Relationships define your world. The funny thing is if you attend any conference on coaching or read any article about how to be fast, the emphasis is always on something physiological:
- Do this workout; periodize your year this way.
- Eat this diet.
- Use this supplement.
- Use these tactics.
That’s all valid and useful, but that’s not the main limiter to most of whom I work with because I don’t coach professional athletes or Olympians with a myopic focus on training and racing. With that throat qualifier out of the way, I don’t think they’re exempt. As a keen observer of several endurance sports over more than a decade, you’d be surprised how many high-profile professional athletes stop competing or find that they’ve lost the drive to carry on because of their ability to balance sport and relationships sustainably. If their life outside sport sucks, it shows up in the race. No matter who you are, the quality, amount, and happiness in your relationships aren’t separable from what you can do in races.
So why don’t we talk about it? Well, sometimes we do, but glibly. We say ‘Thanks those who support you’ or ‘make time for everyone in your support network.’ Thanks, that’s super helpful.
The actual resistance is that most coaches don’t consider that part of their job, so they ‘stay in their lane.’ I think most athletes don’t consider it because their sport takes so much focus that their vision tends to narrow, and they fall into habits and expectations that end up cratering their lives far before they realize it’s happening.
So, let’s talk about it. Here’s a statement you’re welcome to argue with, but I stand by – your relationships are more important than your accomplishments in sport. I don’t care if you have a VO2 max of 500 and you win every gravel race AND the Tour de France for the next 20 years – at the end of the day, love for what you do rings hollow – those closest to you love you for who you are. Assuming my hypothetical is plausible, you could probably enjoy many, many years of external validation that would make you feel like a God, unmoored from the usual constraints of reality, and live a life people only dream of.
But even in the unreality of this example, the party always ends. You’d get older. You would no longer win. And, to borrow a brilliant line from Ted (the teddy bear movie, not Ted Lasso)
The narrator in Ted actually got that wrong – the people that truly care about you give a damn. But the chances are that when you were loved by all for superficial reasons, the fame got to you, your virtues loosened, and you treated those who actually love you as dispensable because you could. You were a dick because you thought you could get away with it, but eventually, you’re not Joe Twenty Time tour winner. You’re just an old man hanging on to past glories trying to reprise memories the collective increasingly forget.
I’ll break it to you – this isn’t hypothetical. The most straightforward example is Jan Ullrich. He was one of the most talented cyclists ever and won his first Tour de France almost by mistake. If it weren’t for Lance Armstrong, there’s every reason to believe he would have won five or more. What is Jan’s life now?
He’s a recovering addict. He’s alienated everyone who ever loved him and entered into a free fall he barely arrested, just short of overdose. Yes, he’s doing better. Yes, he’s recovering, but consider the arc of his life, the stratospheric highs, and the near cliché culmination of him getting filmed by paparazzi exiting a hotel smoking three cigarettes at once reeking of alcohol.
So, even at the extreme end of accomplishments, no matter how hard you can push the pedals, no matter what you accomplish, the bike isn’t enough, not in the long term – there’s more to life.
But forget Jan. Many, many cyclists I know of lesser accomplishments or potential don’t get that. They bend everything to some imaginary height that will redeem themselves, and they’re blind or indifferent to the cost to their relationships and eventually their happiness.
I know you came here for performance tips and relationships, so I’ll say this a bit in reverse – your performance varies directly with the quality of your relationships. But here’s the catch, if you try to make your relationships better only to improve your performance, you’re missing the point. No one, probably not even you, will remember who won that local race 15 years later. But your wife will remember how you were there for her when she needed you. Your kids will remember when you stayed up late reading to them even though you were tired. Your friends will remember when you showed up. Your parents will remember when you called.
So before you click the buy button on that race you’ve always wanted to do that entails 20 hours of training on average for the next 16 weeks, step back and ask yourself, ‘How do I make everyone I care about feel?”
If your answer to that is “I don’t know” or ‘Probably not great, don’t buy the race entry. You’re already screwed. Even if you win that race, you’ve lost because your priorities are messed up. Even if they say they support you, even if you get to do those rides, you know in your gut whether you really have this time or if you’re borrowing time. There’s nothing worse than riding on borrowed time because no matter what you do, no matter if you start going up climbs faster than a motorbike, that doesn’t matter at all to the people that love you that you’re taking from.
Cycling is taking. Cycling has a bottomless appetite. The faster you get, the more it asks, so realize that whatever race you decide to do, the first thing you should think about is how it’ll affect the relationships that mean the most to you.
From now on, I’m going to jump away from the general and go into a specific topic pertinent to most of my clients – your spouse or partner.
The first thing you need to support your cycling habit is frequent, open, and honest communication with your partner. Those are not discrete checkboxes. They are not goals. They are not something you do once and forget about. Communication around what you’re trying to do, what it demands in time, finances, and priority in relation to the health of your relationship is a habit, not a goal. Yes, that means it never ends.
It will start out rough, and if you’re like most people, the pressure of what you’re striving toward may trigger conversations you’ve been able to avoid previously. It will feel like stress because it is, but it will also be an opportunity to deepen your relationship, to define and act on everything that both of you want, need, and are striving toward.
The first thing to know about these conversations is that you can’t take your partner’s responses at face value. It’s unlikely that your relationship has ever gone through something that places such stress on time, finances, and priority that isn’t directly about what you do together, so there’s every chance that your partner will, out of love, say they support you.
This is where you watch them. I don’t mean to see if they’re lying. They definitely are because it’s unlikely they can conceive of the commitment your ambitions entail. After all, you probably don’t. Your job in this conversation is twofold: clearly elucidate what you want to do and why and then get outside yourself and try to see things from their perspective.
This is an evolving, ongoing process. You will make mistakes, and so will they. The best frame of mind here is to stop imagining their interest and your interests but imagine our interests. If your relationship was a third person in the room, how would you talk to them? How would you support the health of that collective individual? It’s strange, but thinking there’s a third person there represented as your relationship precludes a lot of defensiveness, egotism, and other pitfalls that lead to corrosive communication.
Your Partner's Needs
Next, attack your partner’s needs just as you do your training time. What do they need? Figure it out and fight for it. If, for example, you know that your partner needs that hot yoga class to feel human, make it happen. Take the kids, do the chores, schedule your workout around it, but make it happen. Your partner will be picking up your slack, so you get what you want. Doing the same consistently for them says more than anything you could ever say.
If you’ve managed to lay out what you want to do and what do you think it takes to the best of your abilities, the next most important topic is figuring out when and how you’re going to spend quality time together. Just like training, good relationships don’t just happen – you make a plan to connect, and freaking execute. It might not go well, but that’s not a knock on your relationship. You’ve just gotten closer to figuring out what works and what doesn’t by crossing something off the list. This is iterative. Eventually, you’ll find that training itself isn’t the thing that’s hurting your relationship. It’s that you’re spending too much unintentional low-quality time together.
Now we’ve arrived at expectations. Your training will take time, energy, and money. Be as honest as you can about what that entails and be aggressive in your estimates, especially in terms of time. For example, an average workout will probably take you 2 hours net. It’s no good to pretend it’ll take 90 minutes and show up late for something because you were too optimistic about the time demands. This concept extends to finances and energy as well. The financial implication is obvious, but something few talk about is energy. Your partner doesn’t want to hang out with your corpse. It’s not a great date night if you train so hard you can barely keep your eye open, and you have all the charisma of a piece of cardboard. Striking up a balance isn’t just the black and white of time and money but of who you are when you’re with them.
Finally, stop resenting compromise. Because you’re a human, not a robot, your training doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Yes, balancing training and relationships require give and take, and sometimes the taking will be from your workout. Maybe you could have done a five-hour ride, but because of some partner obligation, you had to cut it short to four hours. Are you bitter? Resentful?
If so, your bitterness can pound sand. If I put you in the perfect training environment for three months with the caveat that you couldn’t have any human contact, 99% of you would crack. That thing you want, no restrictions or compromises on your training, isn’t something you actually want. It’s just not, trust me.
With that, once you’re done with your training, the only acceptable response to ‘How did it go?” from your partner is ‘great.’ Your partner wants you to be happy, to feel alive. If they sacrifice for you and this incredible time suck activity makes you miserable AND takes time away from your relationships, then WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?
Sure, if you’re injured, sick, be honest – that’s different. But your partner could not give less of a shit that you were five watts low on the final interval of your five-hour ride while they paid the bills, mowed the lawn, or watched the kids. Smile. Say it was great, because it was great, because, against all odds, you found someone who loves you and fights for you to do something you care about even though, in the end, the only person it serves is you.
OK, are we square on philosophy? Because it’s time to pivot into the nitty-gritty actionable tactics you should employ in your relationships for success.
Before You Communicate
- What event(s) do you want to do?
- How much time does it take to train? No, really, how much time – including pre and post-workout logistics with room for error.
- How expensive is it?
- How will this change your (both of you) schedule?
It won’t do you or them a favor to show up to a conversation without answering these questions first. Really think them through.
- Strive to be open and honest, but realize that they (or you) may not be to start.
- Convey what you answered above.
- Remember, this is a negotiation, not a pronouncement. Your partner will/could react in any number of ways. Their feelings are their feelings.
- Ask them what they need and how you can support them.
- Schedule quality time on a regular cadence.
- Schedule time to talk about what you just covered again.
Above all, the success of your communication requires frequent, honest communication. Like training, this is something that improves the more you practice it. People fail to do this once and operate on the assumption that they don’t have to keep checking in, and then life moves underneath them. People change life changes. When it does, your old agreements are no longer valid. Frequent communication keeps those agreements current.
- How do you feel about my training, both good and bad?
- Regarding the bad stuff, how do you feel about these (insert the bad things) adjustments? Do you think they’ll make things better?
- Do you feel like I’m managing my training time well?
- Do you feel supported/enabled in what you want?
- Do you feel our quality time is actually quality? If not, how can we change that?
- Do you feel like I’m present with good energy when I’m with you?
Of course, feel free to add your own questions, but this is an excellent place to start.
Notice that all the questions use a very particular verb – feel. This is deliberate. Saying ‘think’ prompts the wrong emotional space – this isn’t analytic. Your relationship inhabits a feeling space, whether you think it does it or not. You’re not solving for reality; you’re solving for how your relationships feel, so your diction should match.
Frustratingly, you may find that their feelings don’t appear to match reality. You’re welcome to argue their emotions with logic, but if you win, you don’t really win because you’re just invalidating how they feel. It’s natural to get defensive here, but that’s rarely a path forward. It’s better to propose actions that might help your partner feel differently. You might think that this means making significant changes to your training schedule which has vast implications for how prepared you are, but often it’s much more straightforward. For example, maybe kissing them before you leave for training instead of sneaking out the door without a word makes them feel better. I know, I know, it sounds a little cringe-worthy, but little things like that can make all the difference in how training feels in your relationship.
- No one remembers what you do; they remember how you make them feel.
- No matter how good you are, relationships matter the most, not athletic accomplishments.
- The answer for ‘How was your ride?’ should almost always be a variation of ‘Great!’ unless you’re genuinely injured or sick. Otherwise, the answer is “Great!”. You got to ride – you don’t get to be a Debby Downer because your intervals weren’t perfect.
- Your relationship will sometimes require that you train less than you could. Let go of your resentment – you don’t have a life that’s only training and racing. You just don’t.
Taken together, remember to see things in perspective and be grateful. Realize that of all the people that have ever lived, few have ever had the time and money to put so much of themselves into something that doesn’t directly contribute to their family’s well-being or livelihood. You’re lucky, so don’t allow that luck to contort itself into ugly entitlement.