In 2018, I did my 5th and last Ironman in Santa Rosa. After about ten years in the sport of triathlon, I decided to retire for a variety of reasons most notably having 2 teenage kids who needed me on weekends. A few months ago, the wife of a good friend called me to tell me she had just signed up for her first Ironman – IM Arizona. She new I had done a few including IM AZ and wanted to pick my brain ‘for a few minutes.’ Our conversation lasted about 2 hours. Frankly, I was surprised that I had so much to offer that I had learned over the years. A familiar ‘aha’ occurred that all retirees feel – I am leaving the sport I love when I know the most. I then asked myself why I would keep all that I had learned to myself? Why not share it and help a first-time ironman or whomever reach their goals. Thus, this oped.
Full disclosure, I am not a triathlon coach, never have been one and have no plans to be one. I am, at best, an average triathlete having done over 40 triathlons that included 10 Half Ironmans (HIM) and 5 Full Ironmans. My first HIM was at age 42 and first full ironman at age 43. I had no background to speak of in any discipline. There were 2 HIMs that I did not finish, but I did finish all the rest with a HIM PR of 5:24 hours and a full IM PR of 11:46 hours. All this so you have a better context of my learnings below. In addition, I went to several different triathlon camps hosted by professional triathletes or elite triathletes/coaches over the years. I have used several coaches for my own training. I have trained with novices and podium finishers. I have learned a great deal from all these experiences and people. What I will share is my opinion based on these experiences. You may disagree with me, and that’s ok. I’m not selling anything or trying to convince anyone of anything. This is simply my top 10 key learnings.
- Hire a coach if you are new or not having initial success. Triathlon is a sport where in addition to the obvious swim, bike, and run, many key variables have to be tried, tested and tested again. Most notably, your nutrition, hydration, and recovery plans. The latter is very unique to you, your body, your experience, your goals, your gender and your age. A good coach who understands ALL these variables, is key to your success.
- The uncontrollable variables on race-day will have a larger impact on your performance than you think or can plan for. If the temperature is even 10 degrees warmer than you trained or planned for, the impact on your nutrition, hydration, pace, watts, strategy will be huge. If the wind blows harder or from one side, if the water is choppier, if the hills were steeper than you thought and have to burn higher watts than planned, if you get bit by a jelly fish on the swim …. All kinds of adjustments have to be made in real time with the clock ticking against a plan you spent 8-10 months preparing for that did not include these mishaps. Making the right adjustments should therefore be a big part of your training and race-day strategy. You must have a plan B, C, and D for each leg. Going into a race thinking all your training will result in a perfect day simply does not happen, at least not for us average triathletes.
- Swimming in the pool and swimming in open water are not the same. Obvious right? My best race swims were when I did the bulk of my swims in open water. Races are all in OW. Conditions of OW, direction, turns, current, sighting, etc cannot be simulated in the pool. Get a group together, find a safe ow area and swim as much as possible in OW. Use the pool for fine tuning your stroke, drills and speed work, but 2 of your 3 swims per week should be in OW. Be less worried about speed and more worried about efficiency. The swim is the warmup for us average athletes. Finishing 1.2 or 2.4 miles of OW having used the least amount of energy is key. I’m not suggesting be slow, not at all. I’m saying focus more on efficiency than speed. Whatever speed comes from your efficiency is the right speed for you. Chasing speed in the swim, unless you plan to podium, is a very low ROI. That time is better spend chasing speed on the run, where it really matters most.
- You are literally wasting money buying an expensive bike. All you need is an average bike that is custom fit. It is easy to spend $1000s on bike. You are better off getting a bike that fits your body and using money to get adjustments on your initial fit 1-2 times per season, a good aero helmet and tires (not necessary wheels). Whatever aerodynamic savings an expensive bike will promise, you will lose when on the course when you sit up for periods of time which us average athletes will do a lot of. Long rides in Zone 2 are also key, as opposed to long rides at race watts. Minimize your breaks on long rides to simulate race day rides. Riding long rides in zones with other people that are too high or too low for you is not going to help you.
- Never ride outside alone. Period. No matter your skill level. One of the reasons for my retirement is the explosion of car/bike accidents. It really is not safe outside anymore and has little to do with you. Ride in packs, wear bright colors, use rear flashing lights, and never challenge a driver or a small space in the road. It is not worth it. You are a human being with loved ones first, not a triathlete, and no race is worth your injury or life. If you are slower rider in the race, then the same safety measures should apply to you as races are all done on actual roads with actual cars and the fewer fellow bikers around you, the higher the risk of an accident.
- You will know if you tapered correctly in the 1st 20 miles of the bike. If the same watts that you trained for feel easy, then you did it right. If it feels harder, then you did it wrong and need to adjust not just on the bike but also the run. A tapered body feels amazing and the mistake is to interpret this as “oh, it’s easy, I can go harder” – and that’s when you will pay for it later in the bike or for sure on the run. Ride the bike at the watts range you trained for, and if you still feel good when you get off the bike in T2, then the run is the only place where you should push it. I have had bad swims, bad bikes and bad runs. Nothing feels worse than a bad run. I’ve had a poor swim and poor bike but great run and it actually feels great to cross the finish line with a smile. As a friend told me: A triathlon is a running sport with a strange warmup of swimming and biking. It’s my opinion that efficient running is the least trained part of Triathlon. Taking run lessons to figure out the best gait for your body can have the biggest impact on your performance.
- About 1-3 weeks prior to your race, do a dry run of about 25% of your race distance but at race pace. Set up transitions exactly as in race (whether at bike set up or in bags) and rehearse the whole sequence wearing your race kit and equipment. You will be shocked at the little things that you will pick up on what to do on race day. I did one for all 15 HIM/IM races and was happy to be reminded of things I otherwise overlooked.
- Always drive the bike course and bike the run course the day or two before race. You will notice little things that on race day will look familiar and not surprise you. You want to minimize race day surprises as there are too many decisions to make. I once asked a pro triathlete to make a list of decisions she made on race day starting from the time she woke up. She stopped the list at swim start because it was already several pages. Race day is about 1000s of decisions … and the ones you forget to make or make incorrectly will be what will bother you most after the race. So make a list of decisions from moment you wake up till about 2 hours after race. The latter should include post race attire and nutrition, logistics for pick up, etc.
- Thank volunteers and encourage your fellow athletes. In my first HIM, B2B in NC, I told myself I wanted to have the unofficial world record of saying “Thank You” in a race. I believe I did it that day and all my races since. 9/10 folks that I said “Thank You” to, I got a positive response back from the volunteer – be it a smile or a “you look great!’ and I soaked up their responses until I got to the next volunteer. It kept me from thinking about many negative thoughts inherent in any endurance event .
- Finally, there is no feeling quite like the finish line whether it’s a HIM or hearing Mike Reilly call out your name as an Ironman. It is a feeling that is indescribable when it happens but much better felt and understood the weeks and months after. Life feels easier as a subconscious self belief takes over. If I can do an ironman, I can handle my job stress or whatever is happening. I am done, but I wish all my fellow triathletes and future finishers a great race. You are my tribe and I will always smile when I see you with your finisher gear!
I’ve worked with a large number of successful entrepreneurs now and to a person, they concede that their initial idea and plans were not the ones that eventually made their companies successful. Instead, it was quite the contrary. They knew the initial idea was merely the starting point and the actual ‘eureka’ business model or product would be realized by exposing the initial idea to the market and its harshest critics, paying customers. The initial idea had to solve a problem theoretically, but solving those problems practically in a scalable way would come much later. The timeline, they say, is based entirely on a quick change management culture – the idea that constantly changing was in fact what they had to do. This fostered powerful internal dynamics of no sacred cows, good ideas as winners, and fear-of-change as losers.
There are dozens of articles and books on what I just wrote in one paragraph above. Their message is that simple. The real battles are not with external competitors or lack of money/resources, but with internal culture of becoming comfortable, resisting change, and having no formal way to harness criticism/feedback in a positive way to make those constant changes. This week, keep it simple. Ask yourself when the last time was that you received insightful feedback to you and your team’s work. If more than a month, then you need to worry. What are you doing to capture feedback and make changes? What process do you have in place to do this at multiple levels? Invest in these because if you do not, other unintentional cultural attributes will organically surface – boredom, laziness, lack of innovation, and working to clock in the hours. These attributes can be hidden if you are making money as a business, but will be exposed at first threat, when it will be too hard to course correct.
Which organization does not have a well-crafted Mission and Vision statement? Which CEO or leadership team does not espouse core values? Which leader cannot get up in front of an audience with an hour’s notice and speak to what leadership means and how to treat others? I frankly do not know of too many that cannot do this. If I changed these questions to “which organization/leader PRACTICES” their values, the list is regrettably quite short. Recently, as a season ticket-holder for Charlotte’s NBA team, the Hornets, I had a regrettable negative incident with my 12 year old son during a game from one of the employees. I wrote Fred Whitfield, President of the Hornets, and shared my concerns. He conducted an internal investigation that validated my version. Neither my son nor I wanted to return to watch any more games. Fred wrote me, called me, and personally apologized. I was humbled by the friendly call and sincerity of the conversation. My son, however, still did not want to return as he took the incident personally and was fearful of it recurring. What ensued was a Values-Based approach to resolving an emotionally charged experience. Fred invited Hunter and I to his office before a game so he could speak directly to my son and share similar childhood experiences. He brought in his senior staff to say hello to my son, and then told us an amazing story that could be life-changing for my son. He shared his own personal childhood of negative incidents, how his Dad told him that if he walked away from something he loved to do because someone else treated him poorly, then in effect, that person won. The best response would actually be to follow that passion more and become successful. Success, he shared, was the best response. After the wonderful talk, Fred allowed my son and I to sit court-side and his staff showered us with much love and respect.
I’ve argued for a while now that the only output worth measuring organizationally for employees is their innovation, defined as a spectrum of performance from “status quo on the left to better in the middle to game-changer on the far right.” Yes, we need to have goals to aim for, but these are usually easy to come up with. If in sales, and you sold $1MM last year, it is relatively easy to conjure a target of north of $1MM this year and so on. What is infinitely harder is coming up with the plan or process to achieve whatever goal is set. What are the chances that you will achieve a higher goal if you used the same process as you did last year? That is, if you did things on the left side of the innovation spectrum, near the status quo marker. I do not know the answer to that but surely, it would be lower than if you did things more in the middle (better) or right of middle (towards game-changer). When coaching athletes, we make the distinction between process goals and outcome goals. Which athlete does not want to win or score the most goals? Not one. By focusing on the goal, and not what it takes to achieve the goal, athletes usually under-perform.
There are many good questions to ask intermittently so long as you process them truthfully with unbiased corroboration and data. One of them is to process how much of what you know is outdated? Being outdated does not mean being wrong. I used to have a paper atlas in my car growing up to figure out directions when traveling. Today I use an app in my car that does the same thing, talks to me and alerts me to all kinds of information on my route. I could still use the atlas today. It would not be wrong, but it would be outdated. Why would I not use a more current tool to make me more efficient and better at meeting my goals?
We all know what ‘happy hour’ is. That time of day after work to meet up at a bar/restaurant and have a few drinks, usually on a Friday afternoon. As we begin a new year in which we are more connected than ever, where there will be no shortage of reasons to not be online 24/7, where there will be more distractions and challenges, let me propose a new ‘happy hour’ model. I actually like the term ‘happy hour’ even though it seems more like a ‘social hour’ and little to do with ‘happiness.’ What if happy hour were actually a happy hour?
The way I consumed music in my childhood was via the radio, a cassette player or a record (LP) player. I vividly recall consumption changing when it became possible to take music mobile with the walkman. Then CDs came along and eliminated the bulky nature of cassettes/LPs before digital music launched, making it even easier to consume music. Changes in the way we consume in one part of life has led to changes in the way we want to consume in other parts. We want consumption to be mobile, accessible, and tailored to our desires at any point in time. Consuming knowledge that can help us make better decisions should be no different.
As I’ve written about extensively, I enjoy my work with professional athletes as it allows me to draw many parallels to working professionals. Both are paid to perform to their best ability with the former being so in a microcosm of the performance time compared to the workplace where projects can take months if not years. One of the attributes of successful athletes and teams is film time. I am always impressed at the volume of video made during a game that is then spliced up per athlete or per play and processed for feedback. It is one thing for coaches or teammates to lament about their version of why something went well or not well, and another thing when the play can be viewed in film in hindsight processed objectively like evidence in legal court room. The same is done for opponents to help athletes prepare for who they will be playing against. The film room is a powerful learning forum.
During a college soccer game I recently attended as a sport neuropschologist working for team X, I watched a player from team X kick the ball directly to an opposing player. I quickly scanned the entire field and both coaches/benches. There were multiple interpretations of that play. For the player who made the errand kick, his narrative appeared to be “oh crap. What did I just do?” For his teammates, it could have been anything from “no big deal” to “what an idiot!” to “Can’t believe he just did that.” For the X teammates on the bench, it ranged from “Common, get it back!” to “Coach needs to take him out.” For the X coaches, it could have been “Are you kidding me?” to “We practice those passes every day!” The X home team fans had a sudden gasp of sounds while opposing fans cheered! For the opposing player who got the pass, it was likely “Oh man! This is awesome!” For the opposing teammates, it was a sudden infusion of positive energy and for the opposing coaches I could hear “Let’s go!” chants as they starting running down the sidelines. So what’s the point here? One play by one player caused a vast array of interpretations and narratives. That play is permanently etched in history. However, the narratives of that play will live for much longer, consciously and subconsciously, more so on team X.
Recently, I observed a head coach of a team yell at a player “What are you doing? Stay focused!” Her player had not being paying attention and the player she was guarding ran by her with the ball and scored. A day later in a business meeting, I observed a CEO tell one of his executives “These numbers are not good. Just go get it done!” Both the coach and CEO, leaders, were right in “what” they said. I call them “What” leaders, not to be confused with “how” leaders.
Jerry Seinfeld has a show on Netflix “Comedians in cars getting coffee” where he has conversations with successful comedians. In a recent show with Dave Chapelle, he visited Dave’s high school in an under-privileged part of New York where a recent donation of $17 million dollars led to a significant upgrade to their performance arts theater. Both comics marveled at the facility as it looked like a state-of-art venue that resembled any high-end theater in a major city. Seinfeld asked a fascinating question on stage in awe of what he was seeing: How can someone great come out a place like this? As a coach of dozens of executives and CEOs of organizations, I can tell you it is a question eerily similar what they ask themselves anytime a disruptive competitor shows up in the market, seemingly from nowhere started in a garage with some broke folks: Why did this not come from our highly-funded innovation centers and inspiring off-site exotic locations where have our retreats?
As some on you know I work with professional athletes. I have drawn parallels between athletic performance and workplace performance for many years. The former presents a microcosm in one event of how workplace professionals perform per quarter or year or whenever they are ‘measured’ for their performance against business goals. One athlete I am working with had a tournament that started on a Friday. From a neuropsychology perspective, I helped her understand that her tournament actually starts 24-48 hours prior to Friday. Those 1-2 days are crucial emotionally and intellectually. On those two days, and this is covered in my books, it it critical to (1) do activities that you enjoy and (2) avoid activities/people that can make you unhappy. This “EQ Taper” allows athletes to fill their “EQ Tank” given that when Friday comes along, and knowing the inherent nature of competition is one of anxiety as mistakes can be severely consequential, so that the brain has enough front-loaded positivity (dopamine) to make it more difficult to get it to make poor decisions and perform poorly.
It is tough to aim at a moving target. It is tough being a parent to growing children. One moment you might be baby-talking and just like that, you might be using complete sentences, and not much later, you might be discussing politics and the meaning of life with them. As a parent, it is a ton easier to see the intellectual growth in children because it is accompanied with physical growth and major milestones such as walking, talking, first day at school, graduating high school, college and getting married. It is a ton harder to see our own growth because the milestones are not so obvious as adults and often associated with those of our loved ones more so than our own. It is normal to not recognize that we have changed too. The things that made us happy in our 30s might be different that those that make us happy in our 50s. That lack of recognition of our growth, and the causes of that growth from positive and negative experiences, can limit our understanding of how our brain is processing current experiences.
There has been considerable debate on what comes first in response to any stimulus, thought or emotion? Some argue that how you feel dictates how you think. If I am sad then this emotion will cater to more somber memories and thoughts, and vice versa if I am happy. Others argue that if you choose to think certain thoughts, you can change your emotions from whatever they are to what you want/need them to be for any given situation. I wonder if we have been debating a moot point. Feelings or emotions are labels we have been using to describe what thoughts are being narrated by the brain. New neuroscience is strongly suggesting that emotions and thoughts are in fact the same, neurologically. How we feel can only be described by thought. If you have labeled an emotion you are feeling as sad, then you are in fact using thought to come up with the ‘sad’ label. Your thoughts, neuropathways, are dependent on stored memories, not on objective labels, to make those labels. What is sad to one person might be just mundane to one and traumatic to another. I presented this argument in my first book in 1995, Clearing Your Path
, coining the ‘Theory of Emotional Relativity’ concept. Why is it important to re-examine our labels and emotional language? Because the center of out labeling machine, our brain, is an inherently biased and flawed organ. It uses only experiences stored in it, not objective rationale, to label.
Stating the obvious, labels and language provide us with the necessary code for comprehension of just about everything. Language has evolved as our evolution and maturation has. Every year dozens of new words are added to both a formal dictionary and our colloquial vernacular. In college, I never “googled” anything nor as I kid did I “binge watch” any show, for example. I’ve been writing for well over a decade now on Emotions, Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Neuroscience. Our understanding of these has dramatically improved in the last ten years alone, more so arguably than previous centuries combined. We know now that our human body is over 90% fluid, filled with all kinds of chemicals whose total composition is dictated in large part by instant reactions to constantly-changing stimuli from key glands in our body. A certain combination of chemicals (hormones) forces our neurothpathways (thought pattern) to go a certain direction to decipher the stimuli and other combinations go to different places for the same reason. We have been using a bronze-age language to describe these feelings, such as anger, sad, happy, glad, frustrated, joyful, excited, bored, etc. These labels were at best honorable attempts to makes sense of what our glands and thoughts were doing and provided our ancestors with comprehension for decoding visible human behavior. But make no mistake, these are outdated and even inaccurate labels. It is time to learn a new language.