Asking the Right Questions: Be a Student of Your Sport

John and I after crossing the finish line of our first marathon. We look just a little bit different 😉

John and I were pretty clueless when we first started in endurance sport. How do we train for a triathlon or marathonWhat type of fueling works best, what gear do we need? And that list of questions went on and on and on.

We aren’t the type of people who like to revel in ignorance, so we asked questions of more experienced people.

A lot of them.

We bought books, subscribed to magazines, scoured the web, went to seminars, hired coaches, eventually became coaches ourselves – everything we could do to learn as much as we could to prepare ourselves for the demands of training and a successful race day.

We’ve learned a lot since we first started – and most importantly, we’ve learned that you cannot stop learning. The human body and mind is a complex and dynamic system.

Once you think you’ve got your needs dialed in, things change. And, then they change again. And then science produces new discoveries about the human body.

And, and, and – there’s always something new to know. That’s what makes endurance sport so interesting – and challenging.

Now as a coach, I continue to learn about the body from the complexities of the athletes that I work with. Each body and mind – while sharing some general characteristics – is unique. Science is useful – as it gives us upper and lower ranges of what is “normal”. But, the thing about “normal” is that it’s based on a statistical average – which is actually a very small sliver of the full population. (Side *geek* note: I have a colleague who teaches Health Communication, and she has a fascinating lecture on how medical and statistical norms serve as a way to discipline our bodies and actions.)

A good example of the limitations of statistical averages is heart rate formulas based on age. These guidelines don’t match most people I coach. I have athletes who are exactly the same age with lactate threshold heart rates that are as much as 15 beats apart. I have older athletes with max heart rates well above my younger athletes. And, yes, I have some athletes that fit within the “norm” – as you’d expect. So much for the generalizable usefulness of formulas and averages.

This doesn’t mean that the science is unimportant – but it does mean you need to apply the knowledge we have in a way that best suits your individual situation – body, mind and lifestyle. To some extent, we are all an N = 1.

We need to be students of our sport and our bodies.

Throughout the interwebs, you’ll see many discussions centering around questions related to the “what” of training and racing. These are questions that focus on what types of workouts or training schedules are good/bad for specific race types and distances. The answers to these questions are frequently based on general averages – not a specific understanding of your situation.

For example,

  • What type of training volume do I need to complete to finish X race?
  • What kinds of workouts should I be doing if I want to get stronger and faster?
  • What should I eat during my workouts and racing?
  • What type of periodization should I use: traditional or block?
  • At what intensity should I swim/bike/run?

We’ve all asked these questions. To be clear: these “what” questions are an important starting point, but the answers to these questions could vary wildly depending upon who you ask.

For example, if we ask one person how much training volume is needed to complete an Ironman, that person might tell us that we need an average training volume of 20 hours a week, while another person may say 12 hours a week.

Who’s right?

Both answers can be correct. To determine which might work for you, the “what” needs to be followed up with questions related to why. For example, why and under what sorts of conditions might a higher or lower volume be effective for certain types of athletes? To what extent do the specific training sessions differ in a low or high volume plan – and why?

Asking questions related to why we should train in certain ways helps you to be a critical consumer of the copious information that exists – both on the popular web, as well as more academic sources.

Even in the science, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to optimal training adaptations. If there were, we’d all just do that one thing. If you read enough studies, you’ll notice that as the sample type and size gets more and more diverse – so do the results. Some key examples here include the general differences between male and female athletes, older and younger athletes, or athletes trained for one type of sport versus those trained for another.

So, how can you become a student of your sport and body to ensure you are training optimally? There are many things you can do, but here are my top tips.

1. Identify your strengths and limiters

Strengths and limiters relate to who you are holistically as an athlete as well as relative to your goal races. Use your data from training, race finishes, and your qualitative assessment to work this one out. Be honest and objective. If you don’t think you can be objective, consider enlisting the support of someone who will be.

Strengths may include characteristics such as strong top-end speed or mental toughness, or lifestyle circumstances such as a flexible schedule with ample training time. Limiters can follow similarly, such as poor muscular endurance, an inability to deal with setbacks during a race, or the birth of a new baby impacting quality sleep. These are just a few examples. When you identify your strengths and limiters, be sure to consider traits of the body, mind and lifestyle.

2. Understand The Purpose of a Workout – And How It Fits

This point relates clearly to a why question. You’ve no doubt found all sorts of workouts online – right here on this website, in fact. Stringing together a series of workouts you found on the web that purport to be “the best session ever” is not necessarily going to bring about the adaptations you seek. So, before you do any session – you need to understand:

  • What the workout is designed to do in terms of physiological adaptation. For example, does the session aim to work on VO2max, lactate threshold, aerobic endurance, recovery, neuromuscular adaptation, stability, agility, something else?
  • How the workout will help your strengths and limiters, and prepare you for the demands of your races. If you are aiming for a personal best at the 70.3 distance, then you want to prepare specifically for the demands of that 70.3 – as well as the unique strengths and limiters of your body and mind. For example, if you have a lot of top-end speed, and can kick some butt in sprints, but you wind up back of the pack at 70.3 distance – that’s telling you something maybe about your endurance, your focus and/or mental fitness.
  • How it fits in your overall training cycle. Some workouts are best applied at specific times of the training cycle. When in doubt, always consider the principle of specificity: the closer you get to race day, the more specific your training should be to the unique demands of that race. This leads us to discussions of “off season” and “in season”. You want to apply different types of training stress depending on where you are in your overall annual training cycle.

3. Keep an Open Mind

We have a tendency to select for information that confirms what we already believe. Even in cases when we read something that opposes what we believe, we have a tendency to perceive it selectively in ways that confirm what we believe to be true.

We all need to fight this tendency. I do this by purposefully seeking out research that presents a case for something that opposes what I believe to be true. And, as I read this research, I pay attention to their findings, and more importantly why and how they came to those conclusions. I use that research to challenge what I know, to determine if I need to have a shift in my thinking – or if I need to have more nuance in my conclusions and ideas.

When I read research that confirms what I believe to be true, I also keep a critical eye. Who was the sample? What were the treatment conditions? Was there a control group? What are the limitations the authors’ discuss? Who funded the study? It’s nice to read reports that confirm what we believe – it makes us feel smart! But, all information needs to be read with a questioning mind.

We need to be especially mindful of keeping a critical eye when reading second hand reports of scientific studies, such as those reported in newspaper or magazine articles, blog posts, and the like. They tend to be simplified versions of a much more nuanced and complex scientific argument. Google Scholar is very helpful to get access to the original study, if you want to see the full argument.

4. Analyze Your Data

You’ve identified your strengths and limiters. You’ve done your research to determine how you can improve your limiters and solidify your strengths. You’ve considered different approaches to training. Now, you apply that knowledge through doing the work! But, being a student of your sport doesn’t stop there. You have to see if the training stimulus (both physical and mental) is working, and you do this through an analysis of data.

What types of data am I talking about? Qualitative and quantitative.

I’m sure most of you are at least somewhat familiar with using quantitative data – you know, all of the numbers that your Garmin (or similar) records. How fast are you moving? How many watts can you push for 60 minutes? How high does your HR go during a sprint? You know the numbers I’m talking about. Beyond these basics, there are a host of quantitative metics that are useful to chart your progress, and this goes well beyond the scope of this blog post.

I use a mix of Training Peaks reports, WKO4, and my own excel spreadsheets to keep track of data for myself and my clients. This is a snap of a Training Peaks dashboard, available with coach or premium accounts.

If you don’t know where to start, here are some basic resources for beginning to understand the types of quantitative data you want to track:

But, not all data comes in numbers. There are also more qualitative assessments you should consider, which should include your reports of how different efforts felt, thoughts you have during different types of workouts, observations you make about how your form and technique is progressing, and so on. Do not discount the qualitative in favor of a sole focus on the quantitative. This is a huge mistake – and is the reason why I am constantly encouraging my athletes to leave specific comments when they upload their data. The data only makes sense in context.

Most importantly: Self-awareness and mental focus are important traits for athletes. The brain must be trained just as the body. Reflecting on workouts and races is one way you can work to develop these traits.

What I’ve outlined here is not an exhaustive list of the steps you should take to learn the most you can about your training and your sport. My hope is that I’ve encouraged you to begin asking the right questions that will help you find your potential, so you can realize those big dreams you’ve been dreaming for the coming season.

How do you work to be a student of your sport? Please feel free to leave your tips and tricks in the comments to help all of us learn!

What do you think? Share your thoughts and experience!