Thursday, August 13, 2009
What it Takes (Part II)
“A dream doesn’t become reality through magic. It takes sweat, determination and hard work”
- Colin Powell.
I was in the unfortunate position over the last couple of weeks to lose 2 athletes that I had been working with one-on-one over a relatively long period of time. It bothers me on a ‘gut’ level when an athlete changes coaches. Probably harkens back to my swim coaching days when it was common for the best swimmers in our squads to abandon ship when they were either ‘poached’ by one of the less ethical coaches that made up our competition or they became impatient with the amount of work that they were putting in vs the perceived lack of results that they were achieving.
So, I decided to write this piece as a bit of a ‘reality check’ for those athletes who do aspire to reach their full performance potential in the sport of triathlon. This is in no way suggesting that reaching the front of the pack or the top of your age group is the only worthwhile goal. As Molina says, “take a look around, the fountain of youth doesn’t come easy”. Staying in fantastic shape and having fun are worthy goals.
Nor is it suggesting that the MOPers are ‘slacking off’. For your first 2-3 years in the Ironman ranks, the middle of the pack is an important developmental stepping stone on your Ironman journey. However, for those folks who’ve been in the sport for a while and are thinking about taking it to the next level, I offer the following reality checks.
Reality Check #1: There is very little difference in commitment between the top of the age-groups vs the Open Elite.
The guys who are racing Kona are doing so by getting top 10 at the most competitive Ironman distance races around the world. These folks are very serious competitors that make athletics a large part of their lives. Additionally, a surprising number of them are in a financial position to live a ‘pro triathlete’ lifestyle. In actuality, perhaps the only difference between the pros and the elite AGers is that maybe they started a little later than the pro athletes or had a period of their life that was career focused that caused them to miss their absolute window of opportunity in a physical sense. But make no mistake, these athletes aren’t holding back. They are 100% committed to reaching their potential in the sport.
Reality Check #2: It still takes a long time to get good.
Baker, Cote and Deakin (2005) studied the developmental patterns of expert, mid-pack and back of the pack Ironman athletes. They found that on average there were 12,000 hours of training behind a 9:30IM performance. Developmentally, these training hours must occur before age begins to negate performance improvements, i.e. by age 40-45. So, for an athlete who begins competing in Ironman triathlon at 25-30, they have about 15 years to accrue 12,000 hours of work. This equates to an average of 800hrs/year for 15 years!! For an athlete who goes in with some single sport experience, maybe they’ll get there in 10. For an athlete with endurance experience who commits to doing nothing but train, eat and sleep, maybe they’ll get there in 5 :-). Most of us don’t have this option.
Additionally, there are intensity limits that constrain just how ‘rushed’ this development can be. In order to challenge your aerobic abilities, a bulk of your training must be above the aerobic threshold. The glycogen cost of training at this point limits most folks to 2.5-3.5hrs/day of training. In other words, if you’re going to get ‘serious’ start now.
Now, the pattern of performance improvement illustrated by Cote’s study is both interesting and potentially discouraging, see below:
By the time the average athlete gets to a 15hr IM they have 4000hrs of training under their belt (5 years of single sport @~300hrs/yr + 5 hrs of triathlon @ ~520hrs/yr). By the time they ‘graduate’ to a 12hr ‘midpack’ performance, the average athlete has 6000 hours of training in the log books (an additional 2000hrs of training over 2.7 years for a 3hr performance improvement). However, to graduate from mid-pack (12hrs) to FOP (9:30) requires an additional 6000 hours of development!! Or, put another way, an additional 6-8 years of ‘2 a days.'
This is not unusual to the single sports. In the world of swimming, for instance, a kid with realistic goals of swimming open nationals will begin 2 a days at age 13-14 and have 6 or 7 years of these under their belt before reaching their peak performances at the national or international level in their late teens to early twenties.
Of course, one big difference is that our developmental period as long course triathletes is later than it is for swimmers and this poses some significant ‘life challenges’. Despite how it feels at the time, our lives are much more ‘simple’ during our high school years. Get up, eat, go to swim practice, go to school, leave when the bell rings, go to swim practice, eat, sleep. This is much more challenging in adulthood when other responsibilities are vying for attention. Still, this does not negate the fact that this (simplicity) is the path to success and that if you really want to compete with the guys at the top of the sport, that’s how they’re living.
Perhaps the other difference is the performance expectation that comes with 2-a-day training. I remember my promotion to the “A Squad” when coming up through the swim ranks carried with it a feeling of privilege to finally be ‘swimming with the big boys’ rather than something I needed to suffer for x amount of years in order to ‘get somewhere’. A 6 year period where long periods of high volume training offer very modest improvements in performance can be hard to take if it’s all about the ‘end game’. In fact, with the non-fitness related variables involved in the Ironman game coupled with the fact that most athletes will only race 1-2x per year, it is likely that athletes will experience seasons where despite increasing training load, performance regresses. This can be tough to deal with if you’re not getting a good deal of intrinsic motivation just from ‘living the life’.
So, what does it take?
• Persistence (irrespective of bad races)
• A lifestyle that supports 6-8 years of ‘serious’ training. What is serious training? 18-24hrs/week of aerobic training (3hrs/day, 10 sessions a week, 48 weeks a year).
• A deep love of the process
That means that, to achieve ‘your best’ in triathlon, for almost a decade, you need to be willing to put other aspects of your life in maintenance mode. It is difficult to climb the corporate ladder and the AG ranks at the same time. That doesn’t mean you need to ‘drop everything’, it just means you need the type of job (and the assertiveness) that enables you to block out time for a morning and evening training session most days for the next 6-8 yrs (see Gordo’s latest blog for more on this).
It also means, as an athlete with nothing better than an 11-13hr IM to your name, you need to have the courage or the naivety to ‘back yourself’.
This is a common decision among the majority of the guys (top age-groupers and pros) that I know who have ‘made it’. My buddy, pro triathlete, Justin Daerr comes to mind. At our last camp he recounted how, as a 12hr IM guy he planned his college class schedule around the needs of his 20+ hr training week not because of his pro ambitions, or an impending Kona goal but simply because “he enjoyed riding his bike”.
Maybe in the end, the answer to ‘what it takes’ to reach the top of the sport is to not care about ‘what it takes to reach the top of the sport’. Rather, to realize that you are committed to being a lifelong triathlete and committed to the life that it entails irrespective of performances (good or bad) or life demands at any point in the journey. A commitment to a life of consistent training offers so much more than a trophy or a ticket to Kona. As a buddy of mine says, the journey is the destination.
As mentioned, I have 2 open one-on-one coaching slots available for athletes who are willing to work with me for the next 5 years or so to discover their potential in the sport (athletes in current coaching relationships need not apply – I’m no poacher :-)