Monday, June 2, 2008

I can see Paradise by the dashboard lights

OK, I have to admit it, the title for today’s post is a little cryptic, even by my standards, the result of one of those long rides where one thought leads to another, then another and, kind of like Chinese whispers, the final thought winds up pretty far removed from where it all began, actually, with a Meatloaf song title :-). So let me explain….

I’ve never been much of a fan of blind faith. If any of my Sunday School teachers are reading this (highly unlikely :-) I’m sure they would concur. Gordo recently posted a discussion on the top 5 questions that we ask ourselves as triathletes. One of the big common questions was “how good can I be?” In a sport that demands the sort of time commitment that triathlon does, the answer to this question can be a (if not THE) big determining factor on whether we make the decision to continue exploring our potential or if we decide that we’ll never make it, “no matter what we do” after a disappointing race result. It is scary to me, as a coach, how fickle many very good athletes’ motivation really is. Make no mistake, if you want to swing your belief pendulum over to the side of genetic determinism, there will be no shortage of references for you to find that will back up your belief. Sometimes when I am reading studies that take this stance, I ask myself if the sports scientist authoring the study was a victim of his own self-fulfilling prophecy. Let me explain.....

Many folks wind up in sports science undergrad programs because of a passion for their own sporting pursuits. For the more ‘academically gifted’ (note the inverted commas!!), a cross-roads will eventually be reached in which the student is forced to make the decision to dedicate themselves to academia (masters, doctorate etc etc) or to continue to pursue their passion in the practice of athletics. It is not a huge leap for the (slightly jaded) PhD candidate to start to look for justifications for the decision that they have made. As one of the few sports scientists who took the other, more bumpy, much less green :-), fork in the road, I am in the unique position to have the background to tell you THE secret – there is no research out there that unequivocally proves that your potential as an athlete is genetically determined. None. Nada. There are short term studies that look at the relative plateau of one element of fitness over a short period of time and come to this conclusion. But there is also the “real life” evidence of (the majority?) of world class athletes who have improved their performance over the course of a decade or more. Science has a hard time explaining why, other than putting it down to a wide range of individual ‘trainability’. To be frank, if you ask a sports scientist “how good can I be?”, the only honest answer he/she can give you is “You’ll have to try and find out”.

However, as I said before, blind faith isn’t really my thing. While, I am by nature an “all in” kind of gambler, I’m not the kind of guy that would invest my life savings in a particular stock, never take the time to look at how it’s trending, and just hope it matures to $10,000,000 within the next decade. Yet, this metaphor exactly describes the way that many athletes approach their pursuit of the sport. Never getting any worthwhile feedback as to how their investment of time is doing. Just hoping that it will work out. Also, never taking the time to systematically investigate other investment options that may return a higher yield. When one fails to embrace this long term view of “how they are doing”, it can be very easy to become swayed by short term feedback. Personal example – Triple T. It would be very easy for me to ascribe my mid-pack performance at the Triple T race to a lack of genetic potential, if I wasn’t keeping the bigger picture in mind. So, what is the “bigger picture”?

One of my buddies/clients, Ryan Novak coined the term “dashboard” for the Excel charts that I generate to track our key performance indicators. I like this term, by keeping our eyes on the ‘dashboard’, we adopt an appropriate speed, we don’t run out of gas, and with the new GPS systems, we even make sure that we stay on the roads that will ultimately lead us to our destination.

An example of one of the “gauges” from my dashboard is shown below (my bike fitness vs. intensity breakdown over the past 17 months).

This chart is the synthesis of A LOT of data points over the course of the previous year. The trend is obvious. While the performance curve is one of diminishing returns, if we play it out to a decade or more, if the trend continues, it places me at a fitness index of ~1.9, equivalent to 270W at my IM heart rate in another 8 years (at age 40). Of course, there are no guarantees here. Like any forecasting, many things could happen between now and then that change the end result. However, now at least it is a calculated risk, one that I can make a conscious, informed decision on whether it is worth taking. It may seem crazy to make the decision to commit the next decade of my life to a result that is by no means guaranteed. However, in my mind, the true ‘reward’ is in making that commitment to spending my 30’s living with a conscious purpose rather than just whittling away my time unconsciously before waking up on my 40th birthday screaming “what have I done with the first half of my life?”. That’s not for me.

Of course, by keeping an eye on my investment, if things start heading South, I can also make a conscious, informed decision to pull the plug (unlikely), or at the very least, I can make the decision that my current strategy is not giving me the return on my time investment that I deserve and try something else (more likely).

What are you basing your training decisions on?

Train smart.

Note: My Part II on case studies of improvements in fat oxidation will be up next week. I got pumped up by this idea and wanted to post the 'dashboard' blog first.

1 comment:

BRFOOT said...

This ties in nicely with a discussion Keven Purcell has going on about potential.