Uncommon Coaching

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting entries where I share how coaches and athletes can conceptualize training and programming in an effort to achieve the breakthrough performances that elude many age groupers. An athlete’s “dream” performance is not the result of the fanciest bike or the most advanced laboratory testing. Excellence is the result of consistent training, creative and client-centered training programming, and the dynamics of coach and athlete. I strive to articulate the marriage between the art and intuition of high performance coaching with an understanding of physiology and psychology to promote athletic excellence.

Use Perceived Exertion to Encourage an Athlete’s Resilience and Stop the Negative Self-Talk Loop

Imagine an athlete during peak Ironman training. Hours of cumulative fatigue are in the athlete’s legs. The athlete wakes up one morning and she heads to the track for a run session. The session’s main set is written as 12 x 800 meters @ 3:30 per 800 with 1 minute standing recovery. Those targets were intentionally set by this athlete’s coach based on previous training and racing data, laboratory/field testing, and what the coach knows of this individual athlete.

The athlete begins warm up and she thinks “wow I feel so flat today” but she shakes off the thought and continues her warm. The main set begins. The athlete begins her first 800. Her legs feel unusually heavy. The athlete’s perceived exertion for this pace feels harder than normal. As the athlete checks in on their pace during the first 400 meters of the 800, she notices that she is behind pace. The athlete cannot generate any more speed than what she is putting out though. The athlete finishes the 800 and it turns out she ran 3:34 for the first 800.

The athlete thinks “that sucks, I missed it”. Though bummed, the athlete is still committed to the workout and gears up for her second rep. The athlete thinks, “this second repeat will be better”. But the athlete feels the the second interval is even harder than the first! Her legs still feel heavy. She tears herself to bits to try and hit her goal pace. She finishes the 800 and she sees 3:35 – slower than her first effort.

What happens next typically is the start of a cycle of negative self talk. “Why can’t I hit these paces?” “What’s wrong with me?” “I am a piece of shit” “I’m not fit enough” “This sucks” “F this session”, “If I can’t even run these 800’s at this pace, I’m never going to be able to run XX:XX pace off the bike!”

As the session continues, the athlete continues to miss her goal pace.

Then the questions of self-doubt above turn into stories or excuses that start to gain traction. Instead of having a bad day at the track the athlete internalizes the perceived failure and thinks:

“It’s hot out today. I’m always terrible in the heat. I’m terrible in the humidity”

“I hate track work, this is stupid. I can never hit my paces right”

“Why am I even doing this workout? I should be doing XYZ instead”

“I’m probably under recovered, I should have slept in (or had a rest day) (or not have pushed so hard yesterday) (or my coach did not plan my week right)”

“My coach is an idiot for prescribing those paces”

“I just disappointed my coach”

“I’ll never be fast enough”

I would venture to guess that most every athlete has had at least once experience like this. I am also quite confident you can think of at least one of your friends or fellow athletes who sounds like this after a bad session.

The Negative Self-Talk Loop

In all candor, the negative self-talk loop is something I personally experienced for over a decade as an athlete. I have had athletes come to me with a deeply ingrained self-talk loop, too. Getting unstuck from this pattern is not impossible, though. The best way to get an athlete unstuck (or prevent getting stuck in the first place) is to use perceived exertion as the prescription for intensities in an athlete’s program.

How prescription by output can lead to anxiety and negative self-talk

Most athletes are conditioned to base the success of a workout using objective data like pace, watts, or interval time in the pool. If the prescription for a workout is based on output, then the success or failure of a session becomes binary. The athlete succeeds or the athlete fails. This black and white thinking is problematic for two reasons. First, it undermines an athlete’s ability to identify some other aspect of success that occurred during a workout like nailing their nutrition. Second, it does not allow for the athlete to develop tolerance for feeling sub-optimal but still producing a best performance with whatever they do have on the day. The implications of this second consideration are most salient on race day.

Consider this race day example: an athlete exits T2 in fourth place in their age group. Assume that the athlete physiologically should be able to run 7:30 pace off of the bike. However, the athlete just feels a little flat coming off of the bike. The athlete looks down at their watch at mile 1 and they see they averaged 7:45 pace. If the athlete has not trained to tolerate being “off” the acute stress is enough to drop the athlete into destructive thinking before the much of the marathon has been run. I have seen it many times that group athletes who are off their goal pace, even by something as small as :10 per minute mile can crack. And they can crack early in a race and they can crack hard. Those who train using RPE know how to race an Ironman marathon in an intuitive way. The athlete who can tolerate being off their goal pace, but maintain focus and stay in the moment is the athlete who is prepared for a breakthrough. The present centeredness that racing by feel allows, encourages allows an athlete to tolerate the ups and downs of race day without catastrophizing anything. P

The Coach’s Responsibility in RPE Training

Coaching using perceived exertion is time and energy intensive. It requires that a coach is invested in the relationships with their athletes. It also requires trust and cooperation on the part of the athlete. Consistent communication, clear language describing intensities, and an ability to evaluate data in combination with the narrative an athlete provides are vital to this style of coaching. By connecting with an athlete and working with them to develop self-awareness will empower an athlete to tolerate whatever comes at them on race day.

To be clear, I do use consider how RPE correlates to different physiological training intensities. I also test my athletes. I simply do not make the testing or the zones the focal point of my direct interactions with my athletes. The data evaluation happens on my end. Only when it serves an athlete, do I make share the interpretation of the data. I want my athletes to focus on one thing: execute their training with discipline. That is it. Be tough. Go and do. Report back to me. That’s the agreement. It has so far worked pretty well.

How Perceived Exertion Mitigates the Negative Self-Talk Loop and Improves Performance

By flipping the focus from output to input in training, consistency is more easily achievable. Less sessions are abandoned because of toxic negative thinking or because an athlete quits on themself. The measure of success for a workout goes from “did I hit the paces coach gave me” to “did I honestly execute the session at the intensities prescribed” or “was I soft today?”, or even “did I quit on myself at any time today”.

These are the questions that develop athletes who are psychologically strong. The focus shifts to the process. Therefore, the meaning each workout changes. Reflecting on process requires an athlete to be self-reflective, honest with themselves, and constantly evaluating their limits. Honest self reflection eludes many age group athletes and as coaches, encouraging this reflection can be a way to embolden our athletes to be courageous in training, work harder, and take responsibility for giving less than their best in a session.

A Final Note on “Trusting the Process”

In my undergraduate studies, I had a creative writing professor who said, “good creative writing shows. It doesn’t tell”. I conceptualize coaching in a similar way.

Telling an athlete what to do or how to think is not good enough coaching. A good coach must structure workouts to develop an athlete’s inner resources. A good coach facilitates an embodied experience then discusses that experience with their athlete and that is what the athlete will remember on race day.

Show them. Don’t just tell them.

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