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Training as Learning

I’ve been learning about learning lately. My teacher is Jake Tuber, who, when he’s not organizing and hosting Endeavorun athlete camps, is studying toward a doctoral degree in adult learning and leadership at Columbia University. At the recent Endeavorun camp in Boulder, I was impressed by the way Jake incorporated his knowledge of adult learning and team building into the experience. It resulted in deeper levels of self-reflection than occur at most other camps, such that many of us came away with a better understanding of where we are in our athletic journey, where we want to go, and what’s holding us back.

Jake’s thinking in this area is heavily influenced by Jack Mezirow, a giant in his field who designed the doctoral program Jake’s undertaking and who developed a model of adult learning known as transformative learning theory. In one of the many papers Jake has shared with me since becoming my unofficial tutor, Mezirow defines transformative learning as a “critical dimension of learning in adulthood that enables us to recognize and reassess the structure of assumptions and expectations which frame our thinking, feeling and acting.” In plain language, if you’ve ever found yourself saying something along the lines of, “I used to believe X, but then I experienced Y, and now I believe Z,” then you’ve experienced transformative learning.

Jake believes that endurance coaches should operate as guides to transformative learning, and I’m persuaded he’s right. Another paper he shared with me is a PhD thesis written by Timothy Gillum of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who tracked the learning experiences of four runners as they trained for and completed a marathon. Gillum found that “the participants’ learning included more than accomplishing their pre-determined goals. The participants challenged at least one of their existing paradigms that included how they viewed themselves as runners, spouses, friends, and parents. This challenge was triggered with a disorienting event and subsequent self-reflection and conscious choice to accept the learning.”

Amby Burfoot said it well: “As we run, we become.” Or at least we have opportunities to become. The role of the coach is to help athletes recognize emerging opportunities to challenge and revise their assumptions about who they are and how things are. More broadly, the coach bears the responsibility of coaxing athletes toward seeing their athletic growth as intertwined with personal growth. Competitive athletes in particular may tend to think of the pursuit of personal growth through sport as an alternative to chasing competitive ambitions, but in fact they go hand in hand. Athletes develop most athletically when they consciously use sport to become better versions of themselves.

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Admittedly, a person can have only so many epiphanies. Yet I believe that training as learning operates at a more quotidian level as well. There’s a sense in which every single workout an athlete does can be seen as a learning session. From this perspective, an athlete doesn’t train for a successful Ironman finish or a sub-three-hour marathon but rather learns how to finish an Ironman or run a sub-three-hour marathon. Simply stated, the process we normally describe as physiological adaptation can be recast as somatic learning. The changes the body undergoes in response to training are its way of learning how to do more effectively what you’re asking it to do.

More than a matter of semantics, this redefinition of training has important practical implications. First, it ties together everything an athletes does toward the end of achieving their competitive goals into a cohesive whole. Training is only one of several elements of race preparation. Others include diet, recovery, injury prevention, and mental training. From a training-as-learning perspective, all of these elements—including training itself—are paths of learning, similar to the different classes a student might take toward earning her medical degree. An athlete who embraces this perspective is likely to invest greater effort in each of them because they are all equally part of the same mission.

Another important difference between the traditional view of training and the training-as-learning perspective is that training is outcome-focused, learning process-focused. When training is merely training, then in a very real sense it has served no purpose if the athlete falls short of his goal on race day. But when training is learning, then mastery is the goal and the athlete is achieving his goal continuously as long as he is learning, hence moving toward mastery. It’s all about winning the process, an orientation that is proven to yield greater improvement and better outcomes.

I’m happy to have a whole new area of knowledge opening up to me at age fifty, and eager to see how it moves me closer to mastery in my coaching work. I hope you’re among the athletes who benefits from these intellectual adventures in the months and years to come.