What makes a good coach? Part 3

Coaching, Triathlon, Competition, Ironman

Coaching sports like running and triathlon: a league of its own.

Back in March (of 2014), my wife and I attended a triathlon expo at MIT. (It had nothing to do with MIT; it just happened to be held at their sports facilities. MIT has a very nice pool, by the way.)

We were there mostly to buy some equipment and supplies in preparation for the season. But we had a couple of nice surprises once we got there: first, we got to meet one of the original ironman finishers; second, we got to listen to Siri Lindley give a talk about coaching. (Well, she spent a lot of time talking about her career as an elite short-course triathlete, but the part about how she got there, and how she herself was coached, was informative.)

For those of you who don’t know her, Siri is coach to Mirinda Carfrae, the current Ironman World Champion (she’s been the champ three times so far) and championship course record holder among women.

So this post is really about coaching adults in the context of sports like running and triathlon, and, more specifically, the coaching of fairly serious athletes (or “intense” athletes, because if not elite athletes, you have to be intensely into training in order to pay for the services of a coach). Combined with the previous post on my personal experience, and the one about coaching in general, it is the background material I’ll need to conclude the series in Part 4.

Now, I have to admit that I’m no groupie of elite athletes or their coaches. I prefer to do, instead of watching or reading about them. We were not at the event in order to listen to Siri. We just thought: “We’re here, and we have a bit of time, so let’s sit down.”

It was time well spent, nevertheless, not just because it confirmed many of my own conclusions about what makes a good coach, and what makes a good athlete. I’ll list those attributes later, but for now, allow me to give a few key notes from her presentation.

Focusing

Siri only coaches a few athletes. I seem to recall she said 12, but it definitely was something between 10 and 15.

This makes sense at such an elite level as top Ironman competitors, since the pros and elites need specialized coaching, and are willing (or able) to pay for it.

The point, however, is not how much Siri gets paid by her athletes, but what she emphasized: She feels that only with so few athletes can she really provide good coaching.

It stands to reason that the more athletes one has to coach, the less time and attention can be given to each. That’s why joining a club is an excellent way to find a bit of support and coaching advice, but you get less personal attention that way.

For truly personal attention, you need to be one of few athletes being coached. Beware of coaches who work for a team or club and also coach more than a handful of athletes: You may be getting cookie-cutter advice and training programs that masquerades as individualized coaching.

Customization

Because she only coaches a few athletes, Siri is able to customize the training regimen of each so as to maximize the effect of the training. Or is it the other way around?

One thing is certain: She does provide very specific attention to each of her athletes; they each have their own season plan, and training session plans, and every plan in between.

This is key because, although the training principles are the same, and the general physiology is the same for all humans, no two persons react entirely the same to training on a daily basis. This is due in part to small differences in biology and in large part to previous training, current state of being, and psychology. That is normal.

Similarly, Siri does not treat all of her athletes the same, either during training or competition. To my surprise, she admitted acting almost like a cheerleader to some, while to others she is the quiet and wise adviser, and to others she can even be the forceful (not to say harsh) boss telling them to get their acts together.

This is squarely in the psychology realm: We are all different in terms of what we need to get, or keep us, in the correct frame of mind to perform. Elite athletes are no different (and perhaps even more sensitive and insecure at times, because of the added pressure of making a living out of sports).

The key point: no two individuals need exactly the same thing at the same time. So personal attention is mandatory for good coaching.

Knowledge

Siri was a top competitor in Olympic distance triathlon. She got there through some good coaching, but also through a lot of grit and determination.

However, there is no need to have been a top athlete to be a good coach. That’s a truth that’s often hard to believe by those who have never really been coached before. But it is true.

What is less obvious to most wannabe triathletes is that, unlike most top triathletes, even those who later make a living out of coaching, not all great athletes make good coaches. Only a few really pick up the fundamentals of coaching, and understand more than what works for them. Because what works for you is likely not what works for others. And a good coach knows enough to adapt to what each athlete needs.

What should a coach know?

In triathlon, it gets tricky, because of the three sports. A good triathlon coach must know enough about the bio-mechanics of swimming, cycling, and running. That’s in order to be able to work on form, not just intensity, in all the three sports while making sure to prevent injury (as much as humanly possible). Ideally, a good coach is able to bring about the necessary changes to technique and form to optimize performance.

But a good triathlon coach must also know about how those three sports are put together in triathlon, and how the body reacts to going from one to the other, and then on to the other.

That means having some first-hand experience in the sport is a good thing. Perhaps necessary. But being a top competitor is not. It can even be a detriment, as I think it is for fitness instructors and personal coaches, because of the “hey, it worked for me, so it will work for you as well” factor. (Or the “look at me, I was a champion, so I must know what I’m doing” factor. In either case, it is a fallacy.)

Also, understanding the physiology, psychology, and science behind training is mandatory. Too many coaches simply push their athletes to the breaking point, under the old philosophy of “no pain, no gain”. For some athletes, this leads to breakthroughs. For most, it leads to breakdowns. That old notion is now dismissed; there are much better ways to train.

The coach has to know when to push, and when to hold back an athlete. And with pros, elites, and would-be top competitors, the holding back part is often more critical. And difficult.

Planning

Finally, a good coach, much like Siri indicated, must be able to understand where his or her athletes are at, and where they aim to get, and plan a reasonable path from one to the other.

That’s precisely how Siri started working with Mirinda Carfrae, according to the talk she gave back in March. Although Siri had not done iron distance races herself, she was able to understand what physiological changes would be needed, and to chart a course to make them happen. And with an athlete like Mirinda Carfrae, who was hardly new to the sport, that was a pretty tall order.

Which of course begs the question:

What about athletes?

Being a good coach is only part of the equation. The athletes also have to do their share of the work. And with all the training and intensity, that part is of course the hardest.

But there is one aspect in which coaching for running and triathlon, and coaching in general, differ a great deal: Pros and elites (and triathlon freaks) are highly motivated, so they don’t need to be coaxed into doing the workouts. More often than not, they have to be calmed down, and forced to take rest. Not at all like the majority of folks trying to get into better shape in order to be healthy, who have to be convinced off the couch.

So a coach to such athletes does not need to cajole them into showing up at training, or find ways to keep them interested in the sport. But they should also not burn them out, or make them hate training.

On their side of things, athletes who want a running or triathlon coach and are serious about it must do one thing to deserve their coaches: Listen.

By this I mean to fully engage themselves into the process, and follow their coaches’ advice. Not argue, not go looking for second opinions, not say “I know what I need”.

Perhaps that holds true for any kind of athlete, and any kind of sport. But let’s leave that for the next, and final, post on what makes a good coach…

Picture from Pixabay.

Couples that exercise together…

Training, Exercising, Couples

…stay together.

We’ve all heard the rumours about marriages being destroyed by Ironman(TM) training. I’m sure there is some truth to them, considering the kind of commitment such pursuits demand, even though my personal experience cannot be blamed on that.

What I have witnessed first hand, however, is how difficult relationships can be when one partner exercises a lot and the other one doesn’t at all. That has certainly lead to divorce. Let’s face it, such differences in lifestyle and outlook on health are hard to reconcile, although not impossible.

What is less obvious is that even if two life partners do exercise regularly, even intensely, training together as a couple can still put a lot of strain on the relationship.

Yet there are few greater joys in life than being able to train as a couple. I am convinced it makes for a stronger relationship. So let me provide a few tips, based on my own experience and anecdotal evidence, on how to overcome the main pitfalls of exercising with your significant other.

Pitfall 1: One of the two is a lot faster than the other.

This is typically the case with running and cycling, and never applies to yoga (about which there is still a pitfall). Let’s face it, very few couples are evenly matched when it comes to speed.

But you can always do your long training sessions together, at the slower person’s speed. Yes, this is good for the faster person, too. Actually, the faster person might develop more endurance than previously enjoyed. Try it.

You can’t do tempo work as a speed-mismatched couple, but intervals are great opportunities. I’m a big fan of running slow together, then going fast for a while and coming back together during recovery. For additional kicks, go slow together, then fast for a time at the slower person’s fast speed, and then separately for a time at the faster person’s fast speed while the slower just jogs along. Then join again for recovery at a slow speed. Call it “interval ladders”; it’s very intense, especially if you do long intervals.

The pool is also a good place to train together, but careful of the slippery slope to yoga-like situations…

Pitfall 2: One of the two does a lot more exercise/training than the other.

This is where understanding is key. Understanding on the part of the person training less: a large amount of exercise often fulfills a need for personal achievement that has nothing to do with the couple. But also understanding on the part of the person training more: you still need to pull your weight around the house, buddy, even if you are tired. And you need to take your partner out on a date once in a while, even if it is beyond your bed time!

As I said, the key is understanding.

Pitfall 3: Both want to do an Ironman.

Exercise, Couples

Find things you can do together.

This one is more about sharing. Imagine you are both keeners, and intense on the training. You already have a great advantage in that you are sharing a commitment to a sport and philosophy of life. Perhaps you can both do the same event; I’ve seen folks get engaged at the finish lines of some races. Good for you!

But perhaps you need a different kind of sharing. For instance, while you can talk about the feelings of the preparation and racing, it is important that you let each other feel things differently as well, to each have a personal experience. Furthermore, the needs of each athlete, especially for such long events, are different, so one size does not fit all, and you each need some alone training.

So, by all means, do train together for long runs and long bike rides (see Pitfall 1), but also train on your own, because you need it. I strongly recommend the “alternate years” approach whereby each of you takes turn doing an Ironman. This also helps with Pitfall 2, and becomes mandatory with Pitfall 4.

Pitfall 4: Children

This is all about sharing. Sharing the load, sharing the responsibility, sharing the lack of sleep when the kids are young. But it is also about sharing your passion for exercise with the kids.

Nowadays, there are so many good strollers and buggies you can take the kids in while out on a run or bike ride. Careful with swimming though. But the point is: get equipped, and share!

However, you’ll likely need to tone it down; go for shorter outings, not go as fast, etc. And perhaps get a less competitive bike on which you can install the additional gear. But it is all worth it. And you could probably use a bit of a break from being an endurance nut.

The best advice here is: enjoy it! They grow up so fast. And then, use the “alternate year” approach and even the “alternate days” to give each other a break from chores by going out on your own for a more intense session. Or just a nap.

Pitfall 5: Bitching

It is bound to happen at some point: when the going gets tough, the toughs get going, but sometimes there is bitching involved as well.

This is where communication is key. The bitching part of the couple must remember to say that the bitching is not directed at the significant other, and the significant other must not respond too much; simply nod and otherwise show compassion. It helps to sprinkle some “I love you” in there as well. For instance, while running or cycling (not applicable to swimming, somehow):
“I really hate this f$&@ing rain. Are we there yet? And I love you!”

To which the other replies, carefully:
“I know how you feel, and I love you too.” (After a pause, smiling gently.) “It is all the fault of the meteorologists, but it could happen during the race we are training for. And I love you!”

In case you have not caught on yet, always use “and” before “I love you.” Trust me. And deflecting responsibility does not hurt, either.

This, by the way, is also valid advice for traffic jams and standing in a crowd for last-minute X-mas shopping. Always find a way to blame meteorologists; they are used to it.

Pitfall 6: Yoga

This is probably the most dangerous pitfall of them all. The way it typically goes is: one person is into yoga, the other is into endurance sports. And then you try to meet somewhere in the middle.

While yoga is good for you as an endurance nut, and yoga nuts could use more cardio in their lives, there is a big problem that is bound to lead to arguments: the outfits. In particular, people striking all sorts of interesting poses and sweating in skimpy outfits. One of the two is bound to stare a little too much, and/or make a comment, and then the next thing you know you are having an argument.

It is not worth it. Just stay away. Let the person doing yoga have yoga, and the endurance nut have endurance.

Pitfall 7: Snooze and Snuggle

This is the most tricky, in my experience. You are so comfortable in bed that getting up and training becomes difficult. So you snooze and snuggle together. And don’t train as much as you are supposed to.

Keep in mind that recovery is important when you train hard. But you still need to get up and train. Thus the conflict.

I have no solution for this one, so if you do, I’d like to hear from you…

 

Recovery, Exercise, Training, Couples

Down time is also needed.

Pictures from Pixabay.

Defenders – Part 2

Ironman, Health, Fitness, Defender, Racing

Racing is a little like war. The swim part of an Ironman is definitely like Naval Battle…

Since posting the first part on this topic, I received a lot of comments.

Some, because they came from people I care deeply about, I feel I must address before going ahead with the discussion.

(OK, the comments I’m going to address came from my wife, but she is right, as usual.)

So imagine again, if you will, the third scene from Part 1, but in a slightly less gory way:

At an ironman distance triathlon, a whole bunch of participants push so hard that for the most part they collapse upon reaching the finish line. Only a few, having not quite given it their all, still manage to remain functional, walking around and re-hydrating, speeding up their recovery through some (very light) stretching and eating.

Then catastrophe hits: A tsunami is announced, and everyone must evacuate immediately!

But guess what? It’s everyone for himself or herself! Only those who are still functional can escape and survive. Those who collapsed at the end, those who abused their bodies too much during the race, are swept away by the wave, never to be found again.

Only those who survive can show up the next day to claim their spots during the roll-down for the World Championship…

Still perhaps not the most realistic scenario, but now we’re getting to the point I’m trying to make.

Racing to the point of collapse, of total exertion, of no longer having the resources to continue acting for yourself after the finish, is a bad idea. For many reasons.

First, it causes serious damage to your body. This is what some are really talking about when they point out that running marathons or doing triathlon causes the equivalent of 20 years of physiological damage. It is not the training regularly, which we all pretty much agree is in fact good for your health, that is causing the damage: it is the abuse of racing “all out”. (And sometimes of training too hard all the time.)

And even though a fit runner or triathlete will recover, some of the effects of the racing linger. Accumulate over time. So your body ages by 20 years in a few hours, then over days it becomes younger again, but never by quite the same amount. That is why elite racers never last very long in those sports, with a few exceptions. Going all out takes its toll on your body.

Second, it means you need a lot more time to recover after a race. Some might say that is fair, since after all you performed a “great feat”, obtained a personal best, etc. Something to be proud of, to be sure. But that recovery time means you cannot go about your normal activities for a while. It means you lack fitness, in the biological sense.

And during that time your body is more prone to infections. Again, while we all pretty much agree that regular exercise helps the immune system, being exhausted in fact depresses immune functions. For a while. It is commonly known among triathletes that you are most likely to get sick right after your “A” races, when you’ve pushed the hardest of the season.

And those are just the two main, physiological reasons. Racing all out, it could also be argued, frequently makes jerks out of people. But that is perhaps a different topic, best left for some other post…

So what is the alternative?

It is what I call racing like a Defender.

A Defender knows that more may be demanded of him (or her) later, so training and racing are intense but never all out, never to exhaustion.

Just like their namesakes of Antiquity and Medieval times, Defenders aims to protect what is precious to them. In the past it would have been the lives of their families; in racing, it is their own health. So the pretend fighting that racing in a way represents is done in such a way as to promote fitness, not take it away.

Conversely, someone who goes all out all the time can be thought of as an Aggressor, or an Invader. These are often fanatical in their drive to win, to conquer. And fanaticism is pretty much the opposite of having a well-balanced view of the world. It is not a peaceful, healthy way of living.

In the final analysis, and this is my racing philosophy, when you cross that finish line you can consider that you have beaten all of those who collapsed, needed medical attention, or are generally not able to function normally after a race. If you can still fight, figuratively speaking, when you are done, then you have prevailed over those who cannot (still figuratively; I do not condone any kind of violence, during or after competitions).

Even if the official rankings don’t reflect this philosophy, you can take pride in your achievement.

Think like a Defender, and consider what you could still have done after the race. Consider how you could still have outrun the tsunami (with proper warning, of course).

Racing is not about how well you rank compared to others. It is a motivational device, to keep you focused.

What really matters is your health.

Defender, Health, Fitness, Racing

Could you still run away if your life depended on it?

Photos by Pixabay.

Defenders – Part 1

Battle, Defenders, Antiquity

Are you ready to fight?

Imagine the scene:

The time is Antiquity (think Ancient Rome or Greece), or perhaps the medieval Dark Ages. The place is a fortified City-State.

One sunny afternoon, an invading army shows up and attacks the city. The king of the city-state calls upon his soldiers to man the fortifications and defend the inhabitants against a fate possibly worse than death…

“But, Sire,” the King’s General replies, “our soldiers had a big training exercise this morning, and they are too tired to fight now. This battle was not scheduled, so I’m afraid we must ask for a postponement, or surrender the city.”

Somehow, I don’t think that answer would go down well with the King…

(It stands to reason that if your job is to defend a city, or uphold the law, or put out fires, you must be in good shape. You must strive for fitness. But you must also always be ready to do what must be done; training so hard that you are then incapacitated for a time is not a good strategy.)

Ok, here’s another scene, for your continuing imagination:

Similar time, similar situation, but now the invading army has been spotted ahead of time, and the King decides to dispatch his troops to a specific location where they will have a tactical advantage over the advancing enemy.

“Grab your weapons and make haste, men!” yells the King. The General and his troops leave in earnest, running as fast as they can to reach the location that will give them the desired advantage.

But they run so fast that, when they get there, they are so tired that they all collapse in a heap, and get massacred by the invaders.

(It is a little known, but historical fact, that armies in antiquity ran to battle, and had to arrive ready and capable to fight. Especially if you are trying to gain an advantage in the field, there is no point in exhausting yourself before the battle even begins. You must be fit enough to get there and fight; you must pace yourself and make sure you have the strength to defend your home and family…)

Why am I telling you to imagine these scenes?

Because I want to talk about Weekend Warriors, and a particular philosophy of racing.

But before I do, imagine a third (and final, for now) scene, taking place much closer to us in time:

Some guy is racing in an Ironman triathlon and is doing fairly; there are lots of folks ahead of him, but many more behind. He is not going as fast as he could, however; at any rate, he is not racing so hard as to get to the finish line completely exhausted.

As he finishes, all around him other finishers also arrive; most collapse from fatigue. When they don’t collapse, they at least require a lot of attention and must rest a great deal of time before being able to move on and rejoin their families. They’ve given it their all, so to speak.

The guy who did not collapse upon finishing tears off a leg from a table, or grabs a folding chair, and proceeds to beat up (and kill) all the other finishers that arrived before him.

Having thus eliminated his competition, the guy can claim a spot for the World Championship during the roll-down the next day…

(So, not a very realistic scene, and perhaps some of the organizers would manage to stop him before the rampage gets too bloody. And the guy would probably get arrested and also not be able to show up at the roll-down. But there’s a point to this, and here it is:)

In conclusion to Part 1, perhaps collapsing, or in general requiring assistance when you reach the finish line of a race, is not the best survival strategy. Not only can it do serious damage to your body, it all likelihood it will preclude you from going about your normal activities for a while.

Perhaps, as I’ll try to argue in Part 2, it is better to act more like a Defender when racing, and in life in general.

 

Photo by Pixabay.

A Primer on No-brainer Fitness: E

Movement, Daily

Time to get moving!

In case you were wondering about it, or are generally interested in moving more, this is a kind of “Origin Story” for No-brainer Fitness: E (a.k.a. Everyday).

As the E page indicates, No-brainer Fitness: E is a kind of service to help you put more movement, more exercise, and better food (and less NOT FOOD) into your daily life.

It is not like signing up for a gym membership, a fitness cult, er, I mean class, or turning up at exercise bootcamps multiple times per week. It is a highly individual commitment to doing the simplest thing (though not necessarily the easiest) of moving more, by making it a habit.

As such, it is something all of us can benefit from, no matter what your current level of activity might be.

Some perspective

What is the idea behind this daily service?

It came through the realization that, while I enjoy racing triathlons and marathons, true fitness is something that should happen on a daily basis.

Towards the end of an Ironman(TM) race a few years back, I realized the silliness of what we (some 2,700 of us that day in Lake Placid) were doing.

More to the point, I realized how, while a great deal of fun and very demanding, our accomplishment of completing a long course triathlon would have seemed much less to our great-grandparents. Particularly those used to 12+ hour days of tilling fields, cutting down trees, harvesting, and performing a wide range of physical activities on a daily basis.

Going back even further, our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to keep moving to find their food, run to hunt (not to mention avoid being eaten themselves), and generally carried everything they owned on them without the benefit of cars (or modern backpacks, for that matter).

This is not to put on a pedestal that way of living of days gone by. It is simply a realization that nowadays we take great pride in being able to do certain things that, while challenging, would not have seemed so outlandish to our ancestors. (Except perhaps in the gear needed, and choice of venues.)

Let’s face it, modern life is a lot more pleasant. But in becoming “modern”, we’ve lost a key aspect of our animal nature: quasi-constant movement. We’ve also lost perspective on what it takes for us to be healthy: quasi-constant movement, and real food.

Back to now

In an effort to regain some of that perspective, there is a growing movement to be more active, and it leads a lot of people to endurance sports and “fitness training”. And to a large extent, to obsession about getting fit.

But it is often with the wrong focus: to look a certain way, to perform at a certain level, to lose weight…

What we should be focusing on is movement on a daily basis. What we should obsess about is doing some on a daily basis, never staying put for too long at a stretch. What we should remind ourselves is that skipping one workout is not the end of the world, as long as we keep on moving regularly.

The rest will follow, in time.

That’s why Everyday No-brainer Fitness is a service designed to provide advice and reminders to keep moving on a daily basis.

It is what brings it all together: the exercise, the diet, the lifestyle. The E stands for “everyday”, but it could just as well stand for “everything”.  And now it also stands for “explained”.

All it takes is a desire to get started, and a friendly helper to guide you along…

I’m not saying it is easy, but it is simple. It is definitely a no-brainer. And the beauty of it is that you can get some help to get you started, and keep you going.

So that’s it.

If this sounds interesting, if you are ready to sign-up or need some more information, turn to No-brainer Fitness: E, and fill the form at the bottom.

 

Photo from Pixabay.

Aim to be an Everyday Athlete

The timing for this blog could hardly be better, what with the Olympic Games in full swing…

For a while now, I had been meaning to write about a principle I firmly believe in:

We should all aim to be athletes.

But a particular kind of athlete: an Everyday Athlete!

This idea is an important part of why I created No-brainer Fitness, and why I started blogging about fitness. Simply put: every single one of us has the potential to be very active everyday. This is biological fact, due to our animal nature. We’ve just forgotten it.

To be sure, most of us cannot hope to achieve the levels of performance of the men and women currently competing in Sochi. Or of top Ironman finishers and elite marathoners. Or to become as muscular as Arnie in his prime.

Yet despite radically different amounts of training and undeniable differences in base talent and potential between, say, an Olympian and the next person you meet on the street, in fact we all have tremendous potential for physical activity. The differences are big enough to justify having only a small minority of “athletes” and a large population of “spectators”.

If all of us were more active, we would surely uncover a lot more exceptional athletes, and thus have even more exciting sporting events. But that’s not the intention. Instead, we should all be more active in general, seek more opportunities to move (walk, run, bike, swim, push stuff, pull stuff, lift stuff, throw stuff, you get the idea, just be careful where or at whom you throw stuff…); basically, spend less time watching, and more time doing.

I have seen enough couch potatoes become runners and triathletes already in my short career as a running and triathlon coach to confirm this to be the truth. I already felt it in my bones; I am now completely, positively, absolutely certain of it.

As evidence, I offer the immense popularity of running races, cycling events, and triathlons. Participation in marathons has never been more popular, and it has become a sport in its own right to register for most Ironman races because of the demand (many races sell out in an hour, a year before the actual race is scheduled to take place).

Some of the runners at the 2013 ING New York Marathon

Some of the runners at the 2013 ING New York Marathon

Don’t for a moment imagine that all those runners and triathletes are elite competitors. The vast majority of those participants are NOT trying to win. They are doing it for themselves. More and more people are realizing that “competing” in such events is really more about improving their own fitness level, being more healthy, and going beyond their perceived limits. (Also, you get cool t-shirts and finishers’ medals, but I digress.)

Yet their achievements are showing the way forward, and are worthy of praise. At those races, typically, there are no prouder finishers than those who finish last, because they have typically come a really long way to get there.

I am not saying everyone should run marathons. By all means, run if you like to run! More importantly, and to the point: do what activities you enjoy, frequently.  In general, use your body as much as possible every day. Because that’s what your body needs, and deserves.

An Everyday Athlete is a person who thinks of his or her body as the body of an athlete, and gives it what an athlete’s body needs: a lot of physical activity, good food, good rest, repeated every day…

So aim higher, faster, longer, because ’tis the season for it, and instead of watching the games, aim to be an Everyday Athlete.

Photo by Sacha Veillette (taken at the 2013 ING New York Marathon)