Recently I’ve had the opportunity to ride and talk with a number of athletes who aren’t performing at the level they would like to be. Their stories were all a bit different but boiled down to life getting out of balance, eating and drinking habits changing for the worse, and exercising less. There is a lot to balance in life, and at times the table tilts. Here is some of the advice I have for anyone struggling to find their way back to fitness:
Stop punishing yourself
You can’t change the past. You can only make changes that will affect your future. If your power output is lower than you want it to be, or your pace is slower than you think it should be, driving yourself into the ground to achieve those markers right now is not going to help. It is great that you are now motivated to work hard, but getting back to where you were – and exceeding your past performances – means working with the fitness you have now and taking smart steps to incrementally improve. You can’t play catch-up by piling on more workload than you can handle; the human body doesn’t work that way.
Just get out the door
Athletes are often their hardest critics. Instead of being a pressure valve or an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, athletes who are unhappy with their current state of fitness often over-analyze a workout and find a hundred reasons why it sucked. The most important thing you can do is just get out the door and exercise. Stop overthinking it. You know that consistency and cumulative workload will move you in the right direction. If you’re just getting back to training after focusing on other priorities, losing fitness, and gaining weight, then stop worrying about the numbers. Yes, you’re slow. Focusing on exactly how slow is not productive. Being out there is what is productive, and the only way to get to where you want to be is to get out there and enjoy it.
Actively counter negative self-talk
We all have an inner narrative, and endurance athletes spend a lot of time engaged in self-talk because there’s no one else around to talk to. Your inner narrative can be positive or negative; it’s your choice. When you are not performing up to the standard you set for yourself, it is easy for self-talk to become very dark. I encourage athletes to acknowledge that negative self-talk and actively counter it. When your inner narrative says “you suck”, it’s not enough to just ignore it and keep moving forward. Instead, respond with affirmation: “This is what I have right now, and today’s effort will make me better.”
Don’t give up
I can relate to this one personally. During a period when I had gained a lot of weight and lost a ton of fitness, I went on rides and reached a point where I was so frustrated with being so slow, out of breath, and uncomfortable that I just turned around and went home. Unfortunately that meant I was just delaying the progress that would get me over the hump and back to a workload that would deliver significant improvement. My advice is to pause, but not turn around. Take a break. Catch your breath. Curse the decisions that led you to be in this sorry state of fitness. Then keep moving forward. Break the ride or run into smaller goals. Get to the top of this climb. Get to the next intersection. Keep going for 10 more minutes. I have never met anyone who has regretted the ride or run they completed, once it’s done. Talk yourself into getting it done, rather than giving yourself an excuse to quit.
You didn’t gain 20 pounds overnight, nor did you lose 100 watts at lactate threshold in the past week. It’s going to take time to get back to where you were, and your progress is not likely to be linear. Fitness is the product of time and workload, and you can only apply finite amounts of either one. There are no shortcuts, so stop looking for them. Embrace the process, not your current position within it.
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Celebrate the small wins
In coaching we refer to these as ‘process goals’. Sometimes they can be as simple as compliance to a training schedule. You’re goal was to train 4 times this week, and you did it. That’s a win. You stuck to your dietary plan for the past two weeks. That’s a win. You took pulls at the group ride instead of just sitting on wheels. That’s a win. Some athletes scoff at process goals as akin to participation medals, but they’re wrong. Process goals should be challenging and incremental. When you build a ladder you don’t just install the bottom rung and the top one. You put rungs in between so you can gradually climb higher and higher.
The best thing about endurance sports is their accessibility to athletes of all ages and levels of fitness. As long as you are having fun, there’s a place for you in endurance sports. And it’s up to everyone in the endurance sports community to be supportive, encouraging, and welcoming to athletes beginning their journey or getting back on track.
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