Monday, August 11, 2008

The Grey Zone

“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


Paul Fleuren said...

Nice post again Alan,

I can relate to this 'Grey zone' you speak of. I have been a fringe dweller in terms of qualifying for hawaii now for a couple of years and decided it was time to go the distance in terms of volume.

I decided to train, volume wise, with the goal of benchmarking 2 x IM's PW. That is, at least 8km of swimming, 360km of riding and 84kms or running.

This would amount to around 22hrs PW. Just do this and do it consistently week in week out will be my next goal. Once I'm backing these weeks up and then backing them up into months, so that they become routine, I will then slowly increase the amount of time I spend in thr steady zone (-5bpm, Aet, +5bpm).

I'm still working towards this goal and I have been able to do it successfully with the swim and bike noe over the past 12months but, the run will take much longer. Consequently my last IM (Germany) reflects this with a 58min swim and 5:16 bike at an av hr 10 bpm lower then my previous 2 IM's before. Unfortunately, due to a long term running injury, that I'm still trying to sort out, I have never been able to build up to what I think will put me into the right zone, ie 84km PW of running.
Once I'm there I'm sure that my run splits will greatly improve just like my swim and bike split have done.


Alan Couzens said...

Hey Paul,

Thanks for the comment and the kind words.

Sounds like you have a good long term plan in the works.

Couldn't agree more that those 50mi run weeks are gold!!



GZ said...


Well written post. I have come to enjoy your blog work - as it is thoughtful, articulate and resonates pretty deeply.

This post is no different.

This is a concept I have thought about quite a bit. It often puts in the forefront of my mind decisions I have made on how my life looks. Do I train more or am I a Dad? Do I get in that extra running session on a Sunday afternoon when it is snowing and windy or do I do fold laundry to help with the family? Do I work at the office a bit more to get ahead a bit or do I go do a weight workout?

I often don't like the black and white outcomes of the answers ... and hence, live in a gray zone quite a bit. Part of the joy of the journey for me is that it reveals the outcomes of my choices and highlights those choices for what they are.

Keep up the great writing.

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks GZ,

While not a Dad (or much help around the house, for that matter :-) I totally hear what you're saying.

For folks in your position, the most encouraging advice that I can give isn't really from me, but some of the athletes that I coach. It really is amazing what some folks can fit into a day with an assertive mindset and meticulous organization.

The most successful athletes I know are also some of the most successful businessmen and, at least from my perspective, very good exemplary, inspirational fathers.

With 100% communication, discipline and focus, these guys prove it can be done.

Thanks for the kind words.


TimmyK said...


Brilliant post.

Really got me thinking and it perhaps couldn't have come at a better time.


mat jude said...

Alan great post, and a timely one for me regarding motivation.

As a dedicated man of science I value both your knowledgeable opinion and your grounding in reality.

I was wanting to know where my athletic future is headed or more specifically where will I get my biggest bang for my gentic buck.

I'm 30 years old, 176cm, 80kg (more like 75kg when fit),muscular build, so not genitically gifted for (ultra) endurance events

As a junior I was a fair sprinter on the track with a pb of 10.77 and 22.00 in the 100m and 200m respectively.

Not bad but not enough to make the grade, injury also took it's toll from the ballastic nature of the training I was doing.

More recently I found triatlon, loved the adventure it provides, the unknown if you will.

Since then 10x sprint, 2x olympic and 1x half IM over 4 years, all on minimal sporadic trainng. I am a BOP'er at best!

I enjoy triathlon and the lifestyle it offers but was wondering if I would be more competitive at another sport?

My training volume very low <10hr pw and I find I get injured a lot. I did have IM dreams.

I am torn betweem trying to be competitve at something and seeing out my ironman dream.

Can you help? any suggestions?

Alan Couzens said...


The good news: Genetically, you are in a much better position being a fast twitch guy who wants to go further than a slow twitch guy who wants to go faster.

At the elite level bodyweight does matter, though not to the extent most assume. Witness Aih-Alar Juhansen for evidence on that front.

On a practical front, it is likely that coming from a speed background that your internal 'speedometer' is off. Get a heart rate monitor and obey it, regardless of how easy that means you have to go in the beginning.

Injuries and inconsistency provide a good clue that you are going to hard. Slow down and enjoy the ride!

It will be a long journey transforming yourself from a dedicated fast-twitcher to a quasi slow twitcher. However if Ironman is where your passion lies, you will be surprised by the degree of transformation that is possible given sufficient time.

Best regards,


TimG said...

Good post Alan.

Funnily enough I found a huge amount of relief in acknowledging (to myself) that I had moved from a completer from a competitor. Hopefully I am only visiting!

As a completer I have found the time to focus on the little things that you tend to miss at higher volume (like core work...)

Alan Couzens said...


Good point.

Just because an athlete has extra time is not an excuse to be any less time efficient than your typical working athlete.

In the long run it is important to NEVER sacrifice your training quality for extra quantity. Both should build off of the other.

This is the topic of my next blog.

Best regards,