Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.
Great results are wonderful. Especially if we have worked hard for something. There is something so satisfying about gritting it out, building something from the ground up, pulling off a good performance, whether it’s in sport or some other area of our life.
Do we do something because we want to work hard? Do we follow a path because we desire a great result? Do we only work really hard at the things that we have passion for? Do we build what we are good at? What comes first, the motivation to succeed, or the outcomes that motivate us to keep trying?
I’ll put this in the context of a race goal. Using the wise words of Thomas Merton, if you only focus on the outcome (whatever result you are hoping to achieve) you may work really hard and be sorely disappointed in a poor showing. This will cause you to be blind to all the cool moments that happen along the way. Or you may have a positive result but then look at your medal and wonder if it really matters, in the large scheme of things. Or want a bigger medal.
As I started my path along a high performance career I had one thing that I craved more than anything. I wanted to go to the Olympics. I wanted to call myself an Olympian and become an Ambassador in Canadian Sport. I dreamed about going to the Olympics and racing for Canada, and I set all my early goals with that end in mind: national Championships, qualifying events, time standards, 12 training sessions, 2 physio, and 1 massage appointment a week.
I changed my habits to support this dream. My life became a 24/7 cycle of eating, training, sleeping, travelling and racing. The more I changed my habits to support my goal, the closer I could see that I was getting. I gave up a lot of things that other 22 year olds were doing, but it didn’t feel like sacrifice. I climbed the rankings, my times got better, I developed my fitness and I worked on my mental skills. It was hard: I had injuries and setbacks, money was tight, I wondered what the hell I was doing at times, but I never stopped because something in me needed to pursue this goal, and I was making enough progress to reward all the hard work.
I tried for Atlanta 1996, in the 5000m and failed, but I kept trying. In 2000, I failed again (well, I was pregnant and had a baby, so that doesn’t really count as a failure unless you want to count failure to plan), and finally for Athens 2004 I failed to make the Olympics for the final time. Interestingly, by the time 2004 came around, I had learned so much, had broadened my career, to include road running and duathlon and triathlon and I was so in love with the process of training, with being an athlete and with trying to be the best and fastest I could be, that while not making the Olympics was a disappointment, I had gained so much more about the truth of hard work and being an athlete, that it didn’t crush me.
In the end, it was all about the desire to strive for excellence. Where I was, at the height of my career, excellence was both what I was doing and the result. There were many races, where it was possible to win, where I believed I could win: and in those races, I wanted to win. My friends said they would see competitiveness written on my face. However, my motivation wasn’t ever to be better than anyone else. I just wanted to be the best that I could be and winning a race seemed like the logical thing to strive for. The only thing to strive for. But in that striving was a very clear intention. I wanted to see what I was capable of. I wanted to see how fast I could get, how tough I could be, how much I could suffer, and how well I could execute a race.
As I matured and started coaching, I wanted to pass this knowledge on and mentor younger athletes, help them past the obstacles I had already run into. And then I started to see inspiration all around me - could see that this was true for all athletes and why people keep signing up over and over again for competitions.
Goals are important, and I’ve always coached people to choose their goals carefully. But goals won’t motivate us, if our intentions don’t support our soul. I also think it’s really hard for anybody to feel inspired, be motivated or take action if the goal is chosen for the wrong reason.
When our intention is to train with respect and care for ourselves, to support the others around us and see how far we can go, we are carving a positive pathway for ourselves. If our motivation is rooted in needing to prove ourselves worthy, or to dominate, then fear and negative patterns become our training partners.
If you are one of the many thousands of people who choose to set a goal for yourself – whether it is to start walking, complete your first 5k or challenge Ironman Triathlon – don’t except inspiration every day, or to be massively motivated for every training session. Inspiration and motivation ebb and flow, and when they come it is beautiful, and like a sign post, they show us we are on the right path. What will keep you going, is having the right intention (and this is wildly personal), and most of all, developing good habits that support exactly what you intend to do.
Eat well, sleep well, take care of logistics and be kind to yourself.
Run For Joy
Over the course of my career, there were many times when I didn’t have a coach next to me, giving me cues, or keeping me on track. Endurance athletes seem to have an independent nature yet they still need to develop good decision making skills. I had to learn to train well on my own and I learned like a lot of people, through failure. Once I had failed though, I was pretty determined not to repeat the failure. I learned about training too hard on my easy days in the hardest way possible. I was at the World Student Games in Sheffield, England, and I was a young, enthusiastic runner, excited to be alongside my idols and role models. I was so wrapped up in the experience of the event, my first really big multisport games, that I tagged along for a training run with some of the more experienced members of the Canadian Team. So happy to be just running with the elite, the best of the best, I pretty much hammered to keep up during a 10 mile run at slightly faster than 6 min/mile pace. This run ended up being a strong tempo run, (probably a 4.5 out of 5 on the effort scale at the end of the run) and, being 2 days out of my 10 000m track event, left me with nothing on race day. I will never forget the disappointment of running that championship race on demolished legs. After 6 laps, it was a struggle, and suffering through each of the remaining interminable 19 laps taught me 25 times over to never again throw away a race during training.
The ability to be paying attention to what is happening right now, fully accepting of it, appreciating it, and not wishing for anything more, or for it to be different. Particularly, to not be distracted by ‘thinking’ - by music, your outside environment, or your unhelpful thoughts.
I believe it is really important for people to develop this skill of mindfulness in training for several reasons. Mindfulness brings your attention to what is happening with your body in the moment. When you are mindful, you are more likely to be relaxed and without tension, and this will improve your body’s ability to move effectively. When you are paying attention, you will notice when something isn’t quite right - like a small ache or pain - and you can stop and stretch, slow down or stop before it becomes an injury. When you are mindful you aren’t distracted my multitasking, and this is both powerfully beneficial to your mental health and helps increase your intrinsic enjoyment for training. If you are mindful you don’t ignore a pain that will become an injury.
There is another quality to mindfulness, though, as it pertains to your goals, and priorities. I could argue that during my 10 mile run through the countryside outside Sheffield, in the lead up to the Student Games 10 000, I was entirely mindful. I was so mindful of my effort and my love of running that I totally forgot about my goal of running the track race in 2 evenings hence. If I had been truly mindful about what was needed of myself, as my own best coach to prepare optimally for the event, for which I had travelled across the globe, then I would have been able to run in a relaxed easy manner, for a shorter duration, and been ready.
I feel there is a helpful correlation to mindfulness and learning to train by perceived effort. This is beneficial for beginners to aerobic exercise as it will teach you to listen to your body - and it is simple and gadget free. At first, even a slight increase in pace will feel hard and uncomfortable, but over time you will find that your body is adapting to lactate accumulation and you can go comfortably for longer. The other benefit to training by perceived effort, and not heart rate, is that your body is not a robot. Sleep, stress, coffee, and other environmental factors can affect your heart rate, causing confusion and sometimes stress in athletes trying to attain unreasonable rates of work based on what they think they should do (that is, based on a quantitative system of improvement for the sole sake of compiling data). “I ran this loop at x pace last week so I need to run it at x pace this week, or I did x miles last week and I want to do x miles +n - no matter what). Learning your own effort levels in the absence of a coach is a solid start to training and staying healthy.
As Olympic marathoner Lorraine Moller puts it in her wonderful article about self-coaching called “Becoming a Body Whisperer, “All champion runners can tune in to their bodies' signals to such a high degree that they have the ability to optimally divvy out their effort over the distance required using precise split-second decisions. They don't have the time or mind-space during a race to check their monitor data, make a cell phone call to their coach and wait for him to call back with instructions on whether to increase or decrease their pace after downloading it into a computer. Nor would they want such a clumsy system when their inner technology is so much more sophisticated, speedy and accurate. Although such a scenario is laughable, many runners proceed as if this were the case and fall apart when the race requires them to be self-reliant. By contrast, every champion athlete, almost without exception, is an expert body whisperer whose trust in their internal abilities of gauging effort, pacing and timing is unwavering”.
Spend some time training by feel alone
Training without a watch, or any technology will help you tune into your effort, and help you learn to trust your instincts about pace. Train on your own, without a watch, without HR monitors, music or any gizmos. Choose a route you know will take you roughly the amount of time you need for one of your aerobic easy training days. It doesn’t have to be exactly the 20 or 30 minutes, but close, within 5 minutes. If you don’t feel comfortable training without a watch, because you are new to the sport and do not know your routes, you can wait and do this session when you have some data for the routes that you do often - like in your neighbourhood or around a park. Another option is to do smaller loops - time yourself for one loop. Now you know how long it takes, roughly, to do this loop. Now go do the loop again as many times as you think you need in order to hit the prescribed training time. Or simply go out and back. Wear a watch on the way out, then take off the watch and train by feel and effort for the way home.
Aerobic development is important, but not to the point where you injure yourself.
To walk or run long distances, the development of the cardiovascular system through aerobic endurance sessions is necessary, but also unique to individuals. I learned early in my career, that my heart and desire were far greater and stronger than my muscular skeletal system. While some of my peers were running 150 km/week, I rarely could hold greater than 80 before I broke down or got sick. This limited my ability to be a great marathoner and I stuck with half marathon, 10k, and 5k, and eventually added triathlon to my career - using bike mileage to boost my cardiovascular system. Some athletes can work their way up systematically and gradually and logically into high mileage, some people will always break down after a critical point of volume. Learn to avoid volume for the sake of volume, (which I believe is governed by the law of diminishing returns for anyone not training as a full time athlete, or over the age of 45). Avoid overtraining through too high volume by listening to your body not your training log. Aches and pains that persist 24/7, fatigue, constant injuries to your knees, ankles and hips, and a general feeling (called intuition or gut feeling) that you are not making gains by training so much, means you need to limit your volume, or at least find a way to satisfy your aerobic needs by cross training. Long trail running hikes (where your pace is really easy, and interspersed with walking), hiking hills in the off season and pre-season in order to build aerobic capacity and lower limb strength and resiliency (Mt Doug, Mt Finlayson, Caleb Pike etc), and cycling will all give you the aerobic benefit you need, plus the strength required for fitness walking and running.
Don’t Be a Sheep
One of the greatest challenges to group training environments, is what I call the ‘highest common denominator effect”, where the pace of the group is dictated by the fastest participants. Been there, done that a thousand times. I have warmed up too fast, done long runs way too fast, cooled down too fast and gone out too hard over and over and over again. As a coach, I either encourage everybody to warm up at the slowest pace possible to keep the group together or in the case of particularly persistent ‘fasties’ I let the ‘fasties’ get ahead and learn for themselves that leaving their best training in the warm up isn’t the optimal way to get stronger. I’m know for saying at the beginning of warm up: “No one goes ahead of Coach Lucy”
Good training habits have wonderful application to real life. Really listening to yourself is a huge confidence building skill. Knowing how to tune into your body, and just appreciate its movement and strength, and let the distracting thoughts go is a positive mindset in a world full of comparison and distractions. Learning when to back off without judgement from a too fast pace, a too energetic training partner or a too long long run, is one of the best skills and gifts you can absorb. For one, it is refreshingly free of ego, to be mindful and train at a pace that is right for you, instead of clinging to the idea that you have to ‘keep up’ to count. It reduces anxiety (will be keep up; will I be able to complete this?) and it frees you up for listening to your own body and perceived effort.
And finally, here are my Top 3 suggestions to being your own best coach:
1. Commit to getting good sleep; many studies have shown than consistent sleep and bed time routines enhance healthy bodies and ability to train. Training when energy is high is optimal. At least for key sessions.
2. Pay attention to eating well. Fuel with a good simple diet of nutritious food. Plan fuel for late day sessions.
3. Make patience your mantra: hard work, routine commitment and practice are still the best guarantees to success.
Run For Joy!
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.