Are you a self aware athlete?

I recently wrote an article on Recovery and how it can be the key to your success. I received lots of comments and feedback that it was very well timed, and a good reminder for all endurance athletes (well really any athlete!) to ensure they take a step back and allow the body to actually recover and adapt so it can grow and become stronger.

This lead me thinking to conversations I have had with a few athletes over the past couple of weeks and there seemed to be a common theme that was starting to pop up. A comment or conversation that had the same underlying thought pattern. “I feel like I didn’t quite nail the session“, “I didn’t hit the numbers on that session” some even included the word failed!

And so it got me thinking, what was leading these athletes to think this way? Because they didn’t hit a particular number in a session, that they had failed at that session… That even though the intent was there, and the effort was there, but because they didn’t hit a particular number that they had ‘failed’.

So when I delved deeper into these conversations, almost all of them came back to how flexible, adaptable and self aware an athlete was (or in these cases weren’t).

So what does does that all mean, and how can you become more flexible, adaptable and self aware to ultimately become a better athlete?

Well if you look up these words in the dictionary you will find something along these lines…

Adaptable: “able to adjust to new conditions
So being an adaptable person / athlete means “being capable of being adapted. able to adjust oneself readily to different conditions
Flexible: “able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances. ready and able to change so as to adapt to different circumstances.”
Self Aware:knowing and understanding yourself, surroundings, sensations and thoughts“.

How does that relate to you as an athlete? And how do these traits lead to either your success or your potential demise as an athlete?

Firstly I will put it into context to see if you are LACKING in these traits.

Scenario #1 You review your program at the start of the week, plan your week accordingly, down to the day and time you will complete your session. But something comes up, you are running overtime at work, an unforeseen issue comes up and you can’t get out the door when you had planned. You get a little angry, maybe start to take it out on others, or resent the person or situation that caused your plans to be changed.

Scenario #2 You head out for a key run interval session. You know what paces you can hold for this session as you have done it before. So you head out in good spirits. But right from the first step you feel heavy and lethargic. ‘I’ll get through the warm up and see’ but you still don’t feel it. And then you start to feel a little twinge in the hammy. You know your form is off, you know you are feeling tired, and the hammy isn’t happy, but ‘I have to do this session as planned’. So you push through it, unhappy with how you performed, and finished with a sore hammy as a result. You now feel frustrated and annoyed.

Scenario #3 You plug your bike session into zwift, a key session you really want to nail. Your computer tells you the power number you ‘need’ to hit, but you have had a stressful week at work, sleep has been below par and you are feeling tired. ‘But I’m going to nail this session no matter what’ you tell yourself. But you don’t. Your body wasn’t having any of it, but you keep trying. A zone 3 effort feeling like a Zone 4. You are working way harder for the effort you should be doing but you soldier on regardless… But you finish the session feeling worse than when you started AND you feel like you failed the session because you didn’t hit the numbers you planned.

Scenario #4 You just got the kids down for a nap, everything is set up and you are ready to hit a session on the bike. You are excited! But 20min into the session your youngest wakes up – gah noooo. You get angry at him. Why do you have to wake up now you curse to yourself. You try to ignore the cries, but know you have to get off. So you tend to him, get him back to sleep and jump back on the trainer. Only to have 10min later another interruption. Really?! Not again! arghhhh. You have a 1.5hour session planned and only 30min in and already you have been interrupted twice. You are annoyed and frustrated at your child. You get off and let the session go, but you remain angry for the rest of the day.

Scenario #5 You can’t swim due to pool restrictions (sounds familiar?) 😉 So you first get annoyed, but then you soon forget about swimming and just think you will worry about it when you can swim again. So you don’t plan anything else into your program that can supplement your swimming, you simply stop.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you? You could replace any session or any scenario, or any disruption in the above and I’m sure you will bound to find one that you can relate to. The key message in these was that the athlete in each scenario didn’t allow flexibility or adaptability into their planning and/or sessions and let this carry through into the remainder of their day (maybe even more than one day!) either in life, in their session or in their program as a whole.

It can be hard I get it. Particularly for athletes that love structure, routine, following a program, not missing a session, ‘doing as the coach told me‘. These type of athletes are fantastic, they will always get the work done. They don’t search for excuses, or the easy way out, they grit their teeth and get the work done. BUT at the same time, this COULD be their undoing.

If things don’t go your way, you need enough self awareness to acknowledge this, but not let it get to you. If you are tired, become adaptable enough to change, if your time availability changes, have enough flexibility to work around it and not let it get to you.
THESE are key qualities that can really help an athlete achieve their full potential. Not just an athlete that can hit every session prescribed or every number planned.

So how can you draw from and develop tools for self awareness and self management from unexpected fatigue or unexpected situations?

Understand what successful training is: Being consistent is first and foremost. So to be consistent is not going too hard on easy sessions / days. It’s not taking on too much in terms of your training load in the context of your life as a whole. Sometimes training needs to take a little backseat and that is OK. We can plan around that. That isn’t failure. That is life! Sessions are designed to challenge you, but they aren’t designed to break you – physically OR mentally. Fatigue is ok. Yes. Some sessions should be really hard. Yes. But you should still feel accomplished overall.

Give a little: Don’t always go chasing a set power, pace or speed in your sessions without having the ability to shift these on a particular given day. If you don’t have that flexibility you WILL see it as a failure, even when it’s not. So don’t lose the ability to be intuitive, to know what it ‘feels’ like. What does zone 3 ‘feel’ like. What does Ironman pace ‘feel’ like. Data, watches and programs tend to take away the feel if you rely too heavily on them – listen and learn from your body. THAT is your greatest measurement.

Use your program as a guide: Your program is a guide. I program with intention, with purpose and with your goals in mind, but it is up to you as the athlete to listen to your body, train with intent, ask questions, adapt and be flexible within the realms of the program.
Not every day will be a great training day. Some days you head out for a hard interval session and your body just does not want to respond. This is the time you need to listen to your body and understand whether it is best to continue with the session, or change it. Athletes who tap into their intuition and understand their bodies will ultimately become better athletes as they manage a more consistent training base. Successful athlete’s don’t just train for the sake of training, every session has a purpose – even when that purpose may change for the greater good of the overall training plan.

Don’t feel like you have to hit EVERY session: I include a mixture of key sessions and supporting sessions into athletes programs so they know which sessions to focus on, and which session support those key sessions. If an athlete can complete them all AWESOME. But if in a given week they can’t, that is ok. Remember, we train and compete in our sport because we enjoy it. Our training shouldn’t control our lives. Our training should mould around and integrate into it, not the other way around. We are aiming for consistency over the long term, not short term.

Have scalability: I used to coach with really detailed metrics in training peaks, but I have now moved the other direction. Providing scalability within sessions based on how an athlete may be feeling. So without guessing, if an athlete had a key session planned, but they ended up running short on time, or they are feeling super fatigued due to late work nights, or a harder than planned session the day before, then they have prescribed scalability within their sessions. So if they can’t obtain X, then then can do Y, or even Z. So regardless if they completed the session as X or Z, they still completed the session with it’s purpose in tact and with adaptability around their life. Hows that hey!
So don’t feel like you have to hang on to a particular number or metric EVERY single session. Give a little when it’s needed.

Have the courage to recover: If you are feeling the accumulation of fatigue. GREAT that is from your hard work. Job well done! So in saying that, without any guilt or hesitation, step back and allow the recovery. Growth comes from when the body is allowed to recover and adapt. So don’t be afraid (or feel guilty) if you are feeling fatigued, to take it easier for a day, or two, or three! Really give your body a chance to absorb the training, trust me, you will come back fresher AND stronger.

Change your mindset: Learning to be adaptable really comes down to your mindset. The simpliest way to build adaptability is to practice in life as well as training. Become self-aware of your thoughts, and shifting them. For example. You miss an exit driving down the freeway and you feel angry at the situation. Instead, how can you look at this an opportunity? Maybe you can learn a new route to where you were getting to….
If you look at your program and you have a 1.5hour long run plan, but work / family only allows for 1 hour today, instead of being annoyed at your work / family situation think of it as you will be fresher for your session tomorrow! Literally anything you do on a daily is an opportunity to practice your adaptability. Give it a go! 🙂

ADAPTABILITY COMBINES FLEXIBILITY WITH VERSATILITY. FLEXIBILITY IS YOUR WILLINGNESS TO ADAPT. IT’S YOUR ATTITUDE. VERSATILITY IS YOUR ABILITY TO ADAPT. IT’S YOUR APTITUDE. ~Dr. Michael O’Connor

So there’s a challenge for you. How can you become more adaptable, flexible and more self aware? When things don’t go your way, what can you do with the new situation? Does it create new possibilities? Can it potentially be an opportunity? Can it actually lead you to be a more sustainable, robust, successful and ultimately happier athlete…. I’ll let you decide. 🙂

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