QUEST FOR THE BEST
In any pursuit of excellence, athletic or otherwise, we search for the very best resources, opportunities and associates. In triathlon, this pursuit includes equipment, training programs, coaches, nutrition and race events.
Our quest never remains static for very long. There is always something new and promising on the horizon – a new carbon bike frame, the latest training software, a breakthrough tool to monitor, meter or track performance, a new line of nutrition products. All promise increased training and racing results, often backed up by scientific research.
In that quest for excellence, what about our pursuit to refine swim, bike and running technique? There may not be quite as much marketing hype around technique programs as there is around, say, aero wheels and bike frames; but it doesn’t diminish the value and potential of technique mastery as a powerful means of successfully pursuing athletic excellence.
But what constitutes a great technique program? How can we evaluate a particular athletic technique program and its capacity to serve our specific needs and circumstances before investing our precious time, energy and money?
As athletes, what do we really desire in our pursuit of excellence? Fame and fortune perhaps? Do we measure success and satisfaction by podium position, media recognition and sponsorship contracts?
If so, the vast majority of us are going to be mighty disappointed throughout our athletic “careers”: Podium recognition usually reaches just 3 to 5 places deep, and not many of us get paid to ride the bikes we have chosen.
Our pursuit of excellence is really measured by the satisfying experience of mastery: as we improve, progress, learn and evolve. These are the essential ingredients for passion and appetite - even for the pros. They are the vital elements of our re-creation, our renewal. (And remember, most of us train and race for exactly that – re-creation.)
We experience our greatest health, balance and enjoyment in those areas of our lives where we discover the most growth, progress and refinement.
The greatest navigational tool we bring to this path of refinement, progress, growth, mastery – whatever you want to call it – is a constant sharpening of our perceptions.
If we cannot (or are simply unwilling to) discern between what is functional and dysfunctional in any specific area or pursuit in life, then the process of refinement is left to chance. It is unpredictable, sporadic, possibly regressive.
If we already “know all there is to know“, and have “been there, done that, got the t-shirt”, then there is no possibility for further growth.
However, approach any endeavor with humility, curiosity and patience, and we are poised to develop sharper perceptive capacity. Athletically, this means approaching each training session, no matter how trivial, as an opportunity for discovery.
In the broader arena of our lives, we choose to honor each relationship, each obligation and responsibility as an opportunity for growth. This humble approach to each event in our lives “primes” our perceptive potential so that we learn and grow rapidly.
Now we have identified a “bottom line” in any pursuit of excellence: Improve perceptive ability.
This is absolutely key to refining athletic technique and begins to answer the question: How can an athlete evaluate a particular “brand” of technique? The evaluation begins with assessing how effective the specific technique program is at challenging and improving the athlete’s perceptive capacity in that specific discipline.
There are two crucial areas of perception that must be addressed:
The first area of perceptive improvement is to recognize and explore the underlying principles and functional laws at work in the universe that pertain specifically to the area of our pursuit (i.e. swimming, biking or running efficiently and economically).
The second area of perceptive improvement is sport-specific proprioception, something I write about frequently.
As profound and fundamental as they are, the functional laws and principles that govern athletic technique are often quite subtle. Clear recognition and comprehension of these requires deep contemplation and philosophical curiosity, as well as practice, practice, practice.
Many of the world’s best triathletes are, by necessity, deep thinkers; it is not enough to be genetically gifted and to tirelessly drill the rudiments any more.
An effective technique program relentlessly investigates the subtle underlying laws and principles and the proprioceptive capacities that enhance posture and alignment (including maximum use of pelvic core musculature) as well as biomechanics specific to that sport.
While there are certain technique standards for many sports, the investigation is unique for each individual. Therefore, an effective technique program must provide each athlete with navigational tools to conduct this personal investigation in an ongoing and sustained manner.
These navigational tools may include drills and exercises (both physical and mental), images and concepts, as well as metrics for evaluating efficiency - how economically the athlete is able to transform energy into the specific activity for the chosen duration.
In endurance sports, these metrics may include stroke/stride length (i.e., swimming strokes per lap, running stride length, distance travelled per pedal rotation) cadence/tempo, heart rate and power.
Regardless of the sport, one of the most essential tools for evaluating efficiency is rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Learning to “quantify“ one‘s RPE provides the most accurate evaluation of energy output for the body‘s current condition and capacity. We don’t train and race in the lab.
Cut To the Chase
“OK, enough talk about “investigation, perception and all that. I just want to know what’s the very best swim/bike/run technique on the market?”
In my experience, there is no single best “technique” in any discipline. For illustration, consider cycling biomechanics: The pedaling biomechanics that produce maximum power output are not necessarily the most sustainable biomechanics.
The technique-oriented athlete who focuses only on a “lab-derived” optimum biomechanics movement - with zero deviation - lives in the lab. No thank you! I prefer to train and race in a diverse, organic and ever-evolving world.
The quest for athletic excellence through mindful movement often leads to a profound philosophical shift in how the athlete approaches the sport, and even life. This is the power of mindful movement.
I first discovered this profound power in my practice of T’ai Chi. After 6 years of self-taught and oriented practice, I read a book about Taoism. I vividly remember the moment I realized that my mindful movement practice of T’ai Chi had transformed my entire mental environment.
My deep experiential process, all of my interactions with the world around me - arose from a Taoist “platform” - with no prior knowledge or exposure to Taoism or the Chinese culture it comes from.
As an example, Total Immersion Swim embraces “kaizen“, the Japanese notion of continual growth and improvement, the perpetual pursuit of excellence. Kaizen recognizes the potential “carry-over” phenomenon I described above in my experience of T’aio Chi and Taoism: Devoting oneself to excellence in a particular practice leads to excellence in many elements of one’s life.
This carry-over can only occur through the cultivation of humility and curiosity that primes our perceptive potential.
Rather than promoting and teaching a limited, narrowly-defined technical program to all its clients, a functional technique program should educate the athlete in a variety of technique options for a variety of specific conditions, all soundly based on the underlying laws and principles.
The program must facilitate mindfulness through a relentless pursuit of excellence. With this mindfulness and perceptive capacity, the athlete is able to evaluate these options for the specific conditions and her/his current capacities. Mindfulness empowers the athlete to ever-evolve a unique optimal technique “package”.
It is not enough to learn specific motor skills; the proficient athlete must develop analytical kinetic intelligence.
There is no single perfect biomechanical technique for any sport. There is only the most efficient and economical technique for the present moment, given the present conditions (both external and internal). Endurance often calls for variety - the capacity to change movement patterns and preserve neuromuscular function.
As we age athletically, we can expect to lose aerobic capacity and muscle mass; but we can continue to refine our technique, our kinetic intelligence, and our approach to sports. Wisdom certainly does have its place in endurance sports.
While the motivation and ambition is left to each athlete, a quality technique program should facilitate athletes in a long-term pursuit of excellence and wisdom through mindfulness. This can be done “quietly” and it can be done through community. As an example, Total Immersion Swim hosts a lively and active online discussion forum that has been instrumental in the growth and evolution of swim technique.
Great technique programs honor and recognize the necessity and vitality of growth and evolution. Like the athletes themselves, technique program administrators must preserve a sense of humility and curiosity. They must passionately strive to refine and evolve, even if this temporarily tarnishes their image.
Obviously an effective technique program should improve the athlete’s performance - given that the athlete invests the necessary time, energy and attention. Through a great technique program, the athlete discovers a passionate and lively approach that s/he implements in her/his life beyond the world of sport.
In my experience, there is tremendous liberation in the discovery that we don’t have to be “grown-up” or live “past-tense” just because we’re beyond 21 years of age.
A significant element that fuels the current growth of triathlon is the discovery of this liberation from “I was“ to “I am“ and “I am will be“. I don’t think it’s coincidental that we discover this through the three most basic forms of childhood recreation - swimming, biking and running.
It’s amazing what a little humility and curiosity will do for us. They sure worked miracles in childhood.
The best technique programs and methods are those committed to the relentless pursuit of excellence.
Originally published in Hammer Nutrition Endurance News, Issue 061, January 2009