Self-preservation is one of those survival instincts which has seen us evolve into the primary form of life on this planet. It is in our best interests to ensure that we are not harmed or in pain. But when that need to protect ourselves becomes a limiting factor in training, people plateau or stop seeing the results that they are hoping for. I see it all the time. People I know whether they are triathletes or just people trying to stay fit who train a good amount of hours a week but are either unable to lose weight or are not able to race faster. I am sure that there are a whole number of possible reasons for some of these people being unable to meet their own goals. But today I want to talk about how people tend to avoid working on those things which they perceive to be their weakness and the fact that many people are unwilling to suffer. Both of these traits are things that I have been and sometimes am guilty of. I am writing about them this week because I am trying to overcome some of them myself. I am thinking of this post a bit like I am kicking myself in the backside to get on with it.
When we perceive something as a weakness it is often something we are not good at. In triathlon it could be one of the three disciplines. For me, I always thought that swimming was my weakness. I know I can ride a bike well and have always had an overinflated sense of speed when running. Swimming however was something I was no good at. Not only that, when I swam I felt useless. I could literally feel that I was barely moving in the water. So I convinced myself that the swim was something that I just had to survive. Once I got out of the water I would be able to bike and run and I could do those with my eyes closed. So how did I go about training? I would ride my bike and run nearly every day. I would jump in the pool maybe once a month. Unlike people from around the world, I grew up in Australia. This means that I have known how to swim since I was about 4 years old. Swimming is part of our life. While there is a perception that all Australians are great swimmers the truth is we are all capable. Not all fast. But I had been an ok swimmer in my younger years. I never really trained or anything. I was even crowned the Age Champion at my primary school swimming carnival. What this meant was I never really thought I needed to put any serious work into my swim. My first triathlon required me to swim 1.5km. In the lead up to the event I think the furthest I swam was about 1000 metres. I can swim, she'll be right... I hope. Well I had to swim the majority of the race breastroke. It didn't end there either. 2 years later I was still swimming the majority of the 1.5km breastroke. Why? Because it was easy. It didn't hurt and I was unwilling to work on my weakness.
It is funny to contrast swimming to say bike riding for me. When I am on a bike and I feel that lactate in my legs there is part of me that absolutely loves it. When it really starts to hurt I start smiling sometimes and it makes me dig even deeper. Weird right? I assure you I am not some kinky bloke who likes to be beaten while chained up to the wall. There is no need for a safe word in my house! But on the bike I am more than happy to suffer. In the pool I was not. When I reflect on my introduction to the sport, apart from wishing I managed to lose a heap of weight before it, I regret not working more on my swim. My swim has become arguably my strongest leg now (when I can swim in a straight line). While I still do not love swimming and have to force myself into the pool somedays, I have acknowledged how important it is for me to work on my weaknesses. As I said, it is probably my strongest leg now. Well not right now. I swam a 1km time trial last night and felt like I was drowning but that hardly suits the story I am trying to tell. Now when I see myself as a triathlete I realise that it is no longer the swim that requires the most work. Instead it is the run. I am writing this and I am hoping that in 12 months time I will be writing another post about working on my weakness and I may even be saying that the bike is my weakness. What is important though is I am now objectively able to identify that I have weaknesses and instead of avoiding them, I tackle them head on.
It isn't easy to work on your weaknesses either. For me to lift my swimming I swim at least 3 times a week. I have had a serious shoulder injury which saw me out of the pool for nearly 2 months. I have copped jellyfish and bee stings while swimming (YES a bloody bee stung me in the pool!) and my hair seems to permanently be the same consistency as dry grass. Not only that, but I have accepted the suffering that is required to improve. I know that if I want to get better at something it isn't going to be easy.
Nice little segway I did there right! But it is true, suffering is important if you want to improve at anything. As always I want to emphasise that I am not talking about pushing yourself beyond your limit or to the point of injury. I am also completely opposed to people who go out and bury themselves every session. That leads to only one place, injury. Instead what I am talking about is pushing yourself a little beyond what you are capable of. The perfect way to think about this is running. Running is hard on the body. It hurts. If you don't have perfect technique it can lead to serious injury. But if you want to get faster you need to push yourself sometimes. While the majority of running should be slow, low heart rate running with a strong focus on technique, some of it needs to be fast. When I do a park run, which if you are unfamiliar, is a free 5 km event held all around the world on Saturday mornings, I give it everything. I finish that 5km run and simultaneously feel like collapsing and vomiting. I have the luxury of being at the front of the pack at my local park run (it isn't a very big one which is why I am at the front) but the majority of runners who finish around the same time as me are also looking particularly horrid after finishing. When some of my friends ask "how I run so fast" I say to them that I am willing to suffer.
Triathlon is maybe a sport made for people like me who are a little bit twisted in the head. But one of the best lines I ever heard, I think I got told on a MaccaX camp was that, if you can sprint the finish chute, you didn't race hard enough. Again, this is completely different if you are racing someone and the adrenalin gets you there. But how often do you see people at the finish line hit that chute and sprint? A guy I know who, like me, races 70.3 runs slow. He is not overweight, he is not unfit. He has raced multiple triathlons of all distances. Yet when I see his average pace which is around 8min/km it doesn't make sense to me. I asked him one day how it was possible for him to run so slowly. To give you perspective, my SLOW runs and I mean SLOW are about 6min/km and I am not a great runner. He told me that pace was comfortable. It literally did not compute. What did he mean comfortable? I cannot think of a race where I felt comfortable. It is hard. It is meant to be hard. I asked him, so you aren't suffering? He said no. It made me think and the more I thought about it, the more I noticed it happening. People don't like to suffer.
My darling wife Dez will be my example now and I think she probably knew this was coming. Dez always wants to go under 25 min at park run. This requires Dez to run 5min/km. Yet Dez never trains at any speed at or faster than 5min/km. I showed her some good speed sessions she could do and when I would see her on the treadmill, she would have the speed at 5:15/km... I told her to increase the speed and she told me it was hard. EXACTLY! You train hard so you race easy. That one key speed session is not meant to be comfortable. It is meant to get the body used to running, swimming or riding at the speed you want to race at. It is the same with some of the people I ride with. They are too busy talking half the time to ride. As soon as it hurts they slow down. But if you want to get better you need to make it hard. If there is a flat or hilly ride, take the hilly ride. If there is a headwind or a tail wind, roll up your sleeves, swallow some cement and ride into that headwind. By training above what you are capable of is how you will make improvements. Just be smart about it. Don't do multiple hard sessions in a day. Don't back up 3 or 4 hard days in a row. But at the same time stop making your training too easy. Make your session serve a purpose. If it is a slow recovery session then RECOVER. But maybe focus on your technique? Count your cadence, check your technique. Trust me, if you are able to focus on your technique during a hard session then you aren't going hard enough. Simply put, stop spending time training in the grey area. Most of us are time poor so make sure every session has a purpose.
For what feels like the 1000th time I am going to repeat that I am not saying that every session should be hard. What I am saying is not to make every session easy. Both play their part, but balance is required. Make the hard sessions hard. If you are able to accept this you will see progress. You will improve. It is funny for me to look back at my old data (I have data going back for years). Some of my old swim sets of 3km have an average pace of 2:10+! Today my slow sets are around 1:40 and I remember them hurting back then. I have not always been a saint with this stuff. I have been guilty of everything I am writing about. Even this afternoon I have to do an FTP test and I know it is going to hurt. I am dreading it a little bit. But once that timer starts I am confident that I will not back off when it starts to hurt. As the lactic acid builds up in my legs I will not slow down. I will dig deeper. Not because I enjoy the pain. I suffer because I enjoy the reward.
I have said it in countless interviews and articles before but I think that the single best piece of advice for beginners to any sport is to focus on your weakness. They are going to change and if you work hard enough they may turn into your strength. Just don't expect it to happen. You need to train smart. It is the single greatest reason for having a professional to help you. A good coach or trainer should know when to set hard sessions and when to set easy sessions. If you feel like you are struggling to find improvement or think you are getting injured a little too often then I suggest you reach out for help to someone. I also want to take the time to plug a friend of mine's book. Andrew Read is a trainer from Melbourne who I have an incredible amount of respect for. He wrote the book "Run Strong" which deals with running injury free and also talks about the importance of easy versus hard training. Check it out if you want to learn how to get faster SAFELY!
That's it for another week. Train hard and don't be afraid to suffer, remember to TRI!