TAHOE/TRUCKEE — Athletes are planners. We set our goals, determine our race schedule for the season, and develop a training plan in order to achieve those goals. Planning ahead is a critical part of being a top-tier athlete. We work hard throughout the year to stick to our plan as closely as possible so we can perform at our best when the big day comes.
But also important, and much less talked about, is the ability to steer away from the plan. There will be times when, for a number of reasons, it’s just not feasible — or appropriate — to “stick to the plan.” For example, in the case of injuries or illness, it doesn’t make sense to do the interval sets or over-distance workouts you had planned for the week. In fact, it will only do you more harm than good.
There are a whole range of circumstances in life that “the plan” cannot foresee, and it’s crucial that we as athletes can adjust to those circumstances. Whether it’s a nagging injury that just won’t go away, a head cold that keeps us from sleeping at night, too much going on at work, an outside emotional stress, or we’re just overtired or even feeling mentally burnt out, we need to be able to recognize these circumstances and make the appropriate changes to accommodate them.
Sometimes the best workout is not the one you had planned. In fact, sometimes the best workout is not a workout at all. Sometimes, what we need to do is slow down, put our feet up and take a break. Sometimes we just need to take off our watches, grab some friends, and get outside simply for the sake of being out there, rather than with the primary purpose of training. Sometimes, the best “workout” may even be a concert in the park or a night on the town.
These are the things not written in our training plans. And often times, they are the hardest to do. As athletes who are used to being “on the grind” all the time, maintaining a “work hard and reap the rewards” attitude, backing off or even just letting go of the plan for a day or two can be extremely difficult. It is often said among athletes, in fact, that the off day (or rest day) is the most challenging day of the week. We like to move, we like to sweat, and we like to push our limits. And generally, this is what we need to be doing to be at our best. But there are exceptions.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize these exceptions and know the right thing to do. But I’m a big believer in listening to your body. It knows what it wants, and generally it will tell you. When it can be pushed harder, it will let you know. And when it’s maxed out and ready for a break or a change, it will tell you that too. The key is to be able to listen, and to trust what your body is telling you. And then, of course, you have to be willing to accommodate. Determine what it is you really need to feel at your best. Sometimes it may be something entirely different than what you had planned for — and that is OK!
In the end, there are many of us willing to put in hard work. But a willingness to adjust, and adapt, to life’s circumstances is one of the key things that separates a great athlete from a good one. The athlete who can recognize when they need to take a step back, re-evaluate their needs, and be okay with moving forward in a different direction than planned is the one who will prevail.
So, yes, plan to stick the plan. But also know that the plan is always evolving, and plan to make some adjustments along the way. Aim to listen closely to your body, and respond appropriately, even if it’s not as you expected. Life’s challenges can impact our training, but they don’t have to stop us from reaching our destination. We can face challenges and still arrive just where we wanted to, but not always on the exact route we planned — and only if we’re willing to make those adjustments; only if we’re willing to listen to our bodies, trust and respond.
— Kara LaPoint is an elite amateur triathlete competing for LUNA bar, and working up to the pro ranks. She has earned numerous overall amateur podium finishes and age-group wins across distances from Olympic to Ironman, and finished the 2011 season ranked as an All-American nationally among her age group (25-29). Read more about her racing and training at www.karalapoint.wordpress.com. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.