This started out as a passing weekly thought that I send out to the athletes I am working with. As I got more and more good feedback from most of them, it made me want to share it a little more broadly.
As we get into the thick of racing season one of the best reminders I constantly get, and also give, is to “remember to keep things light and fun.” This message isn't to come across soft or one of those "everyone gets a pat on the back" type of things but a reminder that the workouts, racing (and, I would argue, all things in life) aren't supposed to be thought of as "work" but mostly, if not completely, play.
As time goes by, it’s easier and easier to think of training and racing (and life even) as “work” rather than play. Somewhere in the midst of life (and it’s hard to tell where the exact moment is) people start referring to themselves as adults rather than kids and the thought is that the change has to be permanent rather than fluid. Somewhere along the verbiage changes from “play dates” to “meetings” and “recess” became “workouts.”
The rides and runs and swims we do are supposed to be play. A way to channel energy and release some of your positivity in the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s an easy workout or an intervals on a track. It is supposed to be a full appreciation of where you are in your body at that moment in time.
The feeling of “I wonder if I can actually do these prescribed intervals at this pace”
mixed with “It’d feel awesome to do hit these paces”
turns into “Holy cow I am so proud I ACTUALLY did that”
(eventually) turns into “I wonder if I can do this next thing that I think would be rewarding…”
Of course, everyone is different and wants to do different things for different reasons, but the bottom line is that if you love it, you will practice, and if you practice, you’ll get better. Which will make you love it even more and love it in a different way.
The individual plan that involves the most "play" and fun is the one that will improve your mental attitude, overall lifestyle, and day-to-day mood the most. And inherently, you’ll naturally get better in the process of a more positive and sustainable focus on training and competition. The key to this is that each long term plan should resonate with each individual in different ways.
A question I get a lot is,
“What’s the the right training plan for me if I want to do XYZ?”
“How many hours a week should I train for (insert thing here)..."
and my answer is something that usually surprises people a lot:
"The right plan is one that is easiest for you to do for a long time… it's the most fun, it excites you the most. It’s the one where you get out of work and can’t wait to do this thing that you love."
And a puzzled look comes over their face as they probably expected me to beat my fist on a table and say:
“YOU HAVE GOT TO DO THIS! THIS! AND THIS! OR YOU’LL NEVER BE ABLE TO COMPLETE YOUR GOAL!”
The secret is that there are a million different ways to get someone from where they are to where they want to be… but the BEST way is always the one that involves the most “play” and least amount of “work.” The caveat to that statement would be that the “fun” should also be in a safe environment and one that challenges an individual physically and mentally enough to instigate changes in their body and mind but not to over-stress them as far as injury/ over-training.
It doesn’t matter if you have the absolute best made program in the world, if you don’t like what you are actually doing and you don’t like who you’re doing it with, or why you are doing it, or who you become when you’re actually doing it… if you aren't receiving good energy and support in a healthy environment, it will never trump “the perfect program.”
Someone recently asked me, “How do I pace a sprint triathlon properly to go my absolute fastest time ever?” I responded by saying, “If you are thinking about pace in a sprint tri, you’re wasting your energy thinking… just go faster.” This seems like a super competitive example, but what I really meant to say is that to go your fastest in any race is to be having the most fun while pushing yourself. It is the magic mix of thinking to do something and actually doing it at the exact same time. A marksman will tell you that hitting a bullseye is a product of aiming and shooting at the same time, not thinking about either. And to do this, the action must be thought of as play, not stress.
As with any goal, there are challenges. And yes the 20% intervals that I assign in a training plan are supposed to be hard on the body. But this “hard” is supposed to be more a form of "practice" for your body that will serve to get you faster. And the trick is that you should love this "practice" (even is the 'love' portion only comes after you're done). If you have a meaningful goal that you love deep down, the “hard stuff” will be worth it, and you’ll find value in getting better. And continuing to get better is what will keep you coming back to the practice. Are you seeing the pattern here?
If you pick a goal that you only want to do because a million other people have done it, or you think you have to do it for some reason other than you really want to do it. You will eventually find yourself stressed after working all day at actual-work, and then stressed about the thought of working out, and then stressed because you don’t have time to get enough sleep, so you’ll be tired and more stressed about actual-work, and then not want to work out again... it will boil down to spending your whole day and week under a lot of stress. The goals you have outside of the work day are supposed to be a fun relief to the stressors that naturally come up during the day. (I’d argue that the goals you have in work are supposed to be fun as well, but we will take it one step at a time).
(Notwithstanding that we are all mostly successful in careers and other aspects of life because we hold ourselves to very high standards, this is all well and good but also sets us up for big relapses because we tend to be very hard on ourselves when we miss a workout or can't hit an interval… and the aforementioned downward spiral starts again.)
Working out and training is supposed to be a recess from the “business of life,” and not looked at as more work to do. After all, recess is all about play... recess is "I get to do this awesome run" NOT "I have to get a run in or I'll chastise myself for being a failure." Often I think that it is easy to forget what "recess" is at it's core... playing and having fun. If you think of these workouts as play and as a "recess" from the busy grind of "I have to do this and that" you'll find yourself coming back for more and getting better in the natural process. The downward spiral is shifted to an upward spiral where you are refueling yourself to getting better, so you are constantly feeling better, so you can “practice” better, and then you feel better again!
Thinking about workouts as “play” instead of work will also calm your mind and open up space for you to get creative. You’ll figure out how to do things better inside and outside of the physical practice. We have all probably had a problem that we think about ALL DAY and come up with NOTHING… but then hop in the shower, stop thinking about it, and POOF! The answer appears before us out of thin air.
If you love what you are doing and playing you’ll find yourself engrossed in the activity fully and thinking more clearly in a completely natural way. You’ll get lost (in a good way) or stumble upon that elusive “runner’s high.” Or you’ll find yourself in that mysterious state of flow. But it doesn’t come if you don’t love what you’re doing, no matter what you’re doing. The best of the best professional athletes and Olympians always look like they are having a fun time and “playing” VS working.
On the flip side of this, if you are constantly training while you are stressed out, you are training yourself to always be stressed out while training. You’ll assimilate the physical nature of training with the outside stress and just like Pavlov and his bell-salivating dogs, you’ll just become stressed because you subconsciously think you need to be stressed while moving your body… because that is how you’ve been practicing it. People learn skills faster and move their bodies better while calm and “zoned in” VS being yelled at and stressed.
One of my favorite things as a coach is trying to figure out the best way to pair this “fun” with workouts and training plans to maintain the cycling of fun is to better as better is to fun. So if you are stuck in a rut, think about what the race/goal/(anything) is that will keep you engaged and happy and coming back for more... What fires you up and scares you at the same time?
There is no right answer other than the one you want the most deep down inside yourself. The thing that makes you smile in your heart of hearts. (Maybe it's something you've never done before, maybe it's a race with your family, maybe it's longer distances and maybe it's faster times or higher climbs... again, there is no right answer other than the one you want and that fires you up).
I am working with someone that was torn between going longer distances in triathlon for the first time VS trying to build faster speeds at relatively shorter distances. I commend this person for taking some time and figuring out that the best option for them at this time in their life is to focus on the shorter stuff. The sprints leave you gassed and the workouts are definitely different as opposed to the 70.3 work they were doing previously. But this person figured out that this type of training was what was firing them up more than going for an Ironman at this point in their life. I give this person a seemingly-grueling track workout and undoubtedly a text will come thru with “Do you think I can actually hit this?” and then another text after the workout, “Holy hell that was wild, I wanted to quit after three but I stuck it out for all five and feel like a million bucks”
This anecdote is just to say that even though we are swimming, and biking, and running, and lifting, and yogaing, and everything... everyone "plays" differently. Another example is someone who got picked to run a marathon for a beer-sponsored team, they said to me, "Well the marathon will be fun, but being on this beer sponsored team would be icing on the cake!!" So no-doubt this person will have a hellovafuntime training for this marathon, because it is what they want to do deep down for themselves… not for any other reason but the fun of it.
The underlying message here is make sure you are doing your things for the love and fun of it rather than feeling like you have to do them.
My main goal as a coach is to balance the play with the hard workouts and moments when you have to push through a tough period in training. The only way to do this successfully is to set up goals that keep you looking toward them instead of closing your eyes and gritting it through the training.
You don't have to race, you don't have to go for faster times or longer miles, you just have to figure out what you truly want out of sports and play and moving your body. It's fun to get creative and do other things rather than just racing, racing, racing for the soul sake of racing because it is what you think you have to do as an athlete VS what you really want to do as a person who enjoys actually being in their own body.
Last year when I was in a bit of a funk, I drove to the end of a trail, locked my bike to a tree in the woods, drove back to the start of the trail, hiked point to point along the trail, then biked point to point back to the car. It wasn't a race and only a few people knew that I did it, but it is what fired me up at the time and got me out of bed with a huge smile on my face. If your goal doesn't light you up⏤ bail on it. It’s not worth it and cliches aside, life is too short.
If you need some help figuring out a goal I am happy to chat and to help you do some digging and maybe get a little creative with something out of the box. I’m pretty good at figuring out some wacky ideas that end up being really fun (to me anyways). But what I love most about my role as a coach is figuring out the mental portion of what people will fall in love with while moving their body (being safe and realistic with goals and abilities).
Main Takeaway: If you love something you'll want to practice and if you practice you'll get better... which will make you love it more. It doesn’t have to be an Ironman, or a marathon, or any sort of race at all.
If you're in a funk, or don't want to swim, or can't run, or whatever, don’t mope about it, just get creative with a different goal that lights you up. These things you do with your body are a choice, not an obligation.