My head was full of noise. Things going on at home and at work meant i was somewhat distracted from the epic bike ride I was about to undertake. Instead of anticipating the beautiful off-road climbs through the Italian and French Alps, I wanted to go home. I could not focus properly. It was only the supportive and encouraging comments from my wife that meant I turned for the exit of the airport rather than the check in desks. The first 24 hours of the ride were a torrid affair. I could not find my rhythm. I found myself at 2400m at midnight on some remote Italian pass trying to set up a bivouac. I was too cold, too tired and made a mess of it. 90 minutes later I abandoned attempts at sleep, packed up and rolled off the hillside. In the valley floor, waves of fatigue washed over me and I crawled into the woods to find somewhere to lie down and sleep. I could not have felt any lower. Some sleep, some food and some daylight later and I had reframed my situation. I had cut myself some slack, backed off the pressure to try and go as fast as possible and instead settled into enjoying the views. By evening my mojo had returned and after some great conversations with people at home, a better nights rest, I awoke at 3am and was back into race mode. From then on I never looked back, but the roller coaster of emotions over the 48 hours had me searching long and hard to make sense of what had happened.
There is a growing recognition that in order to achieve high levels of performance we need to think in whole system terms. By this, I mean the social, psychological and physical factors that can affect performance. In a superb article by John Kiely, he challenges conventional thinking about stress and periodization theory (the commonly accepted theory of how training plans for athletes should be devised). He draws on the growing understanding of how stress affects performance. It makes for a compelling read. Some of the stand-out lessons for me are:
He points out that our emotional response to events can affect our physical ability. In my case, the ‘noise’ in my head from events prior to the ride were deleteriously affecting my ability to perform. The implication is that it is critical to get into the right emotional state in order to perform at one’s best. But perhaps more than that, is knowing how to return to the optimum state when, for whatever reason one has left it. Unless I learn to better manage the emotional response to stressors I will run a higher risk of injury, reduced performance, burnout, chronic fatigue and a reduced immune response. The first 48 hours of the Alpine ride were a salutary reminder of this lesson.
Secondly, as a cyclist, the numbers that dominate my life are power, training stress score, chronic training load, fatigue and form scores. But this may be provide an illusion of progress. In essence, all the measures arise from one limb moving in circles – my left leg. It is this leg which pushes the crank in which strain gauges measure my power output from which all the numbers are derived. Whilst helpful determinants of fitness, they in no way take into account all the other factors involved in ultra endurance off-road riding. For example, the challenges of, managing navigation, sleep deprivation, changes in weather (from snow to hot sunshine), nutrition, drinks, electrolytes and keeping the bike going to name but a few. How do you quantify the training stress of managing appalling weather? By illustration, I was riding in a horrendous snow storm on a training ride my way to and from Paris the other day and finding a route that was rideable in the dark of the night in a bitterly cold wind with snow driving into my face was draining. But as far as my power output showed, it was a gentle recovery level of effort. The metrics did not reflect the emotion.
The world of performance in sport and business is obsessed by metrics – with good reason – There is nothing quite like number to portray performance in stark terms. But we should always remember it sits within a context. Just as the sales person who blows apart their target may on the face of it be impressive performance, it may be less so when set in the context of a shift in market conditions that means the sales of everyone in the industry improved. Seen in these terms, the improvement may in fact be underperformance when compared to what others have achieved. In the same way, we should view the performance of the individual in the context of the other stressors in their life, be they an athlete or an office worker. Simply turning up for work may be exceptional for the person going through a messy divorce or who has a relative with a terminal illness. A modest power output on a training ride may be deeply impressive when taking into account the terrain and conditions.You might not be able to quantify the impact of these stressors, but that does not make it any the less real or important.
What Kiely goes on to demonstrate is that as with most other factors, our ability to respond and cope with stressors varies from one individual to another. In just the same way as my training partner disappears out of sight when we ride long climbs together – because he is, quite simply, a more gifted a cyclist, so to does he struggle to cope with the volume of training I can deal with – because I appear to be more resilient than him. In training, as in most things in life, we are all different.
What I learnt from John Kiely was to look at the performance in the round, at all the contributory factors and place as much value on the narrative as on the numbers. Secondly to avoid a comparison with others, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. You can do it, but it’s largely pointless.
Kiely, J. (2017) Periodization Theory: Confronting an Inconvenient Truth Sports Med https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs40279-017-0823-y