by Chris Bagg

“…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” 

Hamlet, II.ii

A few weeks ago, one of my athletes left me the following report from a mid-week tempo run I’d assigned him: “Rough…rough…rough day today. I feel super fat. Sorry, just true. My wetsuit, as discovered yesterday, is too big from last year as my body comp has changed. My tri bike, I now realize, is too small. I don’t feel I am hitting these mid-week runs like I should or want to. To top it off, I feel like I am not in good enough shape to do well in Boise with no time left to get fitter. I did two miles at 7:45/mile and 7:30/mile after a 10 minute warm up as well as a handful of 1/4 mile repeats at 1:48 or so. I just couldn’t breathe. I just felt—again, for lack of a better word—fat. My new equipment needs got to me, it began POURING rain which turned to hail…I just ran off the track and back home.”

Alarmed, I scheduled a phone conversation with him for the next afternoon, a Friday. We talked about the workout, the equipment issues, and his level of fatigue. I told him to take Saturday off, hang out with his girlfriend, and then do a light run on Sunday. Monday he wrote me the following: “Monday. Feeling better. And giving myself some sympathy.  I’ve never trained this hard and for this duration. It’s new physically and mentally for me. I also have a competitive spirit that takes a beating through social media and NOW through working at the tri shop in town. I see posts on Twitter of people doing huge workouts. I talk with customers doing tons of events and I get down on myself for not being at their level. Yesterday I had to say to myself: “Hey, relax. Your first tri was 10 months ago.Thus far you’ve accomplished a ton  in that 10 months. A TON in 10 months…..patience.”

I was so pleased and proud to hear him come around. Haven’t we all been that first athlete from time to time, frustrated, worried, afraid that all our preparation will lead to nought? At a race a few years ago his words could have been mine. In the final weeks before Ironman Los Cabos, I had put on some weight in the weeks after training camp, and I figured that my race was over before it had even begun. I started the race under a cloud of resentment and fear. Needless to say, the race didn’t go well. Someone I worked with pointed out that I had convinced myself, ahead of time, that the race was a wash, and then I just went out there and confirmed my suspicions. But it didn’t have to be that way. How many of us, heavy with fatigue after a day of work, have dreaded a workout, only to have great sessions once we’ve started? I know I certainly have. This past Friday, after a very hard Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday block, I opened my TrainingPeaks account to see a hard race simulation workout: twice through a 1000-yard set that started with a 100 sprint, followed by two 400 yard intervals at race effort on short rest. There was no time that weekend to shift the swim back—I had ten hours of training to do over the next two days. I thought back to races I’d done where I’d felt bad beforehand but managed to get myself up for it by the time the gun went off. I made myself a strong cup of coffee, treated myself to something sugary (Portland is probably the best training town as far as pre-workout treats are concerned), and listened to a few of the songs I’d used for the videos I made at camp. I won’t narrate the whole workout, but my adjustment worked, and I nailed the session. 

The thread through all of this, that I learned from coaches wiser than I am, is perception. The athlete in the first example used the verb “to feel” four times in about 75 words. He felt fat, slow, and tired, and then perceived his reality as an overweight and slow athlete. That perception colored his whole workout, leaving him disgusted and frustrated. In Los Cabos, I felt that I wasn’t ready for the race, and then I confirmed that perception. In the last example, however, I felt awful, but managed to turn things around. My athlete, too, after a few days of rest, saw his meltdown for what it was: fueled by anxiety and a perception that he doesn’t measure up to the athletes around him.

It’s this habit of thinking that I want to change in my athletes, and athletes all over. Another athlete I worked with was obsessed with breaking the five-hour mark for the bike split in an Ironman. Despite the fact that pushing the bike often results in a disappointing run split, I can tell that she persisted in her perception that a fast bike was all-important. With this outcome goal always present (and the race she hoped to break that benchmark seven months distant), she measured every bike workout against that (to her) mythical barrier. She measured her present self against a perceived self that was going to be the beneficiary of over half a year of training. Hamstrung by this impossible mental hurdle, she struggled in her bike sessions: who could hope to measure up to our best versions of ourselves, the ones that win races and have nothing go wrong? Once she got discouraged, it made it hard for her to get to her next workout. Once that workout got, the dream seemed (to her) to recede farther. A terrible cycle had begun.

So what’s to be done? First of all, we have to remember that our perceptions change a lot about how we interface with the world. One only needs to return to my first example: a fatigued athlete on a rainy day who feels like he doesn’t belong, versus a man who’s gotten some rest and spent some time over the weekend gaining some perspective. Remembering that it’s our perception of reality that drives our behavior and performance can really help make things better. It won’t fix things right away, but maybe you can shelve the doubts and frustration for a little bit until you get through the warmup and realize hey, I don’t feel that bad, actually, maybe I’ll be able to get through these mile repeats after all…And the second thing is changing our relationship to that word “bad.” “Bad” is a judgment—it isn’t tied to something real in the world. It’s a construct based on our contexts, relationships, and values. I hear my athletes leveling this judgment at their own performances far too often: “I was so bad today…I raced really badly.” Thinking this way doesn’t help at all. When I used to teach creative writing, it was important to communicate to my students that criticism of this sort (“Your poem sucks!”) doesn’t help the writer in any way. Leveling the same kind of judgment at your athletic performances doesn’t help either. There are things we can take away from workouts that are encouraging (the “good” things, like “I was able to push a little bit harder than my prescribed wattage for those intervals today!”) and that we can use to build excitement for the next workout; and there are things that we can learn from in any workout (these are usually the “bad” things). But labeling those learning opportunities as “bad” steals from them their power to teach. Doing so just discards the workout, and often leads to the athlete believing some of his or her own negative hype: they believe that they, too, are “bad,” just like the workout that didn’t go so well.

So when I see an athlete return feedback like the feedback from my first example, I tend to try to defuse or re-wire the conversation. Often what’s needed is a little perspective (and in my athlete’s example, he provided that perspective himself after a few recovery days), and a reminder that individual workouts are never the final arbiter on an upcoming competition—a single workout is simply another step along the way towards that competition.