Train to Maintain (an Ode to the Plateau)

Ongoing...now, and for the next sixty odd years...

Ongoing…now, and for the next sixty odd years…

I’m getting older. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still got many decades of adventuring and races left in me–thousands of kilometers yet to run, bike, paddle, swim and climb. But the full ‘weight’ of my life and all it’s glory is on my shoulders–a family including two boys, several jobs (grassroots entrepreneurship ain’t easy), and cumulative injuries. All of this makes trying to achieve greater fitness in all of the disciplines my myriad ambitions demand little more than wishful thinking.

Thankfully, this last year I’ve worked hard on letting go of the idea of ‘getting better’ at things, which is a good thing because in truth I just can’t figure out how to make it happen. Sure, I could certainly get faster in something–running or biking for example–but the only way to do this, as far as I can tell, is to sacrifice the level of general proficiency I’ve developed in something else. I’ve long said (here and elsewhere) that my ultimate goal is to be able to ‘do it all’ at as high a level as possible, even if this means being less fit in a single discipline than I would be if I focused my efforts more.

And as I’ve taken this journey, I’ve realized that very little is written about the idea of maintenance in terms of fitness. Everyone (who’s writing at least) seems focused on how to improve–to run further, bike faster, lift more. This, I think, is terrible.

Because, as I see it, if we’re doing this right–if I’m doing this right–so little of our time should be spent seeking these aims. After all, I’m not a professional athlete. I just want to be fit enough to do what I want to do. How long (really?) should it take me to get to that stage?

Based on the overwhelming sense I get from the internet, it seems like it should take forever. The message boards and forums and blog posts appearing in my feed seem to be telling me that I can always get faster, go further, and be stronger–that I should always (and can always) be improving.

It’s a lie though.

To be honest, I’ve been there–here, at my ‘peak’–for years. Now I’m not saying that I couldn’t get faster if I wanted to, or be stronger, but as I mentioned, I’ve realized that–more or less–my life is, and has been for some time, in relative balance. I’ve long since achieved a level of fitness that I’m happy with–more or less–and one that enables me to do pretty much whatever little ambitious thing I desire. It’s a great place to be.

balanceBut the growth culture is pervasive. So do we somehow feed off these ideas of improvement, feeling like we’re better people when we’re actually getting better at things? Maybe that is the catch. Nobody is writing about maintaining fitness because we are creatures who are programmed by culture to want more, no matter how much we actually have. We become satisfied by achieving our fitness goals, but that satisfaction disappears quickly, and either we slide back to a state of lesser fitness so that the same goal can be achieved (and satisfy) again, or we aim to achieve more, at greater and greater personal sacrifice, until we finally can take no more and resort back to the first option. This is fitness’s version of the Hedonic treadmill. Perhaps. I’ll admit that it was hard to let go of constant attempts to improve myself. It was hard to be o.k. with the idea that I’m not going to get 11 of those slow chins* anytime soon. Ok, maybe ever. My weekly set is just going to stay right between almost getting 10 and deciding that I wouldn’t get the 11th one even if I wanted too. And to be fair–that is a pretty good effort. I’ve similarly come to terms with my mile time trial hovering between 5:35 and 5:50. My swim times are unlikely to come down much either.

It’s probable that I will train harder and more and improve my fitness in some respects leading up to events, but this sort of improvement seeking is more pointed–it has a specific goal.

The truth is that we can’t always improve. There comes a time where the amount of effort that we put towards something in a sustainable manner reaches an equilibrium with the outcome of that effort. This is the dreaded plateau that for years I struggled to get past–along with almost everyone else according to the magazines. And a problem with most mainstream training protocols is that they aim for improvement–to avoid or climb beyond the plateau. But it can’t be avoided. And once we reach it, the programs that will lead us off of it are never really sustainable and thus are doomed to fail eventually. Yes, you can get super fit following any number of high level training programs. Super strong too. But if they don’t actually fit into your ever changing life, then eventually you will give them up. I tried to overcome this fact, trust me. I mixed things up, added volume, added weight, added supplements. It only ever works temporarily.

Thankfully, those days are over.

These days I celebrate my plateau. After all, the view from up here isn’t too shabby and I’m not always struggling to climb up higher, unless I’ve actually got somewhere higher to go.

*Done with continuous tension in the muscles using an interval timer–5 seconds on the way up, 5 seconds on the way down–without releasing tension in the muscles at the bottom or locking off at the top. Try it!

The Perks of Over (winter) Training.

Over-winter-training back in North Dakota a few years ago--a place that takes the concept to a whole other level.

Taking over-winter-training to another level in North Dakota, 2011.

I typically hate training outdoors in winter, particularly when embracing more high intensity efforts. And particularly when I’ living someplace where it actually gets cold. And since I do live somewhere where it gets cold…

Last winter, I ended up buying a rather expensive gym membership (everything is rather expensive in New Zealand) and gutted it out on treadmills, rowing machines, ellipticals and stationary bikes for five minutes at a time. It was epic. But it was still cold (apparently heat, too, is expensive–so much so that the gym membership didn’t include it).

So when winter rolled around this year I just manned up and stayed outside. Thankfully it was relatively mild and I only occasionally had to face challenging conditions like freezing rain, but it was still cold none-the-less.  Which meant that lungs burned badly, joints ached, and muscles felt sluggish as I raced along the final straight-away on my 4.5 km mountain bike time trial or rounded the last bend on my last 400 track repeat.

But I stuck with it, set reasonable expectations, and low and behold, it is suddenly spring.

Today it was 17 degrees and sunny (about 63 F for all you Americans and Brits) as I shook the legs out in preparation for my mile time trial.  I wasn’t looking forward to it.  It was desperately rushed and last minute. But on the plus side I could run shirtless for the first time since April.

I took it easy on the way out, giving myself time to get into it.  As I passed half way I still felt pretty good.  My lungs weren’t burning.  My skin didn’t sting. I hadn’t once registered an achy joint. I cruised down the finishing straight, happy that it had been relatively painless because I’d really been dreading it.  All winter the time trial was the hardest of my rotating HIIT runs.  It usually felt horrible by a minute in and I’d just hang on for the rest, wanting to dry heave at the end. And I’d always feel the rawness of stretched or dry or  broken alveoli (whatever it is that causes that awesome post HIIT cold weather burning of the lungs) with every deep breath right through until bedtime.

But this time around a combination of low expectations and higher temperatures made for a matching of my personal best, all without what felt like a personal best effort.  And that, in my opinion, is one of the unexpected perks of over (winter) training.

Practicing Suffering

Suffering, along with confidence and will, is one of the three pillars of the UltraMental Philosophy.  I’ve been thinking quite deeply about suffering lately.  Interestingly enough, these thoughts have typically coincided with pretty significant periods of actually experiencing suffering.  I tell my wife, who wakes up at  6:15 am for a daily dose of meditation and yoga, that my long suffer-filled walks in the bush are just my form of moving meditation and a practice of being ‘present in the moment’. They last alot longer, which is why I don’t need to do it as often.

suffering-occurs-when-your-ideas-about-howI spent the last two days in such a meditation.  It was pretty awful.  I was working for a new contractor putting in tracking tunnels in the Roa Burn.  I won’t go into all the details about what tracking tunnels are or where the Roa Burn is, except to say that it is in the middle of nowhere in the remote wilderness and that the task involved trekking up and down a bush covered mountainside with no trails for 7-8 hours a day.  While this might sound like fun–and on some other trips has almost been–the Roa Burn was definitely not fun.  To begin with, the weather was awful. 10 cm of slushy snow was present on the tops when I stepped out of the chopper, and it was drizzling from the inside of an massive cloud.  It rained all day–a rain that is only a few degrees above freezing.  The hillside was steep and the bush dense.  I crawled a lot.  My gloves were wet through within minutes to the point that I could make a fist every 10 seconds and wring the water out.  I was soaked to the bone within 20 minutes, my clothes weighing more than twice what they did in the chopper (yes, fleece will absorb water…). And I was just getting started.  

Over the next 8-ish hours as I baited the 50 tracking tunnels, I traversed gullies, descended bluffs, crossed thick swamps, and generally negotiated kilometers of horrible, sodden country where the portion of steps I took on easy, open, level ground is most accurately described by ten to the negative two (10-2). Travelling 100 meters could take more than 10 minutes. Seriously.  And then, towards the end of the day, tendonitis in my left elbow (of all places) started flaring up–I’m guessing from using my arm to take weight and/or the near constant grabbing of branches/trees for support.   

It was hard going, but then what choice did I have?  The thoughts came and went.  This is crazy. People could die out here. What do the early stages of hypothermia feel like? It was ugly.  But then there were other thoughts: It’s just an experience.  What ifs don’t matter–right now you can keep going–the goal of camp is still achievable and time will pass and this experience of cold/wet/pain will pass too.  And of course they did.  I made camp, and the experiences changed.

I got to the bottom of the valley and crossed the final river, slipping and falling in up to my waist (which honestly hardly mattered at this point), and finding my overnight bag that had been delivered that morning by the chopper.  I set up the tent in the rain (one of my least favorite things to do) just at dusk.  I stripped out of my wet clothes and was attacked by sandflies.  But then I was in my sleeping bag, and eventually, warm.  It was time to eat.  Unfortunately, the job offer had came at the last minute–Sunday afternoon for Monday morning departure. I’d been spending time with the family so opted not to take my leave to go prepare and just ended up scrounging food from the pantries after the kids were in bed and figuring  I’d make it a ‘hardship’ mission–besides, the boss had made it sound pretty easy on the phone–so I was light on food too.  I’d had a banana in the chopper, carried a  HydroFlask of hot chocolate and licked the peanut butter off the spoon after baiting each tunnel, but otherwise hadn’t stopped to eat.  Thanks to my meager rations I experienced hunger too.

I got plenty of sleep–well, rest anyway.  Sleep was difficult as it took significant ‘attention’ to try to settle my mind.  It was raining outside.  My tent leaked a little bit.  I was going to have to put back on cold, wet clothes in the morning and do it all again, only uphill.  My meditation practice changed gears and focused on letting go of tomorrow’s suffering because, well, it didn’t really exist.  I made a pillow out of my HydroFlask, my rather moist fleece hat and a bit of toilet paper in a plastic bag,

I made it through the next day too–using tricks learned over years of racing and adventuring.  Chunk things out–one small goal at a time. Break things down.  When the bush was thick and progress seemed to halt I’d try to remember that there is no permanence.  I will, however slowly, get to better ground.  And then when I had it, I’d practice appreciating the few meters of easy going, knowing it was bound to be temporary as well.  The hours ticked by, surprisingly quickly, something that means my mind was, more or less, where it should be.  It was a pretty good session, considering the circumstances.

helifogWell, until the end–when I heard the chopper heading up the valley towards where I stood, exposed, drenched, shivering, blasted by the wind and rain.  I couldn’t see it because the fog was too dense.  My overnight gear was back at the river mouth, a 4 hour bush bash away in daylight, assuming food, daylight, energy–the former of which was completely gone while the others were severely depleted. Because then, although it sounded like it was right there, the sound started to fade, until it disappeared.  

My wife says if I was truly enlightened I would have accepted such a turn of events, and what they meant, as simply another state of being.  But I basically panicked inside.

Thankfully, the chopper did eventually return, doorless (for visibilities sake) and passengerless (just in case).  I still have some work to do, I suppose, but I think it can wait until after a week of hot showers.

Hardship Sessions

Most–if not all–of my longer efforts these days fall into a category of what I call hardship training. Now of course I don’t do too many long efforts, but about once a month I’ll decide on a mini-mission if I don’t have a race on the horizon. If you count my occasional work in ‘remote pest control’, then my stints ‘going long’ are slightly more numerous meaning that at least every few weeks I’m facing hardship. [The video above  is a glimpse at my latest hardship session, which took place last week–a failed attempt to negotiate a coastal section of Lake Manapouri. High water and no map led to us getting lost and having to backtrack our way out, but it still served it’s purpose–3+ hours of running, packrafting, and bushwhacking in the sometimes rain and cold. I didn’t take any water and consumed 2 energy chomps–maybe 50 cals, during the adventure, but stayed strong throughout.]

‘Hardship training’ is purposefully training in less than ideal conditions. For me this most often means lack of food and water. Sometimes it also means using inadequate gear for the environment, essentially ensuring I’m either going to get wet or cold or both. But it’s at it’s best when all of these elements are involved.

I feel this sort of training is invaluable for the adventure sport athlete, although probably pretty under-represented in most training programs. Most training seems to focus on optimizing conditions rather than purposefully making them more challenging. Good gear on good surfaces in good weather. I’m all about maximizing performance and minimizing hardship and distraction for my short and sweet HIIT workouts when the goal (though it’s never achieved) is to approach 100% intensity. These are the workouts where my 5 or 10 minutes are demanding that my body gets stronger and faster.

But the longer efforts? What is the greatest purpose they can serve? Developing mental tenacity! I’m not the only one that thinks so, either. Urban legends abound about guys like Killian Jornet embarking on 9 hour runs (how far is that for Killian anyway, nearly 100 K?) with only a single gel packet for sustenance, or Micah True (the White Horse) of Born to Run fame who’d regularly head out for a great many hours with no food or water. Whether or not they are 100% accurate, the idea is sound–figuring out how your body, and more importantly, your mind, responds to hardship.

And I’ve figured out heaps. I’ve learned how little food I actually need to maintain a moderate level of performance over a long period. I’ve learned how little water I actually need, particularly when the temperature drops, but also how to tell when I actually need it. I’ve trained my body and mind to deal with ‘less than optimal’ conditions and as a result have heaps of ‘non-race critical’ experience with how I respond to these conditions. Sure, when a race or big mission comes, I’ll take food and water (well, maybe…), but i’ll be able to cut it lean (or as I refer to it, cut it ‘optimistically’) and know that I’ll be able to deal with the repercussions.

It’s EASY! It WORKS! (from the archives, 2013)

Every once in a while, I’ll admit, I click on one of those insanely buff dudes in the sidebar of my Facebook page. You know, the ones where the tag line reads something like ‘new secret reveals ancient wisdom’s super easy way to get absolutely shredded while sleeping!’ My latest click actually involved something called “muscle rev x” and took me to the fascinating land of Men’s Health advertorials where the sales pitch ensued: lots of awesome before and after pictures [check out this link for the secret behind these magic tricks], sweeping references to “clinically proven” and “scientific research” and an ocean of comments from the fascinating land of “Bro-Merica” (no seriously!  check it out… um, Bro?).  This particular link was selling supplements though many links are portals for training programs that make similar claims – ‘get ripped in 6 minutes a day while drinking beer!’ My morning’s visit to these distant shores got me wondering why i’m not seeing more insanely ripped people out there these days given the quantity of these opportunities that seem to exist and the fact that all of us spend at least 3 hours a day on Facebook (right Bro?).

And while the answer might be clearly apparent to most, here is my version.  These program/supplements aren’t creating an army of Gerard Butlers because of the difference between the theoretical truth and pragmatic truth.  You see, all of these opportunities are really selling theoretical truths.  It is possible to do regular six minute super high intensity workouts, integrate them with a shot glass full of beer, eat really healthy, and see awesome results.  It is possible to take virtually any supplement as part of a solid exercise program and diet and radically change the way you look.
Pragmatically though, things are much more difficult.  YOU (or whoever is wanting to get ripped, fit, or lose weight) don’t actually change in any significant way when you key in your credit card number to an online order form.  The habits, desires, time management, etc that got you where you are will not yield to gentle pressure.  There are no easy solutions.  If you are out of shape or unhealthy it has taken a long time to get you that way – a long time spent making decisions that negatively impacted you health and fitness.  Even when claims of supplements, for example, are true – they only (at best) accentuate any benefits (i.e cause slightly faster weight loss) provided by a meaningful switch to making healthier choices.

The bottom line is that if YOU don’t change – and stick with that change – then no amount of money will get you where you want to be.  This is true regardless of what the tagline next to the buff dude tells you.  The good news is that if you do really change, then you probably don’t need the supplements anyway, and it won’t really matter so much which particular training program you end up following.

The reason we’re not all super athletes with fit and healthy bodies is that significant change, the kind required for results – is very hard.  So next time you see those ads Bro, remember that you’re being sold the theoretical truth and it is the pragmatic one that matters –

It’s (never) EASY! It (all) WORKS!

PS – did i get all the “Bros” right?

Subjective Suffering

I just gotten back from another two days working for Adrian.  Now I’ve had some great days working for him in the past–sunny days walking through spectacular bush, jogging up the Milford track while eyeing the rapids above the Clinton Forks and planning a never-going-to-happen-because-it-is-against-the-rules pack-rafting trip, and eating ‘hut sushi’ in the evenings next to a roaring fire in the wood-stove.  But these last two days?  Well, at least the sushi was still good.

I suffered. A lot.  I hesitate to write this because I worry that Adrian will read this and think me soft and start to second guess his decision to tow me through the GodZone course in April. But I also want to share my thoughts on these couple of days, after all, writing bits of this in my head while I shivered, soaked to the bone, for hours, was part of what got me through. And of course, suffering, at least according to my UltraMental philosophy, is one of three key elements that are critical to achieving success.

And these are actually my good shoes...

And these are actually my good shoes…

The truth is, I could suffer a lot less. I could get a better jacket–one that actually keeps me dry and warm. Although there is no question that most jackets (even so called waterproof ones) aren’t up to the task of ‘Fiordland bush’, apparently garments do exist that actually are. I could also get a good pair of boots and gaiters which, even if they didn’t keep my feet dry, would improve both my confidence and speed while following the trails of blue tape that leads to the possum traps (trails, I might add with classic kiwi understatement, that sometimes encounter terrain that is ‘slightly hard going’).  But despite the decent wage I’m earning, I don’t.  Instead, trip after trip, I show up with the same gear and the same shoes and so, when the weather decides to be gloomy, I knowingly enter into rather long periods of reflective unhappiness.  And this is how it was those last two days–boarding the helicopter as rain splashed the windscreen, headed into the wilderness, destined to dance a miserable dance for 8-10 hours at a time.

So why do I do it?  Other than the fact that I’m cheap and new jackets and boots are expensive in New Zealand, I also, paradoxically perhaps, get something out of it.  In fact, on reflection, I probably get quite a bit out of it.  Of course there is the fitness–walking through difficult terrain with a pack for two days certainly burns the calories. But I’d get this benefit even if I checked the weather first and feigned illness (don’t think I haven’t thought about it Adrian!) when the forecast was for 5 cm of rain throughout the day (the idea of being a fair-weather contractor even has it’s merits because there isn’t a bad weather bonus). But when the rain and temperatures come down and the rivers come up, when the rocks and roots are as slick as ice and the impenetrable ferns covered in frost, that is when the real benefits kick in.

Right from the moment go–the moment I step off the skid of the helicopter and my feet touch the soggy ground–I’m already into it mentally.  I’m already negotiating, using tactics and strategies, practicing ways to stay motivated and get through the task ahead effectively and efficiently despite the fact that I wish so much I had just stayed in bed.  Being cold and wet and miserable for 10 hours in a survival situation is one thing.  Being cold and wet and miserable for 10 hours on purpose is quite another.  In many ways it is the perfect ‘training’ for the mental side of adventure racing.  The psychological idea that things change and when they are bad they will eventually get better, the idea that if you keep moving/working/advancing towards a goal you will eventually get there, these are all nice when you’re reading about them in an adventure or sports psychology book sitting in the sun with your second cup of coffee.  But these ideas can be very difficult to actually move beyond the realm of ‘theory’ and into the realm of reality.  To actually have them be useful ideas–ideas that form the basis of tools that can help achieve a goal–takes, like everything else, practice.  And working for Adrian, especially when mother nature is in one of her dour moods, is excellent practice. Here are three of my favorite tools and how they played a role in getting me through last weekend:

  1. Small goals.  In any prolonged difficult situation, or when any task looms too large, taking things one (small) step at a time is one of the things you are ‘supposed’ to do.  Sometimes this is easier said than done–if the mind is allowed to grab on to the enormity of the task, it can be hard to deal with the resulting sense of despair.  Working on the trap lines offers a perfect opportunity to focus on the small on various scales.  Traps come every 100-200 meters (depending on the trap type) which means my concentration is taken off of any negative thoughts and on to a specific and accomplishable goal every 3-5 minutes.  Even though early in the day the number of traps seems to be super daunting (OMG! I have 80 traps to go! I’m never going to make it!) I never get to dwell on this for long.  I also choose to focus on intermediate results–finishing an egg tray (12 traps)– rather than the day.  Using a variety of ‘scales’ with which to measure progress towards an end is essential when facing a long day of suffering.
  2. Envision the end.  While I was picking my way along through the soaking bush or crossing rivers of icy water above my waist, or tripping and slipping my way up and down and around treacherous bluffs, I would often remind myself of what lay ahead at the end of my ‘suffering’–a plate of sushi and dry clothes, a warm boat with free coffee, a hot shower, dinner with my family, etc.  Rather than looking at the rather ‘unpleasant’ hours that lay between the present moment and these blissful ones, I’d simply remind myself that “in X hours, I’ll be enjoying Y, and all this will be over.” I didn’t dwell on how it was going to happen, but simply that it would.  By asserting confidently and unequivocally my future warmth and comfort, what might have felt unendurable and impossibly long lasting in a different frame of mind become both temporary and quite manageable.
  3. Lie to yourself.  Adventure racing and Working for Adrian have something else in common.  When participating in either I routinely tell myself ‘never again!’  And in both cases I’m usually either researching the next race or readily accepting the next job within 24 hours (sometimes much less) of being ‘comfortable’ again.  For me, this is a natural response when doing really hard things.  Maybe it is because I’m not actually that tough–maybe some folks are able to be deep in the midst of the least enjoyable of the suffering and actively loving it–but for me at least whenever I approach situations where the word ‘misery’ is truly an accurate description of my state of being, my impulse is to turn tail and run (mentally at least) in the opposite direction.

So there you go.  Have at it.  And if you need more practice, I hear Adrian might suddenly be a man short next time he decides to schedule a trap check during ‘periods of rain with some heavy falls’.  Happy training.

 

 

Reflections on an Apprenticeship

Beauty and the Beast. Vaughn (L) and Adrian atop Mount Luxmore.

Beauty and the Beast. Vaughn (L) and Adrian atop Mount Luxmore.

The Kepler Challenge is approaching quick.  Vaughn Filmer is feeling confident.  His most recent long run has helped quite a bit (http://ultramentalapprenticeship.blogspot.co.nz/).

This experiment of assisting with his training using HIIT methods has been a good one and I’ve learned heaps from watching his progress and more importantly reading his blog which gives good insight into what is going on in his head.  Here are a few things I’ve picked up, or that have been reinforced for me as a result–

  1. It works.  Using HIIT to develop fitness, for those that are capable of performing such efforts routinely, works beautifully.  After 16 weeks of training Vaughn’s running (of which he’d done very little previously) was on par with many runners that have been running at much higher volumes for most of their lives.  Focusing on speed/form vs distance during the outset of training seems to have returned very good results.
  2. Doubt is normal.  Wondering whether we will be ‘up for the task’ when using HIIT as a primary tool in preparing for a big endurance event is to be expected.  Reading through Vaughn’s blog you’ll notice that he has lots of doubts about his ability to cover the 62 challenging km of the Kepler Challenge.  He worries about missing workouts, about not running longer, and about a whole host of things.  Keep in mind that he’s taking on this ‘challenge’ with a longest ever casual run of about 10 km, prior to commencing training 4 months before the event.  His recent post, written in the aftermath of his longest run, is the first real glimpse you’ll get of him feeling up to the task.  And he is.  Until you get that first real serious effort in it is hard to believe that doing so little (time wise) might still allow you to do so much.
  3. Doubt is inevitable.  I know, we’ve already covered this, right?  But I’ve realized there is a LOT of doubt.  This additional doubt comes primarily from the the pursuit of something along unconventional lines, particularly when a very strong conventional training climate exists.  For example, Vaughn’s mate Adrian (who will also be my teammate at Godzone) is also running the Kepler and is an animal.  He trains hard and he trains a lot–using a much more traditional volume.  He seems to recover in half or less of the time than other people do.  Going on a run with him means you’re likely left in the dust or pissed off because while you’re suffering he seems to be on cruise control.  This is at turns both motivating and disheartening. It is easy to look at the Adrian’s out there and think that you ‘should’ be doing what they are doing.  But the reality is that the in the spectrum of athletic ability everyone (even Adrian) will fall somewhere between the two extremes.  The tendency for most of us is to only look only towards one end–to gaze ‘uphill’ at those doing more than we are or doing it faster.  And of course, because using HIIT for endurance is so unconventional, it is almost a sure thing that the training methods used by that ‘uphill’ bunch won’t be the training methods you’re using.  So it becomes important to maintain perspective–remember the main motivation for using HIIT for endurance for those of us that choose to do so is because it takes so much less time.  I won’t make the argument that training hard 1 hour a week is better than training hard 6 hours a week.  But training hard 1 hour a week might be better than training more moderately 6 hours a week, which is quite likely what many of those people you’d see if you looked ‘downhill’ or laterally might be doing.  Get confidence in looking at your peer group–what does your training allow you to do?  How much have you sacrificed in terms of time/lifestyle to achieve this.  Don’t take your hard work, however short in duration for granted!  Even though Vaughn might arrive at the finish line behind Adrian, he will arrive ahead of a great many people who’s training commitments were three or four time’s what his was, and be competitive with plenty of serious ‘amateur’ runners who were putting in 60-100 km weeks in preparation.

Remember, if you’re goal is to WIN races, you need devote most of your time/energy to your fitness.  Even extremely low volume approaches for competitive triathletes at the Ironman distance is around 10-12 hours a week (as compared to 20-30 for normal volume).  These folks are certainly focusing on as much HIIT as they can manage, but supplementing it with a healthy diet of more moderate intensities as well.  But for those of us who are happy being personally/recreationally competitive, focusing on HIIT first and cutting out the rest–as I’m hoping Vaughn will realize–can offer a good alternative to prioritizing fitness (and all the resulting complications this has with having an othewise robust life) over everything else.

 

Doing well

 

50-off

For for than a decade now I’ve pursued the goal of being a ‘jack-of-all-endurance’ trades. I have aspired simultaneously to train so that I could both ‘do anything’ and ‘do it well’.  For quite some time I’ve left the notion of what ‘doing it well’ meant purposefully vague but have long contemplated the phrase, wondering what, at least for an ambitious recreational athlete like myself, it should actually mean.  The time has now come to offer up a more concrete criteria.  

I’ll begin by admitting that these criteria are going to be largely (entirely?), arbitrary.  But in truth, at least from a suitably wide perspective, everything else is largely arbitrary too. Arbitrariness is unavoidable.  That being said, arbitrariness can be more (when backed by reasoned arguments) or less (lacking any meaningful justification) sensible. The bit of arbitrariness in question here falls into the former category of course–in my opinion anyway and since this is my article, I guess no more justification is required. So without further ado:

Doing something well (as an age group, non professional athlete) implies–at least when concerning athletic endeavors that are measured by ‘time to completion’– finishing within a time no more than 50% greater than that of the world’s top athletes in the given discipline.  In other words, you’ve done it well if you are ‘Off by 50’ or less.

If you think that this sounds too easy – that 50% is too generous a cushion – consider the following examples:

  1. The fastest marathon time is just over 2 hours.  By my criteria, an age grouper who runs a 3 hour marathon is doing dandy.  In fact, they’ll qualify for Boston with time to spare. This evidence clearly supports my thesis and scarcely have I seen a better start to a well reasoned argument.  So far so good.
  2. The fastest IronMan (IM) distance triathlon is somewhere right around (slightly under) 8 hours – so breaking that 12 hour barrier puts you in pretty good company.  Additionally consider that if you look at the results of most general registration (no qualifying time is required) IM distance races on reasonably flat courses, a sub 12 hour performance would put you in approximately the top 35% of the field.  Considering that there are no ‘average’ athletes running such a race and you get an idea of the achievement.  If you ask me the logic, at least for efforts at the top end of the scale, is simply infallible.  But what about shorter endurance efforts?
  3. Well, what about them?  A sub 4-minute mile is clearly in the realm of elite runners at this distance (the world record is 3:43). This translates to a good goal for an age grouper like myself being a sub 6 minute mile, or if we’re going with the hardcore expression of the criteria (50% increase over the WR) a time of less than 5:35 is needed.

Wow.  I think I’ve nailed it, don’t you?  It’s hard to find fault in such an arbitrary criteria that is also so sensible.  Completely coincidentally, it just so happens that these numbers pretty closely define the edges of my own abilities which is pretty awesome.  The target goals created by the criteria are met often enough to placate my ego but challenging enough to require quite a bit of hard work and focus which keeps me lean and keen.  Not that these two coincidental factors have any influence on such a well reasoned, logically derived, but arbitrarily chosen measure of meaning, because that’s just silly.  

No, it was chosen simply because it makes sense.  In fact, it’s so good that I’m convinced it’s just a matter of time before it catches on, becomes the industry standard, and enters our everyday lexicon:

Athlete A:  So how’d you do in your race Saturday?

Athlete B:  Excellent!  I was only ‘Off By 50!’

Athlete A:  Whoa! You’re really doing well!

Can’t you just hear it?

Here are some more ways to be ‘Off By 50’. How many can you manage?

Running:

100 meters:  9.58 seconds.  Off by 50 time:  14.37 (equivalent to running 3:53 mile pace for 100 m)

1 mile: 3:43  Off by 50 time: 5:34

10 K (road): 26:44  Off by 50 time: 40:06

Half Marathon:  58:23  Off by 50 time:  1:27:35

Marathon:  2:03:06  Off by 50 time:  3:04:39

Swimming:

50 meter freestyle:  20:91  Off by 50 time:  31.36

1 mile (open water):  16:23  Off by 50 time:  24:35

10 K (open water):  1:54:30 (approx)  Off by 50 time:  2:51:45

Biking:

10 mile:  17:57  Off by 50 time:  26: 55

40 km time trial:  47:36  Off by 50 time:  1:11:24

[Note–this piece was originally published back in 2012 on my early blog, three hours a week, as two separate posts.]

Feeling Bad: the dark side of high intensity training

darthHigh intensity training for endurance has a dark side.

It never feels easy.  In order to embrace and benefit from true high intensity work, you must first realize and then accept the fact that workouts aren’t going to feel good.  You’re not going to get to the point in the program where you get to go out and run a few miles and pat yourself on the back because ‘hey, that felt great!’

When you do high intensity work, you won’t get the runner’s high…or the cyclists thrill of the open road.  You will get pain, doubt, the taste of blood in the back of your throat, and uncooperative bowels.  You won’t struggle to fathom how you will manage another mile, but how you’ll manage another minute. You won’t feel fast and light and easy.  You’re legs and arms will feel heavy, your lungs too small, and your will inadequate to it’s task.

This dark side will also play tricks on your mind and your mind will challenge you by repeating it’s rhetoric. It will tell you that you failing.  That you are slower than last time.  That you have no hope of making your goal–that your efforts are futile.  These suggestions will be hard to ignore, particularly when you feel awful less than 5 minutes into your workout.

It will be easy to give up.  It will be even easier to slow down–to decide to settle for less speed if it simultaneously means less pain.  There are a million reasons why you might be actually be slower, why you might not meet your goal.  You didn’t get enough sleep, you haven’t eaten well, you’ve got too much on your plate and are stressed.  Your mind will run through the list and try to get you to abandon your attempt because your mind isn’t a big fan of discomfort.  And maybe some of these reasons truly do apply–they’re not just excuses but actual factors that are negatively affecting your performance.  On the other hand…

My experience has been that I always feel lousy.  When I’m totally busting my butt and really going after it I always feel flat, tired, spent.  I never really feel fast.  I just hurt.  So I’ve made my peace with the dark side.  I don’t try to fight it, but I don’t give in either.  I just let the thoughts come in  and listen to their arguments and often even agree with them, believing that indeed I must be going much slower, sometimes pathetically so, than I’d hoped.  But I don’t ease off.  I never ease off.

And in the end, I’m usually not slower after all.  

Happy Training.

Know Thyself

My wife turned me on to a recent blog post from one of her favorites, Mr. Frank Forencich of the Exuberant Animal.  It discusses the ideas of ‘lifestyle intelligence’ and bricolage–an ability to adapt and successfully reach a desired outcome using diverse and available materials. In reading and reflecting on Frank’s piece, I was struck with the importance of being able to assess your strengths and weaknesses as an individual in order to have a shot at achieving your goals.

I’m not talking about recognizing that your swim times aren’t as on par with your bike times compared to other age group athletes or anything like that.  I’m talking about understanding who you are as a person when it comes to following through on workouts, best times of the day for motivation, and being realistic both in setting goals and then in how likely you are to meet the demands of any particular workout program you attempt to follow in order to meet them.

My wife, for example, is a morning person.  She’d rather get up at six A.M. to go for a run in the dark and be back and showered before anyone in the house is up.  She’s more likely to find excuses not to do her workout the longer the day goes on.  Mornings work for her.  Mornings do not work for me on the other hand–not much works actually until after a cup of coffee or two.

I am, however a pressure player–a procrastinator.  I will put off workouts until the moment where if I wait any longer I won’t get it done.  If my wife needs to head to work at 5:15 in the evening (as she did a couple of days ago) I might wait until about 5:00 to start running.  It suits me primarily because most of my workouts are really hard and really short.  The ‘hardness’ makes me put them off as long as possible whereas the shortness means that I can, in fact, squeeze them in at a last minute here or there.

Timing aside, another huge part of knowing thyself has to do with understanding one’s personal capacity for both volume and intensity. So many programs prescribe efforts as though everyone is capable (mentally and phyiscally) of any combination of these elements, assuming they can decide to commit the time.  Of course this is anything but true.  While it may be the case that committing time is all that is required to meet the volume side of the equation, meeting intensity is another thing.  Some people just can’t do, or won’t do, intensity. For most of us, however, it’s more a matter of how much and how often.  All out sprints or proper Tabata protocol might be a once a week thing for some or a once a month thing for others (just long enough to forget the taste of blood and/or bile in the back of the mouth).

My training has been modified over the years based on my changing circumstances and my diligence in understanding what these changes mean in terms of what I can/will realistically do.  I was able to manage three true high intensity workouts a week during winters in North Dakota when I was a member of a gym, had a great range of high end cardio equipment, solid race goals, and spent most of my day sitting in front of a computer.  Now-a-days, living in New Zealand with no gym access, adventure rather than race goals, and a daily routine that involves more general activity than I’ve had in a while, the mental demands of putting up more than one or two true high intensity efforts a week are beyond me.

Training programs in and of themselves aren’t bad things of course–following a plan that someone else has put together can certainly seem to take some of the pressure off and even allow you to benefit from someone elses (hopefully sound) knowledge about training and fitness.  But it is important to remember that the biggest factor in success or failure is probably not the viability of the program itself, but in how well it is matched to your actual abilities and how well it fits itself in with your other life needs.  Just because you think you want to do something doesn’t mean you will actually do it. Take the time to understand realistically who you are in terms of not only what you want, but what you’re willing and more importantly able to do to reach your goal.  And make sure any training program you adopt serves this pragmatism.

Alright, that’s it for this post.  It’s 4:39 and I’ve gotta get changed and get my two mile time trial in and then pick up the kids by 5:00–talk about perfect timing.

Happy training,

Andy