Part 5: Kona 2016 Diary presented by Matchsports
Week 3 Recap. Week 2 Preview. The Anti-Fragile Athlete.
Well, it finally happened. I reached whatever level of fatigue it takes to keep from wanting to write. I had intended to post an update last week, but that plan fell by the wayside in favor of… Well, I don’t really remember. It’s basically a blur. Week 3 went pretty well; I ran more and rode less than the prior week, but overall load seemed about the same. There were some key “specific” simulations – long swim, long bike, and long run (on separate days) – that were all quite good. These were not workouts where I could – or would even really want to – set a PR. They were much more like the race which they are designed to prepare me for – they reward steadiness and consistency and not blowing up. In fairness, I did blow up a little bit during both the bike and the run, but it was not catastrophic. More just a reminder that Ironman is really far and that a healthy respect for the distance is never a bad thing.
The weather either cooperated or didn’t, depending on your perspective. It was hot and surprisingly humid, which makes training much harder, but which is also a better simulation for Kona than typical “Mediterranean” weather. As much as I might hate it, I do value the heat and the wind, because I think it makes you more prepared. The concept of antifragility was developed by Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and is outlined in his book by the same name. The basic concept here is not just robustness – meaning an ability to withstand shocks – but rather a system which actually thrives on shocks and uncertainty. Taleb is a big fan of health/fitness/wellness in spite of (or because of) his background as a trader, and I am by no means the first to extrapolate the mathematical concept of antifragility into a physical concept that you can apply to the human body.
For a long time, I prided myself on being not just durable, but antifragile, though I did not know the term at the time. Some of my best races – like the inaugural Leadman Epic 250 in Las Vegas – have come when I think that massively difficult conditions have actually made me better than I might have been otherwise. I didn’t have this file uploaded, but it was easy to find because I knew the race was in May of 2011, and I just needed to look for the largest Garmin file that was about 5x as big as anything else… I also look back at the ITU Long Distance World Champs in the same way. Yes, as a 2nd pack swimmer, the canceled swim due to the cold helped me. But I think the biggest thing that helped me was that we were all put in a situation that we weren’t prepared for. Except I was. Because I had – and do – workouts where I basically do not warm-up on the bike, I just go. How often? I don’t know. Fundamentally, I think the important answer is, simply, “more than never.”
This is why I train on the wheels that I race on. On tires that I race on. With tubes that I race on. With helmets that I’ll wear. Some things – like wheels, which change a lot about how a bike handles – I try to do all the time. Other things, like helmets, where I value the safety of not having my ears covered a great deal, I do less often. I don’t think there needs to be a hard and fast rule here. Just, basically, “if you can imagine it, make sure you practice it.”
I started thinking about this again after listening to a podcast that Joel did with JFT Squad physio (part time) Paul Westwood. They talk a lot about the role of physiotherapy and “interventions” and whether or not they have a place in elite sport. (The audio could be cleaned up a bit, but it’s a good listen; just make sure you don’t do it over earbuds, as the amplitude of the audio seems to jump a bit such that there are times when it’s really loud.) I agree with most of what they talk about, especially their primary conclusion, which is that you need to focus on what athletes *CAN* do, not what they *CANNOT.* On area where I do disagree is on the topic of pneumatic compression boots. I have worked with NormaTec since 2009, and several of the things that Joel and Paul cite as weaknesses of the boots are actually things that I think are strengths. Especially as compared with massage, I much prefer the boots for a variety of reasons.
Unlike a massage therapist, the boots are easy to travel with. They don’t require their own plane ticket, or food, or a hotel room, or anything else. You just need to bring them and plug them in (or, in the case of the new Pulse, charge it). They are always the same. There’s no wondering if this massage therapist will be good or bad or whatever. Now, certainly, they do not provide the human touch, and they can’t hit every muscle, but they can work your legs, hips, and arms, which is most of you. As far as expense, for a device that is designed to last years, they are a lot cheaper than massage too on a per-use basis. And there is quite good evidence that they are effective (more than placebo), though that of course opens up the discussion of how best to use them, since we know now that you can indeed over-assist on the recovery side. This is a topic for a larger discussion, but, basically, my stance now is that I use the NormaTec system extensively during taper and after a race – when recovery is a priority – and try to be judicious about how/when I use it during normal training. Is this “right“? I don’t know. But it seems to make sense to me. Regardless, I’m much happier sitting in the boots and reading – and the research shows there’s a bigger benefit here than just sitting on the couch, and I don’t have to go somewhere for massage, find a masseuse, etc.
I do have a “physio” (though we don’t really use that term in the US) that I work with – Blair Ferguson, an MAT practitioner who I have worked with since 2009, but the focus of our work together (again, a topic for a longer post) is how to do I get the most out of my swimming, biking, and running. The work I do with Blair is designed to allow me to do the training that actually matters. And along these lines, I’m totally aligned with Paul and with Joel – triathletes need to be swimming, biking, and running *as much as possible* (with a heavy emphasis on “possible,” which means you don’t injure yourself or otherwise chop your own head off).
One thing that I do appreciate about working with Joel is that he has a core set of beliefs, but outside of those core beliefs, he’s remarkably flexible. Steve Magness wrote about “The Plight of the Ego Coach,” which focuses on the problems that arise from working with a coach who defines himself based on his resume and the successes of his athletes. This is basically the antithesis of Joel, and reading this dovetailed nicely with an article that Jill sent me about why 70% of kids in the USA quit sports by the time they are 13. The point of both articles is the same – the an excessive focus on outcome rather than process is disastrous. This is not a new topic for me to address, but it’s also one that is especially relevant leading into the biggest race of the season.
The danger with any sort of discussion of “process” is that you can lose sight of the fact that outcomes are important. My goal is to have a good race in Kona, and a large part of that is certainly outcome driven. It’s essential not to use the idea of “process” as a way to engage in post hoc justification of whatever happens. Failure is not just important as “learning experience” – something that I think we see far too much of in the mantra inspired by Silicon Valley to “fail fast.” Failure is important because life is not fair. Sometimes you work really, really, really hard for something, and it doesn’t happen in any way that even remotely resembles what you were hoping for. Sometimes you just fail. You don’t have an excuse. You don’t really learn anything other than a reminder that failure happens and that it feels awful. And that is it.
But that’s a hugely valuable life lesson.
Uncertainty is hard. But also important.
This is the part of sport that is far too often now taken away. The uncertainty. It’s driven by a lot of different factors, and I think you can generally put them all under the heading, “Plight of the Ego.” Whether it’s the ego of the coach, the parents, the athletes, the federation, the country, or all/many/some of them, there’s a huge sense that we have to turn failure into something positive. But failure is, in and of itself, neither inherently positive or negative. Sometimes you learn. Sometimes you don’t suck but you still lose. And sometimes you really do just suck. All of these things are important on their own.
Process is about integrating all of these things just as they are. A bad workout or a race can be just a bad workout. It can be a sign that things need to change. It can be a learning experience. It can be all of those things or none of them. Process is about giving a genuine and thoughtful effort to the task at hand and then accepting the outcome for what it actually is. Don’t inject meaning that isn’t there. And don’t ignore meaning that is.
So what do these things – antifragility and the plight of the ego – have to do with each other? I think everything. The surest way to be someone who thrives under certainty and in the face of shocks is to subjugate your ego. If ego is at least partly defined as, “a desire for things to be the way you think they ought to be,” then maybe we can define antifragility as, “a desire for things to be the way they aren’t supposed to be,” or, at least, “a desire for uncertainty.” To quote Tony Robbins, “Who here likes surprises? You? Bullshit. You like the surprises you want.” Unwelcome surprises can be a good thing too. (I promise you that I have absolutely no particular sense of comfort with this concept, but I’m working on it…)
Now what do these things have to do with the particulars of Week 3? Nothing. Except that this is what I spent a lot of last week thinking about. And what does it have to do with Week 2? Nothing. Except that this is what I’m thinking about heading into this week.