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? Because 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.
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.
- 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.