Ask a newbie athlete what their long term athletic goals are and you will likely get a puzzled look. Their focus is likely so short term that they cannot see much beyond completing their next event. They may have anxiety about embarrassment or acceptance. Typical responses are self-deprecating or modest, “I just want to finish" or "I just want to have fun.” Now fast forward a year later and you may observe a completely different athlete with a whole new perspective. Each race builds confidence for the athlete as they realize continued improvement; in fact their first season will likely demonstrate a great leap in performance; perhaps the largest in their lives! The mindset evolves from completion, to competing against oneself, to perhaps achieving a category award one day. A whole new competitive panorama has opened up to them; they have been “bit by the bug” as many say. This means investing in new equipment, learning the intricacies of their sport and hobby, and perhaps even hiring a coach to make more efficient use of their training time. New friendships are formed within the sport and they may join a local club or team. The former newbie may even conceptualize a long term or “dream” goal of one day qualifying for a World Championship or other event in the very distant future. This is the excitement and challenge of endurance sports. This is what keeps them coming back, race after race, year after year.
The real challenge becomes bridging the gap between current fitness level and achieving that long term dream goal. Let's assume that it is a reasonable and attainable goal (some are not). Dream goals require a long term commitment and focus, and they will likely be fraught with pitfalls along the way. However, few athletes plan more than six or eight months into a season, or more likely to the next race in front of them. If you really want to realize a long term goal, especially on the elite level, it requires a long term plan and the patience to follow it. It requires a 30,000 foot view of your fitness. Athletes often underestimate the limited time to achieve their “best” race or dream goal, and sometimes don't realize that time has already passed.
What can I achieve? I am often asked for odds, propensities, favorability, even guaranties as to what level, performance, or time an athlete can expect to achieve or progress to. The hard truth is, although we can test for some fundamentals and compare to benchmarks, there is no way to accurately predict how much an athlete will achieve in a particular sport. The variables are much too complex and include such subjectivities as desire, focus, determination, and spirit. Add to these body type, biomechanics and genetics, nutrition, rest and recovery, injury history, and lifestyle/training volume. Upon those, layer a proper training plan, tactical race selection, improvement in economy, sports medicine, recovery technique and other peripheral services (such as an expert bike fitting) that may be the one missing element that gets them to their objective. Even having the right equipment and financial resources are an important consideration. There are also lifestyle changes that occur such as adding a spouse, child, or job change. So many things must come together to bring an athlete to fruition. Typically focus is on just a few of these variables.
Your long term goal should be within the realm of possibility: achievable but currently out of reach. You must understand that after the first season of applied training, fitness becomes a much, much more slow and painful process, sometimes with plateaus. Virtually any training stress in the first season will yield results. Gains become ever harder to reach, and require addressing more of the aforementioned variables. Training plans need to be constantly changing and evolving with the athlete; never static. Training that produced successful results several seasons ago may now lead nowhere, or to a plateau, and where this training ultimately lands an athlete is a mystery slowly unfolding and being quantified.
Where do I go from here? The truth is there is only one “best” pathway to your best performance. Most athletes progress by trial and error wasting valuable time, and sometimes even an athletic career. The best place to start is with a detailed self-assessment. This includes not only identifying your physical limiters, but also mental skills, race execution, planning, and pacing. This self- assessment should also include strengths to exploit and areas that offer the most opportunity for development. Remember that a great many things must converge to get the best race out of you. Don’t look at yourself one dimensionally; training is just one facet of achievement, often with too much emphasis placed upon it. Genetic propensity is something athletes often overlook or choose to overlook. For instance, a very large male athlete of 190 pounds will have a handicap in thermoregulation and climbing ability from the start line. Yet these athletes often choose hot/hilly races that do not suit their physical makeup. Your peak races should accentuate your strengths, not exploit your weaknesses. Figure out not only what sport or distance you are best at, but also what courses will give you the greatest advantage.
Tactically planning out what you want to achieve in each season is a great place to start. Carefully planning out both peak and peripheral events is perhaps the most important element of a successful season, yet many athletes choose event arbitrarily. Each race choice has implication upon the next race, and the season. There should be a primary objective for each season. Beyond that, a three to five year plan is essential for building an athletic career. Athletes often train hard from season to season with no real or concrete goal on the horizon. In my opinion, once an athlete enters the realm of being highly competitive (not a hobby athlete), they have about a maximum shelf life of about five years; and that may be generous. There are of course numerous exceptions, but the physical and mental toll of highly structured training and racing cannot be sustained indefinitely. Athletes often need a hiatus and may return to the sport realizing that their best race is now behind them.
Understanding that the window of achievement is a short is important, but conversely coming out of the gate too hard and too early may prematurely end a promising career. I believe this is especially the case with ultra-endurance athletes competing under the age of 25. These athletes should be primarily focusing on building speed and skill, yet they compete in events that have high risk of injury, high risk of burn out, and are often not sustainable in a typical lifestyle. A fast athlete can always be trained to go long, but building speed has a much, much smaller window within which the athlete has the capacity to not only withstand the intensity, but recover quickly. Young athletes should spend years developing fundamentals, a strong biomechanical foundation, and an appropriate amount of training volume.
What do I do when I get there? Achievement is a funny thing; once a goal is realized, there is satisfaction, even joy, but then there is the often dubious question “what do I do next?” I believe this uncertainty has even been put under the umbrella of “post-race depression.” Over achievers must be fed a steady diet of success in order to be satisfied. For this reason many leave the sport or move on to another challenge after a string of a few unsuccessful races, an injury, or an unsuccessful season. At this juncture the emphasis should be on figuring out what is not working, and how to change it. It is often hard to be objective when evaluating oneself, and a consultation with an experienced coach may offer a fresh perspective.
If you are competing in endurance sports it is probable you like, or even need, a challenge. Keeping a challenge in front of you becomes very important, as it is a primary source of motivation. But after achieving a goal, a physical and mental break is equally important-- often for more than a month. This does not mean shutting down physical activity which would also be highly detrimental, but taking a relaxed, unstructured, and enjoyable approach to training. Once you are through this phase you will likely be itching for a new challenge and now is the time to define it.
Do I want to go pro? Becoming a professional athlete is something many aspire to but few will attain. It is tempting to believe that hard work, discipline, and desire will get you there, but the truth is that there is a genetic sieve athletes are sifted through. The ones that have the aforementioned qualities, combined with a genetic propensity for a sport are the ones that will make it to professional competition. As I indicated earlier, a great many things must come together to bring an athlete to this level. But one of the key indicators that I look for is an athlete that is competing well locally or regionally, while being relatively new to a sport, with little quality guidance or support. Applying high level coaching and resources to these athletes is what brings them to the next level and perhaps their pro card. Identifying what areas these athletes need to work on-- be it run form, nutrition, or race execution and tactics-- is the first step in their development process. In the case of an emerging athlete it is often best to leave them in amateur competition a bit longer than they like, even if they qualify for professional status. A focus on performance metrics and objectives, and even plotting these out over several years, creates a long term focus on athlete development vs. placement. A highly talented amateur may make a very mediocre professional. It is humbling and perhaps demotivating. Having a long term plan and focus on performance metrics gives the athlete confidence in the process, as well as a more patient outlook. Athletes always want to be their best tomorrow, but those that understand that fitness is a slow, steady, and often painful process of progression, if everything is coming together, will be more invested long term. And it takes years to bring an athlete to their very best, albeit a limited number of them. For this reason it is tantamount to make the best use of your own window of achievement.
Originally for Active.com
Matt Russ is a full time professional coach with over 20 years of experience working with athletes up to the elite level. His athletes have won numerous regional, national, and international titles. He holds the highest level of licensing by both USA Triathlon and USA Cycling, and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is Head Coach and owner of The Sport Factory, a USA Triathlon Certified Performance Center. Visit www.sportfactory.com for more information or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org