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Planning for a new PB: look back to move forward!
Autumn is the time of year when many athletes spend time reflecting on their season’s achievements. James Marshall explains how endurance athletes can harness this process and develop new tools for even better performance next season
As we head deeper into autumn and winter approaches, your competition season has probably ended so now is a good time to review how you performed. Taking time to reflect and think about what went well and what could have been better are essential tasks for successful athletes. Without taking time out to do this, many athletes simply repeat the same mistakes year after year. This article will showcase some useful tools to help you through this process, with a specific look at individualising your preparation for competition.
Taking time to reflect
Abraham Lincoln once said “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”1. So before you jump into your preseason training, it is worth taking the time out to reflect and review both your performance in and preparation for this past season. If you think you haven’t got time to do this (a common refrain from recreational athletes), think about how many hours you spent training, travelling and competing over the last season. If you spend just 1% of that time reflecting on your performance, you could have much to gain in performance terms – as well as improving your training efficiency (saving you time) in the upcoming season. However, knowing what to evaluate is important before you start, and care needs to be taken. Too narrow a review and the underlying reasons for success or failure may be missed; too wide a review and you could be swamped in endless piles of meaningless data.
Firstly, the importance of setting clear goals cannot be stressed enough. If you have set clear goals, evaluating them is very easy. For example, if your goal was to run a sub-18min 5km race, you can evaluate yes or no, it’s very simple. But, that doesn’t tell you what worked, what it cost, what more could be done next season, or what could be taken out of the programme. In professional sports a lot of emphasis is placed on collection and evaluation of performance statistics – the so-called ‘Moneyball effect’, based on the book about evaluating baseball performance2. This is often an endurance athlete’s favourite task and the various online programmes make this easy to do.
However, there is more to performing well than statistics. A subjective evaluation is important too because we are human, and our interactions with fellow workers, students, team mates, coaches, officials and loved ones all impact on our performance. Panel 1 shows some things you may wish to consider evaluating. This list may seem overwhelming, but sitting down over a coffee and tackling one aspect at a time will be time well spent. It is rare that an athlete avoids repeating mistakes, and those that do are often the best at self-reflection. To help you get started we shall now look at three of these areas of evaluation in more depth.
Panel 1: Aspects of the season worthy of consideration
Strengths and gaps
To give you an idea of the process above, you could start with assessing your strengths and gaps. It is a common mistake among athletes I coach to focus on their weaknesses (if they don’t then other people around them may well do). But, we all have our strong points too, and one sure way to be more successful is to play to our strengths and find ways to use them more.
For example, if you look back at race performances and find that you did better in longer races, then you could say that endurance is a ‘strength’ of yours. Alternatively, you may find that you managed a sprint finish well in every race or outraced everyone up hills. If you are a ‘hilly sprinter’, why not do more races that are either on hills or over shorter distance? This would be playing to your strengths. There is no need to compete at every race and in every event. After all, no one has suggested that Usain Bolt take up 800 metre running!
If you get overtaken on every hill, then you could see this as a gap and look to improve upon it for next season’s races that have some hills in them. This would be a more sensible option rather than signing up to do that race in the Pyrenees that everyone is talking about… The check list (see panel 2) is one I use with athletes post competition, but it can also be adapted to the off season. You can see that there are five ‘what went well’ things to list, and only three things to list on what can be improved. This is to ensure that the positive aspects of performance are accentuated first and foremost. Some athletes struggle to find five things that they did well and to stop at only three areas for improvement!
Panel 2: Example of a checklist
The next part of the task is to take the three areas for improvement and reframe them as three goals for the next month (or preseason). Once this is done you can simply throw away these three areas of improvement. There is no need to look at these again or dwell on them. You have a plan to address them. You can just revise your strengths and work your plan for the next month, week and session.
Once you have planned your next month’s training, discard the “What can I improve?” section. Instead, use the top five ‘”What went well?” points as a reminder of your past success, and review them regularly.
One of the areas for improvement that is often taken for granted is the competition preparation. The best tapering, peaking and other training strategies can be made redundant by simple errors made by the athlete or support staff immediately before the competition. This can happen at even the highest level – for example at the Olympics, where athletes are often allowed to stay up late on the night of the opening ceremony despite competing the next morning. Some of the more common errors are listed in panel 3.
Panel 3: Common errors
Some of these are learnt by harsh experience. However, when you look at these errors, you can see that most are easy to deal with and can easily be avoided with proper preparation. Some things we learn through happenstance. One thing I learnt recently is that having a credit card is a valuable asset if you are competing abroad. A cyclist was flying to Madeira to compete, and got diverted to Lisbon where they were promptly told to get off the plane. He then had to try and find another flight and accommodation. Luckily he had put his new credit card in his wallet and was able to pay up front with that. If he had just taken his debit card, he would have been left with a big overdraft. This is something that I now mention to other athletes. Luckily these types of misfortunes are rare, and most errors can be eliminated through the use of checklists (see panel 4).
Panel 4: Example of kit bag checklist for middle distance runner
- Eight safety pins
- Water bottle
- Medication (inhaler)
- Pre-race snack
- Post-race snack
- Money for car park
- Directions to venue
- Entry number
- First aid kit including plasters
- Toilet paper
- Sun tan lotion
- Waterproof jacket
Airline pilots have long used checklists to ensure that nothing is forgotten and airline safety has improved as a result. These principles have been successfully transferred to surgeries too to reduce infection and mishaps3. Whilst the stakes are much higher in air travel and surgery with many lives at risk, the principles of ensuring big and small tasks are remembered apply to endurance athletes too.
If you think back to your competitions over the last season, what kit did you need to take? Did you forget anything or did something come up that was new to you? You can now create your own checklist for your kitbag. Some of our athletes laminate theirs and use a wipe board marker to tick off as they pack.
Another advantage of using a checklist is that it allows you to relax. How many times have you gone to bed the night before competition and been thinking “I mustn’t forget x”? or “Did I remember to pack y?” This is rarely conducive to getting a good night’s sleep and you could wake up on race day in sub-optimal condition, despite having executed a super training plan. Studies on decision making have shown that the more decisions that have had to be made early in the day, the less self-control the person will have later in that day4 5. This is known as the “strength model” and proposes that self-control is a finite resource. Once the self-control has been used up, we are more likely to act on impulse which could include reaching for the cookie jar.
How is this relevant to athletes? Well, by having to make a decision on what to have for breakfast, what clothes to wear and which way you need to get to the race, you are using up valuable brain power that could be best used in making tactical decisions in the race. It is nice to have a cupboard full of breakfast cereals, but it is a lot easier to choose porridge every morning, and even better to have that prepared overnight in the slow cooker so you have one less thing to think about and prepare in the morning.
You probably have some sort of routine already without thinking about it – but making it automatic (ie a routine enabling the athlete to approach each event in an identical manner, ensuring that every task is completed) could help you even more. This includes your physical, mental, dietary and organisational preparation. For example warm up, focus on strategy, fluid intake and getting to the event on time. Examples of some routines that I use with athletes are shown in examples A, B and C.
If you are running around the venue looking for drinking water or asking to borrow swimming trunks, then you are less than well prepared. You are unable to control or influence the ability of your opponents; however, you can control how well prepared you are. Imagine yourself as the athlete who is well organised and prepared in the warm up area and approaching the start line. This is well within your control if you create some checklists and develop winning routines.
The goal of establishing automatic routines is to remove unnecessary concerns from the athlete, instead allowing them to concentrate on their performance and adapting to the race and their opponents. However, some coached athletes become ‘coach dependent’ and start looking for their coach to solve self-induced problems – for example “I’ve forgotten my water bottle, can you get me some?” If you are involved in coaching, bear this in mind. With junior athletes, I help them once, and then set them up for future success. It is my aim to move them from dependent to independent athletes. Helping them create checklists and develop routines is an important part of this process (see below):
EXAMPLE A: NIGHT BEFORE COMPETITION ROUTINE
- Eat evening meal. 7- 7.30pm
- Prepare kit bag with checklist. 7.30- 8pm
- Prepare drink and food for day of match. 8- 8.30pm
- Review tactics and strategies. Rehearse cue words. 8.30- 9pm
- Progressive muscular relaxation, mental relaxation cues. 9- 9.45pm
- Go to sleep strategy. 9.45- 10.15 pm
EXAMPLE B: PRE-COMPETITION ROUTINE
- Wake up routine
- Stretch and mentally rehearse
- Check travel information for delays/cancellations
- Travel to venue
- Check list of events, area of competition, check in with officials
- Get changed
- Relaxation and practice some best performance imagery
- Warm up, stretch, remember key words
- Tactical reminders with coach/team
- Go to start line
EXAMPLE C: POST-COMPETITION ROUTINE
- Warm down including relaxation strategies and stretching
- Hydrate, refuel
- Shower, change gear
- Pack bag
- Review performance with coach or self-reflection: points that went well; areas to improve
- Travel home, refuel, hydrate
- Bath, relaxation, non-sport activities
Taking time out at the end of the season is necessary physically, mentally and emotionally. Whilst race and training statistics are a very useful tool and are easily measured and analysed, they are limited in scope. A more comprehensive reflection on your overall lifestyle and habits will enable you to focus more on what you do well and address any gaps. This will then help you improve how you train for competition, leading to an overall gain in performance.
- Stephen Covey: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon & Schuster UK (2013)
- Michael Lewis: Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Norton: New York (2004).
- Atul Gawande. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Profile Books: London (2011)
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: 94 (5) p 883-898 (2008)
- Psychological Bulletin: 136(4) p495–525 (2010)