The Human Performance Bubble

When I trained for Grandma’s Marathon in 2010, I did so while dealing with a pretty intense work schedule. I traveled a lot, usually a couple weeks out of the month, and trips were often short-notice. My training was intense – lots of high volume and long marathon-pace workouts, which took a lot of time out of the day. On top of this, I was commuting 45 minutes each way, every day. Time, in short, became a precious commodity. Somehow I managed to make it all happen, but I made a lot of sacrifices along the way; time with my new bride, focus at work, and hobbies all kind of fell by the wayside for the six months leading up to the race. I pushed my body to its absolute limits during that time, but two months out, things began falling apart. I got injured after making a foolish decision to run a fast 24M in my racing flats at around 2:54 marathon pace, then followed it up with three weeks working nights at work. It was a radical schedule shift that severely affected my sleep and recovery. Then, Pedro 66 went down and I went into a mental and spiritual freefall. In one month, I went from a fitness state that made me truly believe I was capable of a sub-2:40 marathon, to wondering if I could race at all. I had to make some tough decisions, but it all worked out well. I PR’d, ran 2:48, and felt that I competed in a way that honored my fallen comrades.

I like to think of human performance as a bubble that will only stretch so far, and stress is what causes the bubble to shift, shake, and grow. The ultimate goal of any training cycle is to ensure that the bubble is as big as it can be at the conclusion of the cycle, without rupturing it completely. And when I say “stress,” I don’t just mean stress as we think of it in our normal lives. Training is the process of applying stressors to the body in order to force adaption. Speed, endurance, strength: these are the specific stressors we apply through long runs, intervals, hill work, and tempo runs in order to force our bodies to endure more at faster speeds. But it’s also imperative to account for the other stressors that influence the bubble. Mental and spiritual stress affect the human performance bubble in a fashion just as tangible as the physical stressors.

As an example, let’s say you’re training for a marathon. You’re just beginning to hit your highest weekly mileage you’ll hit before the big race. You’re healthy, been responding well to training, and life is good. You have a plan, and you’re sticking to it. Then Life steps in and tosses a monkey wrench into the works. The kiddo gets sick and you’re only sleeping a couple of hours a night. A family member dies. The boss slams you with a short-notice project that has to be finished by the end of the week.

Ka-boom goes the plan.

You have a couple of choices in this scenario:

1. Drive on, life be damned. You stay on your training schedule, verbatim, despite the two hours of sleep you’re getting a night and the long days at the office. Your significant other pissed off at you, the boss still isn’t happy, and you’re generally pissed off at everyone. Not to mention tired beyond comprehension. An old injury flares up, but still you press. You press, that is, until everything comes to a grinding halt. The old injury turns you into a hobbling mess, you’re going to counseling to repair your broken relationship, the kiddo hates you because you’re such a grump these days, and your boss gives your project to someone who can actually work a full day without falling asleep at his desk. Is that race fee refundable?

2. You stop running completely, and focus on getting through the challenges at hand. You work things out at work and at home, but completely miss out on a full week’s worth of training. Now you’re freaking out because you know you didn’t do the work required to meet your goals. Everybody but you is completely happy.

3. Stop, collaborate, and listen. You look at the training plan for the week and take a realistic look at what you can and can’t do. You juggle some workouts around, cut out mileage to account for time you need to spend with the fam and at the office, all the while ensuring that you at least achieve your hard workouts for the week, and maybe that long run if you can get enough rest later on in the week. You spread yourself just as thin as you possibly can without shortchanging what you can’t. A week later, the kid is healthy, Momma is happy, and the boss wants to promote you. You go on to run a PR, score a shoe contract, and at your first interview, shout “I want Rupp!”

OK, maybe a bit hyperbolic and fanciful, but you get the general idea. Everybody has limits, and what happens in our athletic lives can not be divorced from what goes on the other 22 hours of the day. The smart athlete, smart coach for that matter, understands when to push and when to rein things in so the wheels don’t come off the bus. The bubble is only so big, can only take so much; it’s up to you to figure out how to make sure you don’t push it past its breaking point.

Bottom Line:

1. Approach your training holistically. Having a bad day at work or a big fight with Sweety can be just as detrimental to an afternoon track session as overdoing it on your “easy” run the day before.

2. Know your body. Deep down, every athlete has the ability to monitor his or her corpus and understand the body’s messages. You have to learn when you’re body is simply whining (c’mon, another 10 miler? How about we watch another episode of Mad Men and just think about running?) vs. when the body is sending you an important email (Hey dude, just thought you’d like to know that your right achilles is tender to the touch and swelling…maybe back it off for a few days.)

3. Be flexible, and above all, patient. No one ever won a race because of one awesome workout, and nobody ever lost one for having missed one awesome workout. Human performance is all about maximizing your potential given all the other factors that affect it. There will be times when you have to prioritize other things above your training, times when it’s just not a good idea to stick to the schedule. Keep an eraser handy when it comes to the training log, and be creative if required. There are more ways than one to get fit.

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