How to (not) avoid injuries

It’s been a while since my last blog and the reason for the silence is I’ve had my head down training hard in prep for Ironman Melbourne in March and Ironman Australia in May. I’ve always been lucky in that I haven’t suffered with injuries but that luck came to an end on new years eve when I tore my calf muscle. Doing the math and Melbourne is a no go considering I can’t run for 4 weeks (and it will be at least 2 more weeks before I get up to full bore). IM Australia is possible providing everything goes to plan but it’s touch and go.

To be honest I’m absolutely gutted (no surprise). I’ve worked hard for the past 6 months to build a solid training base and I felt like I was in great shape for Melbourne. At the same time I know that I need to man up and deal with it. There are aspiring pro athletes who race for endorsements and prize money to pay the rent. This could be a WHOLE lot worse.

So now what? I need to learn from this, pick apart what has led to this injury and put it right. Here are my lessons learned.. the hard way. Hopefully by sharing these I can get some get well quick karma 🙂

  1. Recovery is important, especially if you are 30+. The first lesson is I’m not 24 anymore! By that I mean the older you get the slower your body recovers and trying to smash out a hard ride on a saturday and a long run on a sunday is asking for trouble. Once you are over 30 recovery becomes even more important and planning a training schedule that incorporates sufficient recovery time will help you to avoid injury.
  2. Listen to your body, even writing this I’m thinking ‘duh! you think so’. I started out on a long run the day after a long ride and I didn’t feel great, I felt fatigued and my legs were heavy. At that moment I should have been smart enough to realise that I wasn’t going to get much out of the session and I was risking injury. What did I do? I got my head down and tried to finish out the distance, 12km later and I got the sniper shot to the calf.
  3. Build your sessions slowly. Prior to Christmas I started to ramp up my training sessions adding in speed work on the bike, hill running and tempo running. These are high value sessions but ramping up quickly in a short space of time put my already fatigued body under additional strain and more than likely contributed to the injury.

Probably the most frustrating factor is that there’s nothing here I didn’t already know. Anyone who puts them self through an Ironman is going to be anal by nature! It’s not the kind of thing you just have a go at on a weekend, it’s a 6 month + journey. Amateurs like me scour the internet for training information, stretching guides and blogs. We always do our research and we are meticulous in our preparation. Just as we are meticulous your average IM competitor is also going to be a little bit pig headed and stubborn. How else do you drag yourself around 226km’s of hell?! The down side of this stubbornness is we think we know best and despite doing all the research we end up ignoring it. It’s a pretty shitty feeling to be flat out on the couch knowing that if you’d have just skipped that run, that probably wouldn’t have added to your fitness anyway, you would be out training rather than feeling sorry for yourself. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.

Hopefully I’ll see you all at Port Mac, competing not spectating 🙂

Ironman training for the mind

I recently came across a quote from Roger Bannister, the first runner to break the four minute mile, that resonated with me –

It is the brain, not the heart or lungs that is the critical organ”

As part of my Ironman preparation I spent a lot of time analysing previous performances in order to pinpoint areas for improvement. One area that stood out was my ability to handle the mental challenge faced over an endurance race. One of my favourite articles about IM comes courtesy of active.com and introduces the concept of the line. Essentially the line is a place every IM competitor will reach during the race. It’s the point at which your mind throws in the towel and orders your body to quit. The article outlines a very simple approach to iron distance racing – get yourself to the line in the best shape possible and, when you hit the line, be prepared to deal with it.

The main takeaway from this article is that hitting the line is a matter of when rather than if. Every competitor from a first timer through to the race favourite will reach this point during the race and it all comes down to how you handle it on the day. As Roger Bannister observed mental conditioning and preparation will be equally, if not more important, than physical.

The question is how do you develop a strategy to train your mind so on race day you can overcome your demons and achieve your maximum potential? I took some inspiration from Chris ‘Macca’ McCormack’s outstanding book I’m here to win. In the book he talks about a mental filing system where he stores memories that can easily be retrieved when he hits the line. For example 120km’s into the bike the mental demons might start throwing thoughts into his mind like “this is a hilly bike course, have I done enough training to get through”? At this point he will go back to his filing system and retrieve a memory of a recent hilly training ride where he performed well and remind himself he’s done the training and he can get through this race.

I’ve taken this thinking and applied it to form my own strategy, now this may make me appear a little schizophrenic but there is method to my madness! When I analysed my previous races I identified three destructive personas that can emerge and negatively impact my performance

  1. Tantrum James – Maybe it’s windy, maybe it’s wet, maybe my gears keep slipping, maybe all of the above. As I get tired and the pressure starts to build I can throw my toys out of the mental pram. In my head I feel like the world is against me, it’s all a big conspiracy and I may as well just give up, go home and sit on the couch.
  2. Negative James – This race is really tough, why am I doing this, I’m not strong enough, it’s too hard. This is definitely the most damaging persona as the metal doubts can swarm through my mind and before I know I’m walking the run course.
  3. Tetchy James – This can often be a prequel to Tantrum James making an appearance. Little things like tightness through the shoulders or sore hamstrings can start to wear me down mentally. These minor issues snowball and before I know it the toys are out of the pram and I’m heading home to the couch

I know that to achieve my IM goals this season I need to deal with these personas and control them during the race. First of all I need a plan to handle these personas when they appear in the same way Macca uses his filing system. Secondly I need to take Bannister’s advice and practice this strategy as part of my training so I’m prepared come race day.

My approach is really simple and a bit dorky but it seems to be working for me. I go through a process where I visualise my negative persona – e.g tantrum James jumping up and down throwing stuff all over the place – and I put them back in their box. To do this I use some of Macca’s logic and recall examples of the tough training sessions I’ve completed and remind myself that I’m ready, I can handle the course, and to stay positive. As I go through this process I visualise my negative persona getting back into their box which gives me a sense of closure and I can get back to focusing on the race. As I write this I realise this must sound extremely weird or even borderline crazy but so far I’ve found it to be really powerful. What I learned from this exercise –

  1. Be honest with yourself. I spent some time looking at my previous races and was really honest with myself about my performances. Admitting mental weaknesses to anyone, including yourself, isn’t easy but once you do it becomes a lot easier to take positive action. I think the catalyst for action was seeing a photo of myself from a race last year and I look really pissed off! If I’m going to invest so much time and effort in my training surely I should be loving race day, it’s the day when all your hard work comes to fruition. Looking at the photo made me realise that a negative state of mind was impacting my ability to perform to my potential and, left as is, would probably make me end up hating the sport one day.
  2. Learn from the experts. I’ve referenced just a few resources in this post and there are plenty more out there. I don’t mean take what every ‘expert’ says as gospel but invest time in studying what rituals and routines the elite swear by and apply them to your own training regime.
  3. Simulate race conditions during training. I’ve placed a much greater emphasis over the past few months on attempting to  simulate race conditions during my training. I certainly believe this has provided some physical benefits but the primary benefit has been mental conditioning and preparation. I still have a lot of work to do but I feel mentally stronger and better prepared to handle the stress and pressure of race day.

The greatest athlete on the planet?

I came across this article in today’s press suggesting that David Beckham is on course to be Knighted at the end of the year. One quote in particular caught my attention “I can’t think of anyone in sport more fitting to be awarded a knighthood than David Beckham.. he has been a fantastic ambassador for the sport both on and off the field, a true gentleman and role model.”

Firstly who am I to argue, Becks is a legend and apart from the occasional discretion has been a fantastic role model. However I think there’s a British sportsperson who is more worthy of this esteemed honour than old golden balls. She has dominated her sport in the same way that Roger Federer, Tiger Woods and Michael Schumacher have, she is renowned for competing with a smile on her face and for inspiring people all over the world and is actively involved with a number of international development charities. Her name is Chrissie Wellington and, to use a boxing phrase, I think she’s the best pound for pound athlete on the planet.

Chrissie is the only triathlete, male or female, to have won the Ironman World Championship less than a year after turning professional. She has lowered the world record time every time she has raced one of the toughest events, Challenge Roth in Germany, she has gone on to win the World Championships three times in a row and has never been beaten at the Ironman distance. Let me just repeat that.. she has never been beaten in an Ironman distance race. An ironman race involves swimming 3.8km, riding 180km and running a marathon. There is so much that can go wrong from mechanical problems, bad weather, accidents etc and despite all this she has never lost a race. In fact it’s a foregone conclusion that if Chrissie races she will win. Federer lost the occasional game, Woods the same but I can’t recall anyone who has dominated their sport like Chrissie, especially such an unpredictable and high risk game like Ironman.

Chrissie’s performances this year have been even more remarkable. At Ironman South Africa in April she beat her own world record by 2 minutes, beat the second placed female by 35 minutes, finished 8th overall and ran the fastest marathon time of the day (men and women). At Challenge Roth in Germany in July she again beat her own world record, finished 5th overall (men and women) and the only person who ran a faster marathon was the overall winner and he needed a new world record time to beat her.

The reality is if Chrissie competed in another sport she would be one of the most well-known athletes on the planet but triathlon just doesn’t have the same profile. I would love to see the British press get behind a campaign to lift her profile and the British people rally support for her inclusion in the new years honours list. She’s a true champion and will go down in history as one of the greats, lets not wait until she retires to realise this.

Ironman Training 2.0

The initial jubilation at securing my entry for IM Australia 2012 was short lived. It was replaced by a sense of trepidation for the challenge that lies ahead. I’m not looking to break any records, in fact I often joke that my best chance of qualifying for Hawaii will be to keep racing into my 90’s so I can be in an age group of 1! Jokes aside I want to get myself to the start line in the best possible shape. Time is against me in that I work a minimum of 50 hours a week and rarely have the option to train at lunch. Last season was a bit of a disappointment as I felt my race times were well below my potential so I know something needs to change.

I often see parallels between leadership within the corporate and sporting world and as a leader in my corporate life I participate in a range of leadership development activities and events. It was at one of these events, hosted by the incredible Vaughan Felton http://www.vf.com.au/, where the concept of Thinking, Behaviours, Outcomes was introduced. Essentially we all have goals in life be it weight loss, job satisfaction, relationship satisfaction or completing an Ironman. For the most part we know what behaviours are required to achieve these outcomes but we don’t change our thinking e.g I know I need to eat healthy food to lose weight but I still buy junk when I’m at the supermarket. The point is it’s hard to change routines and to think differently, as human beings we are reluctant to change. This applied to my training approach over the past 12 months and it made me realise if I want a different outcome I need to think and behave differently.

I’m now one month into a new look training plan and the results so far have been encouraging. This plan has been compiled mostly from information freely available on the internet and I wanted to share this in case any other athletes are looking for some encouragement to change their approach. Firstly I want to pay tribute to the folks at http://www.active.com, their site is an absolute goldmine of information and a great place to start if you are looking for some fresh ideas.

My training strategy is based on four key themes 1) quality over quantity – race pace and high intensity sessions are king 2) join the gym – weights and core strength to maximise power and technique 3) Get the most from the day – early morning sessions to maximise training 4) invest in recovery – extended rest periods, lots of stretching and massage

Here are some resources that form part of my new look plan –

Strength training
http://www.active.com/triathlon/Articles/Mark_Allen_s_12_Best_Strength_Exercises.htm

Core strength
http://www.active.com/triathlon/Articles/Stability-Ball_Exercises_to_Build_Strength_and_Flexibility.htm 

Shoulder strength
http://www.active.com/triathlon/Articles/4-Exercises-to-Improve-Your-Aero-Position.htm

Cycling stretches
http://www.active.com/cycling/Articles/Improve_your_aero_positioning_with_these_five_stretches.htm

My biggest weakness has been my run so I invested in some training sessions with Mark Howard, check out his website at http://www.runningcoachmelbourne.com/. Mark helped improve my run technique and designed a track session to build endurance and speed. In case you’re not aware Melbourne Olympic park is in the process of being knocked down and can be used for free until the diggers move in towards the end of the year. It’s a great track and a beautiful venue for an early morning session.

One thing completely new that I’m trying is a rest and recovery period every fourth week. This is a total ‘down tools’ week with maybe one swim or a run but no weights and no biking. My logic here is recovery is vital and I have plenty of time before the season starts. Time will tell if this adds value, I’m in my first rest week now so will see how I bounce back next week.

I’ll continue to post any other useful resources I come across and, as always, welcome feedback.

Ironman Australia 2012, locked and loaded

In one of my previous blog posts I mentioned that full distance ironman and me have unfinished business. Well in less than 12 months I’ll be having another crack at the toughest sporting challenge as I take on Ironman Australia at Port Macquarie in New South Wales. Just entering the race was a challenge as the demand for Ironman places in Australia has reached new levels. The initial 1,450 race places sold out in 30 mins and 100 additional places sold out in under 10 minutes. You may recall from a previous blog post that I’m a strong supporter of a third Ironman race in Australia and the speed with which Port Mac sold out demonstrates the huge demand for Ironman down under.

There seems to be a sense of frustration growing within the Australian triathlon community with the way the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) is treating Australia. I don’t think I could put this into words as eloquently as Luke McKenzie who wrote a fantastic article on the state of Ironman in Australia. He raises a number of concerns such as insufficient races to satisfy demand despite the introduction of  new races in other parts of the world. The double whammy is that Australian races are being downgraded in terms of prize money and Hawaii qualifying slots which explains the lack of big global names competing down under. To put this into perspective Pete Jacobs picked up $4,500 for winning IM Australia earlier this month and the winner of Challenge Cairns (a non WTC event) will take home close to $75,000. Australia has an illustrious Ironman heritage, an Australian male has won the world championships in Hawaii four out of the past five years and both the current male and female world champions are Australian. Despite this we are seeing more investment (and hawaii places) going into races like Ironman China – which ended up being cancelled. It feels like the WTC sees the future of the sport outside of Australia and assume they are guaranteed income whatever the race. It’s tough to argue with this given the speed with which Port Mac sold out and the fact that there are still entries available for challenge cairns next month. However I would like to think that the Australian IM community will not stand for this long term. Speaking for myself if the current trend continues I’ll certainly be shifting my hard earned $ to races like challenge cairns rather than WTC events.

Funky training gadgets for tri dorks

On the flight back to Melbourne tonight I picked up the Qantas magazine and saw a feature on a really cool training gadget, the swimsense performance monitor. It looks like a normal watch but has some tech smarts enabling it to capture distance, stroke count, distance per stroke and all of this can be uploaded and analysed via a reporting tool. How cool is that?! Yeah yeah I know it’s dorky and I could probably work all that out with my $20 digital watch but us tri dorks like gadgets and data. This got me thinking about some of the other funky training gadgets and innovative products I’ve seen, unfortunately most of which I don’t own.

I was asked the question today how you avoid your glasses fogging up when cycling. This is not something I worry about since I purchased of a pair of Oakley Jawbone glasses. The clever dudes at Oakley add small ventilation holes around the edge of the lenses which enable air flow and prevent fogging. I can honestly say they work a treat and, as you expect with Oakley, the quality of the lenses are outstanding. Don’t stress when you see the price tag, I picked up a pair on ebay brand new with tags for AU$160 so shop around.

When I entered my first Ironman I decided to purchase a timex ironman GPS trainer. This was back in ’05 and the watch came with a heart rate strap and a GPS unit you wear on your arm. It was excellent for pace training as you could set an audible alarm to beep when you went too fast or too slow. It was a little unpredictable in that it struggled to get a signal in cloudy weather (bit of an issue in the UK) and lugging around the GPS unit was a hassle. The good people at Timex must have heard my thoughts as the new Ironman Global Trainer now has the GPS capability built into the watch and has improved GPS signal strength. This is definitely on my wish list this year especially if I’m going to give the Melbourne marathon a go.

Keen to hear what other funky, cool, clever, innovative and maybe even useful training gadgets you tri dorks are using.

Ironman Melbourne – fact or fiction?

I spent 13hr 45m dragging myself around Ironman Austria in 2005. It was a long, uncomfortable, emotional, painful, soul destroying and absolutely amazing day! For any triathletes you know the special buzz you get on race mornings – the training and prep is done, it’s all about bringing it together and delivering on the day and you’re buzzing with nervous tension and excitement. Standing on the Ironman start line takes it to a whole new level as you face up to the challenge ahead. I don’t think there is any feeling like it and as tough as that day was back in 2005 there’s something about the Ironman that, for me, is a little bit magic.

I still have unfinished business when it comes to Ironman. I set myself a goal of going under 12hrs at Austria and was on track until half way through the marathon when the wheels came well and truly off. I walked the next 20km with my best mate walking beside me and nearly got disqualified for ‘receiving outside support’! My primary goal was to get my hands on a finishers medal but deep down I wanted to break the 12hr mark so sooner or later I’m going to give it another go.

So recently I started to look at my options for completing a full IM race in Australia and found Port Macquarie sold out in days and Busselton sold out in a couple of hours. Basically if I want to complete an IM race this year I can’t do it in Australia. Surely Australia has the triathlon fanaticism, open spaces and facilities for three full IM races? I don’t think there has ever been greater demand for IM racing down under – races are selling out in hours and pro Aussie’s are dominating the big IM events. Head down beach road in Melbourne or the shire in Sydney and you will see TT bikes everywhere.

I stopped in at Swim Bike Run in Melbourne recently and was chatting with Jason Shortis, IM legend and top 15 finisher at Kona, and he mentioned that IM Melbourne has been approved by the WTC and is waiting on local government approval for road closures. He also suggested this was part of the reason Geelong lost their half IM event.  A quick google search returns plenty of similar discussions on triathlon sites talking about a third IM race and Melbourne being the most likely destination.

So would IM Melbourne be a world class event? Absolutely. Locations like Busso, Port and Shepparton are fantastic for triathlon but they do have their limitations. Try and get yourself somewhere to stay in Busso or Shep 3 months before the race and you won’t find anything within 50km. Compare that to Melbourne where you have a wealth of hotels that could easily accommodate 1,000 – 1,500 competitors and their travelling army of fans. The course options are plentiful – docklands swim, beach road bike, esplanade run to name one combination and Melbourne has a reputation for delivering major events – Aus Open, F1, Grand Final.

Now I do acknowledge that all the above makes Melbourne a good choice but I would hate to see it mean the end of races like Busso and Port. I love the fact that Busso goes crazy for the IM, the people line the streets, the local hotels and restaurants do well, they even leave the course markings out all year round. You can imagine a lot of people in Melbourne would see the event as a real pain with roads closed for the whole day and it would take away some of the special vibe you get at other races around the country. Despite this I genuinely believe that if the competitor numbers are limited we could sustain 3 WTC sanctioned full distance races in Aus. I say WTC sanctioned as a reference to the challenge races (e.g Cairns) that have been announced. Nothing against the challenge events, it’s great to see some competition, but without Hawaii points up for grab and the associated prize money Australia would struggle to attract the top athletes from around the world.

So in short Melbourne IM gets my vote but the million dollar question is are the rumours true?