images all courtesy of Dylan Haskin

by Jesse Kropelnicki

Ed. Note—we've all been there, right, when training just doesn't seem that enjoyable anymore? The original enthusiasm, nay, obsession even, has faded, and our workouts feel like toil. Jesse Kropelnicki, head coach at QT2 Systems, joins us today to talk about how to balance the two necessary poles of triathlon development.

Sacrifice (Details) vs. Fun

Sacrifice and fun are the yin and yang of triathlon improvement. They appear as polar opposites, yet cannot exist without one another. Sacrifice, without fun, leads to an eventual situation where the body begins to fail to respond to the applied physical load, despite perfect restoration. I know this seems like a crazy concept as inputs should provide outputs, but the human body is complex, and I can tell you after years of doing this, even perfect inputs without enjoyment will not result is performances the inputs suggest. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations fail to arouse an athlete who is too focused on the details of his or her training, rather than on some enjoyment of that training. The ultimate goal of any athlete’s program should be to utilize as much training detail and sacrifice as possible, while still ensuring that it remains enjoyable: pick your battles and know where details and sacrifice is most critical for YOU. This is a difficult balance, but it is THE key to maximizing genetic talent. Detail, without fun, and fun, without detail (while effective in creating a fit and functioning athlete), will only result in an athlete who is a mere fraction of who he could be over his entire career in the sport.

Continuous development is no easy task. This fact becomes more apparent as the time period over which we’re trying to develop lengthens, as progress becomes more and more difficult to attain.  When new to anything, including the sport of triathlon, we improve quickly, and we feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment because we can see and feel that improvement palpably.  Progress is present, certain, and obvious. But this learning curve shallows over time. As we become more and more proficient with any, or all, of the components of triathlon, the attention to detail required to continue that progress, grows commensurately. As proficiency increases, the effort and attention to detail required to achieve more of it grows and grows.  Our goal today is to discover the relationship between physical progress and attention to detail, and the role that keeping things fun plays in all of it.

So what are the different factors that play into an athlete’s mindset, preparation, and performance? What are the aspects we must account for, when determining where an athlete may fall on the “Detail/Fun” spectrum, and how to best go about preparing them, once we know?  To this end we have three significant factors at play: genetic ability, desired performance outcomes, and the athlete’s ability/willingness to make sacrifices. Of these, genetic ability is completely involuntary, while choice plays a significant role on the latter two. We all know that the ability to make sacrifices is a choice, but, as it turns out, it does not come very easily.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of how all of the above theory looks, in practice. We will look, first, at what fun looks like, in training and racing. We will then consider two different types of athletes: the one who applies far too much detail to training, and then his or her opposite. 

images all courtesy of Dylan Haskin

Detailed Diana

Diana possesses decent athletic potential. She has some performance goals which are a bit beyond her ability levels, and therefore require a tremendous amount of detail, in her training, in order to achieve them physically. Unfortunately, in applying so much detail with her training, she grows to resent the training, and becomes miserable in what she does. She is in danger of not even living up to her training potential, because the training is such a mental drain for her. While she requires the detail in her training in order to achieve her goals, she is fast approaching mental burnout, because she just can’t get into the stringent nature of her daily workouts.  With so much focus placed on specific paces and wattages, for each and every workout, the stress of these sessions will eventually drive Diana into frustration and misery, both during and surrounding workouts. Diana needs a mental break, every now and again, with workouts that will allow her to be in a pressure-free environment. These breaks will help her to be able to apply the detail of her training, over the long-haul, and make true long-term progress. Otherwise she will likely see very good short-term progress, but without the ability to do it over the long-term, due to the pressure of her training, this progress will be short-lived.

images all courtesy of Dylan Haskin

Laid-back Larry

Like Diana, Larry has decent athletic potential, and requires detail in training in order to achieve his desired athletic goals, which also surpass his abilities. Larry is like many athletes in that he remains quite adamant in his performance goals, but not in his willingness to skip out on all of the fun workout opportunities that pass before him. Larry is the guy who attends Master’s swimming most mornings, run group on Tuesdays, spin classes on Wednesdays, the weeknight 5k on Thursday night, the group ride on Saturday, and another road race on Sunday. His workouts are so centered around fun, and the social aspects of training, that there is no room for detail. Larry’s specific limiters get lost in the fun of his training. Any time that these limiters are actually touched is more accidental than anything else. Without addressing his specific limiters, Larry will just be disappointed with his race day results and become injured and/or physically burnt out.  Larry needs to structure his training such that he can still do some of the workouts that incorporate fun into his week, but perhaps not all of them. He needs to sacrifice a bit of the fun, in order to achieve the detail that will lead him to his goals.

Keeping training fun—when we must also consider the need for detail—is no easy task! For this reason, we must think outside of the box, and look for opportunities in areas that we may not normally see. A good starting point is to make sure that our initial mindset is appropriate. Training is little more than the application of stress, over time without going too quickly to cause injury. We control the faucet on how that stress is applied, and must see it for what it is. Fun can be pretty easily applied to training, if we view training, really, as the management of an athlete’s stress budget. As the coach, we must know when and how to apply appropriate and adequate levels of stress, and when not to. Inherent in this is the idea that stress can come in many different flavors. In order to think along these lines, we need to get away from the detail-oriented mindset that workouts, such as 3x10 minutes at certain wattages/intensities, are the catalysts for performance, and into the mindset of maintaining the ‘spirit of the workout.' To believe that particular workouts are difference-makers is quite antiquated. Many coaches possess libraries of workouts they believe to be the key to athlete progression. That mindset is a bit of a farce. More appropriately, real progress comes as the result of how and when these workouts are applied over the long haul to keep the athlete consistent and uninjured. That is the true art of coaching.