blog post 93

The Ultimate Athlete Superpower

If you could choose one athletic superpower to exploit in your future training and racing, what would it be? Here’s the rule: Your superpower has to be a natural human trait that actually exists in some athletes, not a magical attribute like Pogo Feet or Turbo Mode. Potent, yet real.

If I were I to collect a hundred answers to this question from everyday athletes like you, I would be surprised if a plurality didn’t choose toughness (or resilience or grit) as their superpower. That’s not a bad pick. Toughness is very useful in endurance sports. But as a coach, I believe there’s another trait that is even more useful as an athletic superpower: restraint.

Surprised? That’s understandable. But give me a chance to explain what restraint can do for an endurance athlete, after which, I’m confident, you’ll agree that it is the best superpower one could possibly have. First, though, let’s talk about two other traits that are highly useful to endurance athletes: motivation and judgment.

Motivation is critically important in both training and racing. To achieve maximal performance in competition, athletes must attain maximal fitness in training, which requires that they put in large volumes of work with great consistency, which in turn demands a very high level of motivation. In a 1987 interview, six-time Ironman world champion Dave Scott said, “I had this idea that if I trained more than anyone else, I was bound to succeed.” It’s one thing to have this idea, quite another to execute on it. Dave was able to because he had an unmatched desire to train.

In races, motivation contributes directly to performance. According to Samuele Marcora’s psychobiological model of endurance performance, endurance performance is limited not by physiological factors such as lactate buildup, which merely constrain performance, but by psychology. A 2010 overview of the theory describes it as follows:
The Psychobiological model is based on the Brehm’s Motivational Intensity Theory, which consists of two main constructs: potential motivation and motivation intensity. Potential motivation refers to the maximum effort a person is willing to exert to satisfy a motive (e.g., to succeed in the exercise task), while motivation intensity is the amount of effort that people actually expend. The Brehm’s Motivational Intensity Theory postulates that individuals will engage in a task (i.e., exert effort) as long as: a) the level of potential motivation is not reached; or b) the task is still viewed as possible. If the former is reached or the task is perceived as impossible, individuals should disengage from the task. In the light of the Psychobiological model, the point of exhaustion during exercise is a form of task disengagement, in which individuals will exercise until a) the perception of effort raises to the critical level set by the potential motivation; or b) believe to be physically unable to maintain the task. In the latter case, they believed to have exerted a true maximal effort, and the continuation of exercise is perceived as impossible.

As you see, motivation is the lynchpin of this particular model of endurance performance, which has received a lot of experimental validation since it was introduced. For example, a 2020 study led by Ian Taylor of Loughborough University found that, within a group of forty athletes, those who scored higher on a measure of autonomous motivation reported “lower temptation to reduce effort and higher value of goal pursuit” in a 10-minute cycling task and also performed better in that task. When the limit is psychological, psychology moves the limit.

There’s less research on the influence of judgment on outcomes in endurance sports, but do we really need it? I see it every day in my work as a coach. The majority of recreational endurance athletes self-limit in various ways as a consequence of imperfect judgment. They spend too much time training at moderate intensity, don’t vary their workouts adequately, race too often, put little thought into their training plan selection, blow their pacing in workouts, fail to modify their training appropriately based on how their body has responded to completed training, follow fad diets instead of eating like the elites, the list goes on. True, some of these bad decisions can be attributed to naivete, but others continue to be made even when athletes know better and therefore must be attributed to poor judgment. Athletes who possess or develop good judgment learn to avoid such mistakes, and they benefit tremendously as a result. It really pays to have good judgment as an endurance athlete.

The reason restraint trumps both judgment and motivation as an athletic superpower is that it essentially combines these two things. By definition, restraint is a conscious act of resisting an impulse, and an impulse, by definition, is a motivated desire to perform a specific action. Without motivation, therefore, there is no need to exercise restraint. Nor is there a need to exercise restraint when a particular impulse is judged to be consistent with a person’s larger objectives. Only when an impulse contradicts such objectives—as when a person who’s sworn off alcohol feels an impulse to have a glass of wine—is restraint called for.

So you see, an athlete must be both motivated and capable of making good decisions to exercise restraint. This makes restraint a superior virtue to motivation alone, which often results in foolish risks, and judgment alone, which is of as little use as a steering while without an engine.

I will illustrate the rewards of exercising restraint and the consequences of failing to do so with a pair of excerpts from my book On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race At Your Real Limit. First the consequences:

Professional triathlete Jesse Thomas came into the 2016 Ironman World Championship with a solid plan. On the basis of prior experience at the Ironman distance as well as recent training performance, he had identified a power target that he intended to sustain throughout the bike leg. A strong runner (he’d won state championships in track and cross country in high school and earned All-American status in the same sports at Stanford University), Thomas needed to ride hard enough to avoid giving up too much ground to the competition but not so hard that his legs had nothing left for the marathon, and his power target struck this balance.

It was a sound plan. But when he got out onto the bike course and found himself being left behind by uber-cyclists Sebastian Kienle and Michael Weiss, Thomas cast aside his pre-race strategy and gave chase. Upon reaching the 60-mile mark in the hilltop village of Hawaii, Thomas discovered that his average power output up to that point exceeded not just the target he’d set but also his average power in a recent race of half the distance, Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz.

“And then I just completely crumbled,” Thomas told a reporter for Triathlete after his disappointing 16th-place finish. “It was a long, long, long day.”

Now the rewards:

An historical counterpoint to Jesse Thomas’s long, long, long day at the 2016 Ironman World Championship was Mark Allen’s performance at the same event nineteen years earlier. It was Allen’s swan song as a professional triathlete, a do-or-die attempt to match his former rival Dave Scott’s record six world titles at age thirty-seven. Cycling power meters did exist back then, so Allen’s plan for the bike leg was to keep his heart rate at or below 150 beats per minute, a number that, like Thomas’s wattage target, he’d arrived at through experience. In the early miles, Allen lost his lead to a pair of younger Germans, the strongest of whom, Thomas “Hell on Wheels” Hellriegel, eventually built a seemingly insurmountable advantage of 13:31 over the five-time champion. But Allen didn’t fall so far behind because he couldn’t go faster. Rather, he lost ground because he chose not to go faster, knowing that sticking to his plan gave him the best chance of winning, regardless of what anyone else did. Resisting the temptation to push harder wasn’t easy, but Allen’s Ulysses-like discipline was rewarded when an overcooked Hellriegel cracked during the marathon and Allen slid past him and into history.

I love seeing the athletes I coach exercise restraint, and love it even more when they do so in situations where they previously wouldn’t have, demonstrating growth in this area. Recently a runner I coach sent me a message through TrainingPeaks letting me know he was feeling tempted to turn the easy 2-hour run on the calendar that day into a long tempo run and seeking my input—thumbs up or thumbs down. I replied with an emphatic thumbs down, but by then my athlete had already set out on the run. Afterward, he reported to me that he had made his own decision to restrain himself, completing the session as planned instead of running hard. I praised him fulsomely for his restraint, for I have found that rewarding restraint encourages it. If you’re self-coached, be sure to give yourself a pat on the back when you exercise restraint. Over time, such positive reinforcement will make restraint your athletic superpower.

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