Fear of Stepping off the Path

Last week I got an ankle injury. The sensible thing would have been to swap my longest ever training week with following week’s planned rest week. But I didn’t swap – I pushed on and tried to complete the big week as planned. When I was asked “Why not swap?”, I didn’t know… and it troubled me. So I thought some more… and I still didn’t know!?!

Was it the excitement of the big week – I didn’t want to miss out? Was it pride – I didn’t want to pike on my hardest week of training? Or was it fear – fear that postponing this week would be the beginning of the end for my Ironman training. I suspect it is the latter.

I’m self-coached (well, coach-less really) and using a 20 week training plan I downloaded from the Internet. This 20 week plan is my path to Ironman success. I believe that if I follow this plan, I will have sufficient fitness to complete my Ironman, and hopefully meet my time goal of sub 13 hours.

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Training for an Ironman is a daunting task. I like the mantra that I should do something that challenges me every day. By taking on this Ironman I’ve set myself up for 20 weeks of challenging days. 20 weeks where I feel that I’m improving myself. 20 weeks that I feel better about myself. 20 good weeks.

Then I bugger my ankle.

It’s the start of my longest week of training so far – 16.5 hours. That’s pretty close to the biggest week I’ll do in my Ironman training. So I take the Monday off training and go see the physio. It’s a bit sore but not too bad – but I’m being cautious here as I don’t want a 12 month ankle debacle like I’ve had with the calf. So I go to the physio.

The physio does his tests. “Wiggle this way, wiggle that way. Stand like this. Push against that.” He’s optimistic. “Inflamed tendons. Too many hills” He straps it up. “Try your ride tomorrow. No hills. We’ll see how it goes before your run.” He’s a triathlete himself. He understands. I need to keep training.

My ride goes well. So I do my run. My run goes well too. The next day I try to swim. Not so good – kicking is out. Arms only. I cut my swim short. I’m feeling fatigued. I feel weak on the bike. Is this fatigue my body’s reaction to the injury or a natural part of doing Ironman training? Is it important that I learn to deal with this kind of fatigue? Is it part of the Ironman learning process? I don’t know.

I contemplate changing my training plan – make this week easier and then do my hard week the next week. I don’t make the change. I push on to complete the hard week. Why!?

If I had a coach, he would have told me to scale it back this week. The injury is my body telling me it needs a rest. The fatigue reinforces that. Recover from the injury and then push again. There is no point aggravating the injury – it could jeopardise the whole thing. If my coach told me to take it easy this week, I would have. Happily. Because I would have still been following the path.

When you have a coach, you have a dynamic training plan. You don’t have 20 weeks written in stone. Things can change from week to week. You don’t know exactly what’s coming. The coach is adjusting the plan based on how your training goes. What the coach tells you to do is the plan. You do what the coach says and you are on the path, the path to Ironman success. If the coach tells you to rest, then that is the path to Ironman success. No problemo.

This is the dilemma for the self-coached athlete. In particular, the inexperienced self-coached athlete (effectively an un-coached athlete). The 20 week plan is the path. If I modify the plan, I step off the path. If I’d done Ironman training before, I’d know that I’m capable of doing it. I’d know what feels OK and what feels wrong. I’d know how to modify the plan and still meets the goals.

But I’m inexperienced. The plan is the path. The fear is that once I’m off the path, I never get back on it.

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I can look back at a lot of the unachieved goals in my life and find a moment when I made a conscious decision to step off the path. Yes, there was always a genuine reason – a sick child or an injury or something else. But if you are doing things that challenge you, then there is always a little voice that is saying “This is not a good idea. This is too hard. Perhaps I don’t need to do this”. And that voice will happily embrace the excuse to step off the path – and make the decision to fail a lot easier for me.

Once off the path, it is ten times harder to get back on the path than it was to stay there in the first place. Once off the path, I struggle to get back on.

So last week, when the voice suggested that I “take an easier week this week and then next week pick the training back up again”, I recognised that voice. The little sucker was trying to get me to step off the path!

Sorry buddy, I can’t hear you “LAH, LAH, LA LAH LAH, my ears are blocked, have a nice day!” I ain’t stepping off the path!

The only problem is, this kind of obsessive training focus is going to get me in just as much trouble as a lack of motivation will. The successful self-coached athlete needs to know when to push and when to ease off. For some, that knowledge and ability might come naturally. For me, that knowledge will come with experience. Hopefully that will console me, as I stutter through the next few weeks of my training plan with a self-induced injury. I am learning yet another valuable lesson straight from the self-coached athletes manual – the manual where each page is written as you try something and get it wrong.

I’m learning how to step off the path, and make my own path!

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