Category Archives: Mental Aspects and Preparation

Early to Rise: Getting Up at 5am

Sometimes, people ask me, “how the hell do you get up at 5am every day?”
Us triathletes usually do become morning people at some point, so that we can hit that 5:30a Masters swim class and/or get our workouts over with so that we have the rest of the day to do everything else. Originally, I was a night person. It took me 4 months to retrain my cycle to wake me up at 5am every day. But also, I find that working out in the morning gets my blood going for the rest of the day, and I find that working out around dinner time is tough because I get hungry, or I eat so late that it’s uncomfortable.
So here are my tips for waking up early:
1. Yes it took me 4 months to change my cycle. Like with many things, you gotta have patience and stamina to stick with it until your sleep cycle does switch over.
2. Light is important. When my alarm goes off, I turn on a light immediately. Light is a well-known signal to the human body that morning has come. When it’s dark, it’s incredibly harder to want to get up.
3. Warmth is important. I keep the heat in my house at night at 72 degrees. If it’s too cold, I just want to dig deeper into my covers. If I do get up, my body has not warmed up yet and when it’s cold, I can barely move and it keeps me groggy.
4. Go to sleep earlier. Don’t stay up late watching TV. I usually try to go to bed by 10pm. If you find that you have other distractions which keep you up, take one night a weekend to just sleep as long as you want to recover any lost sleep during the week. It’s one way I sometimes can go on for days on only 5-6 hours of sleep, is by taking an 8 hour Saturday night sleep and waking up whenever I feel like it on Sunday morning. By the way, napping during the day, if possible, works wonders too.
5. Consistency is key. Once I started getting up at 5am, I try never to stop. The worst thing you can do is to bounce back and forth between waking times. It just makes it that harder to get up at one time when your body’s cycle is being interfered with like that. Over the last few years of doing this, I now find that I wake up at 5am naturally and don’t need my alarm so much. My body has become set to getting up at 5am. It’s really a piece of cake.
6. Train your eyes to pop open wide as soon as the alarm goes off.
7. Train your body to begin moving off the bed as soon as the alarm goes off. The slower you are, the harder it is to get up.
8. Don’t hit the Snooze button on your alarm.
Within a few short weeks or months, you’ll be popping out of bed before the sun comes up.

Base Training “By Invitation Only”

January has been a month of base training, shaking off the cobwebs, and warming up the ol’ aerobic engine for larger efforts in the coming months. Emerging from the winter months, it is always a funny period of time for me. Over November and December, I did nothing to really work my aerobic engine. I lifted weights to build pure strength and this applied also to swimming where I made up my own paddle swimming progression which gradually built up speed and effort over the two months.
The first week of January is always a tough week. I start with the first of a series of bike and run progressions that are given to me by my coach. I pull up those same workouts from a year ago to see if I can use those same paces and power. It’s definitely a hard moment. Like every other athlete out there, you want to improve year over year. Intellectually you know you’re in the base period, but you can’t help but think even in the base period I should be a tiny bit faster or have just a little bit more power. And sometimes, you do…but sometimes you don’t. I intellectually know I shouldn’t worry about it but yet I can’t escape that thought that I should be just a little better this year, right? And if I’m not, then I start worrying about whether or not I’m going to be faster later, if I’m slower now. The anxiety builds.
My coach is fond of saying that we shouldn’t rush things, and that our fitness level is our fitness level at the moment of time, whether on a training day or on race morning. His favorite line is to train “as the body invites.” Trying to change things too fast will either injure you or put you into overtraining mode and both are BAD. Everybody is different and has different levels of fitness, strength, and ability to grow and get faster. Some of us are quick, and some of us just take a little longer. No matter what, it is what it is and wishing all you want isn’t going to change that; nor is trying to train outside of the parameters of a given workout like pushing too hard when you’re not supposed to.
For me, it’s always an interesting experience. It’s like my body resists coming back, like it’s saying to me, “Dave I really don’t believe you’re back into training. So I’m going to retain my previous fitness level. Nope. Not going to continue right? I’ll just maintain it some more…” This seems to go on always for about 3-3.5 weeks. Then, some switch is turned on, like my body finally says, “Oh geez, Dave IS SERIOUS about training. I gotta ramp the bod and keep up!”
On the last week of January, it was like a switch was turned on. For about 2 weeks, I was struggling at keeping energy level high during a treadmill workout of 3 sets of 5 x 3.5 minutes with a pace pattern of moderate, faster, faster, moderate, and faster than previous faster. The first time through I could only do one set before not being able to continue. My paces were too fast as I took them from last year, but I could not sustain them especially after swimming first. Then adjusting paces, I try again. But I still am only able to get through 2 sets. Then finally, using the same paces, this last week I swam and made it through the 3 sets with no dip in energy whatsoever. It was such a shocking transformation in energy level.
With cycling, it was slightly different. I was able to move through the progression and now I’m back to previous years’ wattages with a little bit more added on.
I think the mental aspect is the most interesting experience. As I said before, you want to be better than last year. But you’re not. And you get depressed. Angry, Determined. Scared at being slower in your races later in the year. However, once again, I remind myself to be patient and not overdo it mentally or physically. I just patiently workout at paces and wattages that my body can take at that time. I try to be aware of my body’s reaction during the warmup stage as I get familiar with the paces and wattages that will occur during the main set. If during the warmup stage I don’t feel like I can achieve my target paces/wattages, I back off so I can get through the workout and try again another day.
The concept of “as the body invites” is one of the most important training principles I’ve learned. Not only does it apply to the base period, it applies nicely all year round during all phases of your training, including race morning. You just need to be patient and have faith that you will get there, and if you are listening to your body, you’ll probably even get a bit faster…!

The Abuse Begins…Hill Repeats

A while back, a training buddy of mine remarked that he trained with another Ironman guy who basically did everything he could to make it hard on himself. He would not take nutrition on training rides while force his body to greater effort. He would also not use as much fluid, and also ride hard paths versus easier ones. His reasoning was that if he could get used to the abuse beforehand, then the race would seem like a cakewalk.
I am believer in pre-training my ability to deal with the physical abuse of racing Ironman as well. It is a combination of mental and physical training.
During this phase, I am building strength and endurance on abusing myself on hill repeats, both on the bike and on the run. Every week I go do my favorite hills and add one or two more repeats. I didn’t do this in previous years and it has showed in my inability to deal with hilly races. I aim to change that this year. I am hoping that introducing these hills into the middle of training, or at the end when I am most tired, will increase my ability to retain my strength through any terrain.
Are they fun? Ha. I wouldn’t call it fun. But it’s the only way to build your body to deal with hills mid-race and also when you’re in a tired state. I am a big believer that the body can do amazing things. But sometimes it’s super-uncomfortable and there is definitely pain involved. Dealing with pain is a fact of life and we should not be afraid of it.

Dean Karnazes is the Man!

I love this guy. Ever since I bought his book Ultramarathon Man, he has been an inspiration to me. Here are some excerpts from his interview with Outside Magazine. So relevant to everyone in this day and age. It isn’t about running; it’s about how you run your LIFE.
How does someone take your model and apply it to their own life?
If you’re a basket weaver, that’s fine. Be the best darn basket weaver there is. Throw yourself wholeheartedly at your craft. Immerse yourself in what you love, and you’ll find fulfillment. We all have different passions. Running isn’t everyone’s bag.

Does it have to be painful to be fulfilling?

Western culture has things a little backwards right now. We think that if we had every comfort available to us, we’d be happy. We equate comfort with happiness. And now we’re so comfortable we’re miserable. There’s no struggle in our lives. No sense of adventure. We get in a car, we get in an elevator, it all comes easy. What I’ve found is that I’m never more alive than when I’m pushing and I’m in pain, and I’m struggling for high achievement, and in that struggle I think there’s a magic.

So would you recommend ultrarunning to a normal person?

I think ultrarunning is symbolic of life in so many ways. You realize that nothing comes easy, the things that are free in life are really not that rewarding. Things that you really dedicate and train for have the greatest reward, and I think that ultrarunning teaches you that. Running 100 miles is a huge commitment. There’s no way to fake your way through a 100-mile run. You have to pay your dues. You have to commit, and when you see these people cross the line, it’s a huge achievement in their lives.
You seem really adaptable to stress. What are your techniques for handling pressure?
One thing I’ve never done and hopefully never will is take myself too seriously. [Laughs] Shoot me if I do. I think that helps reduce stress right out of the gate. The other thing that I’ve done is being wiling to give up control. You can’t control everything, especially when you go into a 200-mile run. At the starting line, you’re thinking, “Geez, this is so daunting, how am I gonna get to the finish?” My commitment is to do my best, to always try my hardest, and even when I fail, and I have certainly failed, I don’t feel like I’m a failure because I’ve given it my all. I know I struggled and tried my best, so I think that in turn takes out a lot of stress.
In your book, you talk about being competitive not with other people, but with yourself. Is that really how you live?
It’s very much how I feel. You can’t compare yourself to other people. You’ll always come up short. I think you’re always gonna be your own toughest critic. There’s no fooling yourself. What I’ve learned is that shortcuts just don’t pay off in running or in life. If it comes easy, it’s not worth having. One thing that ultra distance running seems to do is…if you take short cuts you pay the price. Not only do you pay the price in performance, but when you’re out at mile 80 and you’re ready to give up, in the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “man I compromised on my training. I should have done those extra ten miles. And I know I didn’t.” Or you’re saying in the back of your mind, “man I paid my dues, I laid out my training, I didn’t compromise, I ran those extra ten miles, I can do this.” So not taking shortcuts has been both a performance and psychological advantage.
What about ego? Where does that fit in? Do you need a pretty healthy ego to power through 100-200 miles?
I would say that ego gets in your way. It’s exemplified in looking at some of the women in the sport who are amazing and routinely beat men. Head to head, women can win outright. I think what you find with men a lot of times is that they go out so hard, especially young runners who are strong. They will hammer through the first 50 or 60 miles of a 100-mile race, and then at mile 70 or 80, they’re in a stretcher, and then a woman will come along at a steady pace with no ego concern and pass right by. Ego is really a hindrance.
But you obviously need to have the self-confidence, or conviction, that you can do it.
I think that’s a belief more than anything else. A belief in yourself that you can do it. I believe that’s a learned trait. And that’s what I think the symbolism of ultra endurance running is, that you prove to yourself you can do things you never thought you could. If someone had said to me, before I started doing this, you’re going to go out and run 100 miles through the mountains, I would have said, “No, a human being can’t do that, let alone me.” And then when you actually achieve that, it teaches you that you’re better than you think you are and you can go further than you think you can.
What about mental tactics to get to the finish line in a particularly challenging race?
There’s a technique I use that I just call “baby steps,” for lack of a better term. The first time I ran 200 miles, there was a point at mile 165 where I could not get off the curb. I’d run for about 40 hours straight, and I sat down for the first time and I couldn’t get up, and I thought, “there’ s no way I’m going to make this 200 miles. I can’t even stand up, let alone run another 35 miles.” But what I did, I just shifted my paradigm. I told myself, “Don’t think about 35 miles in front of you. It’s too daunting. Just focus on standing up.” So I struggled and struggled and I finally just stood up and I celebrated the accomplishment. I kind of pumped my fist. And then I said, “ok you stood up, now get to the stop sign down the road. Don’t even think about the 35 miles, just make it to the stop sign and be satisfied.” So I got to the stop sign, so I said, “ok just get to the lamppost 100 feet up the road, don’t think about what’s left in front of you.” And I did that over and over again and at the end of ten hours, I’d run 35 miles. So I just take baby steps. Break larger daunting tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Breaking Through

This morning I ran hill repeats on my favorite loop at Rancho San Antonio. It takes me about 22 minutes for each loop. The loop consists of a .3 mile steep section and then levels out slightly but still goes uphill for about another .5 miles. After that, it starts going down and back to the parking lot where I can begin the loop again.
Doing these loops today brought home one really important aspect of running long – the mental aspect.
I start these loops OK but feel slightly tired. I purposely went swimming for about an hour before just to take my energy level down a notch. It is important to train in depleted conditions and teach your body and mind to perform even at low energy states.
The first loop is a warmup; the second loop I feel stronger. The third is the kicker. I start up the hill and I feel the run up the hill in my legs and in my breath, which becomes labored faster. It is at this time I start thinking about quitting after this loop and just heading back to the car. The voices in my head tell me it’s just better to stop and rest; why fight the muscles burning to do another loop?
But it’s important I get to this 4th loop. Last run I did here, I did 3 loops and felt pretty good. But now everything in my mind is just telling me to quit. I need to continue building past the 3 loops and beyond. It’s the only way to deal with those damn bridges on the NYC Marathon course.
I ignore the voices and desire to quit. My focus becomes razor sharp as I pass the parking lot and head out on the 4th loop. As I hit the steeper early section, I focus only on moving my legs at the previous rate. I reach the less steeper part and then I accelerate. It burns in my lungs and my legs, but I ignore both and just concentrate on cycling my legs. I hit the top and then recover down the back side, reach the bottom and then sprint faster towards the parking lot. I reach the lot in 21 min, having gone a minute faster on the last loop, in which I am most tired.
Negative split training is so important in toughening up the body for endurance. It works the body, but also conditions the mind to force the body to perform in very fatigued states. Breaking through these periods and finishing strong is so important. Otherwise, you’ll just give in to the little voices in your head and your pains, and just quit.
This is not the mark of a champion.

Ironman Paranoia

I’m towards the end of training for Ironman Austria and getting psyched for the race, which is only about 3 weeks away. As I reflect on the training period for this Ironman versus New Zealand last year, I notice some distinct differences, and I am reminded of them as I talk with other friends who are doing their first Ironmans this year.
One big difference this year is my confidence in my ability to finish Ironman, given the training that I am doing. Last year, I underwent what I would call “Ironman Paranoia”, which is when you never think you’re ready, despite all the training you’re doing.
You go out for many weekends, biking long hours all day, running and swimming on top of that. You stress about your nutrition. Will I eat enough? Will I get a stomach ache? Will I throw up on the course and drop out? You get aches and pains in your body and legs and worry about whether or not you’ll collapse in pain during the race. You wonder about pacing and whether or not you’ll have enough energy to last to the end. But couple that with your desire to do well and you wonder if you can push a little harder and do better, or ultimately get a slot to the Kona Championships. Or you may bonk and have the worst experience of your life trying to get to the finish line.
So you train. And train. And train. And maybe even overtrain. You do more than you really need to because you never feel really prepared. And therein lies the danger that you’ll cross some invisible line that throws you into an overtrained state and opens up cause for injury. This is why I have come to trust my coach and do exactly what he tells me, because he, the veteran of many Ironmans knows how much to train, and when it is too much.
When you watch Ironman on TV, you see all sorts of things happen to people. People collapsing in exhaustion or heat. People with wobbly legs, crawling to the finish line. People who are throwing up and yet pick themselves back up and race to the finish line.
And you see people sitting by the side of the road quietly sobbing, sobbing because they have given up and can go no further and can’t realize their dream of becoming Ironman.
I for one don’t like leaving things to chance, so I prepare physically and mentally. But as time goes by, I get to know myself better and find out how to prepare just enough and not too much. Mostly, I just relax and enjoy the moment when I’m out there racing, and the crowd goes wild as I approach the finish line, and the announcer screams “Dave Shen, You’re an IRONMAN!”
There ain’t nuthin’ like it in the world. So don’t mess it up.