In my coaching practice, I demand that I talk to my athletes monthly. Often, and with some horror, I’ll find that they’ve entirely changed some aspect of their Life that has a direct bearing on their training and performance. And no, they don’t bother to tell me.

Why?

Because they’ve listened to a podcast, watched a youtube video, or seen an advertisement that convinced them to dramatically alter some element of their training without telling me about it.

Why?

Athletes want to improve as much as possible. Any product or methodology wrapped in marketing packaging promising blood-bag-level improvements is too much to resist. 

Sometimes these changes are good; sometimes, they’re bad. My real objection to an athlete making these changes (beyond the secrecy!) is that they’re not using a sound decision mechanism when they do.

Honestly, I don’t care what the particular change is. The end goal of any coach-athlete relationship is that the athlete has a collection of mechanisms to make the best decisions for themselves in training and racing.   

To that end, whenever an athlete evaluates the potential benefit of a training method or product, the most important decision mechanism is context, irrespective of the method or product’s intrinsic efficacy.

The utility of any training methodology or product to improve your performance is ALWAYS contextual.

Think about all the competing claims you see in endurance spaces. You read that going keto is the key, and the day after, you read that it is important to ingest at least 90g of carbohydrates per hour for peak performance. Next, you watch a video on the scientifically verified superiority of polarized training. Twenty minutes later, you hear about a gold medal olympian speed skater who only trains in Zone 2 for nine months out of the year.

How do you reconcile the claims? Do you pick the methodology or product with the best marketing, or do what your friends do?
Nope. You look down at your arm and see the brand new tattoo you got last week that says, CONTEXT, BITCH.’

To develop context, you need anchors or reference points that orient you in the world. Think of a compass. A compass is helpful because the arrow is designed to align with the magnetic North. With magnetic North as an anchor point, you can find the remaining cardinal directions and navigate wherever you want.

Your athletic compass has two anchor points: Impact and Biopsychosocial.

Impact

Impact means assessing how much a methodology or product can improve your performance. This anchor point is harder for athletes because it relies on the athlete understanding the fundamentals of exercise training theory. Since you no doubt have no plans to enroll in university for an expensive, low-paying degree, let me condense an entire major into one simple sentence: train and sleep a lot for a decade.

Training is a lot of things, but mostly it’s just boring work. The fundamental difference between the fitness you want and the fitness you have now isn’t your training intensity distribution philosophy or whether you use PR cream, it’s the amount of consistent, quality work you’re putting in. All the methodology and product voodoo might help you a little, but its importance is trivial compared to just doing the work over and over. 

Biopsychosocial

The second part of context is biopsychosocial. That’s a fancy term for your the biological, psychological, and social nature components of your Life. 

The biological part of your Life is the physical – age, gender, metabolism, immunity, build, etc. The psychological aspect of your Life is both the mental – thoughts, mindset, beliefs – and emotional – feelings, perceptions, etc. The social part of your Life is your relationships, finances, environment, culture, heritage, etc.

Biopsychosocial context matters as a contextual anchor point because evaluating the impact of a training method or performance is insufficient until you cross-reference it with your Life.

 

Example: Endurance Influencers

Let’s evaluate some examples to test out your athletic compass. Here are a few provocative tweets I’ve seen recently from a well-known coach Alan Couzens that shares fantastic content on Twitter.

So in these tweets, we see claims about training at the right intensity (which requires semi-frequent lactate testing) and lifestyle claims.

So what’s wrong with them? Where does he get it wrong?That’s the wrong question. Alan is probably right – he’s an exercise physiologist, knows the literature, has decades of experience, and has impressive data and technical ability to support his ideas. Remember, the point of your compass isn’t to determine the claim’s validity – that’s a separate set of skills – it’s to evaluate its applicability to your Life by using context.

So if we accept his claims, what are the implications?

Well, you’re going to have to get frequent lactate testing done. If you do it in a lab, that’s expensive in time and money. If you do it yourself, you’ll have to buy a lactate monitor and learn how to administer the protocol.

So, using context, how important is buying a lactate monitor? It could be important, but remember the point of purchasing and using one is to know your zones and measure your progress with precision. Why is that important? If you know your zones precisely, you can train more intelligently because you’ll know exactly how you’re stressing your physiology compared to relying on rough estimates from a zone calculator based on a threshold test. And why is that important? Because Couzens claims that most athletes train too hard and thus undermine their aerobic base, which is the foundation of performance in endurance sports. Sounds smart, right? I think it is!

HOWEVER, couldn’t you skip the expense and time commitment of lactate testing by performing a threshold test, using a zone calculator to find zone 2, and then training a little easier than the zone suggests? Wouldn’t that be roughly the same outcome without spending hundreds of dollars and lots of time to do the same thing? Worth thinking about.

OK, what about the Life tweet? You don’t have to process every tweet on his lifestyle thread to understand that he has a lifestyle philosophy underneath Alan’s claims about training. There’s nothing wrong with that, but again, consider the claim in relation to your Life.

In effect, Alan’s saying that to truly realize your potential in triathlon (which we could expand to every endurance sport), you need to examine and potentially change every aspect of your Life so you can train optimally.

Alan’s claim is inarguably Impactful. If your Life is set up to facilitate the best training, you will be able to Do the work. No argument there. 

So, are you ready to take his recommendation? Hold up – you haven’t contextualized the claim to your Life. Even if he’s right, is it right for you? What does your Life look like? What are your job, family, friend, partner, and community commitments? Are you willing to deprioritize everything in your Life so you’re faster?

For most people, the answer is no. Reordering your entire Life to privilege crossing the line faster in a given endurance discipline isn’t worth it.

That took us a while, but are you seeing the utility of context? As we saw, Alan is probably absolutely correct about using a lactate monitor and reordering your Life to reach your athletic potential, but it doesn’t matter because, given most athletes’ Lives, his advice isn’t applicable.

Example: Glucose Monitor

One final example. Perhaps you’ve heard of professional athletes adopting continuous blood glucose monitors to see the effects of different intensities on their blood sugar, allowing them to individualize their fueling to support their efforts.

Holy hell, right? That’s something. If you knew exactly what your efforts demanded, you could tweak your fueling strategy before, during, and after training and racing for optimal performance. You better get your name on the waitlist…

But wait, before you hit the buy button, how important is this? Well, fueling correctly is critical for both performance and recovery, so if you could customize this precisely to your training load and individual needs, that would probably dramatically improve your performance, no question. Did that purchase button get more enticing?

OK, what does Life have to say? Well, the thing about a continuous blood glucose monitor is that it’s a continuous blood glucose monitor. Do you even know what glucose is? Are you ready to have one attached to you every day? Are you prepared to study the device and theory and analyze the data? If you have, are you prepared to work through the bugs and unknowns of the science and carefully adjust your nutrition to find the optimal fueling strategy? Do you even have the time or desire to do all this?

Maybe you do. Or maybe, after briefly glancing at the literature, you realize that for most people, 90g of carbohydrates per hour during intense exercise is roughly the upper limit for most people to absorb carbohydrates. With some napkin math, you discover that that’s about the equivalent of three energy gels per hour every hour of sustained, hard endurance training or racing. How do you fuel yourself on the ride now? You eat nothing until you feel like you’re going to bonk. Also, you ride your bike because it’s fun, and you already work on spreadsheets for a living and don’t want to spend your weekend pouring over carbohydrate calculations.

It looks like the glucose monitor just got removed from your shopping cart.

So...

Before you surprise me, your coach, or yourself by suddenly adopting a methodology or product that promises you the same performance improvements as getting a heart transplant from Wout Van Aert, STOP AND CHECK THE CONTEXT!

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