The Coached Coach—Part 2: Learning to Crawl

I never crawled. Apparently crawling is an important developmental milestone that can impact a child’s motor skills and learning development. But me? I’ve never been the most patient person or been willing to follow well-established paths. Even as an infant, I was in a rush. Instead of crawling, I’d plop one foot on the ground, pull my weight forward and scoot myself around.

PHOTO— My parents were so concerned by my failure to crawl that they had my sister try to teach me. Now, as my coach, she’s teaching me to crawl all over again!

My insistence on skipping important steps didn’t stop there. Late in elementary school, I was shocked when I was fired from piano lessons. True story. I didn’t think firing a kid was possible, but then it happened again several years later when my trumpet teacher gave me the boot! An outraged 10-year-old, I just didn’t see the point of scales and drills. Where’s the fun in that?

Now I’m an adult, and a coach. I know better. There is a process to training. There are periods that emphasize form, periods of aerobic training, and then the heart-smashing, endorphin and adrenaline-inducing speed. These are processes I insist my athletes adhere to, but when you’re self-coaching and accountable to no one, it’s amazing how you can talk your way out of smart training. There’s always a “reason” why you changed your effort level half way through a training session, why you skipped your drill set, why you didn’t fuel along the way. And, in our day of unending access to information, you can almost always find some article by someone somewhere to endorse even the most ill-advised whims!

But not this year. This year, I am learning to crawl.

Step 1: get a coach.

I wanted to be held accountable. I wanted to be reminded of the why. I wanted someone who would call me out if when I went rogue on well-designed plans. I wanted someone who would make me crawl before I run. Enter Big Sis.

Emma is an Oregon-based athlete and coach with Wenzell Coaching. She has a saved me from myself numerous times. She’s gotten me through post-wreck bike fears with handling clinics, helped me dial in electrolyte issues, directed me on how to actively rehab injuries and advised me on how best to advance myself as an athlete. That’s all great, but you know what the best part is? She is my sister, and as such, I know first-hand that she is unabashed when it comes to calling me out on my bull, even if that requires the occasional throwing of a muddy shoe! Again, true story.

PHOTO—Sister support at Fatbike Nationals in 2016. This year at St. George I'll get to be the sweaty one, and Emma can have a turn with the pom-poms.

Coach’s first order of business this season was to help me work on my big, gaping fitness hole: aerobic endurance. To me, Zone 2 is crawling. I’m not a fan. I was even less a fan when Coach Emma gave me new heart rate zones: zones that were significantly lower than the ones I had gradually cheated up and up and up in seasons past. “I won’t even be moving!” I whined. “Tough noogies,” she replied. (Sisterly love, huh?)

Learning to work in my true Aerobic Zone 2 has been challenging. At first, I actually found it physically harder than tempo and threshold efforts. My guess is that my brain wasn’t releasing the chemicals that give me the feeling of high and drive to continue on that I get from more intense efforts. And so I suffered on at a gruelingly “easy” pace.

Once I got the hang of Zone 2 physically, the battle became speed. Learning to let go of pace when training in the endurance zone is tough. Slugging along and feeling more like a recreational jogger rather than a competitive athlete, I had to constantly remind myself that Zone 2 is about movement patterns, the duration of the effort, and the developing a highly efficient aerobic metabolism.

Although being okay with training slow has been by far the biggest challenge, learning to eat has also been tough. As rides and runs get longer and longer, eating has become critical. Again, it’s something I know but never did. If training sessions are the only time I don’t want to shove an entire pizza in my mouth, why would waste that one window of no appetite by force-feeding myself? The answer? So I can finish! As my rides started creeping toward the 5-hour mark, I made the startling discovery that I have read, been told and told others time and time again: you have to fuel to keep going! Now, pockets shoved full of sweet potatoes and sandwiches, I begin eating just 45 minutes into a long ride. So long as the constant picnic keeps going, so can I!

PHOTO— In what feels like an alternate universe, I'm constantly working to add more calories to my pockets. Here's a nice spread of 1050 calories that will fit nicely into a jersey.

So, what’s the result of all this crawling and picnicking? How do I know if it’s working? Will I be prepared for Ironman St. George 70.3? Will I be able to rev up the speed engine and race new bests as I shift back to Olympic-distance racing for the remainder of the summer?

Several weeks ago I had my first training event of the season: a half marathon. Having done no run work above an aerobic Zone 2 endurance pace, I was a nervous wreck. What if I forgot how to work hard? What if tempo hurt? And threshold? I was supposed to hit threshold by the end of the race?!? At the start line I was thoroughly convinced I would wilt and die, the laughing stock of the endurance world. But you know what? It was totally fine. No big deal. I ran and kept running: tempo, threshold, sprint. And at no point was it a big deal or gargantuan effort. A few weeks after that, I did a gran fondo at a tempo effort. Again, I cruised along, and it was no big deal! My season hasn’t even begun, and I feel like I’m winning.

I encourage all athletes to consider where their biggest gains lie and how a bit of guidance can help them to succeed. I have a coach to help me slow it down and adhere to the process. If my early season events are any indication, all this crawling around is most definitely going to pay off. So, what can a coach do for you?

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