In a recent blog post I mentioned that highly successful endurance athletes have a “whatever works” mindset. Today I’d like to expand on this concept and contrast it with a phenomenon that I call means attachment, which is common among less successful athletes.
As the name suggests, means attachment entails becoming attached to particular means of achieving goals or outcomes. An athlete who tends toward means attachment wants certain chosen methods to work and is resistant to abandoning them in the face of evidence that they don’t work. For example, an athlete might decide he wants a low-volume, high-intensity training approach to prepare him optimally for races and will stick with this approach despite repeatedly hitting the wall far short of the finish line. Or an athlete might decide he wants a low-carb diet to increase his endurance by boosting his fat-burning capacity and will stick with it despite consistently feeling sluggish during workouts and recovering slowly between them.
In its essence, means attachment is a form of mental laziness. It stems from a natural desire to discover what works and then be done with it, trusting the chosen means to deliver the desired results without any need to evaluate, learn, and adapt. It takes less mental energy to pursue athletic goals through means attachment than through a “whatever works” approach. That’s its advantage. Its disadvantage is that is it doesn’t deliver results as effectively as the “whatever works” approach.
The most insidious manifestations of means attachment are weddedness to plans and the so-called hard work security blanket. The former entails resisting deviating from one’s training plan despite clear indications that a deviation is in order. The hard work security blanket is a tendency to regard and treat workouts as the only factors affecting fitness and performance, hence to prioritize them above rest, sleep, life balance, etcetera. The classic scenario entails the emergence of pain during a critical period of training. Athletes who carry a hard work security blanket and are prone to training plan weddedness are unlikely to do the prudent thing in these scenarios, attempting to train through the niggle instead of training around it, often with disastrous consequences. Raise your hand if you’ve ever done something like this. Thought so.
At the recent 80/20 Endurance Endeavorun Austin Running Retreat I met an athlete who modeled the “whatever works” approach to dealing with this type of situation. That athlete was none other than Jessica Schnier, our current Coaches of Color Initiative coaching apprentice. Jessica was seven weeks away from her first 50-mile trail ultramarathon when she arrived in Austin and had a big weekend of training on the calendar. But during a speed workout with the group she developed pain in her right ankle. It wasn’t a show stopper, but experience and reason told Jessica it would be unwise to complete the next day’s scheduled 16-miler. So she didn’t.
Sounds so simple, right? But Jessica is human, and as obvious as it was to her what she needed to do, it still wasn’t easy to do it. The same impulse that persuades most athletes to go ahead and train through niggles tried to persuade Jessica to do the same, but she resisted it.
The morning after her self-imposed day off, I checked in with Jessica at breakfast. She said the ankle was feeling somewhat better and she planned to test it out with a bit of light jogging while moving from point to point of the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon racecourse, cheering on camp attendees who were competing. It would have been easy for her to get sucked into doing more, especially if the ankle felt good, but again she resisted. The weekend concluded with her having logged roughly two miles of the twenty-six that had been on her calendar.
One week after her niggle first announced itself, I checked in with Jessica again on the status of her ankle, this time via text message. Here’s her response: “It’s great! No issues on my runs this week so far.”
This is how the story usually ends when an athlete takes a “whatever works” approach to dealing with a pain experience in training. There’s no way to know what would have happened if she had instead expressed means attachment by training through the niggle more aggressively, but it’s very likely she would have ultimately been forced to miss more training than she voluntarily forfeited in Austin.
If taking a “whatever works” approach were easy, everyone would do it. But although it isn’t easy, it is simple. All it requires is that you listen to your inner voice of reason when making decisions such as whether to training through a niggle. We all have this voice. Give yours the deciding vote when making your next important athletic decision.