Random musings on the competitive mindset with examples from racing and applications to management.
Sunday, March 31, 2002
Most athletes keep a training log. Lately it’s become fashionable to publish one’s training log on the web. Mine is at Attackpoint. Training logs are useful tools. If you feel flat in a race, you can review your training to see what you might do better next time. When things go well, you might want to try to repeat the pattern before the next big event. Over time, you get an idea of what works best.

Of course, all this is rather academic unless you actually use the information to plan future training. This is where many amateur athletes seem to have trouble. If they plan at all, it is usually in insufficient detail. They may get the idea that they will gradually increase mileage for 10 weeks and then decrease it for 4 weeks prior to a marathon. While that’s better than just blindly pounding out distance, it’s not really a useful plan, just an idea for a plan.

By examining past training logs, one learns exactly how the body responds to training. For example, I know that when I’m doing 800m intervals at 5K pace, I should stop at 5. If I’m doing speed work and running the 800’s at 1 mile pace, I should stop after 3.

I also know that if I run one 20+ mile run a month, I can start right into a 10-week distance buildup, even if I haven’t been doing much other mileage. However, if I neglect the long runs for several months, I’ll have to take a few extra weeks to get comfortable with a 20-mile run again.

All this is very personal. What works for me won’t necessarily work for others. That’s why the log is so important. You learn what works for you.

I generally plan my training 4-5 months in advance. This gives me time to get in several workouts designed for a specific event without jamming them all into the last few weeks (at which point little, if any, benefit is derived). For maintenance work, I’ll leave myself a bit of flexibility (I might substitute a 1-hour run for a 2-hour bike ride if it’s raining). I try to execute the quality sessions as planned.

Of course the realities of life, particularly the life of an amateur athlete, are that some workouts will be missed and others will be changed. But by having a plan, I know when I’ve missed one of the workouts that I cared about (as opposed to a maintenance workout). I can find a way to compensate for it without disrupting my whole schedule or missing the benefit altogether.

Which brings up another valuable lesson one can learn from a training log: plans can be changed. By comparing the “ideal” plan with what you actually did, you learn that training is a long-term proposition. No one workout is worth much. It is the summation of the training that matters. Taking a day off when you’re tired, injured, or sick makes a lot more sense than pushing ahead and wiping yourself out for a week.

Friday, March 29, 2002
My cycling team in college had a slogan, “excuses don’t get points.” Actually, it was more than a slogan; it was the standard rejoinder whenever someone would start explaining a bad performance. The point was, you weren’t allowed to publicly state why you didn’t do well. Your performance had to speak for itself. Period.

Of course, we weren’t really that mean. If someone crashed or had a flat at a bad time, we’d try to cheer them up and on the drive home we’d always recount the races in detail. But, for the most part, we lived by the rule.

Absolutely refusing to make an excuse has a bigger effect than most people realize. Try it sometime. Go a week without making a single excuse. Simply let your efforts stand on their own. If someone asks why something isn’t right, simply say, “Because I didn't make it right.” It’s hard! But, it’s also liberating.

First, you’re relieved from the burden of having to come up with a plausible excuse. You don’t have to worry about whether someone believes your explanation. They’ll always believe the one cited above.

More importantly, knowing that you can’t excuse away a problem gives you much more motivation to correct it. The vast majority of excuses are correctable. A little extra effort at the point of failure saves a lot of explaining down the road.

Perhaps the most valuable result of this attitude is the approach one takes prior to an event. If you know that you can’t use a flat tire as an excuse, you tend to be more vigilant about checking your tires. And staying healthy. And resting injuries. And sticking to your workout schedule. And getting enough sleep. And not eating Mexican food the night before.

I’ve seen project proposals where the section on risks was longer than the section on the benefits. These cowards are just making excuses up front. They should instead focus on eliminating the excuses. Go into every project thinking that it must not fail. Give yourself no escape. Then you’ll find that most of the things that derail an effort can be avoided or at least corrected.

Does this approach mean that sometimes you will end up having to take the heat for an effort that fails? Absolutely. If that’s too much to stomach, let someone else take over. Accountability is the price of leadership.

Wednesday, March 27, 2002
I ran the Rockwoods Test Loop today. It’s a 5-kilometer loop through the woods with 12 checkpoints that I run every few weeks. Although I take a map, I’ve pretty much got it memorized. Today I ran three minutes faster than I’ve ever run it before, which is a pretty big jump given the number of times I’ve run it.

The Test Loop started as an actual competition course. The course is quite hilly and the woods are thick in a few places. When I created the course, I thought that 45 minutes would be a pretty fast time. When Dave Frei came back in 40, I was really impressed.

It took me a few tries, but I finally managed to beat Dave’s time by a few seconds. Then a strange thing happened: I ran it again a few weeks later and was faster by a couple minutes. Then Dave ran it even faster. Then I posted two consecutive bests, lowering the time three more minutes. Dave came back and beat that. We were starting to think we’d done it about as fast as we could. Then today I’m three more minutes faster.

It got me thinking about the limits we place on ourselves. Our scope of our experience is, by definition, limited to what we have already done. Improvements lie entirely in the imagination. Sometimes it’s very hard to imagine working harder or going faster, but it is always possible. Sometimes we imagine tiny improvements when, in fact, large improvements are possible. Sometimes we make the opposite mistake, but I think this is much more rare.

I experienced this a few years ago racing cars. I’m a decent driver. I’ve won my local class championship the last two years in SCCA racing and I place in the top half at national events. But, there are drivers who will take a full second out of me on a 60-second course.

I used to think that they were just that much better than me. Then, two years ago, I started entering events twice. The hard thing about solo racing is that you don’t get any practice. Three or four runs, each of which count, and that’s it. By entering twice, you get twice as many runs on the same course. Of course, the second set doesn’t count, but it’s excellent practice.

What I noticed was that somewhere around run 5 or 6, I’d suddenly drop that elusive second and be posting incredible times. The difference wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, but that I couldn’t imagine it during the course walkthrough. It was only after I had driven the course several times that I could see how to do it correctly.

Vision is what drives us to do what we’ve never done. It’s the basis of improvement and the motivation to keep trying. So many self-improvement books talk about vision, but it is usually framed as some nebulous trait associated with lofty goals and unbridled spirit. I think the opposite. Vision is imagination made concrete. It is the translation of a dream (which has no constraints) into something that is tangible, even though it remains unseen.

Friday, March 08, 2002
One change I’ve noticed in pro sports over the last 20 years is that the ratio of practice to performance has increased dramatically. Certain sports, like football, boxing, and marathon running have always required a lot of practice and little competition simply because the competition is so destructive to the body. However, even in sports requiring less recovery, the amount of training has increased and the amount of competition has decreased.

A notable example is cycling. In the early 1970’s, Eddie Mercx routinely won 40-50 races a year. Now, a top cyclist like Lance Armstrong may not even enter that many. A season with 10 wins is considered exceptional, especially if some of them come in major events.

Mercx trained lightly during the off-season and would ride on days when he wasn’t racing, but most of his training came from the races themselves. Armstrong spends months preparing for the Tour de France (the only race he really cares about). He rides sections of the course that may prove pivotal. He tailors his training to hone the skills most valuable for that year’s route. During his preparation, he may only enter a half dozen races.

This focusing of preparation is not unique to Lance Armstrong or even cycling. I believe it is an inevitable result of the fact that in every endeavor there are more qualified people than ever. To succeed requires that narrow goals be selected and specific preparation adhered to.

Wednesday, March 06, 2002
I’ve been doing a fair bit of night orienteering this winter. Orienteering at night isn’t that much different from the daytime version, but the penalty for error is higher. If you lose track of where you are, it is harder to “relocate” at night. Since visibility is obviously inhibited, you need to pay closer attention to small details.

Most importantly, you need to anticipate more. Many people navigate using the “ground to map” technique. That is, you look around you and try to match up what you see with what’s on the map. At night that doesn’t work because you can rarely see enough to get a definite fix on your position. Instead, you must use “map to ground”. You anticipate what you will be seeing next. If you don’t see it, you assume that something has gone wrong.

It’s probably pushing the analogy a bit, but this same mindset is very useful when managing high-risk projects. Low-risk activities can be passively managed, but with high-risk activities you have to know exactly what your plan is and respond as soon as what’s happening doesn’t match the plan.

Friday, February 15, 2002
In his training journal, Michael Eglinski (one of the top US orienteers) writes about stopping during a race:

“Coming to a complete stop can "signal" that it is time to change pace -- either running harder or running slower. There have been times when I run too fast from the attack point to the marker. Too high a tempo near the control can lead to booms. Standing still at the attack point (without even looking at the map) reminds me to change pace.”

I see this in project management as well. There are points in a project where it is important to stop pushing and assess the situation. Particularly, right before implementation. Most projects, if they make schedule at all, do so by pushing hard at the end. In the scramble to get everything done, important details are often overlooked. While it is OK to accelerate the pace of work to complete development tasks, implementations should be done with painstaking precision. This change of pace is difficult, especially in light of a deadline.

Ideally, I like to have a go/no go decision several days prior to implementation. At this meeting we go over the installation checklist. If everything is not in order, then we don’t go. That’s not to say everything has to be perfect – I’ve gone live with known issues. The point is we stop and assess the issues and ask, “can we go live with what we have now?” (Not what we hope to have in a few days). From that point on, there is no push to finish things. It is time to be careful and make sure that we put the system in properly.

Monday, January 28, 2002
I was running with Dave Frei yesterday on the Chubb Trail. The trail is 6.7 miles each way and, since we had done about an hour of orienteering practice before the run, we were dogging it on the return trip. Three miles from the finish the trail leaves the flood plain and heads up a big hill. The rest of the trail is rolling with a few steep sections. As we started up the hill, we began to pick up the pace – it’s something of a point of honor to run the big hill well, even if you’re tired. By the top we were really going hard.

Having sufficiently elevated our heart rates, we kept on pushing all the way to the end of the trail. Although it was hard, it also felt good. Just 20 minutes earlier we had been slogging along talking about how we were tired and hungry. Now we were hammering on the toughest section of trail and getting a charge out of it.

This phenomenon is fairly common. Certainly there are times when your body has simply had enough and it’s time to call it a day. Over training is a serious mistake that can lead to injury. But usually we give up long before we need to. I think the thing that leads us to that is not adversity, but lack of it. There was no challenge in running along the flood plain. We were just putting in miles. Once we set ourselves to a challenging task, we found resources that weren’t available before.

Motivation comes from having goals that are difficult but achievable. Once the motivation is found, the goal is achieved. Then, of course, it’s important to take some time to celebrate the goal. Dave & I went to breakfast at Denny’s. It’s not much, but it helped to reinforce the experience in a positive way. We both went home thinking that we’d like to do that again sometime.


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