To Make It Count, Flip the Switch

Some mornings when you wake, you can feel yourself leaving another you behind. Have you felt that lately?

Since it’s January, it’s my duty to remind everyone that at some point, you have to make it count.

You know that version of yourself you know you could be but aren’t that you swear you’ll get to three drinks in and loudly broadcast to all your friends? Well, it’s not just going to happen. At some point, you have to start doing the things that other person does that you don’t, and that time is now.

I hope you’ve enjoyed your offseason, got wild during the Holidays and said some heartfelt things to people you care about, and then gathered yourself in time to enter the New Year with hunger.

Yes, stepping back to get perspective, taking the time to relax, and resetting from the demands of training and racing has an important place in an optimal training year. You can’t carry on forever with the highest level of physical and mental focus and not plateau, no matter how motivated you think you are. You don’t work that way.

However, you have to light the burners and lift yourself to a new standard at some point. You need to be hard on yourself, slowly turn your habits in the direction of your dreams, take a step, and keep walking. You need to draw a line in the sand, say, ‘this is what I want, take the best path to it you can find given what you currently know and have, and own the consequences.

First and foremost, this means doing the work. Doing the work means a lot of things, but it always involves giving up something now for something later, sometimes called sacrifice. It’s a bargain, and the nature of bargains is that nothing is assured, but what you can be sure of is that if you don’t bargain at all, you definitely won’t get what you dreamed. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say.

So, where do people fail?

Say what you want about Lance Armstrong, but despite his narcissism, corrosive personality, and non-existent ethics, he did get a few things right about riding a bike. An anecdote that always struck me from Lance Armstrong’s War (by Ed Coyle, still a fascinating and worthy read) was that Lance’s approach to training was like a light switch.

In the offseason, yeah, he’d drink, party, hang out with Matthew McConaughy, you name it. But when the offseason ended, the Switch went ‘on,’ and with it, ALL the distractions, vices, and shenanigans of the months before stopped. He became his own dictator, and Life in Lancistan made North Korea look like a vacation destination: No drinking, no partying, no staying up late, weighing his food, riding his face-off, etc. – training and lifestyle optimization became his priority.

Let’s call the phenomenon ‘the Switch.’ Before you turn the Switch on, it’s OK to let your standards fall, to let yourself slip into dissolution. But after the Switch? Nope.

‘The Switch’ is a great heuristic to address a common pitfall in making it count, which is that tomorrow is always the day you’re going to do something when you’re bullshitting yourself. If you want to change, if you’re going to raise yourself to a higher standard, at some point, you have to do the things that produce that outcome; aspiration trapped in intention never moves the needle until it’s action. In other words, you win and lose the better version of yourself daily.

After you flip ‘The Switch,’ you will hear a voice that says, “Ugh, skip that doughnut tomorrow. It’s January’. That’s a test, and it’s a clear signal to you to dig your heels in. Once you’ve flipped that Switch, the answer is no.

Yes, the voice has a point. It is January, but realize that you are not a robot – you can’t be fed code and seamlessly output the desired function – you’re human. After you flip the Switch, it will take time for you to adjust to your newfound austerity, and depending on how intemperate you were before ‘the Switch,’ this can feel like a cruel adjustment.

I know the Switch seems too extreme, but it’s necessary. A fallacy I’ve labored under for years is that top performers are always ‘on.’ False. Top performers are a lot of things, but the vast majority sure aren’t unyielding neurotics holed up in their basement banging out five-hour rides on Zwift on October 4th. They’re often shockingly binary: when it’s time to cut loose, they cut loose. When it’s time to dig in, they dig in.

The Switch is easy to understand, harder to internalize, and difficult to execute. Still, in my observation, it is the ideal training rhythm to master for the highest combination of racing success and life satisfaction. Adopting ‘the Switch’ always allows you time to get wild, to cease to be your own tyrant, but it also provides a cutthroat, simple decision mechanism to buckle down when it matters most. Remember, the highest performers (setting talent aside) have an uncanny ability to buckle down when it counts and to relax their standards when it doesn’t. Their success is not the product of unceasing discipline; it’s a product of feral intensity.

I anticipate some objections to the Switch mindset, so here’s what I imagine are the most common.

Yes, during a critical preparation period for an event, Life happens. Maybe it’s a birthday, a wedding, an anniversary party, or some (typically) social activity that lends itself to letting your standards slide to enjoy fully. I imagine you don’t want to be the razor-cheekboned killjoy lurking in the corner sipping flat water picking walnuts out of your salad at a social event. I get that.

The best way to navigate these situations is to remember that if an occasion is a Ritual, enjoy the Ritual. However, when a Ritual becomes a habit, you lose the Switch.

For example, eating birthday cake on your birthday is a Ritual; eating birthday cake every night is a habit. Imbibing at someone’s wedding is a Ritual; imbibing every night is a habit. Staying up late with friends you rarely see is a ritual; staying up late every night is a habit. In other words, if a Ritual becomes a habit, it is almost always to the detriment of your progression.

If you break down what a Ritual is, this makes sense. A Ritual marks something important, and we gather, dress, act, and consume things we usually wouldn’t accentuate the occasion’s significance. If we did them all the time, the Ritual wouldn’t be as special.

So, even within the Switch framework, there is an exception for a Ritual that makes the mindset more sustainable; you have to be careful that the Ritual inertia doesn’t carry over into the day-to-day habits of the Switch.

Another common pitfall I see in making it count is thinking that because you’ve made the Switch before exempts you from doing it again. If you’ve done the work and made it count in the past, it’s tempting to think that knowing what it takes or having already done what it takes to get where you want to be in the past is sufficient to get you to the same place (or preferably higher) again.

You can’t. You always have to do the work. The work will never be precisely the same because you change, circumstances change, goals change, etc., but no matter what, the work is foundational to success. Just because you did a four-hour ride with intervals every hour, last February doesn’t mean you don’t have to do them again this year to be as fast.

Saying you need to do the work even if you’ve done the work can also be expressed as you still have to act even if you’ve acted in the past. Action is greater than anything that isn’t action. Even if what’s in your head is correct, if you don’t act on it, it will not help you. You can’t think your way into fitness – you have to pedal.

Lastly, perhaps it’s most important to make the Switch and make it count now because of something someone from India once thought – “The problem is, you think you have time.”

What’s most dangerous about waiting for tomorrow to make it count is that most people imagine future conditions and rate of progress that’s unrealistic. We use back of the napkin analysis and think, ‘this race is in April, it’s January, so I have plenty of time to get fit, and nothing will come up.

Except, even if you barely dig into the math, that assumption falls apart. For example, you have roughly 80 days, or 11 weeks to get fit between now and April. If you rest twice a week (which you should), that cuts your actual training time down to 58 days. Of those 58 days, at least 8 of them you’re going to miss through sickness, family/friends obligations, mechanical failures – that leaves 50 days.

If you average one and a half hours a workout (a reasonable workload for a person with a life), that means you have 75 hours of training stress to change who you are now to who you want to be. Those are precious hours, even if we assume that you execute every hour flawlessly. But because you think you have time, all of those workouts aren’t going to be perfect. You’ll skip an interval because it hurts too much or you didn’t plan your day well. You’ll cut the long ride short because you’re bored. You’ll skip a strength session because you think it makes you gain weight. You won’t do any mobility work because it’s only 10 minutes, and what can you really get done in 10 minutes?

Those 75 hours end up being more like 60 hours, and those 60 hours are only about 80% quality. You will turn up on the line for your first race thinking you’ve done the work, and then it will not go well. You will say others are more talented or your bike wasn’t good enough, but the truth is you never flipped the Switch and didn’t do the work, or at least not enough of it, and what you could be stands a few feet off, an apparition, a presence known only to you that you can’t look at.

You may not have asked for this, but you also owe it to yourself to flip the Switch and make it count. Believe me, it’s possible to spend years bullshitting yourself and saying, ‘tomorrow is when I’ll do the things that lead to the best version of myself. Suddenly, years pass, and you’re in the same place, except you’re older now and your Life is more complicated.

You don’t have that much time to be the person you could be. If you’re not careful, you can blow through some of the best physical years of your Life and forego fitness you only dream of just because you always put off today’s battles for tomorrow.

Yes, the war against yourself is lonely, but you’ll find when you Switch and make it count that the harder you push yourself, the more and more of you that could be turned on. A new, robust joy will grow in you, not as keen and gratifying in the short term when you give in to habits that betray you, but a steadily building low-grade ecstasy you can only get by stacking one day on top of another with honest, full striving.

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