Training for peak performance in endurance sport does not need to be complicated. I came to understand that only recently. More than 30 years ago I earned a masters degree in exercise science while competing in endurance sports. One thing I always liked was the complexity of training. I'm a nerd at heart--or at least an "engineer" who likes to solve the difficult problems. To date I have written or contributed to 13 books on the topic. All have been somewhat complex, at least to many who have read them and written to me with questions. They never seemed complex to me, but they apparently were.
In the last couple of years I've tried to simplify things. This started because so many athletes, especially triathletes, kept asking me the same questions after reading my best selling book of the bunch, The Triathlete's Training Bible. My first book, The Cyclist's Training Bible, was the same way, I suppose, but since there was only one sport to master it came across as less complex. Simplicity and brief statements of how to do it were clearly missing from both. So a couple of years ago I wrote Your Best Triathlon which, essentially, walks the serious triathlete through his or her season by suggesting weekly and monthly routines along with daily workouts as the season progresses toward the first, big A-priority race of the year. I've gotten very few questions from the readers of that book asking what they should do or why, since that was described in each chapter. (A similar book for road cyclists is still lurking in the back of my mind.)
In the past year I've done clinics and camps (see my 2013 appearance schedule in the right hand column of this page--click here if viewing this in an email) in which I've tried to further simplify training. It's amazing how much better athletes perform when they fully understand what they need to do to improve and how to go about making the changes. When I'm with athletes in clinics and camps I tell them about the "Big Rocks"--the very few, most important things that must be done to improve performance. And I do mean "few." There really aren't that many things one must do to perform well in endurance sport. The key is knowing what the Big Rocks are and incorporating them.
There are lots of "little rocks"--and even tiny sand particles--that many in sport science and coaching insist must be done by every athlete. I used to subscribe to this way of seeing training, also. And, I'll have to admit, still like discussing the merits of such minutiae. With a background in exercise science it can be fun to talk about "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" with another would-be scientist.
The little rocks, and even the sand particles become increasingly important as the absolute performance of the athlete improves. At the highest level of sport everything is a Big Rock. There's no room for anything to be done even somewhat haphazardly for a world class athlete, especially one who makes a living from competing. But it isn't that way for the rest of us "normal" people.
So how did I come to this simplified conclusion in my coaching career? Golf. Yes, golf. Talk about a game with a lot of little rocks! I started playing in 1966. By 1972 I had mostly given up the game due to the pressures of earning a living and being a father. Becoming good at golf is at least as challenging as becoming a good endurance athlete. By 1998 my wife had started playing so I saw the game as a good way for us to spend quality time together. As training partners we were a failure--the couple workouts were too easy for me and too hard for her. Golf would allow us to spend some time together each week. I had no idea I'd come to take it so seriously.
I figured, and rightly so, that the best way to learn the game would be to do what I tell serious endurance athletes to do--hire a coach. Over the last 15 years I've had perhaps six golf coaches. My handicap, the best gauge of how you are doing, has gone from 19 to 7. Lower, in this sport, is good. The coaches get most of the credit for this.
The best golf coach I've had is the one I'm now wroking with--Kay Kennedy, a former LPGA player, who is now an instructor at McCormick Ranch Golf Course in Scottsdale, Ariz. What Kay is good at is keeping it simple. I listen to other instructors on the practice tee with their clients and hear a lot of little rocks. All it seems to do is freeze the student. They will stand staring at the ball in the address position for a looong time before initiating a feeble, and obviously, confused swing. During the time in which they appear to be golf statues they are going through a long checklist of what all must be done in the 1.5 seconds, at most, that the ensuing swing will take.
Kay simplifies it. She will watch me hit a few shots and suggest one small change. Then we work on that one for the remainder of the lesson until it is well engrained. That's largely the reason my handicap has dropped by 3 strokes since I began working with her about four years ago. It's simple.
I soon learned to adopt and adapt her recipe for simplicity and teach it to those I am trying to help in my clinics and camps. The camps are by far the best when it comes to obvious performance improvement. By the end of a triathlon camp, which I do far more of than cycling camps (another entire blog post could address why this is), the improvements are usually obvious and measurable in a matter of a few days.
The starting place for these improvements is the refinement of skills. Endurance athletes, with the possible exception of 1500-meter pool swimmers, show little more than a passing interest in skills. For us it's cardiovascular and, perhaps, muscular fitness that really matters. Everything else is a distant third. But most amateur athletes would see a bigger return on their time investment, at least initially, by mastering the skills of their sport rather than trying to continually push their heart rates higher in some strange quest to find their max beats per minute.
Skill is the true heart and soul of any sport. If one is sloppy in their movements, energy is wasted and it takes a great deal of "extra" fitness to overcome the loss. I've learned to start my camps and clinics with skill refinement. It's remarkable how rapidly the athletes improve after that.
But keeping it simple is much more than just skills. It's also how we train--the daily workouts, the weekly scheduling, and the long-term planning. In the next couple of posts, as time permits (this is my busy time of year with camps and clinics), I'll touch on the Big Rocks of skills and training.
Here's the downside of doing that (at least for me): I'm going to wind up with a lot of athletes and coaches who are mad at me because I've omitted their "Big Rocks" from those I emphasize. Mine have been learned from more than 30 years of reading research and observing athletes of all abilities. Might my ideas of what the Big Rocks are change at some point in the future? Sure. That's a possibility. My view of the world of sport is always evolving. That's simply the way learning works. Those who refuse to change their minds on anything, or even consider another way, are doomed to a life without progress during which they become "dinosaurs." The people we tend to admire most are the free thinkers who have come to change their minds on important topics and move on. Currently, one of the best at this is professor Tim Noakes, a sport scientist at the University of Cape Town. I had the great honor of meeting him while in South Africa recently. I'll tell you about him in another post. Time permitting.
In my next few posts I'll tell you about the Big Rocks when it comes to sport skills.