Media depictions of most athletes tend to take one of two paths. They either highlight great athletes and focus on their achievements in competition or describe cases where individuals have made miraculous transformation in life. These journalistic leanings are not without reason. As readers, we love to hear about triumph in competition or the power of human will. These messages can have a powerful positive impact on peoples’ lives, inspiring the inactive to get up off couches and the overweight to shed pounds. For all the positives, I feel this spotlight fails to emphasize the power and importance of incremental change and improvement. There is a practical reason for the media’s bias. Reading an article about how a runner trained her guts out with multiple, daily practices for a year in order to shave off one second of her 800-meter track time doesn’t keep you glued to a newspaper. We only want to see her in the Olympic finals. Watching a television show about a person losing half a pound a week for a total of 25 pounds over a year? Yawn. Watching a morbidly obese person lose 35 pounds in one week of sweating it out with trainers, chefs, and dieticians? Now that sounds like TV!
The problem with this focus is that it sets up unrealistic expectations and anticipation for instant gratification in sports and fitness. The reality is that great improvements are the outcome of adding up small changes and micro gains over long periods of time. In my past life as an engineer, calculus taught me that it’s the summation of a great many tiny changes over time that leads to significant results. All great athletic achievements are built on this idea. A New Years’ resolution, however, is usually based on the idea that a single momentous change will alter one’s life. While there are occasional success stories with this theme, we as athletes should instead focus on making small improvements. Week after week, month after month, year after year, they will add up.
This has been the overwhelming theme of my athletic career. I call it my Carnegie Hall approach to sports. What’s the fastest way to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. I keep training logs to help in this process. For certain sessions, I write down my times and paces; while it’s hard to see the improvement from one workout to the next, I can see that my times are indeed faster when I look back at the same session two years prior. You often hear sporting event announcers talk about “what athlete X did differently in his training this year” because it makes for something to discuss on television. Yes, top athletes are always tweaking and modifying training plans and approaches, but the media rarely mentions the overwhelming truth—the fundamentals stay the same. Those top athletes are all training hard every single day, year after year, to make tiny improvements, knowing that it’s the summation of these efforts that will win championships. Athlete X didn’t win the medal because he did more plyometric gym work in the off-season or took up a kettlebell weight program. Real champions don’t chase fads; they simply build, little by little, on a foundation of years of work.
What is the take-away message in this? As we apply ourselves an endeavor in sports or fitness, be it losing weight, a personal best in the half marathon, or winning an Ironman, we need to let go of those images from the media. We must understand that instant gratification is not an option, and instead dedicate our energy to incremental changes and improvements. We have to have the patience and trust that their summation over time will indeed lead to results. Is this yet one more way of saying that, by focusing on the process, the results will take care of themselves? Yes; that is exactly what I’m arguing.
If your transformation goal is to lose weight, focus on one half pound per week. Don’t chase the ab-ripping fads or unrealistic breakthroughs portrayed on television. If your transformation is to run a Boston Marathon qualifying time, don’t focus on the ten minutes you need to drop. Start by working towards a two-second per mile improvement. Then, work to the next one-second-per-mile improvement. These smaller gains take more patience but are much more achievable.
When I look at my Ironman racing now, I no longer take the approach that “I have to take off X minutes to be where I want to be.” That mindset only leads to pressure and frustration. I know that focusing on the tiny improvements will get me there if I am patient and diligent. I would love it if I could just wave a wand and take five minutes off my Ironman swim time. Instead, I’m focused on my ankle flexibility. For the last several weeks, I focused on getting my elbow high and fingers pointed down as early as possible to better anchor the “catch phase“ of my swim stroke. In a couple of weeks, I will focus on a different small detail. While I do several things well in my swimming stroke, there are always areas where I can definitely improve. I’ve recently partnered with a new swim coach here in Austin, and we are in the process of making those changes that I know will add up over time. I’m not expecting to be the first out of the water in my next race, but I trust that good results will come from the summation of those incremental improvements we’ll be making during my course of training.
Jump Right in — On a cold winter morning, Evoe jumps into the Endless Pool in Coach Brackin's back yard to begin their session. Coach Brackin gives feedback on connecting the catch-phase of his stroke with his hips while they watch the underwater video of his swimming.
Technique Critique — Evoe presses his hand and forearm against Coach Brackin's hand to demonstrate putting pressure against the water at the proper angle during his catch.
Training GEAR — Evoe puts on TYR Catalyst Connect paddles which lock his wrist and forearm in proper alignment to emphasize proper catch position while swimming. Evoe uses- ankle weights to increase resistance water during his kicking so he can better feel the load and fire phases of his kick.