what psychological traits he sees displayed prevalently within the most successful triathletes.

The triathletes you are usually interviewing or commentating on will have all prepared for their races. What sorts of preparation do you need to do for your commentating sessions?

In some ways, I would say there are lots of similarities to what the athletes themselves do. Firstly, the majority of the work if you like is not necessarily specific. Just as an athlete will have some events they are racing / targeting, the fitness and ability to do those comes from consistency of general training, month-on-month and year-year, which builds them the base and the fitness and strength to which they then fine tune / taper / specific prep for the requirements of that event.

Similarly, that my day ‘job’ if you like is following / reporting / writing / researching / interviewing and more within the triathlon world – and that I’ve also been around for a long time – gives you a pretty strong base of experience, knowledge and understanding to call upon when needed. To that, you then do your specific ‘homework’ – what is the course? How many laps? Who is racing? What happened last year(s)? Who has been in form this year? That type of thing. Depending on the type of race, I might contact an athlete, a coach, someone else within the triathlon world, just to get their thoughts, and hopefully that gives you a rounded view of what you are going to expect and might highlight something you hadn’t thought of. Just like an athlete though, simply doing lots of hours of prep immediately before with no base, probably won’t get you very far!

I always estimate that you probably only ever use about 10% of the information that you might have (or is probably tucked away in the triathlon archives of my brain somewhere!), but for me at least, just going through that process gives me more confidence that I’ll be ok on the day. The objective is to try and be ready and potentially use elements of that preparation – not to try and use every statistic, just because you happen to have it.

Just like many of the athletes, I’m reasonably confident that I could probably get away with doing less and ‘winging’ it so to speak on race day on the basis of all of that accumulated knowledge / experience – but that’s not something I try to test out, as I’m sure it would come back to haunt me!

I’m probably also quite fortunate that my memory for triathlon history (and as my wife will confirm, not a lot else!), is quite strong, so most of the time, there is usually a nugget or two of trivia or memory about an athlete or a race that might come in useful.

JohnLevison2Commentating on a triathlon sounds like it must be quite a feat of endurance – especially those with lots of waves so will last for hours – how do you pace yourself and stay focused?

It definitely can and does get physically and mentally tiring. On a bigger and/or longer event, you will typically be working with one of more other commentators, and you do have to take those breaks. Your natural inclination at something like an iron-distance event is that you want to be (and you probably think you can be…), ‘there’ all the time, but you just can’t.

If you get too physically tired, you just can’t keep the energy up in your voice which will show. You’ll also not be switched on mentally, so if you are trying to communicate for example on an Age-Group World Championship, and there are multiple waves in progress at the same time, having a clear head and being able to track what is happening in real time across multiple categories is – to me – really important. I want to be ready to potentially call an athlete down the finish line to be a British / European / World Champion and ideally be building up to that for the crowd (which will likely have friends / family / coaches there), and give them that moment and recognition as it happens – and ideally not 15 seconds after they have crossed the line, when that time has passed. Seeing the smile on someone’s face – and it may be the one and only time in their life they achieve it – when they can hear that they are being recognised and that quite possibly it’s the first moment that they know they have won a medal, is really special.

I’ve also now done several events over the years which will span 3/4/5 days of back-to-back work, like the Commonwealth Games / European Championships / Grand Final and the Nottingham-Leeds double-header this year. You also have to remember that you want your energy (and voice…) to get you through the entire competition, not just the end of the day. Triathlon does lend itself well to natural highs and lows (in terms of energy and excitement) during a race, so you’ll have natural excitement at the start / swim exit and transition / laps (if appropriate) as athletes pass, so there is opportunity there where you are naturally calmer and other times where you need that energy.

Do you get nervous commentating?

Weirdly, I can’t honestly say I’m nervous when speaking to a crowd even if there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands (Hyde Park in years past I’m guessing?), or indeed, for some of the online stuff I’ve done. Even that you don’t actually know what you are going to say / there’s no script / anything can happen.

I can only rationalise that as a) it’s a triathlon, b) I figure approaching 30 years of in-depth watching / studying / writing / researching means I’ve got some solid experience, history & understanding to call upon, and c) I arrive prepared!  Typically I may have only one piece of paper (number / athlete / country and a couple of bullet point / memory jogger notes), but have found that’s way more useful than a folder full of information that you will never, ever get to refer to in real time. I suspect I only ever use 5/10% of the ‘stats’ I know – but just going through the process provides that extra confidence, plus there can always be that random elite who appears out of nowhere!!!

I think I’ve also come to the conclusion, that what probably helps is that I genuinely ‘care’. Might sound a bit weird, but there are plenty of people (and commentators and other people in sport generally), for whom it is a ‘job’. That’s fine, I get that but for example I really was genuinely ‘in the moment’, and getting excited and trying to build up that finish to the women’s Age Group 70-74 race when I spotted with about 10 minutes to go that there was a realistic chance of a sprint finish. And I don’t even know the people involved !!!! Doing that isn’t difficult – but it is if you don’t have the passion to be looking ahead / working things out and trusting your instincts.

All things considered, I would much rather have a microphone and be talking to thousands of people than have to go into a room with 10 others and try and make small talk. That’s way more pressure and stress to me.

You have watched a lot of triathlons over the years. What traits have you seen in triathletes that you really admire? Are their traits that seem to be much more common in triathletes than other sports?

Triathletes, even the Pros, tend to be there because they truly love the sport. At the (very) top of the sport – a Gomez / Brownlee / Ryf / Duffy / Frodeno – the rewards can be significant financially, but that can only be part of the motivation. The sport is simply too hard in terms of the training requirement and competition, to do without passion. One way you can see that is randomly go to the results of say a World Junior Championships 15 or 20 years ago. Assuming you’ve been around a while, I bet you will recognise a significant number of those names from 17/18 years of age, still racing all those years later. A few may have become ‘big’ names, others not so, but there has to be internal motivation to keep doing it for all of those years that goes well beyond hoping to gain fame or riches.

I’d say that triathletes are also very resilient, perhaps stubborn, and seem to be able to bounce back from things that most would struggle hugely with. Of course, in recent months I think everyone has seen what Tim Don has come through with a broken neck, the Halo and then winning his first Pro race back. There are so many more though – look at Gill Fullen’s return from cancer and surgery, the winner of the Age-Group Champs (Overall) in Glasgow recently, Trish Deykin, suffers with MS, a former club mate of mine, Fiona Ford, got totally wiped out by a car and was told her sporting career was done… she subsequently made the podium at Kona. And that’s just three that spring to mind, there are so many others, Pro and Age-Group.

Triathletes also tend to be organised and dedicated – and not just those that are at the top of results lists. I’m also constantly amazed out how many doctors / medics / surgeons and the like manage to also be top performing triathletes! There is a saying along the lines of, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person”. That does seem to ring true in our sport. Most the British Age-Group athletes that you may see on the Kona podium multiple times, tend to be very busy professionals too.

JohnLevison3If you could put together an Ironman relay team of any triathlete in the world who would you pick for each leg and why?

That’s a tough one!

If we take men first, from a commentary viewpoint you take Harry Wiltshire – because it doesn’t matter how far away you are, you just look for his windmill left arm and you can confidently state exactly where he is. And to be honest, that’s typically at the front anyway!

The bike? Perhaps either Marino Vanhoenacker or Sebastian Kienle. I was in Klagenfurt when Marino broke the IRONMAN world record and I’ve followed his career quite closely. He races for one reason – to win. He has no interest in playing safe for a podium, it’s usually win or go home in an ambulance! I remember a quote he gave me in an interview, “I’ve definitely lost out on a lot of podium positions in my career which I might have gained by being a bit more conservative – but then again, I don’t think I’ve ever lost a race that I could have won.”

Sebastian is similar – races with such passion, and when he is in full flight, a sight to behold. I still remember when he caught and passed the lead group at a 70.3 World Championship in Vegas. He went past with such power that it was as if he was on a motorbike.

Run wise, well to absolutely guarantee yourself some killer quotes at the finish you go with Lionel Sanders! He’s got one of the worst ‘styles’ you’ll ever see, he looks permanently injured and as if he is limping – but he can push himself to deep, dark places – and stopwatch tells you he can run too. Being in Kona last year and actually feeling the conditions first hand, Patrick Lange finishing at sub–6 minute mile pace after almost eight hours is staggering too, while given his performances this year, I would like to squeeze Jan Frodeno into this team somehow too. So many options!

For the women, swim – Lucy Charles. No explanation necessary! For the bike, well I think right now we are seeing Daniela Ryf proving that she is absolutely the best female cyclist we have ever seen in the sport. If she can produce the all round race in Kona on a good day that she is capable of, her own course record will be smashed apart.

For the run, I pick Chrissie Wellington. Her final race in Kona was truly remarkable. She was a broken, physical mess coming into that race after her recent bike crash, yet at her ‘worst’ she had the mental strength and pain tolerance to still beat the best, and she did that on the run. She looked out of contention at T2, but in the first 100m of that run you could see that she was not ready to give up yet. It was a worthy way to call time on a wonderful career. I think we may have seen faster ‘runners’ than Chrissie, but would any of them beaten Mrs Wellington, head-to-head, when the chips were down?

What has been your favourite triathlon to commentate on?

Genuinely, I really don’t know if I could pick just one. While we generically might call it all ‘commentary’, exactly what you are doing, what you are talking about, who you are taking to, will depend upon the type of race, the length of race, where you are within that event, are you ‘on the ground’, the voice in the air, live broadcast etc.

A few that spring to mind:

European Games 2015, Baku, Azerbaijan – I can pretty confidently say I would never have been to Azerbaijan, had it not been for triathlon! That was a great week, working with a great team of people. The British men’s team (Benson, Bishop, Graves) produced perhaps the single best team performance I have ever seen. The domestique / pilot approach to racing has many critics, but on that day Tom and Phil gave absolutely everything they had and Gordon finished the race off in style, holding off their fast finishing Joao Silva. It was a staggering performance from the British team.

Outlaw Half 2017 – A month or so earlier I’d done a big interview with Gill Fullen (https://www.tri247.com/triathlon-features/interviews/gill-fullen-interview-cancer-strikes), a brilliant Age-Group athlete now in the 50-54 category who is just a legend of an athlete. Gill had recovered from cancer and major surgery that winter, but had kept it pretty secret from all but her closest family and friends. We’d spoken privately a few months earlier, as Gill found out that I’d had cancer myself some years previously, and I said that – when / if she was ready – I would be interested in doing an interview with her about it. That time came, and it turned into a long and detailed piece that I wanted to do ‘properly’, and I felt that Gill had really given me her trust and was very open, to someone that she didn’t really know that well. I got to know her better through that – and that interview was very widely read. So, when she then won – overall – the Outlaw Half a month later and I got to be the one explaining to the crowd who this was and calling her across the line – it was a special moment.

Glasgow 2014 & 2018 – Commonwealth Games and the recent European Championships, both wonderful events at Strathclyde Park. Great venue and both brilliantly organised. I’m a big fan of Nicola Spirig (who also won in Baku), and so it really is a pleasure to be able to just watch her at her best and be able to share that with the crowd. The Mixed Relay events at both were also brilliant. The battle for Silver and Bronze in 2014 between South Africa / Australia / Canada was epic, while last week just shows how close and unpredictable the relay format can be. I also really enjoy commentating on the Age-Group races too, and trying to give those and the athletes in them proper attention and focus. The team in Glasgow just did a brilliant job, they really did think about the Age-Group event and I’m pretty sure 800+ athletes will have left with a very positive experience of being part of Glasgow 2018.

I feel guilty not mentioning so many more! My first ever commentary was World Triathlon London in 2010 when Alistair Brownlee hit the wall with 200m to go and wobbled down the finish straight – that quite a start! The Club Relays at Nottingham is just a fabulous race and part of the fabric of the domestic season while doing some live stream broadcasts is a different buzz. I hope there are plenty more highlights to come in the future.

Learning from the best: Jasmijn Muller – mental toughness

J Muller 1

Jasmijn is the current World 24 hour Time Trial champion. She is known for her mental toughness. Her she talks about those elements of her training and racing where that mental toughness really shines through.

 

 

 

 

On picking her challenges…

My awareness of challenges usually comes through reading, hearing about or seeing others do cool things. For something to grasp my interest sufficiently to then become a goal, there needs to be an emotional connection (it needs to excite me and make my heart buzz) as well as a logistical fit (with work, lifestyle and support network). It either needs to be a step up from something I have done before (e.g. stepping up from a 12/24-hour to a multiple day/week challenge) or something entirely new that nonetheless allows me to build on skills/strengths developed to date (e.g. going from long distance supported to unsupported racing). Essentially, the goal needs to scare and excite me in equal measures and allow opportunities for self-development and learning. I am not someone who enjoys doing the same thing year in year out.

On sticking to goals…

I keep a blog and use social media as much to share my journey with others (to take something from both my successes and failures) as a way to commit myself to my goals. Sharing goals helps with accountability and also provides opportunities for social connections, support and advice. I also find it essential to work with a coach to help me set out the steps I will need to take to work towards my goals and to give feedback on my progress. If left to my own devices it is just too easy to either overdo it or to put off things to tomorrow. I am goal-driven, but also know when to be flexible when life gets in the way. I don’t like unfinished business. I don’t expect to achieve my goals upon my first attempt, but as long as the desires to achieve a goal still burns strong enough, I’ll keep pursuing its, even if that means that I will need to move the goal posts or delay the challenge. There are times where it is hard to stay focused, especially when planning and preparing for a goal over a prolonged period of months or even years. But those moments are easily overcome by reminding myself how badly I want to achieve this goal (breaking the solo women’s cycling record from Land’s End to John o’Groats).

On how she approaches training…

Key steps are to define the goal, identify the key ingredients required to successfully achieve my goal and asses those areas where I am currently weak. It is important for me to keep a training diary for physical training, but also keep feedback notes about how I was feeling during those sessions, what I ate and drank, what logistics I experimented with etc. I like to keep lists and enjoy ‘ticking’ off things or seeing TrainingPeaks boxes turn green when completed. It is also important for me to work on both weaknesses and strengths. If I only work on improving weaknesses I can loose motivation and feel down about my abilities. It is nice to mix things up with a few sessions where I get to work on strengths and feel more in control of things. I am happy working on my own, but also enjoy being able to call on others and use them as a soundboard. From time to time I get carried away by wanting to enter additional challenges or events that I know full well do not contribute to my overarching goal, but just seem so much fun and are are so tempting. In moments like these I would contact my coach for his opinion. Usually this results in weighing up my underlying motivations for wanting to do those challenges and identifying to what extent they are distractions or can usefully serve the bigger goal.

On how she approaches racing…

I certainly have done plenty of races where I just hoped for the best or set off way to fast, hoping/thinking I may be able to hold on, but I have become more and more methodical over time. I no longer leave things to luck. Much of the goal I am working towards hinges on good planning and preparation. That includes planning of the route (e.g.potential road works, closed bridges, peak traffic times), planning the logistics (e.g. support vehicles, available drivers, crew manuals), adjusting my nutrition to the route profile, weather and intensity of effort (e.g. timing, type of nutrition, location of handups) and selecting appropriate equipment and kit, to name but a few. Planning for my goal is complicated by the fact that it does not just concern me, but also the support team. My challenge is dictated by the weather and thus complicated by not knowing when it will actually take place until 48 hour or maximum 72 hours in advance. This has implications on available support crew, travel and accommodation arrangements and also has financial implications. To be best prepared for this uncertainty and last-minute mayhem it is crucial to have a very detailed master plan ready that can be put into motion at short notice, that gives enough guidance yet is flexible enough to adapt on the go. This is where support from others is vital and where as an athlete I want to be able to delegate, switch off and just focus on my physical and mental preparations. I have tried to do it all myself in the past and learned that that does not work and something has to give.

For important races, I recce the route and take a detailed look at the wind, weather, road surface etc and use specialised software to allow me to assess the required power profile to achieve the target speed or distance I will have targeted for that event and to model my pacing plan. Nutrition, bike set up and kit will be tailored to the challenge and tested in training.I make packing lists, pack the night before and I even make diary entries and set reminders on the day for what time I need to get changed, when I need to start my warm up, what time I need to make my way to the start etc. The routine helps me to stay focused.

On her motivation…

My underlying motivation for long distance riding is based on a mix of performance goals and self-development goals. Although I enjoy just riding long distances, I think I would get bored if there wasn’t a competitive element in at least some of my rides. Long distance racing satisfies my need for speed AND my need for adventure. I am an ambitious person but also a curious and fiercely independent person. Long distance racing allows me to explore and expand my physical and mental boundaries; it allows me to grow as an athlete, but more importantly to grow as a person.

My immediate motivation for breaking the LEJOG record is three-fold. There is the personal performance challenge: I want to take that next step up from being successful at 24-hour races to something twice the length. Then there is the romantic pull: Racing across the length of a country under my own steam and hopefully following in the footsteps or some phenomenal male and female heroes who have achieved this feat before me. It is this impressive and unique history that, if successful, gives my attempt meaning and hopefully inspires someone else to break my record in turn. Although it is important not to let emotions take the overhand while I am actually racing, it is important to me that my goals are underpinned by a strong passion/emotion. That ties in with the final part of my specific motivation for wanting to break the LEJOG record: It is also an important way to raise money for Cancer Research UK, the charity through which I got involved with cycling in the first place, that I want to give back to each time I ‘up’ the challenge and which does such important work to help find cures for one of the leading causes of death.

On owning her performances…

In time trialling (the type of racing I mostly do) it is not uncommon to see athletes making excuses. It often even starts before the events with comments or social media posts like ‘Not the ideal preparation for this race due to …’ a busy week at work, illness, injury, sleep issues , you name it, ‘but hoping for the best’. After often amazing performances, this may then be followed by a comment like ‘happy with my time of x or nth position, despite aforementioned issues, being held up by traffic, a headwind, etc etc’. Yet, all participants face more or less the same conditions and in races like that most people are amateurs and have to deal with the realities of life intervening. I can’t say that I haven’t been guilty of such comments myself in the past, but when you fall short of your goals, you are ultimately better off focusing on those things that were entirely within your control and reviewing what you can do to improve than to dwell on the excuses of external factors.

Success is never mine alone. I have a strong support network of friends and family enabling to do these races and work with a coach, sports psychologist and sports massage therapist to put me in the best possible physical and mental condition. Many of the races I do are supported races and rely on volunteering friends and family handing up bottles by the side of the road at all times of the day and night. I couldn’t have won National 24 and World 24 hour TT championships without their support.

On bouncing back after a failure…

It is important to realise that failure is always an option. Of course, this depends on how you define success, but success is never guaranteed. Whether in sport or in business, people tend to look for ‘top tips’ for success or ‘best practice’ examples. Nobody deliberately strives for failure, but failure can also be a gift that ultimately helps you grow. And that, after all, is what I am seeking from pushing my boundaries in cycling. It is about the journey of self-discovery and development, more so than a hunt for fast times, records, titles or any other badges that may be the tangible results.

Success is great. It is what we all strive for and what everyone wants to hear about. Sometimes success happens because of sheer luck; more often it comes as a result of hard work and a lot of trial and error. But when you succeed, it is easy not to query enough why you were successful and what you can learn from it. Failure can be a bitter pill to swallow, but also a great opportunity for self-reflection, to evaluate why things went wrong and what you can do next time to make sure you don’t fall into the same trap again. Failure helps to build resilience, grit and determination to succeed at the next attempt. Failure is a gift we should perhaps all permit ourselves to at least consider as a plausible and valuable option.

It is important to allow some time to deal with the disappointment. You need to get those emotions out of your system. For me that is often by taking some time out, by doing some different things, by realising that there is more to life and that sports performances and achievements (or failures), do not define who you are, they are just part of what you do. After that, my analytical mind is usually keen to assess what went wrong and why, and if I still feel strong about my goal, to identify how to improve next time and make a game plan for the next challenge or next opportunity to try and achieve that goal after all. Sometimes, I work through these steps alone, but often I involve others be it as soundboards or to get a different view on things.

Failure forces you to be honest with yourself. It forces you to pause and reflect.  I have seen people ‘fail’ big goals only to realise that they were chasing the wrong goal for the wrong reasons. The beautiful thing about amateur sports is that we have choice. As long as your goals give you a buzz and fill you with excitement, keep chasing your dreams. If not, take a break, refocus and find something else that makes you happy.

Review: Endure, Alex Hutchinson

Endure pictureAs soon as I opened Endure the green-eyed monster snuck out. This is absolutely the book I wish I’d written. If you are an endurance athlete, curious about how to go faster or longer Hutchinson has collated all the research that you should be relying upon. What he does so nicely is package it up in a way that makes it compelling to read, leaves the academics behind and pulls out the points that will pique your interest. The book is really well referenced but in an unobtrusive way. It is detailed enough to know you are getting the latest well researched evidence but well written enough you don’t feel like you are wading through ketchup to find the nuggets.

He explains the debates between the biologists, physiologists and psychologists as to how our bodies work when we are attempting endurance sport and then focuses on the individual limiters to improved performance; pain, muscle, oxygen, heat, thirst and fuel. He neatly finishes though by looking at the elements which are attempting to bypass those limiters; training the brain, zapping the brain (something I recently tried with the Halo system) and mental skills.

If you are a runner, or interested in running extremes, Hutchinson was also involved in the Nike Breaking two project so includes some insights from that project within this book which give a real insight into not just how research says things happen, but how this research actually translated when applied into practice. It reminds us the research usually takes place in sanitised labs. Real life races are so much more complicated. Even in controlled environments like the Nike 2 project interference is everywhere and it is only when we learn to manage those interferences which uniquely destabilise us will we be able to endure more; whether that is more speed, or more distance.

There are lots of books which cover the physiology of performance, and more coming out all the time focusing on the psychology of performance. Hutchinson neatly merges the two giving a much more (I believe) realistic picture of what happens in our bodies where the mind and body work (in the main) together rather than as separate systems as older-fashioned books have suggested.

CW picture

I was lucky enough to interview Hutchinson for a piece I wrote recently on Brain Training for Cycling Weekly and could only use a little piece of the interview in my article. So here is the full interview so you can see what really stuck out to Hutchinson in the 12 years he studied this area. 

Interview with Alex Hutchinson, author of Endure: Mind Body and the Curiously Elastic limits of Human Performance.

Was there any specific study you came across during your research for the book which really changed your mind about the role of the brain in modulating performance?

There has been a bunch over the years which have been significant to me. In chronological order one of the ones which really stood out to me was in 2009 Samuele Marcora’s study on mental fatigue and physical performance. He had people do a Stoop task, basically a computer based cognitive task for 90 minutes and the control group just watched a documentary and then they did a cycling time to exhaustion test. Right from the start the people who had done something mentally fatiguing had a higher perception of effort, it stayed higher and they reached exhaustion earlier so that was pretty interesting and people have been talking about the brain forever, but that was a good example of something which effected only the brain, it wasn’t physically tiring and yet it had a very immediate. In 2013 there was a study from Brazil on Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation which had an immediate impact on perception of effort and also on performance and that was to me another watershed demonstration of that you can manipulate the brain in a way that should have no effect on other parts of the body and that can change your endurance. And the third that made me confident that the brain was really was not just a placebo effect was another Samuele Marcora study where he did subliminal images, unconscious visual cues and I know that is a field where people have doubts about the replicability of studies, but he found subliminal images of smiling faces increased endurance by 12% compared to frowning faces and the cyclists weren’t aware of the intervention. They didn’t know there were faces were being flashed again so in theory really it was placebo proofed.

Was there a mental training technique or a piece of technology that wowed you when researching?

Brain stimulation really wowed me, but I have a lot of misgivings about its use. From a safety perspective it feels a little odd particularly if it becomes widespread you have young people using it with still developing brains. And maybe using it day after day. So, I have misgiving from what is the purpose and mean of sport, what is the point of pressing a button to get faster. I think it is cool and I understand the argument of Halo to tap into the strength in your body but personally I would rather see sport develop in a direction that doesn’t involve zapping your brain.

From the other perspective after spending a decade covering and writing and researching science of endurance if I had a time machine to go back and give my 20-year-old self advice to maximise my running career what I would probably tell myself is take techniques like motivational self-talk seriously. Don’t laugh them off. We had a sport psychologist for my university team and we just through it was a joke and again people have used motivational self talk for decades but the studies by people like Marcora and others have done in the last few years helped to convince sceptics like me that this is real and not just a placebo effect. The one that really stood out for me was Stephen Chung’s study in heat chambers where he found that motivational self-talk not just improved endurance but allowed the cyclists to push their core temperature half a degree higher because it really is allowing them to dig deeper into their physiological reserve. That is my number one take away and I think it is a widely applicable one for athletes but also to keep in mind in life in general.

The results in studies are impressive and I can remember from my competitive days that my internal monologue was not positive in a lot of cases and that probably had an impact on my performance.

If, now you have done all the research for the book, you could design a study to clarify your thoughts on what limits us, what would you test?

I haven’t thought about that but I guess in the book I lay out the different theories; the general governor, Marcora’s psychobiological model, and the more traditional physiological models and a lot of that is probably skewed towards Marcora’s work because he is such a good experimentalist. A lot of people have theories and good ideas and he is a master at testing those ideas and I think that’s a really powerful role and if I had some research money to spend I would want to try to replicate rigorously some of Marcora’s results. Independently. Like the subliminal one. The self-talk one, the brain endurance training one because I think these results are a lot more revolutionary than he maybe get credit for they are potentially game changing experiment but I have a lot of trouble saying you should do this about any of them with the problems of replication in studies like this are challenging so all these studies have to be considered tentative until they start being replicated, in studies of more than 8 people and last a long time and are done by people who don’t have a stake in the confirmation of the theory. No matter how good a human you are and how good a scientist you are that it is very hard to design an experiment where the results are totally immune from your hopes and your expectations. Particularly in psychology.

Are there three things would you advise a cyclist to do from a mental perspective to improve their performance now you have done all this research?

Self talk is top of the list. It is important to learn to consider pain and to reframe what discomfort and pain. To be able to consider pain non-judgmentally, non-emotionally. To consider pain as information. There was a study from Oxford Brookes last year which compared two training programmes one of which was moderate pace and longer and one of which was high intensity intervals and they were designed to create the same physiological changes and the same improvement in VO2 max lactate threshold and the people who did the high intensity training they had a greater increase in pain tolerance and also a greater increase in top speed performance. From a cycling perspective often the emphasis is on long rides and maybe some hills now and then but including some real sprints even if your races are several hours long there is a role for including some acute discomfort in your training to learn to cope with it. Yes, you will also increase your power but even if racing at a steady pace you should be including some discomfort in training through high intensity work.

Could any of the techniques you covered in the book; mental resilience training, Halo, VR headsets etc be considered doping?

I guess my take is cheating is breaking the rules because it is impossible to, even with the WADA code is 2 of 3 with it enhances the performance of the athletes, damages the health of the athlete or dilutes the spirit of the sport and the spirit of the sport is difficult to articulate as everyone has different feelings about it so it is really hard to make arguments based on natural law that one thing is wrong; that baking soda is right and caffeine is right but pseudo-ephedrine is a wrong. But ultimately my take is that we have to understand that there is no line that is obvious of what is right and wrong and there is always going to be a grey area and what we have to do is agree on a set of rules accepting that the rules will be semi-arbitrary and then adhere to those rules so we are all playing on the same playing field – knowing that this is allowed and this isn’t. And if you adhere to those rules it maybe a little unsavoury if you are going right up to the edge of the rules whether it is Team Sky or Alberto Salazar seem to do but the rules are the rules are the rules and if you are not breaking the rules then that is fine. The bigger question is what should the rules be? For me, looking at things like brain stimulation I would like to live in a sporting world where brain stimulation isn’t a part of that. Where I don’t feel that if I want to be competitive with my peers that I need to be doing things like that because they are going to be doing things like that but I don’t think it is the only way.

What technique or technology did you find most valuable to access hidden reserves, that can pull little bit extra out of somebody?

Self-talk and brain stimulation are the two things that seemed most powerful to me. With Marcora’s brain endurance training, I have heard rumours that there is an unnamed pro cycling team that have been trying that approach but it is only rumours. That is something that has produced some great results in studies and a PhD student at Birmingham has just replicated the results so this is something that again could be a powerful technique but having tried the Brain Endurance Training my take is that it is so hard and boring there is nothing elicit about getting gains that way. Anyone that does that they have worked for the gains, it isn’t a short cut or anything. If you are a top cyclist it is your body that is unable to take any more than the five hours of training you put it through but you still have another hour in the day so you can push your brain if you want but I don’t envy the people who are taking that route.