In the pursuit of athletic excellence, the most advanced and meticulously crafted training programs cannot provide guidance as accurate and appropriate as intuition and the pursuit of enjoyment and confidence.
I just finished reading Matt Fitzgerald‘s "RUN, The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel". Matt has written 17 books on running and writes extensively for Triathlete Magazine, as well as Runner’s World and a slew of other periodicals. He has travelled the world seeking and gleaning information from sports physiologists, coaches and elite runners. His conclusion, backed by science, is that consistently successful runners train and race most effectively when they rely on intuition and when they pursue confidence and enjoyment in their running. Wow, this validates my gut instinct approach to training and vindicates my passionate love for “winging it” day by day in my pursuit of athletic excellence.
In this series, I offer some guidance on how to intuitively craft your optimal training program “on the fly”. In this first part, we consider some ways that might help you to “listen” to your body when you get up in the morning to evaluate and assess your condition and athletic needs for the day.
Intuition? In Athletics?
I’d like to preface this series with a brief definition of intuition in the context of pursuing athletic excellence: In my experience, athletic intuition is the clear, concise, cellularly-based communication between body and brain. It is a dialogue about the athlete’s current status (fatigue versus recovery), balance (emotional, mental, chemical, hormonal), ability (realistic capacity versus idealistic wishes) and needs (areas of greatest opportunity for improvement – neurologically, metabolically, and muscularly). I have more than a decade of experience crafting my training program “on the fly” – by engaging in this clear, concise cellularly-based dialogue – with some credible and satisfying results. (USAT All-American 2008, 2010; USAT Honorable Mention 2009). I have never been able to follow a training program and still remain true to what will provide me with the optimal training experience in this moment. Hence, I refrain from “coaching” other athletes.
I must add a word of caution here: Until you develop your athletic intuition – your articulate cellular dialogue between body and brain – a training program can be an invaluable guidance tool in your training – especially for a triathlon. Balancing and training for three sports is not a linear endeavor.
But please, when in doubt, don’t work out! Your training program – no matter who the coach is or how much you paid for it – is not gospel.
Stress – Recovery – Adaptation
Effective training is a lot like juggling three balls. Our “balls” are stress, recovery and adaptation. Like juggling, this is an art as much as it is a science. Even with the very best training plan, unless you can accurately perceive and evaluate your current state of readiness – your response to the daily stresses you experience – it is impossible to know what will constitute the most effective workouts for today.
We tend to identify athletic training exclusively as the workouts we perform – the long bike ride, the running intervals, the 100-yard swimming repeats. However, our workouts provide only the stress component. Without a balance of recovery and adaptation, we end up excavating a trench of overtraining, injury, illness and burnout. When the trench gets really deep, it can be difficult to climb back out.
I know this very well; I’ve been de-railed by chronic adrenal fatigue syndrome (CAFS) a few times. Never again! I’m a great juggler now! I gracefully keep those three elements dancing together and enjoy my multisport lifestyle without interruption, thanks to my intuitive intelligence. I’ve also learned a tremendous amount about nutrition and supplementation from my Hammer Nutrition “O’hana” – (that’s Hawaiian for “family”) – since those days of CAFS. Hammer goes a long way in supporting me to enjoy a sustainable multisport lifestyle, but we need more than the best supplements and fuels. Each of us also needs an honest and accurate protocol for evaluating our readiness state each day.
Resting Pulse Rate
You can begin your daily readiness evaluation by measuring your resting pulse rate when you wake up. There is no one perfect protocol for doing this – just make sure you are consistent in the way you measure it each day. You can simply find your pulse on your wrist and count for 30 seconds. Double that for “beats per minute” (BPM) figure. Within a week or two, if you are training sensibly, you will determine a baseline figure. Given adequate recovery, this is going to be a consistent value that is your lowest heart rate. The morning after a hard day, if you are not fully recovered, you may find this value is 5 or more beats higher than your baseline. That’s a clear indication that your most effective training for that day will focus on active recovery.
Quality and quantity of sleep can also be indicators of your stress-recovery-adaptation balance. I may drag myself into bed exhausted after a stressful day (either from hard training or from other challenges in life), sleep for 1-2 hours, then wake up restless and sleep poorly for the rest of the night. This is a clear indication that my cortisol levels are high, that I am struggling to recover and adapt. However, there are nights where I go to bed exhausted after a challenging day, sleep soundly and wake up feeling great. (I wish that happened more often!)
Zenman’s Morning Ritual
For me, everyday begins with the same ritual: Grate fresh ginger, add it to the pot on the stove and bring it to a boil. I let it simmer as I begin to awaken my body with a few minutes of T’ai Chi Hip Warm-ups. This easy, gentle exercise increases blood flow and stimulates synovial fluid in all my joints. As simple as Hip Warm-ups are, they is a profound way to train relaxed mobility. The capacity to maintain mobility in a joint while it is weighted is a tremendous asset to every endurance athlete. Yup! Hip Warm-ups every day – for over 30 years!
Next I do a 20-minute T’ai Chi form, usually with my eyes closed. “Blind T’ai Chi” stimulates my proprioceptive awareness, first thing every morning. Proprioception is the most essential element in my craft as an endurance athlete. Usually, in just the first 2-3 minutes of T’ai Chi, I feel a distinct gentle buzz throughout my neural system – a deep internal massage – that I know as the flow of chi energy. If I am mentally distracted (agitated) or physically scattered (fatigued), I know the quality of my energy is diminished. This is my intuition talking to me. T’ai Chi provides an accurate evaluation of my state of readiness. This daily 20-minute practice is the most valuable investment I have made in my life.
When I finish T‘ai Chi, I turn off the stove and pour a large cup of ginger tea. While it is cooling, I do one more Taoist Chinese exercise called Compression Breathing. This practice is not well-known in the world. While it is a potent way of de-toxing the body, one should gain considerable experience with T’ai Chi first. (For more on Compression Breathing and advanced Taoist practices, refer to books written by Mantak Chia.) I’ve evolved my own system of compression breathing, focusing on nine distinct energy centers in my body. I experience burning physical discomfort every time I do this practice – after all, it is a de-tox! This practice takes 15-20 minutes and provides me with even greater evaluation of my state of readiness. When I am finished, my body is very warm and my bowels are ready for a quick trip to the bathroom. (Not once have I waited in the porta-potty line at a race.)
I sit quietly for a few minutes, drink the ginger tea and listen to my body. With this guidance and discernment, I make intelligent decisions in my workout choices.
I don’t claim that my morning ritual is better than any other. It is simply a consistent, patient process that enables me to simultaneously evaluate my readiness through the clear, concise cellularly-based dialogue between body and brain, as I warm-up. It keeps me injury-free and healthy. If you are consistent and patient in your approach to each day, if you listen to your body and avoid being headstrong about what you “should” do, you probably enjoy the art of juggling your training as much as I do!
In the next installment, we will examine the nature of athletic “intuition” that provides intelligent guidance in crafting the optimum training program “on the fly”.
Shane Eversfield is a Total Immersion Master Coach, author of “Zendurance, A Spiritual Fitness Guide for Endurance Athletes”, and producer of the DVD “T’ai Chi for Athletes”. He is also a contributing editor to Hammer Nutrition Endurance News. Contact him here or on Facebook.