Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)
"You may have the best laid out training plan yet still fail to get the results you are after, for the very simple reason that you are alive, complex, and affected by a great many variables that you cannot possibly account for—from moon phases to the health of your cat."
- Pavel Tsatsouline (Russian Strength Guru)
This past week I tweeted about a great book that I’m reading at the moment by strength coach (and legend in the world of strength sports), Dan John. The title of the book is “Never Let Go” This is another book that highlights just how similar athletes and, to an extent, training principles are across sports. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. Anyhow, on to the topic of this post....
Dan makes a great point in the book about the relationship between conditioning and performance in different sports. He presents a theoretical continuum from sports with a near perfect correlation between strength in the weight room and performance on the field, e.g. powerlifting at one end, and sports where the relationship is a little more tenuous on the far end, e.g. football. That is to say, that while it’s hard to argue that being stronger would be a negative in the game of football, having the physically strongest team is no guarantee of success. Tactics, skills, psychology along with a little plain old luck, all get tossed in the pot with physical conditioning to determine the ultimate winner on any given Sunday.
While the above is a generally accepted fact in the world of team sports, I’m not so sure that in the endurance sports world of individualism & ‘out working’ the competition it is as readily accepted. Accepted or not, it is a fact that, particularly in Ironman racing, it’s not always the fittest athlete who wins.
I’m in a better position than most to attest to this. I religiously watch the benchmarks and fitness numbers of the athletes that I coach over the course of their season. I’d be lying if I said that I don’t get excited when I see the athlete reach life best fitness numbers. However, every additional year that I spend as a full time coach, this excitement becomes a little more tempered, because every year, without fail, I have an athlete or 2 who don’t manifest the promise of their training numbers on ‘game day’.
The reality is that, just like football, basketball, soccer etc, while being the fittest guy on the start line is a good starting point in Ironman triathlon, it is no guarantee of success. Pacing, psychology, nutrition, climate & luck can all conspire to make a very fit athlete a mid packer on ‘any given Sunday’ To make the deal even a little more sour than it is in the team sports, the coach can’t deliver the post game pep talk of ‘we’ll get em next week’. Nope, the best the Iron coach can do is ‘we’ll get ‘em next year’! Perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising then that for many folks the thought of not getting what they ‘deserve’ from a year or mores worth of training is too much to bear. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me but it does!
Truth is that the very appeal of this sport to me is that it’s really hard to pull off ‘the perfect race’. It’s the same sort of appeal that I suspect draws folks to Everest. You can do all of the right preparation, hone your skills, climb every smaller peak that you can muster but the reality is that there are no guarantees come ‘the day’. Perhaps it will happen, perhaps it won’t but for the truly committed (addicted?) fundamentally, it doesn’t matter. A failed attempt will only heighten the challenge and strengthen their resolve. To me, Ironman triathlon, like climbing Everest, isn’t a sport for the ‘dabbler’, it’s a quest!
Perhaps this mindset is a surprise to those of you who see me as a ‘numbers guy’, as an input output guy and it’s true, I get a lot of fun out of controlling the controllable. I get a lot of fun out of saying that if you do this and do that then I can predict with the highest level of mathematical certainty that your performance on race day will be X:XX and I’ve little doubt that if I took these skills back to a sport like pool swimming, my reputation as a prophet would be bolstered :-) However, I stick with triathlon precisely because of the level of uncertainty, because of the number of factors that need to come together to create the perfect race. I stick with triathlon because I can’t think of a sport that offers a more challenging quest to both coach and athlete. If I’m coaching you, I hope you do too.
Train Smart (and with passion),