Friday, November 20, 2009

Right Effort

A young boy traveled across Japan to the school of a famous Martial artist. When he arrived at the Dojo he was given an audience by the Master.
"What do you wish from me?" the Master asked.
"I wish to be your student and become the finest Karate-ka in the land," the boy replied "How long must I study?"
"Ten years at least" answered the Master
"Ten years is a long time," said the boy. "What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?"
"Twenty years" replied the Master
"Twenty years!" "What if I practice day and night with all my effort?" the boy said
"Thirty years," was the Masters reply
"How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?" the boy asked.
"The answer is clear. When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the way."
~ Text from: Zen and the Martial Arts (1979 edition)
by Joe Hyams

I was re-reading Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do the other day and I came across his interpretation of Buddhism’s eight fold path:

- Right Views
- Right Purpose
- Right Speed
- Right Conduct
- Right Vocation
- Right Effort
- Right awareness
- Right concentration

His interpretation of Right Effort as;

“the therapy must go forward at the ‘staying speed’, the critical velocity that can be sustained”

struck me as both profound and incredibly applicable to athletics.

As a coach, I find a large part of my job is continually bringing the athlete’s focus back from ‘the goal’ to ‘the way’. As the proverb above suggests, the fundamental limiter to an athlete achieving their goal in the shortest possible time is, paradoxically, a focus on achieving the goal in the shortest possible time.

It may be of some surprise that Rob DeCastella, one of the most successful marathoners of all time credits his success to his willingness to ‘undertrain’. That is, to be certain that all training is at or below his ‘absorption threshold’. Deek goes on to state that “while there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of runners around the country who could keep up with him on any given training run, there are none that can keep up with him for a years worth of training runs and that is the difference”

I have seen similar things in my own experiences training with some of the sports best. At one of our early season camps in Tucson, I was riding hard with Gordo, JD and a couple of other campers. Using every inch of my focus to purely hold the wheel in front, I didn’t notice when Jonas Colting made the executive decision to turn around, as the effort was too much for this training day. Focused as I was on hanging on for dear life, I think I had too much lactate in the bloodstream to have been physically capable of considering that option. Maybe I should have. After getting myself into a pretty deep hole following that camp, I wound up crashing my bike and never really regaining my mojo for my A race of the season after putting out several ‘A efforts’ on training days like this one. Jonas on the other hand…

Similarly, in his book, ‘Breakthrough Triathlon Training’, Brad Kearns describes one of the times that he had the privilege of training with Mark Allen on one of the competitive group runs around Rancho Santa Fe. He was amazed to watch Mark trot in several minutes behind the quasi-racing pack. He says “Mark had an intuitive sense not to ‘mix it up’ that morning. Furthermore, he didn’t seem troubled or distressed by missing the big, intense, macho battle at the front of the pack.”

Brad goes on to say that, in his opinion, “The misuse of mental toughness may be a contributing factor to the mediocrity epidemic in our sport. Applying mental will and stubborn toughness to workouts that are intuitively wrong will fatigue you and sabotage your fitness”.

The ability and willingness to train like this comes from knowing your body and from having complete confidence in your training program.

As Franz Stampfl once said “training is principally an act of faith”. When one doesn’t have complete faith in the program, the temptation is always there to ‘test it out’.

Consider the level of faith required for Lasse Viren to spend 4 years running slower than he ever had & routinely getting beaten in smaller meets all so he would be able to unleash on the one day in those 4 years that mattered – the Olympic final.

The point of all of these anecdotes is that the ‘right effort’ in order to progress as fast as your potential will allow in day to day training is (perhaps paradoxically) never 100% effort. When training with others who are willing and chomping at the bit to give 100% effort, this then becomes a spiritual task as much as a physical one, a task to abandon the ego and reaffirm your faith in your own training process on a daily basis.

This is an essential spiritual stepping stone on the path to discovering your true potential as an athlete and, perhaps, as a human being.

Train Smart,



KP said...

LOVE this blog. Had to slow down when reading it to be sure I could absorb it all. Like a strong ride or run!

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks KP!

Kudos from you always means a lot to me.

Loking forward to catching up in Tucson.



Cici said...

I read over this twice and am going to do so again soon! really really good post. thanks :)

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks for the kind words, Cici.

Glad it struck a chord.



Cusetri said...


I really enjoyed this post. Great writing, and is was inspiring.


Alan Couzens said...

Thanks CV,

As I get deeper into my mid-life crisis there will be more stuff like this to come :-)



Alan Couzens said...

Thanks Mike.

All the best for a great 2010 racing season!



kmags said...

Great blog AC.

Alan Couzens said...

Is that you, Dr. Karl?

Thanks for the kind words.

Hope the IM bug is gnawing at you again for 2010 (?) :-)



Ryan D said...


Loved this post man! It was rather timely with my latest post (if you care to read).

Sven Barnes said...


Good read man. Is there a certain brand/type of portable lactate analyzer you recommend? I am in the market. Merry Christmas and all.

Sam, Australia.

Alan Couzens said...

Thanks Sam.

I'd recommend the lactate pro. I've had the most consistent results with it and it seems to be the most reliable based on the studies I've read.



Avery said...

Great post. I posted it on ST, and not to my surpise, no one commented. Could it be that the majority of Triathletes are of the mindset that the young boy possesed. "If I train x hrs more then I will get better faster!"I think so. Keep them coming!

On a side note: I bought Brad Kearns book last night, really looking forward to reading it.

rappstar said...

I think you gloss over the OTHER primary point of the parable - that the young student goes to study from a master, thereby subjecting his own sense of what is right to someone else. You can bet your ass that there are plenty of days where the master would tell that young grasshopper to bust his ass even when his body said "that doesn't feel right..." For every example you give of an athlete deciding that a given pace is too hard for a given day and they are correct, there are equally as many cases where an athlete will feel that a given effort is too hard and they are incorrect. Sometimes the right effort is that nose-at-the-front lung-searing battery-acid-in-the-veins pace that feels very, very wrong at the time.

In your post about Jonas turning around, the correct place for the italicized emphasis should have been on the word "this" instead of the word "training." I.e., it was wrong for THIS training day, not that it was wrong for this TRAINING day.

The classic criticism of American endurance athletes is that (paraphrasing) "fast days are too slow and slow days are too fast." There is no one right effort. And I think what you write alludes to the fact that the right pace is often slower than what you expect. While that is sometimes the case, plenty of folks could also deal with a strong dose of HTFU, even when their body says otherwise.

Alan Couzens said...

Hey Jordan,

Thanks for the counterpoint.

To an extent, I agree. It brings to mind a quote (can't remember who first said it, but it's a goodie)..

"Push your limits infrequently, but when you do, push them HARD."

Pushing limits has to be as close to the essence of athletics as you can get.

However, it's the nature of the limits that is equally important both to performance and, for mine, to spiritual development.

HTFU (at least in the age grouper sense) is often cited by the type of athlete who busts out periodic eye popping sessions (bred mainly from the frustration that they don't have more time to train) and then sits on their couch/office chair boasting/whining for the next couple of days while they heal up and get ready for the next time that they are 'able' to train.

While, in my opinion, the truly 'hard' are the ones who organize their lives toward a purpose and are at it day after day. The effort (in all spheres) that enables them to do this, that's the 'right' effort.

Thanks again for the dialogue.

All the best for a great 2010 season!