Monday, 26 October 2009

P-K Performance of the Month/Year Recognition

Although I should have initiated this at the beginning of the racing season back in April, I want to begin recognizing top competitive performances by P-K members each month in the form of a Performance of the Month and, eventually, a Performance of the Year, nod. (Actually, I'd like to come up with an actual prize-- perhaps some Mizuno foot wear or apparel- for the Performance of the Year award. I'll be working on that). The Performance of the Month/Year will not necessarily go to the fastest performance, or to a winning performance; it will go to an exceptional performance, relative to a number of variables determined by me. These variable with have to do with things like the percentage of improvement shown, the athlete's age and level of experience, and the obstacles that he/she may have had to overcome in the process of recording the result in question. With so many athletes and so many performances to consider each month(I will consider local, on-line and junior members), the process of selecting a "best" will not be an exact science; but, I pledge to do my best to ensure that all worthy performances are considered. And nominations are certainly welcomed. My hope is to offer some peer recognition for great feats of racing, and to inform the ever growing list of P-K athletes-- most of whom will not have met on another, or perhaps even know of one another's existence-- about what their fellow members are up to on the field of play.

A short list of performances that have caught my eye in the past four weeks include, in the order in which they were run:

-50 year old Bob McGraw's 17:00 5k, which represented a more than 40 second improvement on his masters personal best, and the fruit of more than a year of consistent, high level training.

-Emily Tallen's 16:45 in the same race-- her 3rd best time at the distance-- after being pushed to the ground and buried at the start, and sustaining a nasty bruise to her knee that would require 3 days off of running.

-42 year old Troy Cox's 1:12:42 performance in the Goodlife Toronto Half Marathon-- a very fine master's time, and an outright personal best.

-50 year old Clive Morgan's outright win of the PEC Half Marathon.

-48 year old Agathe Nicholson's 18:53 5k in Rochester NY, during a marathon taper, on a slow course, in windy and cold conditions.

-31 year old Mike Gill's 16:37 for 5k. Mike joined P-K in the spring of this year and his over-all focus and attention to detail has kept him improving steadily. But his ability to rise to the occasion in a race situation is remarkable. This race represented a 2 minute improvement over his starting fitness, and an almost 1 minute improvement in a single month. I always encourage racers to aim high, and to trust their conditioning, but I would never have thought to instruct Mike to pace for this kind of time at this stage of his program!

-High school runner Lauren Taylor's entire grade 11 season thus far. Until this season, Lauren had never beaten another runner in a race, period. This season, chopping more than a minute per km(!) off of her previous best race pace, she has moved close to the middle of the pack! Through it all, Lauren's resolve has never wavered. Always a very diligent trainer, she has really come to enjoy the fruits of her labour this season.

-Rejean Chiasson's 3 minute personal best over Half Marathon (69:30 down to 66:30), and runner-up finish, this past weekend in Niagara Falls. As we all know, the faster we are to begin with, the harder it becomes to make significant improvements; so, Rejean's run is all the more impressive. No one has more drive and focus in training than R.C., so this represents a very well deserved breakthrough result.

Congratulations all, and I'll pick a winner next week.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Allowing Ourselves to Learn

Many years ago, in the hour before what was to be my fastest ever 10k, I made a pledge to myself that I have honoured ever since. If I run well today, I promised, I would never again worry about how my body felt while warming up for a race. As I had a hundred times before, I jogged through my pre-race warm-up that evening feeling so tired and sluggish that I wondered how it would be possible to reach and sustain my goal race pace. If four and half minute kilometer pace was making me feel uncomfortable, how would I ever manage the two minute and fifty-two second ks that my training had told me I was capable of!? I had, of course, felt weak and sluggish many times before what would turn out to be strong races, but I had never before promised myself to remember precisely how I felt in order that I might stop worrying about it for good. Each time in the past, all of my pre-race anxieties would be forgotten in the rush of excitement of the race and the great wash of relief when it was all over. And, when I logged my race report, I would rarely mention how I felt beforehand, only how I felt during, and the race result itself. What I had decided to do differently this time was to set my emotions aside and allow myself to consciously learn something from my racing that would benefit me next time out. We're always learning from our races and workouts, of course, but the knowledge that most of us accumulates is unconscious and intuitive, such that, over time, it is difficult to catalogue precisely what we know, how we came to learn it, and what it felt like not to know it.

Much of what I do as a coach these days, both during routine weeks and on race days, consists of spotting and recording patterns in the way my athletes respond to their training stimuli and racing experiences. Through my communications with athletes, I then try to pass on what I discern so that the athlete will be better able to participate in the process of his or her own coaching, both through providing more meaningful feedback, and through developing a deeper, more intuitive understanding of their own training process. My job is made much easier, and the coaching process much smoother and more productive, however, when athletes allow themselves to accumulate their own body of experiential and intuitive knowledge, and when they begin to record it, both mentally and in their actual training logs.

Over the years, I've discovered that some athletes are far better at both learning from me and from their own experience than are others, and that this has nothing to do with basic intelligence or innate running ability. The difference, I think, can be explained in terms of the ability of some athletes to set their emotions aside long enough to allow their rational faculties to fully apprehend the training and racing process. Emotional drive is, of course, absolutely crucial for success in this and any other sport, and those with more of it tend to enjoy greater success than those with less of it, when all other things are equal. Athletes with a greater emotional investment in what they're doing also, I think, have a richer experience of sport than those who manage to do it completely dispassionately. The best athletes, however, are better able to confine their emotions to the moments when they are useful-- such as in the difficult sections of a hard race or workout, or when they are forced by injury into a tedious cross-training regime-- such that they have the mental space to learn from what is going on around and within them. With many athletes, and younger ones in particular, I find myself having the same conversations, and trying to impart the same information, over and over again at workouts and before races. With these athletes, I'm always on the alert for the ideal "teachable moment"; but, the lessons are often slow to stick. These are the athletes who constantly worry about how they feel and doubt their fitness beforehand; who, in blaze of emotion, ignore carefully plotted pre-race plans in favour of "how they feel"; and, who forget everything that happened before and during a race or workout almost immediately after. Athletes like this are frequently very talented, and their passion and free-spiritedness often produce spectacular performance breakthroughs; but, more often, their fire and spontaneity lead to failure, disappointment, and confusion. And then there is the flip-side of the emotional coin: those athletes whose fear and anxiety repeatedly prevent them from taking risks and taking full advantage of the physical adaptations they have earned through their training. In the end, athletes who habitually put passion over reason tend to have shorter and less fulfilling career than those who strive to manage their feelings long enough to learn from their experiences.

Unfortunately, there is no simple secret to setting our emotions aside long enough to begin to learn from our own training and racing experiences. As athletes mature and gain more experience, learning to learn becomes easier; the ability, however, will always comes more easily to some than to others. The best way to become a better student of our own training and racing, however, is simply to keep a good training log. The next step is to learn what information is most useful to record; and, more important than things like daily training heart rates, body weights, and calories consumed, which rarely vary much, is subjective information, such as our thoughts and feelings before, during, and after our races, and at different stages in our training year. Among the things I've learned from recording subjective information in my training logs is that I will tend to feel in a race almost exactly the same on average as I did in my final two workouts before, regardless of my basic conditioning, or how I felt immediately prior to the race, whether good or bad. This information has both greatly calmed my nerves before races that my warm-up has suggested might go badly, and prepared me to face racing situations in which, in spite of feeling normal in the warm-up, things might not go my way. I've also come to learn from my training logs that periods of training that I remember as having gone uniformly well-- simply because they preceded a very good race, or included a particularly memorable workout-- often contained many more sub-par workouts and anxieties over possible injuries and other physical problems than my gilded memories suggested. This information has many times worked to allay fears that perhaps my training was not going well enough to prepare me for an upcoming race.

Short of having a good training log (which, of course, takes years to compile), the especially nervous or emotional athlete can begin to create some space in which to learn simply by spending some time post-race revisiting his/her feelings beforehand, both immediately prior to the race and in the key workouts leading in, with an eye towards better understanding and mastering any negative tendencies they might have. Often all it takes to prevent our emotional drives, fears and anxieties from interfering with our performance (to say nothing of spoiling the whole experience of racing itself)is a little self-knowledge gleaned from the study of our own basic emotional tendencies. This way, we are better able to get out of the way, so to speak, of our own well trained bodies long enough to let them do their thing, and confine our emotional drives to moment when they are most useful. Legendary American coach Jack summed-up this problem nicely when explaining how best to approach racing the marathon: run the the first 3/4 with the head, he said, and the last 1/4 with the heart. I would add that this works all the better when we have first used our heads, meaning our rational minds, to understand not just how our personal bodies work, but how our sub-conscious mind and emotions behave during the process of training and racing.

Monday, 5 October 2009

When to Pull The Plug?

No, not that plug! However, while I've no intention of getting up on my hind legs to talk about medical ethics, the question of whether and when to put a bad workout or race out of its misery does have something of a personal moral dimension for some runners. My own recent DNF at the Syracuse Festival of Races 5k-- which, at it turned out, occurred at about the same moment as one of my athletes' steadfast refusal to abandon his marathon race, despite being hobbled by a preexisting calf problem that began slowing him down as early as the 8k mark-- gave me pause to consider this, for some, sensitive issue. What, I wondered, made it easier for me to bail out of a 5k race (and it was a pretty easy decision by the time I made it) than it was for my athlete to let go of his marathon, particularly when, it seemed to me, he was putting so much more at risk than I was?

I should start by saying that I have actually dropped out of more races and workouts than many runners have finished! It's not that I do it very often; this recent DNF was only my second in a decade, although I have ditched many workouts in that time. It's just that I've started such a vast number of workouts and entered so many different races, and under such a wide variety of circumstances, that even 5 percent DNF rate equals something like 50 races and 500 workouts! I'm never been happy about abandoning a race or workout, but I will do it in an instant, subject to certain conditions; these are also the conditions under which I tell my athletes that it's O.K. to pull the plug. And, I've relaxed my rules a bit since turning 40, since getting older has rather drastically reduced the number of races I can safely attempt in a year. My "DNF rules" are informed by a basic calculus concerning the probable net effect of struggling to finish a race on my ability to maximize my racing performance in that season. Basically, if I am obviously sick or injured (and particularly if I'm bothered by a a problem I suspected beforehand might flare up), and my condition is clearly going to both negatively effect my performance and quite probably going to reduce my ability to train and race in the near future, I will abandon the effort. In the case of my DNF on Sunday, I started the race feeling under the weather with a nagging cold for the entire week prior, but hoping I would come around just in time (which I often have in similar circumstances). When it was obvious, both in the way I felt and the performance I was putting together, that this was distinctly not my day, I shut it down without hesitation. (As I mentioned in an earlier post, racing or training hard whilst unwell has, particularly since turning 40, has been the chief cause of sudden injury for me). My only other DNF of the past few years actually happened earlier this year, when I pulled out of the national track 10,000 at 6k in hot and humid conditions. In this instance, it was because I had no chance of meeting my time goal-- the only goal I had going in-- and fighting to the finish would have meant squandering a one of my precious few race efforts of the year, and costing me a week or more of recovery time. In both instances, I made a calculated decision to abandon at a very particular stage in the race and left the field without regrets.

By why, one might ask, do I have rules at all? Why not just allow myself to abandon any race or workout that I simply don't feel like finishing? Although I don't see the decision to finish or not finish a race as in any way a moral one (and I find it a little odd when people take pride in having finished every race they've ever started no matter what), I do think that runners who want to be their best should not get in the habit of abandoning races or workouts simply because they're not going according to plan. Very difficult or unsuccessful workout and races have a very important role to play in the development of a strong racing mind. Finishing when it would be both psychologically and physically easier to let it all go is very important in building the kind of mental focus required to get the most out of one's body on the days when it is ready to deliver. As my DNF rules suggest, I certainly think this can be taken to counter-productive extremes; but, I do think that under all but the above circumstances runners should attempt to complete races and workouts to the best of their ability on the day. An uncompromising attitude is a powerful tool in realizing one's full athletic potential. Besides, I've often found that interesting and surprising things happen in the midst of what seem to be failed workouts and races. Sticking it out has often given me the opportunity to salvage something of value in an otherwise dismal outing-- a stronger than expected final repeat or a few places gained unexpectedly in the late stages-- something that becomes a springboard to a much improved performance next time out.

Finally, as a coach, I think it's important to let the athlete make the final decision when it comes to finishing or not finishing a race or workout. For some athletes, the decision to finish workout or race, even when the risk of injury, illness and lost training time is great, has a deeper personal significance. Likewise, the decision to abandon a particular race may be related to factors beyond the scope of the coach athlete relationship. In either case, while I may offer my own point of view, my policy is to respect the autonomy of the athlete when it comes to the decision to "pull the plug". So, while I certainly found it ironic that, at the very moment I was deeming it unwise to run but two more hard kilometers in my 5k race, one of my own athletes was deciding to push on for another 34(!)kms on a gimpy calf, I realized that what was ultimately at issue was our respective relationships to the sport itself. My decision to stop and his decision to persevere, while polar opposites in one sense, were equally expressive of our own uniquely personal reasons for running and racing in the first place, with neither being right or wrong-- another reminder that running is always about much more than simply running.