The Art of Calling It

“Calling” a workout, knowing when you’re just done and need to lay down, is not easy. It is an art.

But, it’s an important art. I believe, with very little basis for this belief, that part of the reason I have, on the whole, done better coaching myself than being coached is because it’s hard for coaches who are not right there with you to make decisions about when to call a workout. Unless they happen to be crazy fast with the text/email responses — and I have sent some hysterical texts/emails. You are still the best equipped to know when you are exhausted.

There are some general rules I follow for calling it, though:

Recovery days should make you feel recovered. Yesterday was an easy day. But as I was on my bike, I felt terrible and not at all like this was easy. I decided that unless I called the workout there was no way I’d be able to run hard in the morning.

But don’t be stupid about the other recovery things. I also ate like I was a moron yesterday. This did not help. If I keep forgetting to eat lunch and then feeling awful and calling workouts I won’t be well-rested, I’ll just be out of shape.

Unless you’re a total mess, start the workout. There are days I don’t even make it out the door. Generally this has happened when there are lots of other reasons I feel wiped out: too much work, not enough sleep. Sometimes those things are just going to be too much. But, most of the time, I try to follow that 5′ rule: do it for 5′ and see how you feel. Once you get moving you often feel better than you thought and there is no need to call it. (This is not true of swimming for me. Swimming is usually a constant battle not to quit in the middle.)

Only call hard workouts if you have a really good reason. I call easy workouts all the time. (OK, not all the time.) But that’s because those are often there for recovery and if they’re not making me feel recovered then *shrug*. Hard workouts, though, the kind you only have a few times a week, you better nail those. I try to only call hard workouts if I’m a hot mess, hurt, or can’t do them. That equates to: if I’m drowning in work or life and having a breakdown (see: when Floyd died), when I have a physical injury, and when I’m just totally missing the times.

Don’t lie to yourself. This isn’t easy to get right. And I screw it up a lot. Everyone screws it up a lot, because it’s hard to do honest self-assessment. Consider the general rule that you should call a hard workout if you’re missing all the times you’re supposed to hit. What if you’re just missing them by a little, but you set them too hard in the first place? What if you’re not missing them, but you feel super awful terrible? What if that super awful terrible is how you’re supposed to feel because it’s not an easy workout? What if you’re secretly self-sabotaging because you subconsciously believe you can’t hit the times and just want to be done? Self-coaching (or, even if you have a coach and you start questioning the schedule) is constantly tinged with self-doubt. You have to know when you really are not doing something for the right reasons and when you’re just being lazy.

Like right now: I am avoiding heading out the door for my hard run. Because I’m tired and it sounds shitty. But, it’s time to go. This is not a workout I should call.

There’s Hard and then There’s HARD

For me, running a 20′ 5K is not easy. It’s hard. It hurts. Sometimes I feel like I might pee myself. I am, every time, 100% convinced there is no way I could run any faster. It is not possible.

And, yet, I have run an 18:58 5K. Which hurt on a whole other level of hurt.

Running four or five 800s in training at 5K or faster pace is hard. For me, that’s somewhere in the 3:03 range. It’s challenging. It hurts. And, yet, I am capable of running 10-12 at that pace — and subsequently not being able to pick my arms up the next day.

There’s hard and then there’s HARD.

I have this conversation with my high school kids a lot. They’re always telling me that they ran their hardest, that it is not possible to run any harder. And, I’m always like yeah, well. It is possible. Apparently, though, I need to have this conversation with myself.

I bombed a workout yesterday. Or, maybe I didn’t bomb it. Maybe I was just physically incapable of hitting the times. I’m still not sure. There’s no sign that tells you when you’re crossing over into HARD or when you’ve actually already passed that line and are about to run off a cliff. So, you have to guess.

I was supposed to do 5 x 3′ at 5K pace. Which should have been fine. The problem was that the day before, Wednesday, I did my first hardish workout of the season on the bike in the afternoon. It wasn’t supposed to be that hard. It was supposed to just be some big ring, low cadence hill repeats. You really aren’t supposed to do those HARD. But, I went nuts. I was feeling good. Or, rather, I just wasn’t feeling terrible. Even as I was on the last two repeats I realized this was killing my legs. I thought, hmm, tomorrow’s run workout is going to be rough.

And, it was. Halfway through the second 3′ effort I just couldn’t hold the pace. I stopped. I tried to pull it together and rest a bit and go again. I stopped again.

The problem is if some coach had given me this workout I probably would have done it. It would have sucked and I may have screwed myself up, but I would have done it. I can count on one hand the number of workouts I’ve bailed out in the middle of that someone else gave me — and one of them I was apparently not supposed to succeed at, but I didn’t know that and then it sort of killed my confidence and for another month I kept wondering if I was ‘supposed’ to bail this workout too. But, when you coach yourself you’re never sure if coach messed up, if coach gave you too many hard workouts in a row, if this is too hard. If this is just hard or HARD.

Partially, yesterday, I probably just wasn’t ready for that, my legs were beaten up. Partially, though, I need to just need to remember it is possible to go faster.

What Are the Problems with Coaching Yourself?

There are a lot of reasons to get a coach. I’ve heard people hate on getting a coach if you’re not a super crazy fast professional, like why hire someone to direct you for a “hobby.” I think that’s sort of silly. Just because someone likes running or triathlon or racing, doesn’t mean they want to become an expert in physiology or training mechanisms. I like to eat, so I pay people to make me food at restaurants; I have no desire to become a chef.

The main reasons people seem to hire a coach are:

  • They simply don’t know how to train for an event and they’re buying the actual scientific knowledge required.
  • They (and most of us fall into this category) do a terrible job of self-regulating and self-directing. They may have the knowledge, but they couldn’t apply to themselves.
  • They need some kind of accountability/motivation.

I mostly tend to fall into the last two, though I also like having someone tell me what to do when I’m trying a new event and have no idea how to approach it. Right now, though, I’m coaching myself. Like I mentioned before, there are a few reasons for this. My schedule is in flux right now — how am I supposed to expect someone else to keep track of all my different, constantly-changing obligations? My injury situation is in flux — how am I supposed to expect someone else to keep track of all my different problems and how I feel any given day?

Mostly, though, I just didn’t find the person I wanted. When my first choice was busy, no one else seemed like the right fit. I have some time-sensitive plans and goals right now, so I don’t feel like getting to know someone new. While I do have (tons and tons) of friends who are coaches, man, I really dislike mixing friendship or relationships with telling me what to do. Not that some of my coaches haven’t become friends, but I get the sense I’m probably difficult to coach and, also, just difficult, so if we’re friends first and you haven’t experienced that, then we may not be friends after. That narrowed down the options and then, well, I don’t have unlimited money. So, coaching myself it is. And, anyway, I’m not half bad at coaching myself at something I know (meaning I may have to find someone to tell me what to do for Ironman, because I don’t know shit about that) — as long as I don’t fall too hard into a cycle of self-hate, overtrain, exhaustion, cut all my workouts, repeat.

There are some problems with coaching yourself, though.

1. Cycle of self-hate, overtrain, exhaustion, cut workouts, repeat.

2. Yesterday, I had on the schedule 2:30-3:00 ride with 3 x 10′ at half-Ironman pace (170-175W for me, I mean I think, who knows, I haven’t done a half-IM in two years). This seemed logical because I’m trying to transition from triathlon training to marathon training for CIM, but I’m also doing a cross-training-heavy marathon approach, because I don’t do well with high run mileage. And, I’m laying the groundwork for Ironman training post-December. So, many 3-hour rides with some tempo work both builds up my bike fitness and base, while training my aerobic capacity at that sort of effort level.

But, my legs were feeling heavy yesterday and after the first 10′ I wanted to cut it down to 2 x 10′. Why did I pick three times? Would two be good enough? Or would I miss the whole point of the workout with just two? I wanted my legs to be ready for the actual hard run workout Wednesday morning, was I pushing them too hard in a not key workout? Or not enough? If someone else had written 3 x 10′ on my schedule, I would have just done it. I would have assumed they had a reason and knew what they were doing. Maybe they would know what they were doing, or maybe they had just picked three times the same way I picked three times. But, I would have believed.

You lose the ability to not look behind the curtain when the wizard is you.

3. Today, I did a Coach Mario run workout. (I don’t usually like to give away other people’s workouts, because maybe they feel protective of them, as if the workout itself is the secret. But, of course it’s not. There is no secret. Mario doesn’t seem to care, though, in fact he’ll tell you workouts to do if you ask him — or buy his book. Because, why hide the real secret: that you still have to do the work.) The workout was 4 x [4′ at 10K pace (6:20), 1′ rest, 30″ hill sprint, 3′ rest]. It’s shockingly hard. And, halfway through of course I wanted to stop. I knew no one would care if I stopped. There was no coach to tell me I needed to toughen up or to hold me accountable. It was just me, by myself, on a path off a road you’ve never heard of. So, I had to be my own coach at that point. I said: Suck it up; there’s no cutting this workout, you just have to do it, all of it and you have to nail it.

And, that was that. I did it, all of it.

4. Sometimes you need to listen to your body. Sometimes you need to ignore what it’s saying. And, there’s no one else to tell you which times are which. So, you better not lie to yourself.

Do you coach yourself?

Help! I Feel My Motivation Leaving

With it being the most depressing day of the year this past weekend, maybe it’s no surprise my motivation hit a low — prompting a long email to Coach Mario with analogies about how my motivation was still being revived from its near death and is now a small, weak little bird that needs to be nurtured to grow strong.

Last week was busy and after the mile repeats from hell and TRX on Thursday, I had a hard weekend too. Friday was an hour run with some fartleks at 5K pace (which is like 6:00-6:07 for me – which is really goal 5K pace). I dragged my legs around the sanitary district ponds for seven miles and tried not to throw up on any birds in the wildlife sanctuary. Saturday, Floyd and I took it easy, watched TV, made cookies, and re-read Ender’s Game, because why not.

The whole point was to run marathon race pace on tired legs on Sunday. I had the tired part down, no problem. It was the other part I was worried about. So, I rode my bike around China Camp and then headed out for a run that was supposed to start easy and descend until I was running marathon pace (7:00-7:10) for the last 30 minutes.

Apparently, I haven’t run off the bike since whenever I did that sprint triathlon last summer, because with my legs feeling all jello-y I didn’t realize I was running quickly. And, since I don’t like to slow down once I’m running a certain speed for a whole host of psychological reasons, it got sort of stupid fast and then I just hung on. Suffice it to say that 6:50 is not my marathon pace.

While I was happy to (sort of) nail another workout, I could also feel myself coming unraveled around the edges, which was a little annoying, because I’ve been running fast — if fast isn’t enough to keep me heading out the door, then what is? Since I do all my workouts by myself more or less, this left a whole lot of “me time” to examine why I just wanted to lay on the couch and watch TV.

How to stay motivated?

I don’t know if other people struggle as much with motivation as I do. I certainly got the impression from the cadre of girls I knew in triathlon that they always felt awesome! and grateful! and just happy to be out here! and you have to stay positive!

Maybe they really did. Maybe by saying that they made it true. Maybe the lack of that is what separates me from being really good. I have heard over and over again that the best athletes don’t have to be pushed or motivated, you just have to hold them back. But, if, as an athlete, you know that to be true, can you simply will it into being?

I’m not unmotivated, per se. If you piss me off, I almost certainly am going to want to beat you. It’s more that I just start to drag my feet on my way out the door. And, that slowly has been getting worse and worse.

Floyd likes to head-butt.
Floyd likes to head-butt.

Almost every morning, Steve gets up before I do and lets Floyd the Cat out. And, then, whenever I’m ready to get up, I just push the bedroom door open and Floyd runs in and jumps up on the bed and wants to nose me and headbutt me and lay on my face. He pretty much won’t get up for 15-20 minutes, until eventually I’m like: ‘Floyd, we’ve got to get to work. We have a lot to do today.’

But, who wouldn’t rather stay in bed with the cat?

To stay “motivated” – if we want to call it that – training has to stay ‘fun.’ And, I am incapable of lying to myself, so don’t try. For me fun is:

– long runs on trails
– long rides out to Stinson or West Marin
– with friends – though I suppose I need to get friends first
– strength classes, because they’re always entertaining and there’s other people
– hard workouts with people

The common theme here is: I need to get some people to train with. So, the invitation is now open. Who lives near here, is about the same speed, wants to do whatever is on my training plan for the day, fit around my schedule?

Yesterday, I went on a ride with Ilyce and we stopped to eat lunch at Good Earth. (Apparently, saying you ‘used the Good Earth hot food bar’ is not the right expression, by the way.) And, then I went to Nate’s strength training class with the high school mountain bike team. I totally owned those high school boys too. That was fun.

Mile Repeats

Yesterday, I did mile repeats. As a staple of any running program, it’s not like I’ve never done them before. But, oh man, did I not want to do them yesterday.

In part, I was in a bad mood because of the whole Southwest screwing me thing and I don’t like doing hard workouts in strange places. It feels too much like diving into something you can’t see the bottom of. In part, I went a little nuts at the 24 Hour Fitness in Mesa over the weekend and overcooked my quads doing backsquats. In part, I had a lot of work to do and just wanted to curl up on the couch and finish my book before my Nook ran out of battery. But, mostly, it just sounded really hard.

It’s difficult to explain how much I didn’t train hard last year. I have tried, but people don’t believe me or they think it still sounds like a lot. And they’re sort of right. I ran plenty, but the big difference was I didn’t run much of it very quickly. I think I went to the track one time in 2012. And, I did mile efforts on the road maybe three times? But, never more than three mile repeats. That’s a 5K, I figured, that’s enough.

Training for the last 8 weeks has already been way harder than any preparation last year and Mario keeps promising that we’ll really get into serious marathon training soon. Uh..

So, I wasn’t excited yesterday about five mile repeats up and down a long stretch of bike path/sidewalk next to the canal. Does that sound appealing to anyone in the whole world? No. But, I did them anyway.

I was supposed to hit 6:35s, but I’m weirdly obsessive about not going over whatever my goal interval time is. For some reason, interval times feel like a maximum upper limit cap and if I get too close to that number I’ll be in the red zone and that’s bad and makes me a terrible person, obviously.

I’m crazy, but it means I really felt the need to run them in 6:30, which was fine for the first two. After the first two, though, I had to beg a Mediterranean deli to let me use their bathroom, which I may or may not have accidentally broken/tried to fix after it broke. And, from there, it just got ugly.

I ran two more in the low 6:30s, but felt like I was tearing my stomach in half. It was one mile from one end of the path to the other, with a little bridge/car crossing almost exactly half way. That meant, the entire time, I could see how far it was and how long it was taking to get to what didn’t look like it should take that long. I suppose that’s good practice for the stupid Kaiser Half Marathon, where it’s three miles out and then three miles back on the Great Highway. But, the last mile repeat, I just didn’t think I was going to make it. I thought about just running a half. I thought ‘it’s ok if you run this one in 6:35.’ I thought I wonder if I’ll throw up before I finish or after. Mostly, I just thought: come on, come on, two more minutes, a minute and a half, come on, 45 seconds, come on, hard as you can for 45 seconds, come on.

I made in 6:36, which naturally I consider a massive failure. But, close enough.

And, then, I had to football shuffle all the way home after a long break for some dry heaving, because anything faster made me feel sick.

Why I Picked My Running Coach

It’s a nearly indisputable fact that if you want to progress in your athletic goals you need a plan to do it and that the best way to get a plan that works is to get a qualified coach who knows you.

There are plenty of reasons to get a coach. They provide an outside perspective you lack. They can, then, make decisions you don’t have the wherewithal to make. They can push you, if you need it. They, typically, are more knowledgeable about training physiology and constructing a season. They have the ability and time (since it’s their job) to plan your workouts in a constructive way.

But, not all those reasons are true for all people.

For me, there are two main reasons a coach is a good investment:

1. I lack time. I can construct a season using basic training principles that peaks for my goal races, but I don’t always have the time to do it well. And, when I need to move things around on the fly, I really lack the time to figure that out, which then stresses me out and makes me opt to curl up in a ball on the couch.

2. I lack… let’s call it… good self-judgement. I’m actually not as bad as plenty of people who think they have great judgement and then race you to the top of every hill on their bike and wonder why they’re just always too tired when races come around. Because you’re an idiot, that’s why.

But, I am a cyclical binge trainer. I plan a really good couple weeks, cram a bunch of stuff in, hit every workout and go a little nuts. And, then, I start to get really, really tired. (Now, there’s a bigger question about why I always get really tired and struggle with a level of training that every other rookie triathlon pro was fine with, but the answer may be found in #1 or it may be that I have no immune system and am prone to all kinds of weird illnesses. Who knows. Either way…) I get really tired and I start cutting things. This is easy when you have no coach. I am very, very good at rationalizing. You just cut a little here, a half hour there, opt not to do the strides, change the mile repeats to 800m repeats, until suddenly you’ve cut like half your workouts. Then, I feel really bad, so I plan a couple good weeks, cram a bunch of stuff in, go a little nuts. And, the cycle continues.

I have obviously figured out ways to deal with this. But, still, these are the main reasons a coach is a benefit for me. I’m sure other people have other reasons.

There are, however, a number of reasons coaches haven’t worked for me at different points, which is probably why I go back and forth between self-coaching and not.

These are the main problems I have had with hiring a coach:

1. I don’t like people. In general, I mostly think most people are idiots. And, even with those I do like I will probably wonder what the hell they’re thinking some of the time. There may be a whole host of psychological issues I ought to deal with here, but it is what it is. And, the coaching business is booming right now with virtually everyone who has ever done a race calling themselves a coach and sending out training plans they copied out of the back of Runner’s World. Sifting through the mess is a big deterrent.

2. I don’t like spending money on things besides food and clothes and movies. Most good coaches, who are coming up with their own ideas based on, like, science and stuff, cost money.

3. I don’t like handing over my emotional investment to someone else. There is a degree to which coming up with my own plan and having to construct my workouts and reading about all the latest strength training ideas makes me more invested in what I’m doing. When I just do whatever the paper says I should do, I don’t think about it. And, one step after not thinking about something is not caring about it. Which brings us to the last, and probably biggest issue, I have.

4. It’s hard to explain what motivates me or why I care about some things and not others. But, man, if I don’t care what you think, then I really don’t care what you think. This big issue probably comes down simply to: personality. I had one coach who was convinced I’m a Type A, super-intense person and he was always trying to talk me down, which was all wrong. I only seem intense because I talk quickly and swear a lot. In reality, I do NOT need to be talked down and told not to go too hard. I can talk myself out of going too hard all on my own. I’ve had other coaches who would give me whole pumping up lectures. Also, not my thing. Shockingly.

Getting someone who knows you and what works and what doesn’t is hard. Particularly, if you’re a bitchy weirdo.

Throughout the years, I have had different coaches and worked with different coaches. I even coach at the local high school. (And, I’m not convinced I’m super awesome. I probably need to be stricter and less ‘eh, well, you’ll learn from your mistakes.’) Some of the coaches I still hate; some I loved.

[I can recommend Jennifer Harrison, who is particularly good I think with people who need someone energetic and motivating, and Craig Upton, who is very laid-back (and from New Zealand) but willing to answer any questions or talk at length about any minutia.]

So, when I wanted to get ready for Boston I had specific requirements I was looking for in a coach. I wanted someone focused solely on running, qualified (obviously), preferably who knew Boston well and had experience there, willing to construct just a race-specific plan aimed at a specific goal (as opposed to a year-long plan), not too expensive, and – most importantly – knew me and/or would get along with me.

I went with Mario.

Mario is obviously all of the qualified/experienced things and is stupid cheap for being that knowledgeable and crazy responsive. (Seriously, Mario, raise your rates.) But, he is also my editor at Competitor, which I write for a decent amount, and I had some concerns about that. Or, well, I didn’t, but it seemed like the kind of thing a lot of people would say was a bad idea.

What if I miss a deadline, but he knows I went for a run instead? (Not that that’s something I do.) Or, what if I swear at him a bunch for one of his workouts and he hates me and doesn’t like my stories anymore?

But, it turns out it’s actually worked sort of the opposite way. At least for me. Like I said, it’s hard to explain what motivates me, but it’s a consistent fact that I have to care and I have to care what the person on the other end thinks — if they’re just going to like me whether or not I go fast, well, it’s easier to not go fast. I have to believe that THIS matters, that if I don’t nail this workout or win this race, then everything will go to shit, people will hate me, I’ll be an embarrassment, and life as we know it will be over. If I can logically rationalize why this doesn’t matter, then, well, I’ll probably do that when it gets tough and I’ll probably slow down and I’ll probably give up a little.

(Seriously, in the middle of a hard race, I can’t be the only person that thinks: Why am I doing this? Everything will still be fine if I slow down. What’s the reason to go harder? One more person in front of me doesn’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things. This is good enough, you’re doing good enough.)

Now, though, somehow, I have convinced myself that if I bomb a workout or quit a race, Coach Mario will judge me and think less of me and assign me fewer stories and I’ll make no money and everything will be terrible. I have convinced myself it matters. (In reality, I recognize that he is much more reasonable than that, probably…)

This may be horrible logic. But, it works. I have missed very few workouts; I am nailing things; and I am running faster than ever. And, for me at least, if you can get a coach that can make you really care — for whatever reason, however flawed — that seems worth it.