By - Chris Bagg - Professional Triathlete - Portland, Oregon
Nope, this isn’t a shameful piece about your holiday period (Kerstperiode for you Flemophiles out there). This is a story about one of my athletes, Kirk, who wrapped up his 2015 season at Los Cabos 70.3, took two weeks completely off, started his 2016 training the first week of December and then…went and did an Olympic-distance race in Palm Springs. Yep, two weeks totally off, a week of very light training, and then the high-intensity crucible of a short course triathlon. Surprisingly (or, actually, unsurprisingly, but we’ll see why in a bit), it went very well. He had his best swim of the year, out-biked his threshold power by about 5%, and then almost bested his open 10k time. Yeah, that’s right. Not his Olympic-distance 10k time, his rested and standalone 10k time.
I said “unsurprisingly” above because coaches and athletes hear stories like this all the time: someone back from four weeks of being sick blasting their half-marathon time out of the sky; athletes who haven’t swam in months posting their best Ironman swim times; and so on, across all sports, not just the endurance world. So how does it happen? Certainly, there’s a physical component: all of these athletes, Kirk included, were rested when they performed their heroics, but they were also all probably a little rusty physically, so the over-performance shouldn’t be there from solely a physical perspective. I think the obvious mental component is that they probably didn’t expect much, went in without a lot of nerves, and kaboom: nailed it. Now, this isn’t any kind of earthshattering observation: relaxed and unworried athletes have been doing this kind of thing for millennia. The trick here is how we can recreate Kirk’s relaxed performance in a bigger setting, like Age Group Nationals, or Escape from Alcatraz, where nerves and fear are likely to curtail some of that over-performing swagger. I believe the answer lies in PIE.
PIE is an acronym (not an abbreviation—go and look up the difference) for Physical/Intellectual/Emotional. The full acronym is PIES, with that additional “S” standing in for Spiritual. That’s important, too, but perhaps outside of the scope of this piece of writing at present. So we’ll make do with singular PIE. I asked Kirk to think back over his race, the final hours and minutes leading up to HITS Palm Springs, and write down what was happening for him physically, intellectually, and emotionally.
Physical—this is probably the easiest of the three to track, and easiest to describe. We’re athletes, we’re used to describing physical sensations. Were you loose? Tight? Hot? Cold? Short of breath? Breathing relaxed? Twitchy? Yawny? None of these are bad answers. Free yourself from the belief that some physical sensations are better than others. Some might be better for you, and some might be worse for you, but some athletes perform really well when they’re hot, short of breath, and twitchy, so don’t think this is a rhetorical exercise, and I’m looking for a specific set of answers. Think back to your last great race, and write down your physical sensations in the final hour before the race, and also in final minutes before the race.
Intellectual—also probably pretty easy to articulate. We’re wordy people, used to describing the thoughts in our heads. So what was running through yours in the final hour and then final minutes before your last breakthrough performance? Were you thinking about your competitors? Were you anticipating the coming discomfort of the race? Were your thoughts somewhere else completely? Did you focus on how you were going to (or not going to) perform that day? Did a particular leg of the race occupy your brain? Were you doing math problems? Again, no bad answers here—just your answers.
Emotional—this is probably the trickiest of the three (and might be a little trickier for men; sorry, guys, but it’s true: we are unsophisticated emotional organs), as identifying your feelings can be difficult. Usually what we’re feeling emotionally is a cocktail of “The Big Five,” which are Mad, Sad, Glad, Afraid, Ashamed. I can say that when I’m at my best, I’m a mixture of glad and afraid (nervousness and anxiety being a type of fear). I discovered, a few years ago, that I race best when I’m feeling jokey (a mix of glad and fear) and just a bit nervous (if I’m not nervous, then I’m in a much more dangerous emotional place: apathy, or lack of feeling; that is not a good place for me to race from). Write down your emotions for the final hour and final minutes before the race.
Here’s a table you can use in tracking your PIE from your last strong performance. Once you’ve identified these (what you want to be feeling physically, thinking intellectually, and feeling emotionally), then you can take the next step, which is figuring out what’s the best way for you to trigger those sensations, thoughts, and feelings. It’s likely you’ll be able to access these qualities through a variety of different ways: warm-up and breathing routines, music, caffeine, visualization. It’s important, though, that you don’t get beholden to any one way of triggering them. What if you forget your earphones? Your caffeine pills? Your stretch cords? You need to figure out a way to hit your mindset, “bodyset,” and “emotionset” in all types of circumstances. Once you’ve done that, you’ve take a huge step towards becoming a masterful, self-sufficient athlete, which is what every good coach wants you to become.
Thanks for reading - Bagg
About Chris Bagg
Chris Bagg is one of Wattie Ink’s professional triathletes. He lives, works, writes, trains, coaches, and very rarely (but very happily) plays ping pong in Portland, Oregon. His coaching company, Chris Bagg Coaching Group can be found on the web at chrisbagg.com/coaching or on Facebook here. He is @chrisbagg on Twitter here and @christopherbagg (he knows: confusing) on Instagram here.