To Upgrade Equipment or Not?

I had a masters athlete come up to me and ask, “should they buy a racing suit for upcoming Ontario Masters Provincial Swimming Champs.”  Actually, the athlete asked, “would a racing suit help?”

I answered no.

Why? Because the athlete is a triathlete who decided this year to kick it up in the swimming department, deciding that in order to do that they would join a masters swimming team.  In the course of the year the athlete has improving dramatically in their technique, added breaststroke as a second stroke, and has competed at a masters swim meet.

So why no racing suit?

Wouldn’t it help?

Wouldn’t their times possibly be better with a racing suit?

Probably, but its too soon.

Too soon?

When you go into competitions early in your career what you need to see consistently are improvements made not from equipment, but from training.

If you go into competition too early upgrading constantly to new equipment, you may not consciously think it, but subconsciously you cannot and will not (and maybe never will) attach performance improvements to training.  There will always be doubt as to whether the improvements made were the result of training, or because of the new equipment.  With articles spewing the benefits of everything from aero this to aero that, even encouraging novice athletes that shaving legs leads to time savings (yes, but not meaningful at 25kph), it becomes difficult if not impossible for the athlete to know exactly how and why they are making gains.

But guess which one is more seductive? Results from effort put in day after day, or results from dropping a credit card at your local swim, bike, run or triathlon shop?

Exactly.

Its so seductive, that I believe there is an entire generation of triathletes who believe more in equipment upgrades, in “free speed” as the path to progress, with training a mere add-on, as opposed to training being the primary source of improvement, with equipment being the add-on.

So what?

Because it matters.

There are enough variables in life to make training challenging that adding more variables (i.e. equipment) simply makes it impossible to discern what is working and what isn’t.

New athletes need to learn how to train, need to learn to look for improvements from their own efforts, and become confident in the causal relationship between time spent developing as an athlete, and the results in racing.

Besides, you can guess what is more rewarding… you improved because you trained, vs you improved because you bought a new piece of equipment.

Gee… I wonder which one encourages me to go out and train, and which one discourages training and makes me want to hit the next trade show to pick up the latest tech?

Can you see the cycle that can be created? If you see gains from training, then what are you rewarding? All the effort, all the time you spent training, and it encourages you to train more, it can even encourage you to want to explore even more of your potential, causing you to seek as much information on training, encouraging you to experiment and learn what makes you tick, and how to make yourself tick better. But if the gains you see are not clearly linked to training because this time you bought a new helmet, new carbon rims, lighter racing flats, etc… then what does that encourage? It definitely does not set you up in a virtuous cycle of seeing training as the primary source of your improvement. In fact, you can setup a vicious cycle where to obtain greater and greater gains you have to spend more and more time and money at your local shop outfitting yourself with the newest and greatest.

Athletes can go on for awhile with this mindset, because most are unlikely to have the finances to start off with top of the line everything.  This ‘lack’ of top of the line equipment supplies the answer to every race that doesn’t go as desired… if I had these aero rims instead of these aero rims then, THEN I would have hit my bike split goal, if I had that new thinner wetsuit then, THEN I would have hit my swim split goal, and so on. But what happens when the athlete has all the top of the line equipment, then what?

Instead of doing as Stephen Covey wrote “Put First Things First”, too many triathletes are putting second, third and fourth things first.

Can you see why so many triathletes end up burnt out, frustrated, disappointed, and then financially burnt out, frustrated and disappointed?

The shiny new stuff is sexy, sure, and yeah it would be fun to have, but if you are in search of your potential, then its seduction, temptation you have to avoid. There will be a time to upgrade, but imagine upgrading when you are already able to swim fast, ride long and hard, and run past all the walkers in a triathlon.

You have no idea how fun it is to pass an athlete riding fully decked out in top of the line kit, equipment, you know… a carbon fiber bike, deep aero rims, aero helmet meanwhile you’re on your sisters bike, on a big brothers hand me down, on a garage sale or Kijiji find, especially when they just spent a few thousand to shave a few grams off their bike (meanwhile their arse alone could stand to shed 10+lbs), and you go flying by as if they were standing still.

You want to find out why the pros are having fun? Because the best of the best didn’t get into the sport because of the amazing equipment, they got into the sport because the sport was amazing and now someone is giving them free top of the line equipment.  Now that’s fun.

Read the autobiographies of the best of the best in your sport and the type of equipment they had when they started almost always follow the same pattern… milk crate boxes as baskets or goals, hand me down or left over equipment, or whatever entry level equipment they or their parents could afford to get them started.

If you want to be your best, rise to your best, then make equipment secondary. Invest all the time and money and effort that you would have put into equipment, into training, coaching, and the training tools that you need in order to improve.

Remember the movie Rocky? Rocky trained punching sides of beef, training in old nickel and dime store sweats, running in Converse hi tops, and worked with a crusty old coach out of a broken down gym.  In the 4th installment, Rocky faced Ivan Drago, a Russian boxer who had at his disposal every known technological training tool available to the KGB.  Yet when the illusion of superiority broke down, everything else fell apart, including Ivan.

Who do you want to be?  Rocky or Drago?

We don’t often consider the nuances to why one athlete wins and another loses, and it is for this reason why I believe that athletes should start with nothing other than the basic equipment. Athletes need to learn to train, need to see results from their training, see continued results from adjusting and progressing training, and become confident in themselves. When you race you need to draw confidence, belief, inspiration and motivation from somewhere.

Consider two athletes: one athlete draws their confidence from the training they have put forth over the past two years, the other athlete has little training to draw from but believes that their new equipment will get them to the finish. When the race gets into the final miles, when the body and brain are running on fumes, when the athlete has to dig down into another layer of themselves to finish the race… which athlete do you think will have the confidence, the belief, the inspiration and the motivation to finish and finish well?

Start the way you want to finish. If you want to finish because of the belief you have built in your potential, then start by building that belief. You can build belief in yourself, you cannot build belief in equipment, nor will equipment ever believe in you.