It’s All ‘Bout the Base, ‘Bout the Base [4]

Where Amateur (and Pro) Athletes Go Wrong

After Chrissie Wellington won the 2007 Hawaii Ironman triathlon, amateur athletes heard that it was her rookie year at Worlds, that she only had a few months of formal triathlon coaching and training.  So what will amateurs assume? If Chrissie can show up to Ironman, race and win without much ‘training’, then there is no need to put in serious training.

Amateur athletes heard in the 2009 Hawaii Ironman triathlon that it was Mirinda Carfrae’s first Ironman marathon, so what will they assume?  If Rinny can just show up to the Ironman and race the marathon for the first time, then there is no need to prepare thoroughly. Why train?

Where amateur athletes go wrong is that they discount the history of base training that Chrissie and athletes like Chrissie have obtained.  Amateur athletes, pros, trainers, coaches and even exercise physiologists discount the role that simple informal unstructured healthy activity (aka play) plays in the development of champions. Champions who seem to drop out of nowhere, and win, consistently and constantly, have extensive training backgrounds (aka play). Because their background doesn’t look or sound like training, no one considers it ‘training’. Besides to admit that play is training would be a massive hit to the ego of many athletes, coaches, trainers, and exercise physiologists. Plus the fitness industry would have to accept that we don’t need all the equipment, gadgets, apparel… all we need to train is a great attitude and a vivid imagination.

Informal training (aka play) is discounted because its unplanned, doesn’t require hi-tech equipment or a top end training facility, and because it focuses on quality, not quantitative measures.

Read the biographies and autobiographies of Olympians and World Champions and you will find that their winning ways started long long ago, as children who simply played and enjoyed themselves. At some point, the play (or work) becomes focused: Michael Jordan cut from his high school basketball teamed devoted himself to training.  He trained without a team, rising to the stardom that he is still remembered for to this day.


The stories of Amanda Beard, Michael Phelps, the Williams sisters, Pelé, Greg Louganis, Silken Laumann, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Chrissie Wellington, Paula Newby-Fraser, champion after champion all start in a similar manner… they participated in fun family activities, played one or a mix of sports from as soon as they could walk. The stories of champions arising from impoverished nations is similar… they worked from the moment they could walk.  Without the conveniences of Western life, they milked goats, worked in the field, carried water, ran to/from school. No matter if its play or work, out of a love for being outside, being active, for the challenge of being challenged or out of necessity to put food on the family table, they all started early.  The play or work continued through tween, and teen years, day in day out. In her book titled “Open Heart, Open Mind”, Clara Hughes refers to the period when she started to seriously train as hermetic.  Then at the age of 12, 14, 17 or whenever these athletes appear on the national scene, their performance is written off as ‘talent’ or ‘natural ability’. Why? Open Heart Open MindBecause its uncomfortable and inconvenient to believe that a child played, worked, then trained, sacrificed, and devoted themselves for over a decade to a singular goal. A child!?  The fact that a child can commit and persevere exposes the uncomfortable truth that anyone can experience their own potential. Its easy to overlook effort, to excuse sacrifice as a ‘gifted ability’, to default success as destiny, but that doesn’t mean we should. Some may want an out instead of confronting the truth, but that doesn’t mean that those who have should be disrespected or their effort demeaned.

‘Talent’ and ‘natural ability’ are favorites of sports media, but ‘talent’ and ‘natural ability’ are simply a way to describe anyone who has committed to training to the point that they flow. Reality is, its a process which takes years, thousands of repetitions, of yards, of km or miles and to which there is no short cut. Its a reality the fitness industry and sports science seem to deny.

Despite the consistency amongst elite athletes who have years of fundamental training, developing skill, technique, and long hours of aerobic conditioning, ask amateur athletes how they define training and it is consistent… it plays out like an advert for sports equipment, sports nutrition or fitness apparel. Workouts are make it or break it situations, training is performance thus effort must be all-out, anything less is deemed a failure, a loss, a waste of time, or worse, a display of weakness, a lack of willpower, an intolerance of pain.

Amateur athletes go wrong when they fall for commercials preying on their insecurities that by training all out they can make up for their lack of athleticism, that by acquiring the equipment to look like a pro, they will be lifted to the level of pro, covering up weakness and inability.

Amateur athletes go wrong when they fall for sports media go-to explanation for success, namely ‘talent’ and ‘natural ability’, and the belief that success comes to only those who train as if super-human or those who source short cuts.

There is a process to peak performance, it is documented as the Long Term Athlete Development [LTAD] model.  This model reveals that to perform at one’s peak potential is a process, with numerous sub-processes existing as progressions for every skill, every drill and technique. The ‘short cut’ is the LTAD model. This is the path to peak performance, yet we continue to seek short cuts to the short cut.


Short cutting the short cut leads to one result: a short circuit, with that athletes blow up injured or by maxing out, burning up.

There are no short cuts, no loopholes, no workarounds, there is no alternative to the years and years of training, to a log book with thousands of hours, of repetitions, of yards, of km or miles. There is no ‘magic’, there is no point where skills raindown from the sky.  Any athlete who has not performed training at a specific level (e.g. FUNdamentals, Learning to Train,…) does not have the skills of that level, and they will fall back to untrained levels until all gaps are filled in.

Amateur athletes go wrong when they believe that training at higher levels implies that skills at a lower level are automatically acquired or can be bypassed.

Amateur athletes go wrong when they believe that a lack of progress means that they aren’t training hard enough, that even harder training is called for.

Amateur athletes go wrong falling for false marketing that “learn to” programs (e.g. Learn to Run 10k, Train for a Triathlon) can cut the learning and training curve from years and thousands of repetitions, meters, and kilometers, to a matter of weeks.LTAD - TAC05

The process to peak performance is clear…  the higher you want to go, the wider you need to build out the base. The higher you want to go, the higher all lower peaks must go. To develop the lower pyramid peaks to new highs requires the base of each pyramid to be built wider.


When Chrissie Wellington started to compete in triathlons as a pro, she was starting from a base which was three (3) decades wide.LTAD - TAC09a

  • As a “sporty” child, Chrissie developed the layer of FUNdamentals across numerous sports such as gymnastics, running, and swimming.
  • As a competitive swimmer at both the club and university levels she expanded the Technical level, grew the pyramids of FUNdamentals and Training to Train, and was introduced to the Strategic level through the Training to Compete pyramid.
  • As a casual runner, she grew the Train to Train pyramid, expanding the existing pyramid built by swimming.  Her casual running became competitive when she competed in the 2002 London Marathon finishing in 3:08.
  • Cycling in the foothills and across the Himalayan mountain range on mud and gravel roads on a $500 bike developed the FUNdamentals of cycling, gaining bike handling on various surfaces and weather conditions ranging from blizzard to sandstorm.
  • Cycling in Nepal widened her Training to Train pyramid by adding countless miles.  With those miles at altitude, her aerobic base widened even further developing superb physiological efficiency and psychological narratives for tenacity, perseverance, and stamina.
  • Participating in events such as the London marathon and the New Zealand Endurance Event exposed Chrissie to the Learn to Win pyramid preparing her up for her dramatic rise in the sport of triathlon, allowing winning to be a realistic goal from the outset.

To peak for Ironman S.Korea and Ironman World Championships 2007, Chrissie needed only months at the Train to Compete and Train to Win level (of HIIT).


When Chrissie’s base training is put into this perspective, it stands to reason that being able to progress immediately to peaking as a pro triathlete was no stretch.  With a massive training base, the fact that Chrissie was undefeated in competition is also no stretch simply because few pros had or have today a base anywhere close.  Mirinda Carfrae has been the only athlete to break Chrissie’s Ironman World Championship course record, and only Mirinda and Daniela Ryf have broken the 9hr barrier in Hawaii. It would appear that only these two female pros have a comparable base to Chrissie. The other female pros may want to win, but in reality, if they don’t have the base, then the probability of them peaking to win is [highly] unlikely, or will come at such significant cost to their health that the success will be debatable.

Pro triathlete Belinda Granger complained during an interview at 2009 World Ironman Championships that Chrissie doesn’t look like she hurts in races, arguing that the winner ought to fight [through pain] in order to win. Fact is, Chrissie usually smiles her way through races, and why not… if Belinda had Chrissie’s base then she would be smilin’ too.  If you don’t have the base, aren’t willing to put in the base, are in a mad rush to peak, to compete, then all you can do is struggle, fight, suffer injury and hurt all the way to the finish, doing so frustrated, angry, and jealous of those who are smilin’ enjoying the experience, and winning.

What will you do?  Complain or build a wider base?

Instead of developing a base, developing FUNdamentals, what do amateur and even a few pro athletes do?   They proceed to the tip of the training pyramid, straight to training at the ‘to Win’ or ‘to Compete’ levels, straight to peaking.  Lacking basic form, fundamental skills, sport specific technique, even basic understanding of training principles they get jealous of the success of others, mad at the difficulties they seem to have to endure, as if life is unfair, or that life is bent on making it different and difficult for them. Amateur athletes often prepare for competition – peak – as if they have three (3) decades of base meanwhile they may have at most three months, maybe three years of base.  Then amateurs are shocked that their performances are subpar, far from their peak potential, frustrated that training leaves them flat, that progress is hard to come by, even harder to sustain, that motivation and mood rollercoaster, and are baffled that they are constantly sore, stiff, in pain, battling injury.

Incorrect assumptions, incorrect expectations always lead to unsatisfying outcomes, no different in sport, at work, in life.

The majority of training has no numbers, no spreadsheets, no timelines, no peaks, no valleys, no extreme effort.  The majority of training needs no degree in exercise physiology nor sports psychology, instead it needs advanced research in play, in fun, the capacity to enjoy oneself free from the pressures of performance expectations, deadlines, and goals.  Performance goals are required for peaking, not base training, and the majority of training is base training: simple day to day effort at heart rates that rarely exceed 100-110 beats per minute (bpm) challenging the athlete to execute sport specific technique with increasing efficiency.  Its training that isn’t perceived as training by many, yet it is the most important training of all.

Without a base, there is no peaking, as there is nothing to peak.

If you are an amateur athlete who is chronically sick (i.e. colds, runny nose, highly susceptible to the flu, viruses, infections), who is constantly managing injury (e.g. strains, sprains), who is dealing with chronic pain, inflammation, stiffness, soreness, relies on pain meds, muscle relaxants, NSAIDs and rehab/massage appointments to get by, who is battling sub-clinical depression or anxiety in the form of low energy, fatigue, a lack of inspiration and motivation, then it is entirely likely that it has everything to do with how you are exercising.

There is a right way and a wrong way to exercise.

If you are exercising beyond your abilities, at a training level for which you do not have the base, then all the positive effects that you seek are impossible as you are draining and compromising your health.

The wrong way leads to pain, to injury, to suffering, to negative self talk, to a negative training spiral, to health issues, to dissatisfaction, and eventually to giving up and quitting altogether as the load to carry on becomes a burden not worth dragging.

The right way leads to progress, to enjoyment, to fulfillment, to satisfaction, to increasing skill level, to gains in health, in fitness, to fun.

There is a proper way to train.  There is a process to training.  There is a right place to start, there is a right pace, there are appropriate and inappropriate targets at each stage.

Train the healthy way, seek training partners who want to train healthy, seek a coach, club, or a team who teach healthy – physically, mentally and emotionally – training methods and you will find what you truly seek.

1 thought on “It’s All ‘Bout the Base, ‘Bout the Base [4]

  1. MGrodski Post author

    Finally! A sports website tells amateur and age group athletes the truth, that…”seeking optimal performance and optimal health are usually not goals that easily sync.”

    Seems that the retirement of 2:04 US marathoner Ryan Hall has caused enough confusion to force a few to lift their heads from obsessing over their spreadsheets of training data, Strava, Training Peaks or other online training accounts to realize that a runner known for 140mi weeks at altitude now can barely run 12mi at an easy pace.

    In our pursuit of an active healthy lifestyle it seems that we have forgotten that there is a limit even for the good things, that everything should be in moderation including moderation itself. We have forgotten that there is a pace, a process, a pattern to progression, that you do not go from over-weight, or obese, and out of shape to overnight quasi-pro athlete just because you outfitted yourself to look as if you are sponsored by every brand on the planet.

    Typically when an athlete retires for health reasons, instead of the question being did they train poorly, overtrain, push their body too far for too long, we immediately look to blame anything other than their pursuit. Its not that the pursuit of a goal itself is unhealthy, but we have yet to broadly acknowledge that how a goal is pursued underlies outcomes and consequences (positive as well as negative).

    Consider the issue of concussions in football. After denying that ‘how’ football is played (i.e. concussions are par for course) has any consequence, now it is finally accepted that concussions have a lasting impact on long term health. In 1994 the NFL created a committee to investigate if there are any possible links between football players sustaining head injuries and long term health, especially mental health disorders. In 2015, researchers at the DVA and at Boston U identified that CTE was found in 87 out of 91 (96%) of former players, and in 79% of ALL football players. It took the NFL 21 years to acknowledge that ex-players suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). But hey, keep risking your brains… we cannot have the the sport becoming safer as the money to be made off your brain injuries is just too much to pass on.

    What if there was a new strain of flu which could be linked with 79% – 96% accuracy to a single source. How fast would that source be shut down? I bet it would be shut down overnight. Funny how we have such double standards: if the risk is to someone else but not me personally, then let the games go on, but if the risk is to me – as in the flu – then shut it down!

    Heart attacks during marathons, during triathlons are brushed aside as quickly as concussions in football. We are told that the deaths of athletes participating in various events are reported to be within statistical norms, therefore there is no need for concern. Tell that to the players (and their wives and children) already suffering CTE symptoms such as dementia. Surely that will make them feel better: their risk of CTE is within statistical norms so just keep playing.

    To consider that any pro athlete is overtraining would require us to review our own training, but who has time for that, we’re in a mad rush to squeeze in an all-out session on the treadmill or trainer. Because its good for us, right? Can’t walk for a day afterwards because the back stiffens up, cant breathe as the nose is clogged up, the tightness in the chest, the digestion issues, and the lack of a decent BM and an absent sex drive aren’t any reason to slow down and reconsider…am I actually getting healthier with all this training?

    Hey didnt we hear that triathlon legend Chrissie Wellington won Ironman World Champs as a rookie… see, there’s nothing to it. You just show up to these things and crawl across the finish line. Isnt that the point? Isnt that what everyone does? Isnt that the way you are supposed to do? No one actually trains – for years – to do one of those triathlon things, or a road race, do they? The outcome… amateur athletes misinterpret that 10, 20 or 30 years of utter disregard for their health while pursing a profession, climbing the career ladder or building a business, can be wallpapered over by taking a ‘learn to’ program, and subsequently running a 1/2 marathon or completing a triathlon on next to nothing.

    The implied connection made by the fitness industry and sport event companies that training to cross a finish line is somehow related to health, to wellness is wrong. Fact is, without proper training, without years of base training, without proper progressions, the pursuit of a finish line can be the cause of both physical and mental disease, of illness, of injury, even suicide.

    Unfortunately, its highly unlikely that anything reasonable will come out of sports science research, as too many exercise physiologists have pinned their reputation and tenure on HIIT so we are unlikely to find any research linking training at peak effort as excessive or unhealthy. The parade of results from short harder faster training will continue. That is until more pro athletes start retiring early like Ryan Hall, or more amateurs end up dying raising concerns over participation by undertrained or untrained and unhealthy individuals in events.

    In my experience performing physiological testing on age group athletes, few athletes are training to develop skills, instead train at intensities far beyond their physiological and psychological limits, and most compete in events in which they have no business participating because the 10+ hrs of training they manage to get in is simply too little training of too little quality to amount to anything. They compete not as a display of athleticism but manage to make it to the finish by draining, depleting, and compromising their health, maintaining function by hoping the compression clothing holds them in one piece, and lubricating themselves with all the over the counter meds that can be swallowed in between the salt pills and ‘sports nutrition’ gummies, bars, shots, gels.

    If the retirement of a pro athlete such as Ryan Hall finally puts the discussion on the table, then perhaps there is a chance that sport can be turned back into what its supposed to be about for age groupers and amateurs: acquiring new skills, developing flexible dynamic bodies, striving for an active and healthy lifestyle, pursuing personal definitions of athletic excellence and what it means to be a champion.

    Its time for materialism as the focal point of sport to end.

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