Friday, April 25, 2014

Qualities and Characteristics of Elite Endurance Athletes (An Opinion Piece)

In my short time in this sport, I have learned many things.  I have always been a person that once I start doing something, I will read, ask questions, ask more questions, read more, and do whatever I can to learn as much about it as possible.  This is a somewhat "anal" characteristic of mine, but I have always been this way.  I used to cry when I got B's in grade school(my parents didn't care as long as I tried, and I received no rewards or punishments either way).

My goal is to ultimately reach whatever potential I have in this sport.  In order to do this, I like to look at what others have done and find what has worked for them.  I do not believe that you should compare yourself to these elite athletes, because everyone is different and they clearly have put in the work to get there.  However, looking at common qualities of these athletes is one of the most effective ways(in my opinion) to get to your own potential.

Here are the qualities and characteristics (in my opinion) that elite endurance athletes possess.  I doubt that anyone possesses all of these, maybe Mark Allen?  You may or may not agree with some or all of these, but it was helpful for me to look at a variety of elite triathletes, runners, cyclists, etc. to find similar qualities that yielded their success.

An elite endurance athlete:

1.  Has the ability to say no to fun.  I can guarantee you that many elite athletes would love to be out late grabbing drinks most Friday nights.  But, I also guarantee you that many, if not all of them, have had to tell a good friend (despite their endless pleas) that they needed to get home to sleep before their 5 hour bike or brick workout.  This is not easy to do.  You will take much ridicule(I know from experience).  They may scare away some people with this lifestyle, but the true one's will remain.  The best athletes find a good balance.

2.  Has a different idea of things that can actually be fun.  Fun for elite athletes is not binge drinking until you close out a bar.  Their fun lies in pushing themselves further and harder than they have ever gone before.  They embrace the sore feeling that occurs after a hard brick.  They quickly forget the deep hole that they had to dig out of in a recent race, and quickly sign up for the next one.  Pain=FUN for these select people.

3.  Still has the ability to let loose and have fun.  I also know plenty of great athletes that can throw back a few.  After Ironman 70.3 San Juan, I was able to sit next to Tim O'Donnell and Mirinda Carfrae at dinner.  You would expect elite athletes to have a great diet.  This was also after a race that Tim crashed out of and Mirinda crashed as well and uncharacteristically struggled on the run(probably due to a crash).  I look over to see Mirinda downing a plate of Nachos and a glass of wine and Tim eating a burger with possibly 3 patties on it, no joke, and a beer.  They know what times they are able to relax and enjoy bad food, beer, wine, etc.

4.  Has some sort of formal or informal background in athletics.  This does not have to been in endurance sports(although my mom and dad did me a great disservice by making me learn how to swim at the age of  25).   Mirinda Carfrae was a basketball player who was too short.  Craig Alexander didn't make it as a European soccer player.  They were able to learn coordination and endurance from a young age.  They are able to read opponents and adapt to situations.

5.  Has a high level of pain tolerance.  Any athlete who tells you that they haven't practiced or trained in pain is either a liar or probably isn't very good.  They understand that soreness will eventually go away and find ways mentally to push through it.  They hit a point where their body is rebelling, but their mind and focus push them on.  For any that watched the Boston Marathon, look at Meb's face the last 5K.  It was grit that got him through the last few miles.

6.  Has good time management and planning skills.  Elite athletes.  Especially those with families and other jobs, which most do have, need to be able to manage their time in a way that allows them to balance their workout schedule with other responsibilities.  Some have 40+ hours a week to work and still have to fit in 15-20 hours of training.  They need to be as efficient as possible with their time, and they also need to be able to plan ahead to find ways to get these workouts in.  I have seen moms on a trainer at soccer games, heard of people wearing their swimsuit to work for a quick transition, and others that take a working lunch at their desk, run on their lunch break, and then workout again after work.  Whatever they can do to get it done, they do it.

7.  Has a job.  Lets face it.  These sports are expensive.  With baseline TT bikes averaging close to $2,000 a pop, Bike shoes, Running shoes, Swimsuits, Goggles, Wetsuits, Transportation, Race fees, Bike transport fees, etc.  This can add up quick.  This doesn't even take into account other things that are needed to shave of precious seconds: aero helmets, Disk wheels, racing tires, etc.  If you do not have a source of income, your career in this sport will be brief.

8.  Has the ability to take criticism(from others and yourself).  Great athletes need to be coach-able.  They need to understand that they do not know everything and that others can have a lot to teach them.  Ultimately, you need to be able to take criticism.  Are you crossing over when swimming?  Does your cycling cadence need to be higher/lower?  Did you start that half-marathon way too fast?  If you cannot take this constructive criticism and adapt, then the results will stay the same.

I have also noticed that the best athletes seem to be their own worse critic.  They finish a race that they may have even had a PR, but they can still immediately tell you 3 things that they didn't do well.  These athletes do well because they know that performing well does not mean that they performed perfectly.  There are always things to improve.

9.   Has an understanding that "failure is not fatal, but failure to change can be."  This was said by one of the smartest men I have ever read, John Wooden.  This ties into what was written above.  If something is going/went wrong in a race, training, etc., they seek to immediately find the cause, and they look to rectify it.

10.  Can occasionally suffer from short term memory loss.  My uncle Bobby who was also my sophomore basketball coach once told me that the best free throw shooters had bad short term memory.  He meant this as if a shooter missed his first free throw, he was able to forget about it and not allow it to affect his next shot.  I think that this is applied to good triathletes, runners, etc.

Most athletes have a bad race, or two, or twenty.  Many triathletes have crashed their bike, lost their goggles in a swim, bonked on a run.  But, most of them probably didn't quit either.  There comes a point in a race for almost every endurance athlete where they are in almost too much pain to continue.  They vow to never put themselves through this again.  However, as soon as the race is over, they seem to quickly forget the pain that they were in and sign up for another race.  Being able to move on from bad experiences and races is essential.

11.  Has confidence aka "Swagger."  Even the most modest athletes in the world have confidence.  Many times this confidence comes from knowledge that they have done all that they can in preparation for the race.  It is unfortunate that when you look up the definition of "swagger" in the dictionary that it is associated with arrogance.  It may involve some sort of arrogance, but my definition of swagger is to walk with a chip on your shoulder.  It means going into every situation expecting to win, because you know you have the capability.

One quote that comes to mind came from Sebastian Kienle in the NBC Broadcast of the Ironman World Championship this year.  From all interviews that I have seen from him, he appears very modest and down to earth.  I have even heard him speak of still being under the radar despite his successes(2X 70.3 World Champ).  However, when talking about setting the blistering pace for his competition during the bike leg of the Ironman World Championship, he claimed on air “If it’s hurting me, it’s killing them.”

Is this cocky?  Maybe.  But, he has proven himself to be one of the top cyclists in the sport.  He is just stating something that he knows to be true.  That is what i mean by confidence and swagger.

12.  They are practice heroes/heroines.   I had a teammate during my sophomore year of college soccer who came in as a freshman center midfielder.  The problem was, with his position, he had to play behind two center midfielders who ended up being two and three time All Americans respectively.  This meant that pretty much all of his first year, he would never see the field.  But, he was unbelievable in practice.  He would make the first team guys work incredibly hard and embarassed them on more than one occasion.  He was well liked but was referred to as the "Practice Hero."  He made them work every day, and they most likely need to give some of the credit to him for their successes.  He also went on to be an All Conference player.

That was a long introduction to the concept that good triathletes know how to train and they are good at it.  An endurance athlete cannot just be a "Gamer."  They need to be able to push themselves day in and day out to know what they can do on race day.  They are great at pushing themselves past their discomfort zones each day and really enjoy the challenge that each day of training brings.

13.  Able to think on the fly.  No triathlete has had every race in their career go exactly to plan.  Inevitably, you will lose nutrition, you will get a flat on the bike,  as well as many other mishaps.  When you lose that nutrition, how can you adjust your race plan.  When you flat on the bike, how do you fix it and adjust mentally for the rest of the race?  You need to be prepared for all eventualities and adapt accordingly.

14.  Good at being bored.  Face it.  When you start doing endurance sports, you have a lot of time to yourself.  3-6 hours on a bike.  1-4 hours on a run.  Hours staring at a lane line.....the same lane line.  These athletes find good ways to beat this boredom.  They think about a lot of stuff, focus on their power, nutrition, etc.  They learn that all these workouts that seem endless, do in fact, actually end at some point.

15.  Competitive.  They are incredibly competitive.  Many of these athletes are incredibly friendly.  However, when it comes time to race, they can put their game faces on.  Mirinda Carfrae said in the most recent Ironman Broadcast, "It took me a few years to learn that your friends actually aren't your friends on race day."  She was not saying that her competitors are mean people.  I am sure that she would even go have a drink or two with a few of them after.  But when it is time to race, GAME ON!

16.  Good support.  You cannot compete well in this sport without good support.  You need to have supportive family and supportive friends.  They do not necessarily need to be a race Sherpa, but they need to understand your lifestyle and what it takes to this.  Strange smells, lots of gear, lots of food, laundry, etc.  The list goes on.  It takes a lot to be supportive of this life, but it is necessary for success and sanity.

17.  Feel anxious when unable to work out.  For most people, it is hard to get out of bed and work out.  For these athletes, it is much more stressful to stay in bed.  Inactivity, rest, and tapering are difficult because it goes against the routine that has become so commonplace.  It seems like the more mature athletes do a better job of this.  It is a hard skill to learn to relax and to understand that fitness isn't lost in a day.

18.  Good self talk and visualization.  When I think of this, so many different articles come to mind.  However, one that really sticks out to be was by Jesse Thomas.  He states, "positive mantras are used successfully by just about every professional athlete I’ve ever known, and are recommended by any sports psychologist and coach I’ve ever used. Yes, it feels funny to tell yourself something corny and positive mid-race or workout, but it works. If you want to take your racing to the next level, embrace the crazy!"

They use this to get through training, races, and the stress of everyday life.

19.  Insatiable appetites.  Say what you want about these people, but they can eat.  In order to maintain weight and keep consistent energy, they need to consume a lot of calories.  The Michael Phelps diet which gained popularity a few years back is no joke.  I know many athletes that eat all day every day.  The Golden Rule seems to be eat until you aren't hungry anymore, then, eat more.

20.  They enjoy this.  Although this may be a job to many, they enjoy the challenge of getting out of bed everyday and pushing to the limit.  They love to test their bodies and see how fast and how far they can go.  They love the challenge. The love the competition.  Working out is not a task.  It is a part of who they are.

When looking back on this list, the most encouraging thing to me is that nearly all of these habits and characteristics can be learned.  I hope to achieve as many of these as possible in order to get to my own potential.

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