Having worked as a race director, coach and competed as an athlete in the sport for a few years now I’ve had the privilege of seeing and helping many athletes come up through the sport from complete novices to successful athletes. This isn’t really a blog about that, it’s largely about what comes after.
THE CLASSIC ENDURANCE JOURNEY
Life is simple at the start, and theres a good chance the start of your participation in endurance sports wasn’t much different.
Most people start out in triathlon new and keen to conquer the distance, completing any given race is enough. We then progress up in distance a bit or a lot, and then the attention often switches eventually to getting faster and improving our race results.
Athletes start to work on technique and speed more, they train more intensely, go longer and more often. They do more and more and more and for a period of time everything often goes really well.
Then things seem to have a habit of going a bit sideways.
Be it injury, disillusionment, loss of motivation or simply burn out the grand aspirations the athlete had surrounding triathlon often come to a halt and things start to go backwards.
Often this cycle seems to repeat itself many times with the same athlete falling on and off the wagon before eventually giving up. Rather than returning to training at a level they can manage the athlete often stops, reduces or if they are lucky moves onto a new sporting interest.
Thats not to say all athletes walk this path and many have lifestyles that fit around the sport for years and years, however in my opinion for every one of them the sport has lost a lot more.
Now a part of the problem is the linear thinking coaches and athletes adopt, embrace and promote. A coaches goal is generally to prepare you to race your best at a given event. Programmes typically focus on target race results rather than how an athlete will manage and support a good training programme over many years.
When talking to other athletes we’re interested in what times they have or are completing races in. We attach value to performance and want to surround ourselves with good athletes.
When setting personal goals realism and time take a back seat to measurable and achievable. We race when the event demands not when we’re ready. We set ourselves ambitious targets for the next year bigger and bolder than the last. We sign up for events a year in advance and we set goals based largely on performance.
But wait I here you say its a race and a competitive sport, it’s purpose is to see who’s fastest over a given distance. Well welcome to the point of this blog.
What happens when we start thinking beyond getting faster. What happens when the athletes life no longer supports hard training, when a baby comes along or a new job. When life is more important than training how does your chosen endurance sport stay a part of your life.
Perhaps we stop thinking speed and start valuing the race experience and sense of adventure. Stop thinking dedication and start prioritising our life balance. Start realising that the hours we spend training are far more important than a few hours at an event. Try to experience the journey more and focus less on racing.
Perhaps we need a new way of thinking to keep people included in the sport for years to come. Perhaps self improvement and the journeys along the way our more important than our personal bests.
A NEW HOPE
I remember reading a blog by Chris Goodfellow from Challenge Henley 2013. The crux of this pros fantastic blog is this, when his race went horribly wrong and completing became enough the significance of the race grew. The support, the camaraderie and getting the job done.
This had been a tough 70.3 for me having never been a fan of hills. I remember another athlete coming alongside and chatting to me going up a hill yet again. I thought he was a prick at the time smiling vainly through gritted teeth but he was on to something.
He was having fun and helping motivate others, virtues far more important. In response he had more fun and equally finished a good race. He completed the miles the same as everyone else but his experience was far greater than those with their heads down racing for 200th.
From a race directors point of view I’ve seen over many years the juxtaposition of faster experienced athletes griping over minor race details or errors, unhappy with by anyones standards good performance yet the guy coming in “last” has a giant smile on his face.
YOUNG AT HEART
So how do we get from a place where a sport focussed on time, personal bests and performance stats embraces those athletes for whom participation could be enough.
A couple of suggestions:
1. As coaches we can encourage our athletes to experience more and worry about stats less. Start focussing on the process of integrating training into their lives in a sustainable way rather than focusing on performance. Ensure training is fun rather than simply functional.
2. We can reinforced to our athletes that performance is secondary to enjoying taking part. We know to do this intuitively with junior athletes where the more fun they are having the better they perform. Adults aren’t really any different.
3. We can encourage other athletes to take adventure over results. Where was it, how good was the route, how much did you enjoy it. Run wild more and explore off the beaten path.
4. We can measure performance in terms of pleasure, enjoyment, satisfaction. If your fit enough to enjoy the distance your fit enough, anything else is a bonus.
5. We can encourage the kind of medal/race collecting that good athletes would normally scoff at.
Finally perhaps we can start seeing the length of service in the sport as a different kind of PB. Simply we can start to realise for the majority of people in sport the time you finish in really shouldn’t be that important.