Train Your Brain for Championship Success in Endurance Sports

 

Earlier this week we published a blog that featured a post-race letter from an ultrarunner who finally finished the Leadville 100 Run on his eighth attempt. A few days later I received the following email from a long-time CTS Athlete, Fred Rica, from New Jersey. I’ve included the email below, with Fred’s permission, because he mentions a few things I think all athletes can benefit from.

Chris

I hope all is well and you are enjoying the last bit of summer! I wanted to take a moment and fill you in on some of the highlights of my summer, and specifically the role Coach Jane [Marshall] played in them. I know I’ve written to you many times about Coach Jane’s performance but I felt this year warranted another note.

I’ve been time trialing for about 7 years, and in that time Jane has coached me to numerous victories and two NJBA Time Trail Cup Overall Championships. Last year we decided to look for a different challenge and we set our sights on winning a 2016 State Championship. Jane put together a perfect training program for me and from November until race day our focus was on becoming State Champion. Well, as sometimes happens in bike racing, we had a perfect race but still came up three seconds short. On a course that was tailor made for me, and in the best shape I’ve ever been in it was pretty devastating to miss our goal by such a small margin. After licking my wounds for a few weeks we started talking about goals for the 2017 season. We decided we would make another run at the State Championship and made that our sole focus for the year.

The pain cave.

 

Once again in November, Jane started building a program with that singular goal in mind. I spent so much time on my TT bike over the winter, I felt like I was walking in “aero position.” My wife would routinely question my sanity as I hobbled up the stairs soaked to the bone in sweat. “I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy, I’m telling you it’s going to worth it” was my standard answer. It seemed all that work was paying off, as we won the first race of the season. Things were looking good, but then just as quickly, things were not so good. I wasn’t racing well, and I wasn’t getting results. About six weeks into the season, I called Jane and my exact opening line on that phone call was, “Your job today is to talk me out of selling my TT bike.” Well, as Jane always does, she calmed me down, and gave me what I call, to this day, the worst pep talk in the history of pep talks. But it worked! We started getting back on the podium, power profiles and pacing improved and suddenly things were looking better. Then the course for the State Championship was announced. Nothing about it suited me. First, it was going to be a 40km race. I’d only raced 40km twice before and neither worked out so well. The course was flat, exposed and would undoubtedly be hot and humid (there’s a reason it’s called the “swamps of Jersey”.) When I called Jane to lament this disaster, her immediate response was, “Great, I love a challenge.”

She wasn’t kidding. Jane put together an absolutely perfect training plan. She left nothing to chance, She managed everything: diet, hydration, rest and recovery. When things went well, Jane was right there to compliment me, and when they didn’t she was right there to encourage me and get me back on track. When a last minute trip to the UK looked like it could derail things, it was Jane who helped me realize we could work around it and things would be fine. As I have often said, Jane’s biggest strength is her ability to help me manage everything else going on in my life while still staying focused on my goals.

As an athlete, I’ve never had an experience like the one I had on race day. Everything we’d done for the last nine months came together absolutely perfectly. I woke up feeling rested and refreshed; my warm up was smooth and easy. Everything felt good. The intervals, the nutrition and hydration work, and the taper all came together at the exact perfect moment they needed to. As I stepped up on the start ramp and clipped in, a voice in my head simply said, “In 57 minutes you will be State Champion.” During the race my body did exactly what we trained it to do. It was as if my brain had disengaged and I was simply watching my body perform. Throughout the race, the inner voice just kept saying, “You’re winning this race.” Well the voice was right, as the picture below shows.

Chris, I have told you this before, but Jane’s commitment to my success is simply unwavering. No matter how modest, or ambitious my goals, Jane is right there to support them and build a plan to achieve them. This year she really outdid herself with her total and absolute commitment to helping me win a championship. As you know, I can’t say enough good things about Jane. To me, she embodies everything CTS stands for.

All the best,
Fred

Enjoying the view from the top step!

 

Progress is never linear

“Your job today is to talk me out of selling my TT bike.” Every coach has heard some version of this request, although not always so clearly expressed. Training is physically and mentally tough. A lot of endurance athletes revel in the physical challenge of training but struggle with the mental side. This is not indicative of weakness, but rather unfamiliarity. Training applies stress, and when an athlete is really reaching for an ambitious goal a great amount of stress may be required to achieve the necessary adaptation. The more fit you are, and the closer you are to your highest potential performance level, the harder it becomes to continue making positive adaptations. It takes more and more work to achieve smaller and smaller gains.

The temporary decline in performance that Fred experienced is a normal result of a focused period with a high training workload. Toward the end of such a training block, performance starts to drop. As an athlete gets tired in this time period, it is also normal to get frustrated. You know you’re working hard, but instead of seeing improvement your training data and sensations during workouts are telling you you’re getting worse. This is the time when self-coached athletes sometimes make huge errors by scrapping or heavily modifying their plans, or by giving up entirely.

When a training plan is well thought out, this period of high workload is followed by recovery and a shift to a different training focus, and after a few weeks the positive adaptations rise to the surface. This process can happen a number of times during a year, but it is often more worrisome to athletes about a month out from a major event, at the end of the final big block of training. My advice is to have faith in the process and in your plan – whether you’re working with a coach or not. Do the hard work, then let time and recovery do its job.

Your Greatest Asset is Between Your Ears

“In 57 minutes you will be State Champion.” I got chills reading that line in Fred’s email, because it told me so much about the work Coach Jane and Fred had done to prepare for the race. Preparation is the difference between making empty affirmations and developing the confidence to call your shot with genuine belief.

Fred is a very smart guy. He knew all the things that could go wrong and prevent him from winning. He knew he could do everything right and still lose to another athlete who was simply stronger. His statement to himself in the start house was not a statement of fact, but rather an expression of his mindset. He was there to win that race. In his mind he was already champion; he just had to complete the physical part.

I have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of athletes defeat themselves before ever leaving the start line. You can’t win a race on the start line, but you can damn sure lose it there. My advice is to be bold. The challenge ahead of you may be daunting, but the best way to face it is to start with confidence in your preparation and your ability to get the job done. Doubt might find a way into your head on its own later; there’s no reason to invite it in from the beginning.

With Jane and Fred at a training camp several years ago.

 

“We” and “I”

One thing I noticed in Fred’s email was the way he used the word “we” when talking about winning, but “I” when talking about things going wrong. “We won the first race of the season.” “I wasn’t racing well, and I wasn’t getting results.” “We started getting back on the podium…” One of the most interesting aspects of the coach-athlete relationship is the fact preparation is a team effort but only the athlete actually trains and competes.

Athletes are often quick to share credit for positive adaptations and victories, but sometimes also believe they must shoulder all the negative feelings that comes along with failure or defeat. That’s not true. Just as your coach is there to celebrate your victories, we are also there to share in and work through disappointment. A coach and athlete are a team through good times and bad.

Athlete who are self coached have support systems, too. It may be family members, teammates, or training partners. My advice is to be conscious of including your support system when you have something to celebrate, and also allowing the people in your support system to share in your disappointments so they don’t weigh so heavily on you alone. You may compete in an individual sport, but you rise and fall as part of a team.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

Fred Rica – New Jersey Time Trial State Champion

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