(this post is a modification of an email I recently sent to a friend of mine who is a successful pro triathlete and super awesome person, when our email chain got onto the topic of “fun” vs “discipline”)
The end goal of all that we do, of course, is maximizing race day performance. By and large, you improve your race performance by making positive adaptations in training. At the core of these adaptations are two things: 1) workout quality, and 2) how you recover from those workouts. Everything that happens in your life, both mentally and physically, affects those two things.
I’m going to focus on workout quality, because we can use workout quality as a proxy for recovery quality (i.e. if you recover poorly, then it will be reflected in your workout quality). There are two main elements to workout quality: 1) your physical capabilities, and 2) your mental willingness to properly execute the workout.
Ok, back to triathlon training… So, the trick is to find that ideal balance where your physical systems are strong, but your mind is also strong & eager enough to attack each workout/race properly. And that, is extremely individual. Some athletes thrive in a very “straight-edge” environment. Other athletes cannot handle a straight-edge environment. Making the sacrifices necessary for a straight-edge environment may cause discontentment/boredom, which can lead to resentment of the sport, and can snowball into full-on depression. A depressed athlete, or an athlete who resents their sport, will not have the mental strength to accomplish high quality training sessions, and will not approach races with a properly confident/aggressive attitude. So no matter how strong they are physically, their mental systems are so timid/sad/upset/etc… that they can’t take full advantage of their physical capabilities.
I can speak to this, as it’s what I was experiencing from late 2011 through late 2013. When I started racing pro in late 2011, I completely changed my lifestyle. I stopped being social, I stopped partying. I made every sacrifice that you’re “supposed” to make. But, my workouts, and race performance, made virtually zero gains during that two year period, even though I was doing everything “right”. Here’s the rub – I did everything right, except for the most important thing, which is executing your workouts to the best of your ability. Doing everything outside of training “right” made me so miserable that I trained like a jabroni, because I was just so depressed/stressed/resentful heading into every workout. I lost sight of the forest, for the trees.
I hated every workout, and I hated racing. In 2012, Heather (my girlfriend at the time) had to talk me into doing every single race. I would start every single race week saying, “I don’t care about this. I’m dropping out of the race. This is stupid.” Eventually, she’d talk me into going to the starting line. But then, during every race, my main thought was, “I can’t believe I’ve given everything up for this shit”
Now, are there successful straight-edge athletes? Of course. There’s a very long list of them. But there’s also a very long list of highly successful athletes who weren’t quite as disciplined. You might be surprised at how many of the top people in sport go out at night regularly, eat “junk” food, etc… Not because it’s physically “good” for them, but because it helps them cope with, and temporarily escape, the pressure of professional sport. I see it all the time in Boulder. Ironman, Challenge, and Ironman 70.3, winners staying out late, dancing like lunatics, etc… They don’t do it all the time, of course, because that would become counter-productive. The ones who party in excess fall to the wayside. But the ones who find the right balance, find their way to the top of the podium.
How do you know if you’ve found your balance? Ask yourself two questions:
So… find your balance, find what makes you happy. Find what keeps you both mentally eager, and physically capable of attacking every training session. Will you go overboard one way or the other at times, in terms of being too straight-edge or too undisciplined? Sure. But that’s all part of finding the balance that works best for you. I’ve managed to make my way back on to the path, and it’s great. I hope you can find your way onto your path. I’d be happy to talk to any of you about finding what works best for you.
Until next time… Keep training hard, and resting harder,