by Laura Henry
You’ve been there: staring at a goal you want to achieve. You’ve probably also been here: injured or having encountered some sort of setback that caused you to have to reduce or stop your training. And you may have even been here: encountering both of the aforementioned things simultaneously.
As a coach, my job is to balance what athletes want to do and achieve with my knowledge (which includes sound training principles and science) and my intuition derived from my experience as a coach. At one time or another, over the course of time working with an athlete, I inevitably end up working with them through a period of time when they are coming back from some sort of absence from or regression in training.
As any athlete who I work with can tell you: I am conservative when it comes to training. I’ll push boundaries if I feel that they are safe to push, but I want LOTS of subjective input and data that supports that that is the right path to choose. My number one job as a coach is to keep athletes safe. Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of athletes, and none of them has ever sustained a training-related injury that was related to the training that I recommended. I really like this track record, and will do everything I can to keep it going.
When an athlete is coming back into training or building up in their training, their instinct is often to jump right back into training where they left off prior to the setback. It’s easy to understand why athletes want to do this; they believe that they can do the things that they did prior to taking time off of training. If they did it before, why can’t they do it now?
Well, as most of us know, taking time away from workouts and consistent training causes us to lose fitness. And so, while we very well may have been able to do something (i.e. run a half marathon, complete a 70.3-distance triathlon, or ride 100 miles) when we were training regularly and had a high-level of fitness, the reality is that we do not have that same level of fitness or ability when we’re starting back up. We may even need to start over from the beginning. Yes, this is hard to admit. Yes, this can feel sad and frustrating. But yes, it is true.
So, when I write a week of training for an athlete who is in this situation, they are often caught off guard or surprised by the amount of training I suggest. Often, I suggest shorter, more frequent workouts that span several disciplines of training (cardiovascular training, strength training, crosstraining, etc.) and recommend that we aim to get in all of these shorter workouts. As athletes move through a training week that is designed like this, I often get comments in Final Surge that resemble any of the following:
“I felt good, but I don’t think I’m working hard enough.”
“I felt strong throughout this, and I think I should be doing more.”
“I didn’t have any pain on this run and I didn’t feel tired, but I have [insert goal here] coming up in [insert amount of time here] and I don’t think that I’m going to be ready with these volumes or distances.”
“This felt easy; maybe I wasn’t working hard enough and I should have pushed more.”
Often there is a unifying thread to those comments - something along the lines of “I felt good.” However, it is almost always accompanied by a “but” or another qualifying word that leads into a thought about how they should be doing something differently; often this means that they feel that they should or could be doing more. I certainly understand why athletes feel this way; athletes almost always want to do more - whether “more” comes in the form of volume or intensity (or both). Athletes truly believe that more is better. If they can do more, why not do more? As I say all the time: just because you can doesn’t mean you should and more is not better; better is better.
In my experience, it is far more beneficial to write training for athletes in such a way that it builds their confidence and makes them feel good - both about the workout and themselves. A steady, but upward, trend over time is MUCH more advantageous over the long haul than ramping up quickly and risking not feeling good, or even worse, risking injury. That can lead to the opposite - a downward spike or trend. If too much volume and/or intensity is planned in an athlete’s plan, they are apt to feel tired, burnt out, or discouraged that they aren’t feeling good.
And so, it’s incredibly ironic to me that athletes often communicate how much despair they feel when they don’t feel good, but then think something is wrong when they DO feel great and want to push boundaries to encroach on the territory of where they aren’t feeling great. So I ask them: “What’s so bad about feeling great?” Often, they look startled when I ask that, and realize that feeling great is EXACTLY what we are after. We’re not working toward the goal of making people feel tired, angry at the world, or opposed to doing endurance-related activities. We’re seeking greatness - in whatever way greatness resonates with a particular athlete. Therefore, it makes sense to embrace greatness when we encounter it, in ALL of its forms.
As you navigate the long, winding road that is endurance sports training, you will encounter speedbumps, detours, back roads, construction zones, on-ramps, and even freeways. As you navigate all parts of your road - but especially those where you need to take a step back and implement the “less is more” approach to your training - I want you to always keep this in the forefront of your mind:
What’s so bad about feeling great?