Unslumping

by Colin Sandberg, photos by Marco Quezada

Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.
I’’m sorry to say so
but, sadly, it’s true
that Bang-ups and Hang-ups
can happen to you.
— Dr. Suess

We all have bad days. Days when the legs just aren’t there. Days when we can’t seem to catch a break. When it seems like every driver on the road wants to kill us. Days when it seems like we pick all the wrong lines. Races where we make all the breaks except the one that sticks.

Being a competitor and, in a broader sense, a human being, means that we have bad days. Hopefully most of us accept this. If we don’t, we’re either extremely lucky or extremely disappointed. One of the biggest misconceptions athletes have is that being successful means being as close to perfect as possible. Perfect training. Perfect recovery. Perfect nutrition. Perfect tactics. The truth is quite different. Not only is perfection an impossible standard, those who aim for it often become too rigid in their thinking to adapt when necessary. Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” Trying to complete your training perfectly without consideration of fatigue, weather, illnesses, injuries and life balance inevitably leads to injury and/or burnout. Trying to execute a detailed tactical plan in a race without paying attention to how events unfold inevitably leads to missed opportunities. In other words, planning is important, but flexibility is more important. As a coach, I try to empower athletes to make smart decisions on the fly because I believe that responsiveness to changing conditions is one of the most important, if not the most important, keys to success.

Worlds

Sometimes, though, even the most flexible, most responsive among us get sucked into prolonged down periods. A bad day turns into a bad week. A bad week turns into a bad month. It may begin with a crash, an illness, a busy period at work, a crisis at home or a streak of bad weather and it may be prolonged by deteriorating fitness, low motivation, weight gain, bad habits or medical issues such as post-concussion symptoms, anemia, low testosterone, thyroid issues, lyme disease or depression.

You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will ly on.
You’ll be left in a Lurch.
You’ll come down from the Lurch
with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are, then,
that you’ll be in a Slump.
— Dr. Suess, cont’d.

Of course, the best way to deal with a slump is to avoid it in the first place. Or more precisely, to never have a “slump mentality”. A slump becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, if you tell yourself that you’ve just had some bad luck lately, when the next bit of bad luck happens, it’s just something bad that happens in the normal course of living your life. On the other hand, if you tell yourself that you’re in a slump, the next bit of bad luck that happens is just further evidence of your doomed fate. When it comes to self-examination, most of us are not very good at utilizing the scientific method and statistics. This, of course, is one of the biggest advantages to working with a coach. A good coach provides you with an objective viewpoint that helps you “see the forest from the trees”.

The trouble is… most athletes find communicating with their coach to be most difficult when things aren’t going well, even though, tragically, it is the most important time for frank and honest coach-athlete communication. The reason can be summed up in a word: guilt. Despite the fact that the athlete pays their coach for his or her advice and expertise, they often feel guilty when they are struggling to complete their training as written, even when the reasons are completely out of their control.

Since the beginning of time, gamblers have lost money because their wishes (and fears) override their common sense. If you flip a coin, there is a 50/50 chance that it lands on heads, even if it has landed on tails the last 20 flips. In other words, what has happened in the past does not predict the future. If you’ve lost a lot of money, it is not an indication that you’re going to keep losing money or that things are about to turn around. If a gambler keeps putting their chips on, say, number 23 at the roulette table and then hits, it’s easy to think that 23 is a hot number, or alternatively that 23 is unlikely to hit twice in a row when, in fact, neither is true. Athletes can be guilty of this sort of mentality too. If we learn to have a more objective outlook we approach each day, each workout and each race as a new beginning. We diligently work on everything within our control and do push out the guilt and fear about the things that we cannot control.

I’m afraid that some times
you’ll play lonely games too.
Games you can’t win
’cause you’ll play against you.
— Dr. Suess, cont’d

Unfortunately, when you’re in a slump there’s no way to know whether you’re at the beginning, the middle or the end of it. Often, by the time athletes realize they are in a slump, they have already been there for quite some time. Of course, the reverse is also true. By the time an athlete realizes that they are out of the slump, they have been out of it for quite some time. Being in or out of a slump is mostly about momentum. If things are going in a positive direction, it feels like you’re doing well even if your fitness is not very good by all objective measures. Likewise, if things are going in the wrong direction is feels like you’re in a slump even if all the numbers are good.

So if it’s all about momentum, the $64,000 question is “How do you change direction?” and in truth the answer is simple, though execution is difficult. To change direction, all you have to do is take one step forward in that direction. And then another. And then another. As the great Lao Tzu once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

Momentum is a powerful thing. The first step is often the most difficult, but it is made unnecessarily difficult because of the weight of self-doubt. It’s as if we place all the weight of all the steps we failed to take on that one first step, effectively paralyzing ourselves. Here, though it is important to see the forest from the trees, sometimes a tree is just a tree. We need to take it one day, or perhaps one hour, one minute or one second at a time. If we’re overly worried about our fitness being far below where we want it, being overweight, embarrassing ourselves at the first race or group ride (or on Strava or Zwift for that matter!), we will never take that first step. Therefore we must break the journey into manageable steps, however small they have to be. Get on the bike, and you’ve already done the most important thing. Ride for 20 minutes. If you feel good, make it an hour. If you still feel good, try to get through the first minute of your interval. If you feel OK, aim for the whole interval. You still feel good? Go for the second interval. And keep on going. Or maybe just call it a day and try again the next day, knowing that you succeeded in your training because you did something. The most important part of training; more important than what you do, how much you do and how hard you do it, is doing something. Everything else is just gravy.

But on you will go
though the weather be foul.
On you will go
though your enemies prowl.
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl.
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.
— Dr. Suess, cont’d

After you’ve taken the first step, the hardest part is done. Still, the journey is far from over and if you’re going to continue the momentum you must rely on the power of habit. Each day that you miss your training, it becomes a little easier to miss the next day of training and each day you do your training, it becomes harder to miss the next day. Users of Training Peaks will know the sense of accomplishment in seeing the whole week light up in green, signaling that all workouts were completed. Likewise, when a workout is missed, it’s easy to fall victim to what I call the “What the hell factor”, as in “Well, I’ve already had one donut and broken my diet, what the hell… I’ll just have another” or “Well, I’ve already missed one workout this week and failed at my training… what the hell. I’ll just miss another.”

Motivation is a key to taking that first step, but motivation is not an endless well. There is a logical, rational part of your brain that will tell you “I need to train well, recover well, and eat well to get stronger and I need to get stronger if I’m going to reach my goals and win races.” But there is also a feeling part of the brain that says “I’m tired, I want to sleep a little longer. I’m hungry, I want to eat those cookies. Intervals are hard, and I don’t feel like suffering today.” When training first resumes, the feeling brain’s voice may be drowned out by motivation. When the motivation well starts to dry up though, the feeling brain starts to take over.

Habit is a simple but powerful concept. There are pathways in the brain that, with heavy repetition, evolve into roads, then highways and, eventually, super-highways. This can happen with bad and good habits alike. If I eat 3 cookies, or drink 3 beers every day when I get home from work, it becomes a habit. While I might have begun those behaviors because I love the taste of cookies or cold beer, after a while I do them out of habit.

I have a friend who wakes up every morning at 3 AM, regardless of the season, and gets on his indoor trainer. I asked him about it once and I remarked that he must be really motivated to do that. He shrugged and said that that he tried training after work but he found he was always tired and distracted by work and family commitments, so he started doing his workouts early in the morning before everyone else was awake. At first it took all the motivation he could muster just to not hit the snooze button but over time he just started to hop out of bed, put his bib shorts on and hop on the trainer. It wasn’t that he suddenly stopped being tired and didn’t need sleep, it was just that he stopped thinking about it. He never gave his feeling brain a chance to have a say.

The road to your goals is not a straight one. It is not a road without setbacks or obstacles. Success does not mean avoiding all the obstacles, it means handling them with grace and not letting those setbacks define you. After all, even when you do reach and exceed your goals, the success doesn’t last forever. You need to go after it again and again. You will have bad days, weeks and months. You will have slumps. And unslumping yourself is not easily done, but it can be done. Just put one foot in front of the other.

Oh the Places You'll Go

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)
KID, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!
So… be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
you’re off to Great Places?
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So… get on your way!
— Dr. Suess, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”, copyright 1990 by Random House Children’s Books, Inc.


Colin SandbergColin Sandberg  is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. Thanks for reading!