by Chris Bagg, featured photo courtesy of Korupt Vision

Ed. Note—we're starting a new column here at the Wattie Ink. blog, called "Ask an Endurance Coach." Once a month (or, every two months) we'll post a question from the endurance community and endeavor to answer it, utilizing the coaches here at Wattie Ink. Want to take part? Leave us a question on our Facebook page. This month we're asking a popular and evergreen question.

Where Did My Fitness Go?

Today is January 13th. Whatever sport you practice, in the last three months you’ve probably wrapped up your 2020 training, taken a small break, and then returned to training, dreaming about returning to 2021 races and the improvements you’ll make on last year’s achievements. You’re rested, motivated, excited, and (insert record scratch here) slower than ever? WTF? Did I erase all the work I did last year? What am I paying this coach for? How will I ever reach those loftier goals I set for 2021? Will I even be able to match last year’s pace, power, or speed? I probably need to add some more speed and intensity, right coach? Yeah?

As a coach, I hear comments like this through TrainingPeaks every morning at this time of year. Heck, I’ve thought these thoughts before myself, and have sent those same worried messages to my coach: Hey man, the run went OK, but I’m so much slower than I used to be. I used to run 7:00/mile for my easy runs. Now that pace feels really hard. 6:00/mile used to be an easy track pace. Now it’s my all-out pace. Are we doing something wrong? Maybe we need to do more?

Two different processes result in the kind of desperation outlined above, one physical and the next mental. The physical process is the simple and established process of detraining and then re-entering training, and the second, mental process is called magical thinking. I’ll go through each in turn, today, and provide athletes and coaches a toolkit for dealing with the combined effects of these processes.

photo courtesy of Cody Beals

De-training is Part of Development

Your coach made you take a break at the end of last season, right? Or maybe you knew you needed a break after a really tough year. As 2020 ground itself into oblivion, I took a few weeks off following an end-of-season virtual half-marathon. Other than practicing with my new (but dangerous) roller skis, I did as little as possible for two weeks. I worked on my coaching business and did some continuing education I’d been putting off. On December 13th, I started back to training, following a schedule that included some lightly structured swims, bikes, and runs. You probably already know the script. I was slow. Quite slow. As I swim, I usually eyeball the big digital clock that sits on deck and check my current pace against my supposed history as a swimmer, forming judgments about how that particular day is going. I don’t need to bore you with a diary of my swimming paces, but unsurprisingly I was swimming about 10-12 seconds slower per 100 meters at a moderate effort than I’d swam at the same effort only a few months before (it’s probably not necessary to say, but the same pattern repeated itself in my running and cycling).

This process is called de-training, and it is a long-accepted part of athletics. When you stop working out, the adaptations you incurred through training begin to unwind and disappear. A much less-accepted aspect of sport is the fact that periods of detraining are necessary to continue long-term development. We all know athletes (maybe it’s ourselves) who does the same training year-round, never varying their approaches or periods of recovery, content to simply keep achieving the same achievements. These athletes worry, deep down, that if they stop training all of their hard work has been for naught, and it will take longer to reclaim their lost fitness after a break. Their identities orbit the accomplishments and numbers in their trophy cases (real and imagined), and a loss of fitness, for these athletes, is really a loss of self. They are terrified at the prospect of taking a break.

We know, however, that the principles of overload, compensation, and recovery are well-established, and that an athlete’s training (and subsequent development) looks more like a healthy stock exchange than a straight line: periodic corrections and losses, but an upward trend over time. De-training (a market correction) plays a central role in getting faster. A proper plan builds in regular periods of de-training (in-season they’re called recovery blocks), and a bigger period at the end of the year. So make your peace with de-training—days and weeks of rest can be just as important as days and weeks of hard workouts.

Your Memory Sucks

Yes, your memory sucks. You think you’ve got a mind like a trap, but it’s a lot more like a lobster trap than a bank vault: plenty of things (water, smaller Crustacea, fish, heck, even lobsters) flow in and out of your lobster trap mind. Your brain chooses what it wants and needs to remember, selecting for positive (do that again!) and negative (stay away!) memories. Over time our brains refine those memories, continuing to lionize the positives and de-emphasize the negative. These re-dressed memories form an important part of our identities. As a coach I hear this kind of remembering all the time, usually in a statement such as one of the two following statements: “I’m a xx:xx runner in a half-marathon,” or “I’m a bad open-water swimmer.”

There are two problems with thinking this way. First is that—as I said above—you’re probably misremembering things. Quick, what was the time of your best race in the last three years? No peaking or cheating, although that information is only a few mouse-clicks away. Got it? OK, now you can go look. Did you nail it? I’m guessing you didn’t. We tend to romanticize those great performances, letting them form the bases of our athletic identities, and over time the remembered results or paces begin to creep faster and faster. This is an extreme example, but who hasn’t met someone who claims to run seven-minute miles in races, only to find out later that “seven-minute miles” apparently included running 7:59 per mile? This kind of thinking is called magical thinking, and we do it both looking backwards into the past and projecting ourselves forward into the future. I did it when I sent that note to my coach, claiming that 7:00/miles used to be my “easy” pace. So, intrigued, I went back and looked. Guess what? I was wrong. Like, really wrong. The same goes for my swimming. That “moderate pace” that was 10-12 seconds faster than my “newly returned to training moderate pace?” In truth it was only five or six seconds faster.

Fixed- vs Growth-Mindsets

The second problem with thinking in this manner is that you’re using a fixed-mindset rather than a growth-mindset. As people, we really like to know where we fit in the pecking order, whether we’re talking about our local social structures, athletic leagues, or workplaces. Being able to define yourself as “a 1:17 half-marathoner” or as "having a 300 watt FTP!” clearly slides you into a particular stratum. That feels nice, especially if we perceive that stratum as being better than a majority of the people around us. What isn’t nice, though, is that you are telling yourself a story, and that over time you’ll probably come to believe it. Running 1:17 for a half-marathon is pretty great, of course, but by saying that’s who you are you are putting a limit on your ability to improve. Maybe 1:17 is the outer limit, but if you believe it is, I guarantee you that you’ll stay there forever.

photo courtesy of Professional Triathletes' Organization/Tommy Zaferes

Fighting Back, Moving Forward

OK, so we’ve established that de-training is good and necessary. You know that you’re probably mis-remembering your past fitness, and that fixed mindsets (“I used to swim 1:23/100 every time I went to the pool!”) pose risks to your development. Great. That’s some good self-knowledge. You still feel slow today, however, here on January 13th. The most important thing not to-do is to freak out and start changing the plan. If you do too much too soon, you’ll just get injured, or sick, or injured AND sick. You’ll also experience the isolation of abandoning the sensible plan of progression advocated by your coach. But that’s a “not to-do,” which isn’t as helpful as a “to-do.” Here’s what I do (and what I suggest my athletes do): each week I make a note in my TrainingPeaks workouts that articulates what pace/power/heartrate/speed I was able hold in that particular workout. When I’m swim fit, for example, I tend to swim around 1:23-1:26 per 100m at a moderate effort. During my first week back, I noted that “moderate” effort got me around 1:30-1:32. Last week, my pace per 100 had accelerated to around 1:25-1:27/100. By keeping a log (probably the most powerful thing you can do as an athlete, after doing your training), I could see the real numbers improving. If I had trusted my memory, I wouldn’t have that powerful evidence, and wouldn’t have the confidence in my returning fitness that logging generated. So don’t just trust your devices to upload all of your info! Leave your coach some notes, tracking your returning speed. You may not be fast today, but you know, from your log, that you’ll be fast again soon.