“While there is a place for the 8 hour-a-week swimmer, the job of the coach is to sell the dream to the athletes doing 10-12 hrs a week and persuade them to commit to the 18-24 hrs a week they need to become successful, competitive athletes”
- Bill Sweetenham
This blog is a bit of a counterpoint to the G-man’s recent blog on ‘adding it up’.
Most athletes are familiar with the concept of the ‘grey zone’, that intensity band that is too hard to be able to back up day to day but to easy to elicit any of the physiological benefits that come with high intensity training. It is my suggestion, based on the experiences that I have had as a coach that a similar zone exists in relation to weekly volume. This point is alluded to by former Aussie National Swim Coach, Sweetenham in the above quote.
This whole concept is related to the larger issue of being clear on your motivation for being a triathlete.
You can achieve optimal health (perhaps more optimal than your high volume counterparts) with good nutrition and an hour of training a day. You can get yourself in sufficient shape to enjoy the experience & camaraderie that comes with participating in recreational short-course triathlons and, with a short period of long distance training, increasing your volume to 12-15hrs/wk you can even get to the point of completing an Ironman triathlon.
On the flipside, you can experience that thing that few of us ever will, the joy of winning – be it winning your age group at a local race, qualifying for Kona or even getting your pro-card and mixing it up with the big boys by simply doing what others won’t, i.e. training 20 hrs per week, 3hrs a day today, tomorrow and the next.
Or…….., you can do what the majority of the field does and live in ‘the grey zone’, where you have the negative feelings that come with feeling like life is just a perpetual transition from one set of workout clothes to a business suit and back, without the accompanying positive feelings that come with the joy of the ‘pay off’ for all of your hard efforts. Or, as Sweetenham puts it
"This amount of swimming is too much training to be fun but not enough to produce a competitive result. The swimmers in this middle ground never feel good, and in time they become frustrated. We call this the competitive swimming twilight zone."
In order to ensure that the sport satisfies its’ desired role in your life, it is important that you get clear on what that role is. Or, put another way, are you a ‘completer’ or a ‘competer’
Note: I make no judgement that one role is more worthy than the other. However, I do get a little ticked off when an athlete doing the work of a ‘completer’ adopts the expectations of a ‘competer’ (Regardless of the commitment that a 12-15hr week may ‘feel like’ in the context of the rest of the athlete's life).
Speaking from experience, like the island prison of Alcatraz, the grey zone is a fine place to visit but not a place you want to live:
I, like many of my clients, are making a brief stopover there at the moment, but we are not under the illusion that our 12-15hrs of training a week will get us anywhere close to our potential. Sure, we may complete an Ironman or 2 along the way, but for us, it is simply a means to an end, a stop-over on the road to reaching our maximal tolerable training load and consequent potential. Sweetenham calls this point “breakpoint volume”. While, I’m not sure that I totally dig the connotations that come with reaching your ‘breakpoint’ (actually, if I’m to be honest with myself, I do dig it a lot! :-). It does bring home the truth in TS Elliot’s timeless quote – “only those who risk going too far can truly know how far one can go”.
What will 15hrs a week 'get' you? 95% of your potential? Nope. 90% of your potential? Probably not (I mean we're probably talking 30mi of running a week, if you were a marathoner how close to your potential would you expect 30mi a week to get you?) In the end, 15hrs a week of training will get you one step closer to discovering your breakpoint volume. That's it. For some of us, that's enough.
While I’m in a ‘quote happy’ mood, here is another than is particularly relevant to this piece:
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, for they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
- Theodore Roosevelt