Monday, October 14, 2013

Results, Results, Results!

This was a HUGE weekend for Power On Coached athletes Jake Stevens, Lucy Rogers, and Ted Breault! Jake has been working with Jon since June and dropped his half marathon PR from a 2:08 to a 1:43. Lucy has been working with Jon since September and she dropped her half marathon PR from a 2:15 to a 2:03. And finally, Ted has been working with Jon for one year and PR'd in his first time at Kona with a smoking 9 hours and 50 minutes! Great job to these three Power On athletes!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Exploring: Finding faster ways to move

Generally, American culture teaches us that hard work pays off in the end. We love to hear stories of athletes like Michael Jordan who struggled, worked unbelievably hard, pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, and emerged as an extraordinary athlete. These types of stories put us into the “no pain, no gain” mindset and inspire us to work hard ourselves1.  This mindset, I think, is partly what forms many Americans into really successful athletes. But it also forms us into very particular kinds of athletes. There is no doubt that we are compliant with our daily workouts, working very hard, and becoming very fit. As a way of coping with the overloading stress that comes with the hard work, however, we often turn our attention away from our bodies. We take mini vacations on our long workouts. We throw in our earbuds and allow the thumping Kanye2 beat to carry us away from the strain that we pour onto our muscles. This isn’t inherently bad, but it distracts us from listening to the ebb and flow of our own bodies. It distracts us from important information that may very well help us to become faster athletes.

One way to become a faster athlete is by taking a few minutes each week to consciously engage with your workout. Many coaches call this exploring. Exploring involves noticing how your body works and looking for new ways to produce more power, produce more speed, or become more efficient. You can explore any time you’re moving (walking to the water fountain, riding your bike, practicing yoga, etc.) and for any amount of time (a few seconds to a few hours). That said, a particularly good time to explore is during your workouts, specifically endurance workouts, where you are already moving with a purpose and can spend time exploring ways to become a faster athlete.    

The first step of exploring is to remind yourself of your desired outcome. In his book “The Inner Game of Tennis,” Timothy Gallwey breaks tennis players in two groups. One group focuses on how they look. They care about having perfect form. Another group focuses on the outcome. They care about form only to the extent that it supports their ability to control where the ball lands on the other side of the court. Gallway found that the group who focused primarily on technique rarely mimicked the technique they were trying to imitate and won far less matches than those who focused primarily on outcome (48). While tennis is fundamentally different than swimming, biking, or running, I think Gallwey’s outcome concept provides some very valuable insight for multisport athletes. It’s easy to get caught up in technique and to forget what it is that you are actually trying to accomplish. The goal, in my eyes, is not necessarily to look a particular way, but to go faster. Asking yourself a guiding question such as “How am I going to get faster?” will help focus your exploration in a productive way.   

The second step of exploring is to figure out how you’re going to assess whether or not a change improves your performance.  There are a variety of ways to do this. One simple way is to time yourself. Say you are doing 50 meter repeats in the pool and are exploring the tension in your shoulder during the recovery part of your stroke. If you change something and go a little faster with the same effort level of your previous 50’s, you know you’ve made a productive change. Another slightly more complicated way to assess how a change affects your performance is to use biofeedback devices such as a HR monitor or power meter. Say you are exploring your center of gravity on an endurance treadmill workout. You keep your speed and incline consistent and begin to lean more from your ankles. If you see your Heart Rate decrease by a few beats per minute, you know that you’ve made a positive change because your heart doesn’t need to work as hard as you continue at the same speed.

After you figure out how you are going to assess how a change impacts your performance, the third step of exploring is to develop an awareness of how you are moving. Let’s get concrete by focusing on a specific example. Pretend you are doing a routine aerobic endurance ride on a trainer.  As you warm up, what stands out to you? Does anything feel awkward to you? What feels good? Say that you notice an awkward hiccup in your left peddle stoke while your right peddle stroke feels good. When all is said and done, this little hiccup isn’t preventing you from completing your workout and reaping many of the physiological benefits of an endurance ride. You could simply ignore it. But now that you have paid attention to your body and noticed the hiccup, you can choose to explore the area.   

The fourth step is exploring the area. You can do this in variety of ways. One good way to start is by comparing the side that feels good to the side that feels awkward. What is it that you are doing on the right side that allows you to move so fluidly? Is it that you are more flexible on that right side? Is it that you are engaging and relaxing your leg muscles on the right side differently than you are on your left? Another way of exploring is by changing your position on the bike. What happens to your hiccup and your power as you move forward and backward on your seat? What happens if you increase the seat height or lower it by 1cm? A third way is to investigate through drills. A common drill that helps athletes smooth out their peddle stroke is called a one leg drill. This is where you peddle with one leg as the other leg is clipped out and rests on the trainer. One leg drills allow you to focus on a particular leg, noticing how you engage your muscles to do the work. Are you engaging your calf all the way around your peddle stroke? Is this necessary? Is this somehow contributing to the hiccup? What happens when you relax that calf? Does your stoke get more or less fluid? It’s important to remember that drills isolate your leg from the functional movement which occurs when you peddle on both sides. Drills are great ways to find out more about how you are engaging your muscles, but they do not account for the complexity of the full functional movement. In other words, your body is a complex system where everything is connected. Peddling with your right leg, your movement from side to side, your body position, among many other things will affect the way you move your left leg. If you choose to do drills, make sure that you adapt what you’ve learned when you return to the full functional movement.

As creatures of habit, we tend to execute workouts the same way over and over again. A fourth and slightly different way of exploring is by changing up the way you approach a particular effort. Consider another example. Say you are executing a V02 max workout where you are riding 5x 3 minute efforts really hard. Although you may not be thinking much about technique during this workout, the workout affords you the opportunity to find out how you can create the most power over that 3 minute time frame. While endurance workouts are great for exploring technique, V02 max workouts can help you explore how different ways of allocating energy affect your results. Do you create a higher average power if you push really hard in the first half of a 3 minute effort and just try to hold on for the second half of the effort? Do you create more power if you maintain an even power throughout the entire effort?  Or, do you create a higher average power if you try to increase your power as the interval continues? How does average speed factor in to all of this? Each type of workout provides a particular avenue to explore.

Once you notice what change allows you to be a faster athlete, it’s time to replace the old way of moving with the new and turn it into a habit. This requires practicing the new change over and over again, making the movement so natural that you don’t even have to think about it. Though it may be boring, the habituation process is just as important as the exploration process. When we get to a race, we want to be able to turn off our exploration mindset and just allow our bodies to do their jobs.  

When all is said and done, do not forget to measure how your exploration affects your performance. One of the drawbacks of exploring is that you can get lost in your own technique/approach and forget that you are trying to produce a particular outcome—to get faster. You can also get lost in your own head, hyper focusing on one thing when it is more productive to focus on something else (something outside of your conscious radar). Herein lies one of the great values of a coach. A coach who sees the overall picture of your life and training can help you see the bigger picture, help you decide when you should shift focus, and remind you that the point is to get faster. As long as you keep the outcome in mind, however, you will begin to see the benefits of exploring. Maybe you never noticed this small hiccup before and when you smooth it out your power jumps 10 watts. Or maybe you find out that the hiccup is due to a small muscle imbalance that you can strengthen in the off season. By consciously engaging with your workouts and paying attention to your body, you will begin to notice your little inefficiencies. Addressing these inefficiencies through exploration and making the positive changes into a habit will make a big difference in your future race times.

1“No pain, no gain” is no accidental phase, here. It is a fundamentally American motto that was coined by the quintessential American, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, made a career for himself as a printer/publisher, and became THE American role model.

2 Insert with your favorite upbeat recording artist: Ke$ha? Journey? Josh Groban?

As always, I welcome any comments or questions.Shoot me an e-mail! Also, don't forget that it's time to start planning for next season. The decisions you make now will affect your performance next season. Consider signing up for races, buying a new bike, and/or hiring a coach to help you achieve your goals. Have a great day! 

Jon Fecik

Works Cited
Gallwey, Timothy W. The Inner Game of Tennis. New York: Random House, 2008.