© Eric Wynn 2012
Part 4: Kona 2016 Diary presented by Matchsports
Week 4 recap. Week 3 preview. How To Be Lazy.
I have a rare treat leading into Kona this year – a friend. Andi Böcherer of Germany is staying with our neighbor for two-ish weeks leading into Kona this year. In the past week, I have trained with someone else more than I trained with someone else the entire year. Granted, that means I’ve done two workouts with company, but still, that’s a big change. One thing Germans are really good at is going easy. I think Europeans, in general, are just better at this. Or, maybe, it’s just that Americans are really bad at it. Or maybe it’s just that I’m really bad at it, which is a byproduct of my own personality which has nothing much to do with being American.
Simon Whitfield was also a master of going easy – it was maddening at times because he’d go so, so slow, which is probably why he had only one serious injury in the entire time I knew him (he tore a muscle in his upper back doing bike preparation on the ITU World Champs course in Lausanne; it had a massive hill that just required some big surges to get up). I used to start workouts basically at the speed at which I planned to execute them. I didn’t really believe in warm-ups, and that approach served me reasonably well right up until the point that it didn’t. But once it became clear that I needed to warm-up, I had a problem. I didn’t really know how to do it. I had all kinds of bizarre AOCD (Athlete Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) issues like: “if I’m supposed to run at pace of 4:30/km, and I start slower, does that mean I have to run faster so that my average pace is 4:30/km or do I just speed up until I’m at 4:30/km, in which case my average will be slower.” This is a real problem. I also know that at least half of you who are laughing out loud at this have suffered from an equally ridiculous dilemma yourselves.
There is no greater conundrum than the modern equivalent of, “If a tree falls in the forest…” The modern equivalent is, “If I go for a run/ride, and my Garmin doesn’t record it, did it really happen.” The struggle is real people… The classic adage from the Kenyan running coach is that American distance runners go too hard when they should go easy and not hard enough when they should go hard. Of course, given the status of anti-doping efforts in Kenya, this helpful little quip is a bit harder to take seriously. But it’s actually still pretty good. Though I have modified it slightly to, “American triathletes cannot go hard enough when they should go hard because they go too hard when they should go easy.” I feel like this may be a redundant sentiment that I covered in bits and pieces (and maybe exactly, though not where I thought I might have when I double-checked) earlier this year. Anyway, going easy is important.
As I’ve gotten older, I think I’m better when I have to try hard, though I can’t try hard as often. Especially when I swim, I think I’ve finally started to again improve as a swimmer by virtue of only trying hard when it’s time to try hard and not really trying hard when it’s not time to try hard. This sort of ties into my decision to take a week totally off after an Ironman as opposed to trying to do something. I am not sure how much is physical and how much is mental – or even how much you can separate the two, but what is clear is that if you try hard all the time, it’s make it much harder to try hard when you really need to. The idea that you should not always be going, “as hard as possible (relative to intensity)” is new to me. In other words, it’s not necessarily a good thing that your “easy” stuff is actually pretty intense. Who knew?
One of the best parts about training with a guy like Andi, who is very fast, is that it’s a nice antidote to the craziness of social media, where a “typical training week” is biggest swim week ever + biggest bike week ever + biggest run week ever all multiplied by roughly 110-150%. It’s nice to be reminded that I can sometimes go even easier when I’m going easy, that I train pretty hard, and that other athletes also train hard and in different ways than I might have thought about. Sometimes training with others can undermine your confidence. But with a good athlete who has a good coach, it’s the opposite. Your confidence is boosted because you see that there is no magic, no silver bullet; it’s just consistency and appropriate application of effort.
Like me, Andi has a “real coach” – Lubos Bilek – who also coaches Sebastian Kienle. I think many people focus on the differences between coaches; but I think what’s remarkable is the similarities. I speak virtually no German (though I know what “Lauf” and “Rad” mean), and yet I can make pretty clear sense of Andi’s training plan. It’s interesting to see what’s different, but I don’t find the differences to be overwhelming. There’s no TSS, no zones, no hyper-specificity. Coach trusts athlete to make the short term plan – how/when/where to do a specific workout, and athlete trusts coach to make the long term plan.
When this works, success is almost inevitable. But when it starts to break down, success is almost impossible. Self-doubt – or really any doubt: in coach, in equipment, in anything important – is, I think, the biggest obstacle for most elite athletes. I think this is (part of) why it’s easier to become successful than it is to stay successful. When you don’t have success, success is a change. So the goal is to break from consistency, which is – I think – easier because it’s more clearly defined. But when you are successful, change is bad. And yet also necessary. So I think that’s part of why doubt becomes more problematic as you become more successful. What is the change that’s necessary and what is the change that you are trying to avoid? This is why it’s so important to have a good coach. Because these decisions are really hard to make on your own.
The past week started out pretty poorly. Except for swimming, where the trend of being quite good has continued. It took me until Friday to find my legs on the bike. And until Saturday to find my legs on the run. But the week seemed relatively convergent – I got more consistent in training across three sports – rather than divergent – becoming less consistent. I was somewhat “meh” on the week upon first reflection, because there were some workouts where I really struggled. On the one hand, there were a roughly equal number of “good” and “not good” and “bad” workouts. But after thinking about the distribution – all the “good” workouts came at the end of the week, I was more positive.
One struggle that I had was that while it was a solid week of training, I also didn’t feel like it was something where I was capable of a lot more. But Joel pointed out that simply stacking another week on top of this one would actually be, “more.” Two good weeks is more than one good week. That’s true. I often get stuck in the trap of how much more this week is as compared with last week, as opposed to thinking about things in a more cumulative way. “How much?” is something that can be answered in a variety of different ways.
Some of this is inherently obvious, and it’s more obvious the more micro the scale. We all realize quite clearly that the work:rest aspect of interval training allows you to get more out of yourself. [N.B. while I say “we all, ” will say that I’m shocked at how often this is a novel concept, and how often people just go out and swim, bike, and run at one, consistent, kind-of-but-not-really hard pace all the time. Stop doing that people…] One interesting thing that I’ve experimented with is how changing the work to rest ratio changes the workout. In particular, when I swim, the amount of rest I get seems to make an outsize difference – as compared, for example with cycling – to how hard I can go. Some of this is that rest intervals for swimming are often static in ways that cycling and running aren’t. Like, you just stop swimming and wait at the wall. And the ratios are often quite large (e.g. 70-75 seconds of swimming with 10-15 seconds of rest equals work:rest of 7:1-5:1; versus typically more like 3:1 or 2:1 for cycling or even 1:1 or 1:2 for running). But for me, an extra 10 or 15 seconds makes a huge difference. I used to try to go on as tight an interval as possible. Now I try to go on a more relaxed interval, because I want the hard part to be as good as possible.
As the time scale expands, the picture becomes even murkier. It’s easier to understand breaks within the day – why pros space workouts out during the day rather than just doing every workout as a brick or as a triathlon. But I think it starts to break down when you break from a clearly delineated – but somewhat arbitrary – time scale. Most typical in this is the 7 day training block. Some coaches depart from this, but logistically – what days the pool is open, for example – often precludes that. Any sort of departure from known/established time scales can be quite hard – it seems – for athletes to manage. I think this is why the idea of a “day off” or a “rest week” seems to have so much appeal. While I do think that a complete break – as with my week off post-IM – can have value, especially on the mental side, I think there’s a reticence to think in more “abstract” time periods about recovery.
To start this week, for example, I have two easy days. That part of this week is actually easier than last week. The end of the week has workouts that are harder than last week. So what is the appropriate time scale to consider training load on? Is this week harder or easier than last week? Does that really even matter? This is why so many of the quips and cliches about training are so hard to actually implement. Whether it’s the so-called recovery focus of statements like, “you don’t get faster when you’re training; you get faster when you’re recovering.” or the training-load focus of any of the pseudo-objective physiological models out there, it’s very hard to summarize training in a way that always makes sense. This is, as I said in my last post and above, why a good coach is so invaluable. The hardest decisions are always the ones that are counter-intuitive, which is magnified by the fact that you get stupider the more you train. Sometimes the right answer is to train less. Sometimes it is to train more. And sometimes it’s to just keep doing the same thing.
I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with all of this. I have a much less clear message to share than, “How to be Perfectly Unhappy.” At the same time, I feel like there is more substance here. Why is change sometimes good and sometimes bad? How do we define rhythm? Why – following up on both of those ideas – do I seem to race consistently well in August but not in March? Can I change that? Should I change that? Why do I get more flat tires in June? What sort of time scale do I need to look at to understand that pattern? Is there a pattern? How does this affect October, a month where I have not – traditionally – raced very much? One of the best parts of having Andi here is that I can ask these questions of someone who is not me and who doesn’t think I am crazy when I ask them.
I find these things endlessly fascinating. And interesting. And thinking about them and working – physically and mentally – to try to understand them might even be making me happy…