“If only I had known that as a younger athlete...”

A couple of weeks ago, I ran into a fellow professional triathlete at the gym and we traded notes about our training plans for the day. He mentioned that his 3-year old child was awake all night and he had thus made the decision to decrease his scheduled workouts. Instead of the sessions that were planned, he’d take it easy and allow his body to recover from disrupted sleep.

When I heard this athlete’s decision, I felt compelled to smile and nod energetically. Decreasing training load to account for increased external stress is the correct move, but one that can be challenging to do. A less experienced, less confident athlete would be hard pressed to make that shift without stress. As veterans in our sport, we have learned the hard way that changes in training are sometimes necessary and best done with minimal fuss. This is an important lesson and one that we both wish we had known as young athletes.

For motivated athletes, it can be easy to erroneously view a training plan as a formula. The belief is as follows: if I do x and y, I will get z result. This is a mindset that powerfully draws on our desire for control; if we do everything as prescribed, we will get the outcome we desire. The truth is, however, that the best training programs are more like an art than a mathematical formula. Humans don’t live in a vacuum and we contend with more variables that can be predicted. The best training program isn’t fixed; it adapts and adjusts to the individual and our lives. 

Our training programs invariably change. It’s how we respond to those changes that makes the difference. As a younger athlete, I interpreted any alterations to the plan as a personal failure; my inability to stick to the formula felt like an indication that I wasn’t good enough or tough enough. I worried that by not rigidly adhering to the plan, my coach would think that I was lazy or soft; I didn’t realize it was a normal factor of training for the best athletes in the world. I found myself so stressed out by these changes that it weighed on me like a yoke of shame. I would carry this weight for days after the altered sessions. It took me a while to realize that the stress itself was far more deleterious than the changes themselves.

The day that I was finally able to calmly and openly accept occasional changes to my training plan was a pivotal moment in my career. I don’t mean to imply that it’s always easy; there are times when I overthink the potential need for a shift to the plan, seesawing between a rational and an emotional response. At moments like this, I’m grateful to have a coach as a rational sounding board for decision making. Even when we intellectually know what we should do, a little nudge in the right direction can be invaluable.

As a younger athlete, I wish that I had understood that a great training plan is always changing. Adjusting for external stressors and the unexpected isn’t an indication of any shortcoming, but rather proof that you’re human. Cut yourself some slack. The only potential downside? Your younger self might be jealous of how relaxed and easy going you’ve become.

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