Discipline: The 5 Practices – Practice 4

Discipline, Training, Exercise

Starting is easy. Following the plan the whole way, that’s another matter entirely.

Discipline Practice 4 is the simplest of them all, but perhaps the most difficult to do.

Imagine a simple analogy:

You are planning a road trip to go see New York city. Three days before the date you had set, you decide not to wait, and leave immediately. You pack the car in a hurry, and forget to bring the camping gear you were hoping to use to save on motel rooms. Half-way to New York, you see a signpost for Philadelphia, and figure you have enough time, so you’ll go there as well. You spend a large amount of money on a hotel room you find very late at night because you’ve driven too far and are by then exhausted and can’t drive any farther.

The next morning you drive around Philly a bit and finally head towards New York. You get there to realize the main thing you wanted to see, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is closed, opening again only two days later (which would have been fine had you gotten to New York on the expected date). Having few other options, and to make yourself feel a bit better, you once again splurge on an expensive hotel, and the next morning drive back home, where you end up disappointed about your trip because you did not see what you really wanted to see, and spent way too much money…

I can’t put it any plainer than this:

Stick to the plan.

Yes, this one is really called “stick to the plan.”

This holds as much for training as for racing, though it is perhaps more noticeable in the latter case.

Whether you are training with the help of a coach or by yourself, you must have a plan for reaching better fitness. It can be a simple plan, like what No-brainer Fitness is recommending (moving more, on a daily basis), or it can be a detailed training regimen to reach some particular goal (like participating in an Ironman triathlon). No matter. A plan is a plan. Everybody makes them.

You don’t need to be a project manager to understand the proper way to plan for something.

  • Step 1: First, you figure what your objectives are, and where you currently are with respect to those objectives. This allows you to figure-out what is missing, and thus what needs to be done.
  • Step 2: Then you make a detailed, phased approach, a Plan, for bridging the gap.
  • Step 3: Next, you execute the Plan. You do what was planned, step by step, day by day.
  • Step 4: Finally, after the conclusion of the Plan (your fitness event, race, or simply the end of the season of activities), you review the results, and assess whether anything needs to be done better next time.

Because there is always a next time: another season, another event, another goal.

The same holds true for a race plan, but in much more condensed form. You have a goal, there is a starting line; you race, following an established plan, and then you cross the finish line. Whether you cross it after the expected amount of time depends in large part on your training, but also on how well you followed the plan for the race itself.

But here’s what almost invariably happens: at some point, perhaps on many occasions during the execution of the plan, you diverge from what the plan said.

This could be during a training session in which you decide to do something different (typically, more, or simply completely different training), or during a preparatory event, when you decide you feel really good and will go full out instead of keeping the planned pace. Or during the race, where you go too fast, too soon, because you are really excited and think you can do better than planned.

You’ve gone through Step 1 and Step 2, but then you don’t follow Step 3 properly, often leading to a lesser result than hoped for. And when you get to Step 4, lots of reasons can be found to explain what happened (a.k.a. excuses), but seldom do you recall that Step 3 was not followed properly. And you may even blame the Plan itself, or the coach, when in fact it was your Step 3 that was the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for having some flexibility with respect to following plans. In particular when listening to your body clamoring for rest, or having to deal with unexpected conditions like the weather or unforeseen family obligations.

And perhaps the Plan was not a good one, or not good enough.

But here’s the thing: If you don’t follow the Plan as closely as possible, you cannot claim that it is not a Good Plan. And you don’t really know how to make it any better.

In training and exercising just like in life in general, we’re supposed to keep learning. Or at least avoid making the same mistakes more than twice (see how much leeway I give us?). The planning process is there to facilitate that learning.

But the only way it works is if you have the discipline to stick to the plan.

Picture from Pixabay.

Theoretically speaking…

Exercise Theory, Training, Fitness, Coaching, Sports Science

A little theory has never hurt anyone. Unless you drop a big book on your foot and break something…

Because a bit of theory never hurt anyone, and because about a year ago I promised I would do so, this post is about the principles underlying training methods aimed at increasing physical fitness.

Because that theory is well understood, and very simple, this will be a short post.

Because simply saying “you train hard, and you get better” is not enough, this post won’t be that short.

A bit of biology

No matter how complex, or simple, an organism, biologically we all are the same in that we interact with our environment to find our sustenance and proliferate. (By the way, even a single-celled bacterium’s complexity should not be under-estimated. But that’s another discussion altogether.)

A large proportion of those interactions can be summarized by a simple cause and effect relationship:

Stimulus ——> Response

Even if the initial action was a movement by the biological entity, the resulting stimulus of the environment on the biological entity will cause a response. For instance, you move your hand to seize a cup on the table; at a touch (stimulus), you feel the scalding heat of coffee therein, and withdraw your hand (response).

Another example: You are sitting quietly in a cafeteria when an alarm rings loudly (stimulus); you immediately get up and leave (response).

Now, often, as the examples above show, the response is one of fight or flight or avoidance. Much like if you start exercising vigorously and find it difficult, the response to the discomfort might very well be to cease the exertion. But sometimes the stimulus is a pleasant one, like sweet food (or sweet NOT FOOD), and the response then becomes to eat more of it.

There is always a response to the stimulus.

However, there is an extension to the simple cause and effect relationship when it comes to biological systems (i.e. living beings). This comes about when the stimulus is provided repeatedly:

Stimulus (repeatedly) ——> Response (each time) ——> Adaptation

Basically, when a biological system is subjected to a stimulus often enough, not only does it respond in the short term, but it can also modify itself (its behaviour, its own sub-systems) so as to be able to change the short-term response and even deal with the stimulus.

That, as you may be able to guess, is the basis for the Training Principle.

(Admittedly, human beings have big brains that allow us to speed up adaptation, and even predict stimuli we don’t particularly care for. However, how effective we are at doing that is still subject to debate. Revisiting the example of the fire alarm in the cafeteria, if your response is to stay put because there have often been false alarms, then your adaptation to the stimulus could end up costing you your life. But I digress.)

The Training Principle

Simply stated (in my own words):

Subject the body to a specific physical stressor (stimulus) repeatedly and provide sufficient recovery time from the ensuing fatigue (response) to allow it to become stronger (adapt) in dealing with that specific stressor.

That is how all exercise regimens and training programs function.

The trick, the real job of coaches, is to vary the correct details. Because the body will adapt to the stimulus it is subjected to, and only to that stimulus.

That is why you will not gain much muscle mass by doing endurance training; that is why doing a lot of weight lifting (a.k.a. body building) will do almost nothing for your cardio-vascular capacity; and why doing always short bursts of intense activity may gain you some muscle mass and power, but will not make you burn much fat because that energy system is barely used in that kind of activity (you’d need to do longer, less intense activity for effective fat burning).

Moreover, note the potential pitfall in the principle: The body adapts to the stimulus provided. Which ultimately means that the body will not change beyond a certain adaptation if the stimulus remains the same.

That is why simply jogging 30 minutes per day will only get you so far in improving your fitness. To get even better fitness, you need to vary the stimulus once the body has adapted to it, or a little before that.

Sport scientists often use the acronym FIT to describe how the stimulus can be varied:

  • Frequency: How often one trains or exercises.
  • Intensity: At what intensities.
  • Time: Or duration of each training session.

Some even add a second T (making it FITT) by including Type, because different types of exercises also make a difference. For instance, doing core work, which is strength training, is now recognized as a way to improve running performance. But it was not the case until a few years ago.

I like FITT. That’s what coaches work with. That’s what is fun about coaching: Finding the correct mix of FITT for each person to get them to increase their fitness as fast, and as safely, as possible.

But it all starts with subjecting your body to the right stimulus. Or stimuli. Like getting up and moving.

The nice thing is that one of the ways in which your body will adapt, past the initial response of finding it hard, is to ask for more. You just have to use your big brain to deal with the temporary discomfort, and then you’ll be on your way to better fitness…

In a future post, and hopefully not in a year’s time, I’ll describe the many ways in which the body adapts to exercise. That’s also fascinating, and goes a long way in explaining why better fitness leads to increased odds of being healthy for a long time.

Picture from Pixabay.

Injuries – A causation guide (of sort)

Injury, Movement, Training, Exercise, Triathlon

Move, move a lot, but make sure you don’t end up injured this year.

To start off the new calendar year, I thought I’d touch lightly on a very serious topic.

So this post will have a very serious component, and a more humorous one. (You’ll have to guess which is which. I’ll make it easy.)

Anyone talking about training, exercise, and racing of any king, has to talk about injuries. I’m a triathlete, and a triathlon coach, so of course I know about the topic, and I cover it with the athletes I coach.

When talking about this topic, we have to first share an understanding that injuries can, and do, occur. That comes with the territory of training. There’s no denying it. (Anyone who does, is selling you something, and most likely lying.)

Indeed, injuries (or pain perceived as injury by a newbie to exercise) is the primary cause for quitting an exercise regimen or training program. It seems a reasonable thing to conclude: If movement is what caused someone to get injured, then stopping to move is the solution. (That seems to be the reasoning of many General Practitioners of the medical profession, to the frustration of many coaches, including me.)

But not moving is, overall, worse for your health than moving.

As a matter of fact, the best way to prevent injuries is to move more, not less, but to do so in a reasonable way. By reasonable I mean by using the correct techniques, and doing only as much as is necessary to stress your body into getting into better shape (once it has sufficiently recovered).

The Main Culprit

Let’s face it, athletes are often their own worst enemy: overuse (over-training) is the primary cause of injury in athletes. And that’s why you should have a coach, and, equally importantly, why you should listen to him or her!

Preventing injuries that can occur through intense training (and over-training) is obviously priority #1 of any coach. And that is achieved through well-balanced programs that include strength training and sufficient rest.

And constant reminders to athletes to take their rest days.

Once injured, the best approach is not to stop all activity, but rather to take some rest (complete rest at first, then some other activities can be recommended by a competent physiotherapist or even by the coach). Interestingly, that’s frequently how people get started into doing triathlon; through having to do other sports than the one in which the injury occurred.

A single-sport approach to training increases the risk of getting hurt, so triathletes have a slight advantage in injury prevention.

However, triathlon also has a bunch of other types of injuries you can fall prey to, so you have to keep them in mind, and be careful. If, in running, injuries typically come to feet, ankles, knees and hips from bad training (bad form, too many impacts, running too fast, too often, too long), in triathlon the same thing can happen, but to more parts of the body (shoulders, back, etc.). So you need to work on more parts of the body to fix an injured triathlete.

And in some cases you also need a mechanic…

The Other Causes

So, to balance this post, here are the main causes of injuries for triathletes, from the least likely to the most common, and tongue a little in cheek:

10) Drowning. Very, very, very unlikely.  Recovery is usually impossible. Near-drowning is another matter and can lead to the encounter of interesting people, but is not recommended as a potential dating strategy due to its risky nature.

9) Getting beaten during the swim (kicks, fists, etc.). It can hurt a lot, and even cause mild injuries, but usually one recovers pretty quickly, and completes the race. The injury can last for a while, from bruises to muscle cramps, and can have some long-term effects (fear of swimming in a crowd, which is just a little less scary than being naked in a crowd).

8) Getting hit by a car when running. Results can be very dire, so be very careful, because recovery can take a long time. Unlikely to happen, but it does.

7) Getting hit by a car when riding. Results can be very dire, so be very careful, because recovery can take a long time. Unlikely to happen, but it does.

6) Missing a turn while riding. Particularly when the road is slippery, but the main cause is usually going too fast on a road that is not well known. So “pilot error” is a factor. Consequences range from scrapes and bruises to broken bones. Recovery (and returning confidence) vary accordingly.

5) Getting hit by a cyclist when running. Hitting a runner or a cyclist while riding. Recovery depends on how fast and how heavy the hit… and any subsequent altercation between the runner and cyclist.

4) Colliding with another swimmer in the pool. Either through carelessness on your part, or because the other swimmer is a nincompoop. Again, recovery depends on how hard the hit and the ensuing argument, but is usually fairly short.

3) Swallowing lots of water while swimming; can lead to serious gastrointestinal (GI) problems, especially if the water is salted or chlorinated. Recovery usually comes shortly after vomiting.

2) Over-training (a.k.a. abusing your own body); doing too much, too fast, too long, in all three sports.  Rest, and a consultation with your coach (or a psychologist) typically helps… We’re talking fasciatis, tendinitis, stress fractures, etc., and things that typically happen to runners’ legs, but in our case can also happen to shoulders (swimming) and the back (cycling). Some cases require extensive leave from the sport, so never underestimate the risk of wanting to do more, or obsessing about racing.

1) Falling on your side, from your bike, while trying to un-clip your shoe at a stop sign or light. You can get bruised (hip and arm) or even break something (wrist, arm, collar bone). But most of the time the damage is limited to the ego, and recovery can be very fast if you just laugh it off. But this is by far the most common cause of injury for a triathlete, so un-clip soon, and often.

As you can see, the main causes are mostly accidents.  You have to remain tuned onto your body, but also and particularly aware of your surroundings at all times, during races and training sessions.

And that’s a lesson that valid all the time. The more mindful you are, the more attuned to your body and surrounding, the safer you will be. And the more healthy you’ll be.

Have a great year of moving a lot!

Fitness, Injury, Triathlon, Movement, Rest

Just because it is still early in 2015. Have a great year of fitness!

Pictures from Pixabay.

Sometimes, you just gotta take some time off

Rest, Sickness, Exercise

Sometimes you just gotta rest…

I have a confession to make:

Although I’ve completed an iron-distance triathlon, a couple of half iron distance races, and 3 or 4 marathons (beyond the one of the annual Ironman(TM) race I participate in) every year for the last 7 years, and you could say I’m in pretty good shape (for my age), sometimes I take time off.

In fact this year I’ve taken quite a bit of time off for various good reasons. There was minor (but cumbersomely placed) surgery in the spring and a lot of traveling throughout the year (not to mention a stress fracture in my left foot during a marathon). But one of those reasons is why I’m taking some time off right now: I’m sick.

Exercising regularly and being careful what I eat, my health has never been better. This I know objectively, as well as through the way I’m feeling. But I’m still exposed to a lot of bacteria and viruses just by remaining minimally social, using a lot of public transit, and living with a healthcare professional (who happens to be exposed to a lot of stuff at the hospital).

So once in a while I get sick.

Not often, mind you, and, because my immune system is in great shape, it never lasts very long. I take a couple of days of complete rest from training, even going as far as spending most of that time in bed, and in no time I’m up and about doing my regular activities again.

Some folks might try to convince you that by training hard, or eating particular foods, or consuming a specific supplement, you will never get sick. That’s utter nonsense! Such people are trying to sell you something. They are also either lying through their (cavity-free, no doubt) teeth, or at least suffer from some sort of selective memory syndrome.

The simple truth is that, unless you live completely isolated from all other human beings, everyone gets sick once in a while.

However, what is well demonstrated in the medical literature and backed by a lot of athletes at all levels is that exercising regularly, even training hard (but without over-training), strengthens your immune system. Combined with taking good rest when you are sick, and continuing to eat well, you will heal faster and recover from the little bout of whatever ails you if you exercise regularly.

The key is to move a lot, on a daily basis, and rest well when you get sick. No great secret, no magic bullet. Just working with your body.

This being said, I’m going back to bed. If my cats will give me a bit of space on it…

Picture from Pixabay, and not of one of my cats (but of the same species)

What makes a good coach – Part 4 (End)

Coach, coaching, sports, training, exercise

What makes a good coach? Lots, it turns out…

So, what makes a good coach?

If you have read part 1, 2, and 3, on this topic, your patience is about to be rewarded. No more discussions, no more illustrations, no more stories. Just my take on the question.

(But rest assured, there will be more stories later. There are always more stories later.)

Here are the qualities and attributes that make a coach truly good, based on my years of experience on both sides of the question. They are not in order of importance; I consider all of them equally important, but I had to organize the list, somehow. Consider that the earlier attributes in the list are, in some cases, prerequisites for the later ones…

The List

Athletes come first
A good coach puts the interests and health of the athletes before his or her own. So it should no longer be acceptable to put athletes through a meat grinder to extract a few star performers if you end up burning out the vast majority of hopefuls. And the converse is true: It must be acceptable that some athletes want to have a great time doing sports, but not necessarily aim to go to the Olympics.

Knowledge
A good coach is very knowledgeable in the sport(s) being coached, both the overall aspects (rules, tactics, etc.) as well as the techniques that are considered optimal for athletes to use in performing the sport.

Teaching
A good coach is able to teach the sport and its techniques to athletes. This goes beyond demonstrating the correct techniques: It is about being able to understand in what ways the athlete is not succeeding, and finding ways to gradually bring about changes in the athlete’s technique.

Customization
A good coach can adapt to the level of athletes, providing customized instruction and training programs that are suited to their own needs, instead of pushing a standard program onto everyone. You might say this goes hand in hand with teaching, and you would not be wrong; however, some aspects of this can exist where no proper teaching is found.

Planning
A good coach is also able to adapt the training so as to make progression fun and not seem like hard work. Basically, being able to plan individual training sessions so that athletes enjoy them even as they learn, and planning those sessions so that they fit neatly into an overall development plan. Especially for younger athletes or kids beginning in a sport, but I strongly suspect this approach would have significant success with adults who try to maintain a resolution to exercise more.

Role Model
A good coach exemplifies fair play and sportsmanship, and insists on it, no matter what, by being respectful of the rules, those who are in charge of enforcing them, and other athletes involved in the sport. Name calling at referees and treating opponents like enemies are not acceptable, ever.

Constructive
A good coach congratulates and motivates in a constructive way while sparingly using negative feedback. Basically, a good coach should only need to smile to show appreciation, but doesn’t, and frown to show displeasure, and does never more than that.

That’s it

This is a tall order. In some ways, almost impossible to find; at any rate, very demanding of the coach to perform all the time.

I feel that is why many coaches choose to focus on a type of coaching that does not require all of those attributes: By coaching highly committed adults, those I might qualify as passionate to the point of being obsessive about a sport, it is possible to get by with deep knowledge of the sport and techniques, and forget the rest. But that works only as long as the athletes are self-driven, and don’t particularly care about their own long-term health.

The key thing, when you are an adult interested in picking up a sport like running or triathlon (or any other, really), is that you should seek a coach that suits you. I encourage you to use the above list as a reference, but your own needs come first.

If you are a parent, you should look for the listed qualities in your kids’ coaches, and act accordingly. If you are considering coaching kids, your own and/or others, you should really keep the above in mind, and pick-up the knowledge and habits you’ll need. And keep your own emotions, and ambitions, in check.

And if all you are interested in is joining a group to have fun with a cheerleader-coach, then by all means, do so. The important thing is to move more. Yet I encourage you to ask for more, and expect more, of yourself as well as of others…

A few more words

A lot of what I wrote has to do with personality, at least on the surface of it. It is true that some personalities are ill-suited to be coaches, just like some athletes are impossible to coach. But it is not just about personality: It is about a fundamental attitude that coaches need to have.

No matter what their own ambitions and motivations, good coaches act in such a way as to show those qualities. They understand that the needs of the athletes are more important, and that if they do a good job as coaches, the rest will follow: good athletes, good performance, opportunities to coach at a higher level maybe, etc.

Knowledge, it must be noted, can be acquired in many different ways. No need to have a degree in sport physiology, or to have been an elite athlete.

Teaching is by far the least obvious part in the list. It takes skills, and time. And patience. But coaching is too important, because of its potential impact on athletes, to be given any less.

Finally, if you can’t be a good role model, if you don’t show respect to others as a coach, what kind of athletes will you have?

Have I forgotten anything? Let me know what you think…

Picture from Pixabay