You coach endurance athletes. Goal-oriented, disciplined, and driven are some of the words people will use to describe them. Endurance sport performance selects for those who have demonstrated these values. The start of a marathon or a triathlon is lined with better-trained individuals than, say, the bench of an adult kickball game. In the latter, you can reasonably expect to show up with a 6-pack of beer on a Tuesday night and still be the game’s MVP. As a coach, you probably advise a different pre-race nutrition strategy.
Encouraging your athletes to be disciplined will eventually fall on deaf ears. The message will get stale as you preach to clients with other “real world” obligations. If only there were another strategy…
Successful training is a product of stress and rest repeated over time. Discipline is required to achieve this consistency, but let’s remember the higher goal is consistency. Discipline is a way to achieve consistency, but so is fun. Prescribing training with no fun is like cooking food with no flavor. You might be able to get the meal down, but will you want it again and again?
Finding ways to pepper “fun” into the stress and rest cycle will help your athletes push harder during sessions, better enjoy their downtime, and more sustainably continue their programs year after year. Subtract seconds from their splits and add smiles to their miles with these four strategies:
1) Prescribe a Playlist
Your athletes are not machines. As much as we might like to convince ourselves that we can tick off a certain wattage on the bike or pace on runs “automatically,” we’re still human beings. There are thoughts and emotions which contribute—positively or negatively—to performance. Encourage your athletes to structure their training environments to cue emotions and thoughts which lead to improved performance.
It’s well-documented that emotions contribute to athletic performance. Music can act as a trigger for those beneficial emotions and as distraction from the discomfort of the moment. A 2015 British study found that listening to music with “emotional resonance” for the test subject improved endurance performance up to 10 percent. Emotions are strong when we are weak.
You can help coach your athletes to find the right playlist through encouraging them to learn self-awareness. Do they perform best when angry, happy, relaxed, or threatened? Why not cue the emotions that help with the task at hand, and then let the emotions do the work? Helping your athletes find their optimal emotional state for performance differs individually, so play with music selections to see what works best.
Also, this goes without saying, but you cannot have consistent training without prioritizing safety so no headphones on the roads! Try a bluetooth speaker in your back pocket instead.
2) Build In Rewards
There’s an anxiety to beginnings. It’s not uncommon to dread or procrastinate a key workout as fatigue and outside stress build. Unproductive thoughts can quickly spiral out-of-control.
It’s your job to remind your athletes that beginning the session gets them closer to the end. Encourage them to plan something enticing following the workout and link the workout to other activities that get them excited. Get them out the door!
It’s tempting to think of rewards as “big things” we only gift ourselves once in a while. Remind your athletes of the countless smaller rewards accompanying their athletic journey, and encourage them to imagine that addictive post-workout high. Linking workouts to one other positive thing will get your athletes moving. The first step, pedal, or stroke is the hardest then momentum becomes their friend.
Individual reality is a product of one’s thoughts. For an athlete who needs to run in the morning, encourage them to run somewhere with a beautiful sunrise. You’ll be prescribing a sunrise to be enjoyed while running instead of the usual “AM Run.” There are countless strategies like this to build rewards into the regular plan. Be creative!
3) Find Some Friends
During our build-up to the 2016 Olympics, my least favorite workout of the week was a Tuesday evening run. We called our schedule “Tremendous Tuesday,” and I had a hard time dragging myself out the door for this final workout. Then, my friends and I found out a local taco shop which offered “Taco Tuesday!”
We organized a group that consistently met at the taco shop at a set time, and almost immediately the final workout of the day went from being something I dreaded to something I did before downing horchatas and endless bowls of salted tortilla chips. Instead of thinking about how heavy my legs felt, I instead thought of Matt and Jen waiting at the trailhead.
We’d scheduled a reward for after the run, but the larger reward was the company on the trail. Help your athletes find some friends or locate a group, and then build it into their weekly schedules. Including friends and training partners can make an athlete’s training plan feel like a normal part his/her life instead of a demanding distraction.
4) Change the Focus
When motivation is low and it’s hard for your athletes to do much of anything, be like a doctor and change the prescription. As a coach, it can be easy to fall into a routine based on your experience that turns into monotony for your athletes, but there are endless mental strategies you can use to transform your training plans.
If you normally schedule runs based on time, switch to a mileage goal instead. If you normally calculate pace in miles/hour or minutes/mile, switch to the metric system for a week. Help your athlete find a different pool or track. Help them find open water and prescribe 15×80 strokes at whatever feels like threshold instead the 15×100 threshold set they’ve been repeating for the past six weeks. Challenge them with Strava segments, to join a race on Zwift, or to build a mental game based on town welcome signs or dashed vs. double yellow lines on the road. Shift their perspective and their training grounds will be transformed into a playground.
Contrary to popular belief, focusing on the “fun” as an important part of training is a strategy that makes preparation both more effective and more sustainable. Endurance competitors require flexible thinking as athletes adjust to inevitable ebbs and flows of motivation. Tapping into some of these natural strategies to keep athletes entertained, and thus engaged, while their body trains and races will help them feel better about their routine, train more consistently, and dull their perceived exertion during sessions. Use the points above as a starting point, and use your creativity to expand from there.