How my health informs my coaching

In many ways, my health crisis and deepened understanding of how a body thrives have reinforced the concepts I have always built my coaching philosophy on:

1) Adaptation is the goal

2) The body has enormous wisdom

3) Training and lifestyle must be cohesive in order to be fun.

Long before my experience with dysautonomia, I knew one of the biggest components of my job was actually reeling in athletes who wanted to train too hard all the time. The athletes who come to me wanting coaching don’t lack motivation: they all have copious enthusiasm for their sport. In general, it’s my job to help these athletes balance the right type of stimulus with sufficient rest to produce the adaptation they want.

My health crisis has only made me more fanatical on these points.

As a young athlete, I had the benefit of working with a coach (who also happened to be my dad,) who stressed the importance of enjoying the process (meaning it’s not about the results, it’s about every single day that leads up to a result.) I was rarely exposed to coaches who demanded that I work harder. Many young athletes don’t have those advantages.

Yet I still internalized the pressure to always do more than I was doing. I believed ardently for over a decade that more training was always better, and always the goal. Though I truly did enjoy the process, I saw poor performances as punishment for not having done the process “right.” I laid on extra punishment in the form of restricting my eating, pushing harder in training, and endlessly criticizing my own performance.

So many athletes are the same way.

A vast majority of the athletes I coach or otherwise interact with think training optimally means being able to put the “right” numbers in their log. It’s as if we athletes think there is a correct series of workouts, and if we do them all, the body magically becomes stronger and faster. We don’t understand the extremely simple physiologic process by which we build fitness:

Stimulus + Recovery = Adaptation

Many athletes look at the training plan I write for them and think their goal is to do all the workouts exactly as I have written them.

But that shouldn’t be the goal. I tell my athletes all the time,

“Your body doesn’t know or care what you write down in your log.”

Nor does the body know or care what was on the training schedule. It only knows the stress you apply, and the recovery resources it receives. As a coach, I combine my understanding of:

  • The athlete’s personal history of training response and performance
  • The athlete’s lifestyle
  • Physiology

to guess what workouts are going to prompt maximal adaptation in the desired direction. Coaching is a constant process of learning about the athlete’s body, just as training is a continual process of learning about oneself. So yes, I write down a few weeks worth of workouts. But it’s a guide, not set in stone. We need to continually pay attention to how the athlete responds to the workouts I have prescribed, and adjust the plan to continue directing the athlete toward adaptation.

I emphasize to my athletes that training is incredibly simple: exercise is a stress on the body. A healthy body adapts to stress by getting stronger, assuming relief from the stress is provided at the right time, and sufficient resources are available to support growth. As a coach, I help athletes: apply the correct training stimulus, achieve proper recovery, and asses whether they have adapted optimally from the stimulus.

Step 1: Ensure proper resources are available (nutrition, sleep, emotional/mental safety, etc.)

Step 2: Apply a stress

Step 3: Rest, and utilize recovery resources

Step 4: Assess recovery and adaptation

Step 5:

a) If body has adapted, repeat steps 2-4.

b) If it has not, repeat steps 3-4.

Step 6: Learn your patterns, reduce your guesswork

So many athletes skip step 4 and go straight to 5a. Some skip step 3 and 4, and go straight to 5a. Athletes who underestimate the need for recovery get tired, and at best, plateau. Many will suffer “burn out,” and leave the sport entirely. Many will get injured. Some will get sick. Some will get so sick that after three years of rest they still aren’t well enough to adapt to training.

Once an athlete has learned to effectively and consistently apply steps 3 and 4, they move onto the critical step 5: taking the correct action based on the body’s adaptation. I can’t tell you how many times an athlete has come to me and said, “I rested, but I still feel really flat. I think I need to train more.” WRONG. This athlete has not rested sufficiently, and they know it because they are still tired, but they still think the solution is to train more!

In these circumstances, my coaching brain explodes, but my athlete brain empathizes. We athletes seem to be programmed (by internal and external forces) to think that underperformance necessitates more training. While this can be true, a lot of times it’s exactly the opposite of the truth.

My job is to help athletes tell the difference.

If these ideas speak to you, you might enjoy this article I wrote for Far West’s Nordic News, on the subject of why recovery matters and how to do it right.