Thursday, January 3, 2013

Train With Better People

Group ride in Kona, Hawaii heading to the Kaloko climb. Picture - Tim Carlson/Slowtwitch

I've been lucky. All the way along, whether I was a runner, a triathlete, a cross-country skier or a cyclist, I have always had the opportunity to regularly train with people better than me. . . in some cases a lot better than me! I believe that to a large degree, this has been an important part of the, "success" that I experienced along the way, no matter what I was doing in endurance sports.

It's not all absolutely worked out that way. It took me a number of years to figure out the dosing on this. For example, when I was a runner, of some note back in my teens and early 20's, I ran with these better people almost every day. Every workout, particularly hard intervals sessions and tempo runs was like a race! In fact, I probably had some of my best "races" in workouts! Even easy days, were hard!

I recall one session of 7 x 800m intervals on the track that was a 5000m race simulation workout that, was run at a pace way over my head, with a rest session much too short for me to recover. This was a group of  eight or nine strong runners that included, Provincial and National team champions, and team members. Never-the-less, I grimly hung in there, and when my turn to lead, in the lead rotation, came up on the 2nd last interval, I was able to hold the lead all the way, and nail the pace and the 800m split to the second . . . nearly killing myself in doing so. I some how managed to survive the absolute last 800m, but was well off-the-back of  the group in the final 100m. I never duplicated that, "performance" in an actual 5000m race!

As I moved onto triathlon, the situation was the same - regularly training with the absolute best people around in my area and nationally. Ditto with nordic skiing - which became my winter "off-season", from triathlon, but also involved some mammoth ski training, again, often with really good skiers. However, now I was starting to understand better my own needs for periodization - when to load it up and when to back off. When to go hard and long with the group, or when to go easy and do my own thing.

However, it was not just the red-line on the rivet training that, is impactful when you train with really good people, often it's the little things you notice about a world class athlete: How they move? What they wear? What they look at? What's important to them . . and so on.

I have mentioned here before about riding with former Pro Cyclist Alex Steida back in the early 90's in Vancouver. Sure, the riding with Steida was fast, but when you sat on his wheel or road beside him in the group, it was, how at ease he looked no matter what we were doing, that I always noticed. The reach back to grab an energy bar out of the rear pocket of his cycling jersey. Having a drink of water from a water bottle - it all had this extraordinary economy to it all. Grace and calm under pressure!

I recall a run at Christmas time one year in Victioria, BC, with Peter Reid who had just won the first of his three Ironman World Championships two months before, and a young Simon Whitfield, who was just over a year away from winning the first ever Olympic Gold Medal in Triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. The pace for the 16 K run was decent, but not overly fast - in fact Reid had advised us that we had to run "slow". The conversation, was non-stop, and, almost never about training or triathlon! Light and easy. I learned a lot from that run.

Today, my best days as an endurance athlete are far behind me. I don't race much, if at all. Cycling is my thing now. Again, I am lucky in that when I do go out for a group ride, with our local cycling club, the group is peppered with some impressive talent with some of the best Master's cyclists in the province, and in all of Canada! Just hanging in with these guys, and not getting dropped is an achievement and an honor!

Some seek the solitude of solo training. I do too. This quiet time away from everything, I have always found helpful - in many different ways. The trick as I mentioned, is balance. When I was a teenager, running, it was unbalanced towards the side of too much, group training at too high a level. Later on, I realized, how to better balance it all, to get full advantage of the opportunities that training with other better athletes would give me.

The higher level message and take away here is that there is a lot to be gained and learned from training with people who are better than you. I know that I have benefited from it, greatly over the years. Probably did a bit too much of it when I was runner, and had a more balanced approach with it as I got older. But, perhaps I would not have run as well as I did, or developed the massive base of fitness that all that running did for me had I not run like that for 5 - 6 years. Hard to know.

Used properly, group training with better athletes can be highly effective in bringing out the best in you. Don't shy away from it.

Do you train with better people?

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