Here is an advanced tip for how to stay technically attuned during your workouts, especially when you get fatigued, whether it’s running or strength training (ST). I hammer home this point in the ST chapter of my book when I discuss the priority of form/technique over mindlessly pushing yourself to simply do more reps ("more, more, more!"). There is an obvious connection here in how our form tends to break down when we go to the upper limits of our long runs and/or harder speed workouts. This is all in itself a healthy reminder, but I'll take it a step further.
As a coach, I want to make sure that my athletes and I have a similar definition of "pushing yourself", or at least have different ways of defining this phrase. Yes, in general, pushing yourself means stepping out of your comfort zone and embracing the harder workouts, the jacked-up heart rate on occasion, the labored breathing, the muscle burn, etc; however, it can also mean choosing to do a workout vs.skipping it (I discuss this in more detail in a section of my book called "Aggressive Training"), and also maintaining proper focus when the going gets tough (i.e., composure and self-talk).
Another section of my book is titled "Mental Toughness is Overrated" and it's relevant here. How do you know when you're pushing yourself? Is it based on how many reps you do? …the #'s on your watch? Or is it a subjective feeling? …does it require extra mental effort in order to qualify as "pushing yourself"? No matter how you cut it, "pushing yourself" might sometimes get in the way of optimum/maximum performance. Wait, how is that possible, doesn't that sound counter-intuitive?
I was at a 3-day sport psych nerd conference in Baltimore this past weekend, with lots and lots of presentations on cognitive elements of performance, motor development, motor control, team dynamics, identity/personality, and a bunch of other relevant topics. Lots to learn. As I already had this topic in my head, I caught a few glimpses of presentations that showed that the specific focal points someone has during endurance tasks and/or high-intensity tasks helps determine actual performance, which is nothing new, nor earth-shattering, but it does lend credence to the importance of making sure we all understand what "pushing yourself" could mean and/or should mean.
For instance, there are internal focal points ("staying in your element" as I phrase it in my book), which are your breathing, technique/form, stride, perceived exertion, etc., and there are external focal points, such as the crowd, the competition, the trees, your pace, etc. Side note: Some of you are wondering if pace is actually internal…keep it as external, this is the difference between Pace vs. Intensity. Most studies show internal focus leads to better performance than external focus, and if you've read my book, then you understand the reasoning. There's obviously room to bounce back and forth between the two, especially in relatively long events (it's natural and needed), and that in itself is a skill, in knowing when to do each, but now I'll bring this back to the main point.
Precision is a better way to improve performance than simply grunting it out (pushing). In fact, you can all think of examples, either personally or observed, when someone was so determined to push hard that their technique suffered as a result and they missed whatever mark they were aiming for. This naturally is more evident in tasks with a cognitive component (running isn't very cognitive, or at least it's not supposed to be!), but it does apply to endurance sports too. For example, cyclists were studied while they either focused on their pedal stroke (i.e., "smoothness" = internal) or were focused on "keep going!" (external). The former group beat the latter group. This should be logical. If your pedal stroke remains smooth (i.e., efficient, just like running form) then you don't put as much strain/stress on your body (muscles, tendons, etc), thereby making it physically/physiologically easier to "keep going." This is the essence of why mental toughness is overrated.
Keep your precision when the going gets tough, it'll help you hit the target. Braveheart and the Kevin Kostner Robin Hood both have scenes about this type of precision under pressure, and I learned it first-hand back in the day when I was doing shot put and playing rugby. So, don't just close your eyes and plow through, you might screw up your form, and it's our form that carries us through!
I frequently use the word “consistency” in relation to winter off-season training. I encourage everyone not to overlook consistency as an important variable in your training program. The variables we usually think of are: distance, miles, pace, # of sets, # of reps, duration, rest intervals, and # of workouts in the week. However, if you’ve been doing all of the above for several weeks in a row (putting recovery weeks on hold for a second), then isn’t the number of weeks also its own variable? Yes, it is! And that is the main reason I give DCRC athletes proactive recovery weeks as preventive medicine.
The other more important point I wanted to make here is that you don’t always need to extend your weekend long runs, nor do more total miles or days per week as we progress along. The simple fact you’ve done it x-amount of weeks in a row is enough stress on the body already. This is why a chunk(s) of your program will often look similar over a few weeks at a time. And this is where a coach and an athlete might have different perspectives on training, right? Sometimes I’m controlling all the variables in a program (within reason) and allowing the fact that it’s being done week after week (after week) be the important variable in the mix.
This approach (and reminder) is especially important for those of you who are either getting back into running/training for the first time ever, or the first time in a long time, and/or if you’ve always had nagging injuries in the past, and/or been sidelined by injury. This approach does not mean your training is stagnant! No way! That is a fallacy that keeps the PT/chiro offices in business! If you’ve been training consistently for 6-8 weeks in a row then you better believe you’re putting in work. This level of commitment and consistency is new for some of you, either mentally or in terms of being injury-free.
Let your consistency be a variable in itself and be patient if your program doesn’t resemble cannon fire. Some of the programs I create for athletes accelerate faster than others, yet that is based on myriad factors. The above points also reinforce the notion, "Train smarter, not harder," and now you know another tactic to put that into action via your program.
We have 2 full weeks of January 2018 under our belts, and with that we should be clear of the lingering holiday bugs/illnesses, family time (family-in-law time, too), travel, and reasons and excuses (there’s a difference between those last two). Now it's time to start hammering!
Whatever transpired in 2017 (for better or worse) is behind us, and we’re moving forward. Like a dream catcher, take what you need to from 2017, filter out the rest, digest it, believe in what you digested (don’t lie to yourself), and move forward. Part of moving forward is to get your PT visits! PT will offer you much insight into new ST exercises, or where to focus your ST. We can’t use race schedules as an excuse right now because we don’t need to be racing Jan-Feb.
I’ve written many times that your off-season goal is to look and feel like a different athlete on March 1st, as compared to November 1st, so with 2 weeks of 2018 already gone by, keep hammering! Retool, rebuild, reload, repeat. Every week of Jan - Feb you should be focused on strengthening your body, changing your body, trying new things, and shaking up your routine. Signing on with DCRC is a huge first step for many athletes and so it’s happening naturally. Others who have been with me a while and/or long-time avid runners might have to dig a little deeper to see what new elements they can introduce, and perhaps that simply means pushing themselves more than they did last winter!
We have 6 weeks until March 1st (plus the St. Patty’s 5k on March 4th), so get moving! If you didn’t start hammering ST in November because that was still peak race month, then that’s fine, but if December was also a recovery period + busy time, then that’s behind us now.
“Be the change you want to see in yourself” —Ghandi’s personal trainer.
When considering how you feel about your last week of training (or life), be sure not to limit your vocabulary to simply “good or bad”. I understand that there is otherwise a potentially utility to keeping the language that simple, and I admit that I sometimes remind my athletes to think of their training program as keeping a scorecard for each week in terms of whether the week was a “win or a loss,” and so I recognize the potential contradiction I just offered. However, my point in encouraging athletes to think about their training in terms of a win-loss record is related to zooming out and looking at the week as a whole, instead of focusing on the one or two aspects that didn’t go 100% according to plan.
When you consider the entirety of the week, using both objective and subjective data points, then the overwhelming majority of your weeks should be "good weeks”…a win! You could even use a word other than “good,” as in reporting that the week went “great!” If you don’t believe that it was a great week, or even a good week, then why not? To take it a step further, just because it wasn’t a good week, does that automatically imply it was a bad week? Probably not.
Even if you don’t think it was a great/good week of training, expanding your vocabulary in that regard means you’ll have many more words to choose from that have a positive connotation from which you can label your week. The practical application of the bigger vocabulary is that you won’t be so quick to label a training week negatively, and then you get to score one in the Win category!
Our thoughts are framed by the exact words we use. “We think in terms of language”—George Carlin. Elite athletes who frequently use mental imagery and develop such “scripts” for races demonstrate this element of psychological skills training. Specifically, they practice the exact words/phrases (cue words) they want to say at various points in the game/race/course to keep the self-talk positive and task-specific. It is a skill that takes deliberate practice to develop. Bottom line: Develop a bigger vocabulary.
With the fall season coming at the end of a yearly training cycle, it's likely that most runners are feeling their fittest. Therefore, you might find that your regular/easy pace is significantly faster than it was back in the winter. First, this is certainly due to your work ethic paying off. Second, the weather is best at this time of year (minus some warm weekends we had for key races, like Army 10-miler). Third, you’ve likely been doing more speed work in the fall and have probably been racing more often, so subconsciously you have been primed/triggered to pick up the pace. In any case, as you set out for a regular jog you might notice that you’re running “fast,” even though you’re not mentally in “workout mode.” Should you slow down? Nope! I say go with it! As long as you’re not beating yourself up out there and the legs feel fine, then go with the flow and let it ride.
As a second point with fall running, stay alert out there on the wooded trails that are littered with leaves on the ground. The underbelly of some of the leaves are moist and can cause you to slip, and some patches of leaves are covering up little potholes or oddly shaped tree roots. Autumn is a gorgeous season and a fun time of year to run through the woods and I encourage it, but for safety's sake, make sure you’re not spacing out too much on these runs. Most of the time, you know the trail like the back of your hand and you’re strong enough and athletic enough to be perfectly fine in terms of it being uneventful. But since I also want to encourage you right now to add some adventurous running into your mix and get off the beaten path, you have to keep your eyes alternating between the ground immediately underneath you and 10-15 feet in front of you. If you're running through a place like Rock Creek Park, then stay alert and plan your footing in advance.
A small percentage of runners are timid when it comes to running on these natural trails. My short answer is this: Strength training (ST) is a major guardian against a rolled ankle, so continue to do your ST shoes-off for improved foot and ankle strength. Make your ST dynamic and functional and you’ll have increased confidence on the trails, allowing you to enjoy the gorgeous autumn scenery.
Train hard and enjoy the foliage!
The main coaching points I’ve been giving my athletes this summer have been reminding all of them to continually adapt and adjust to the weather conditions. Rather than fighting against Mother Nature’s undefeated streak, adapt and adjust to what the conditions allow you to do that day. This requires much self-awareness in terms of being in-tune with your body (in the moment), as well as the phrase we’ve been using recently, “managing expectations,” which sometimes means, “managing your personality."
The more weeks, months, and years you train, the quicker you should be able to identify the conditions around you and know how to adjust accordingly. Bruce Lee left an enduring message that is very much akin to this idea of adaptation to your immediate environment (see short video link below). Water works with the shape and contours its given and always finds its natural balance, and so must you work with the heat, humidity, wind, hills, etc., and find the appropriate balance for that day’s workout. I’m aware of how overly commonsensical this Tip sounds, so (collectively) let’s prove it!
Rise up to the level of Master during your workouts so that you can report success, optimism, and confidence in your recaps, rather than letting summer weather conditions kick you around. Kick back Bruce Lee style by adapting and finding a natural balance on that day. Just as the drop in temperatures did this past weekend, the fall weather will reveal your fitness, so keep your mental fortitude. Overall, the athletes I train are doing well as a group in this regard, so I want them to view this as healthy reinforcement, not as negative feedback. We’re on the same team.
A final note on this topic would be to also see the occasional OPEN days in your program as a “let the water find its own natural balance day.” What this means is that your OPEN days allow you to do whatever you need to do to reset/balance your mind or training for that day or week. It’s a catch-up, get-ahead, or OFF day. Listen to your inner Lee and use sound judgment.
Spoken by the legend Himself, “Be water, my friend.”
As I shared in the final chapter of my book on run training, virtually every run I’ve ever done has had a positive element to it, and that’s far from lying to myself. It’s the truth. I don’t have negative experiences when I run. When you finish a run in 90-degree temps with high humidity and every square inch of you is drenched in sweat, you better believe a run like that gets a “WOOHOO!” <CLAP> at the end of it. SUCCESS!
Moreover, make sure you are proactively adjusting your workouts to account for the summer weather. Proactively adjusting means “sit down before you fall down” and prevents negative self-talk from entering the picture and then having to pick yourself up mentally post-workout. Some runners don’t adjust by their own volition; rather, they run slower and slower as the workout goes on because their body is slowly shutting down. One of my favorite coaching expressions is: "Foresight is a more powerful tool than hindsight."
With more heat and humidity coming our way, be sure you are still fine-tuning your mental skills to stay optimistic and confident. Here is what one of my runners wrote to me regarding his recent weekend long run: "Long run went great. Went out with the [running store] weekend group and did the first half with a few folks, second half on my own with headphones. You would have been very proud of my pacing decisions if you saw me and others at the end of the run. Despite the heat, I finished with a big smile on my face, only to meet up with a bunch of others in the parking lot complaining about how their runs were terrible. I found myself repeating your advice, that it's all about perceived exertion and managed expectations in the heat!”
Anyone can fool him/herself at the beginning of a workout in hot/humid conditions, but the cumulative effects don’t take very long to reveal themselves and spike your heart rate too high, too soon. Remember that summer running is about perceived exertion/ intensity, and not pace. For instance, the average runner doing a tempo workout on the track might have to adjust the pace by as much as 30-40 seconds per mile! If you’re a data-driven runner, then that workout has the ability to “suck” in your mind because the numbers are your focal point. We don’t want that. We want a superb feeling of accomplishment when we’re done. Perhaps solidified by a handclap as you cross the finish line on that final rep (or arriving back at your front doorstep).
Yes, I know, it feels weird for your legs to move at a pace much slower than you’re used to, but “train smarter, not harder” is one of our mantras. Remind yourself that you hit other process goals that day, and again, you’ll be likely to honestly believe the positivity that you throw at yourself.