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Wednesday, 08 February 2012 00:00

I am programmed, therefore I do

Recently, my athlete Juliette (aka 'Robot') blogged on her progress - not only in her quest to balance the training demands of running and cycling, but also how she is coping with the management of her lymphoedema. Juliette and I started working together back in 2008: originally the intention was to improve her time trialling. While that is still a theme in our coaching relationship, it has somewhat been pushed to the back burner - in some ways, both of us were thrown a 'curveball': she was diagnosed with lymphoedema; and I was called upon to deepen my physiological understanding of a disease as opposed to my comfort zone of sports performance.

robot_on_a_bikeJuliette has won the affectionate nametag of 'Robot' - since I have been working her I have enjoyed one of her traits: I give her a task, she simply goes off and ticks it off. We joke that I programme her, and she then robotically delivers. This could be seen as an ideal Coach-athlete relationship! However, the recent challenges thrown up by her condition have meant this inherent nature has sometimes been Juliette's worst enemy. She has a high work ethic and high standards, so when things struggle to come to her she can be self critical (being of the same mould, I can understand that). Its one of the things we have worked upon together - being more accepting of where one is at right now. She is one of the most self-reflective athletes I have - Robots DO have a heart!

When I first read Juliette's blogpost, I decided I would write a little commentary of my own on her data and her reflections. However, as I thought more and more about her 'case', I realised how much HER process had changed me. Not only as a Coach, but as a person. So, as well as some physiological commentary on her current marathon project, I thought it would be useful to blog about MY process alongside.

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The Physiology

Juliette's lymphoedema first came in to my field of awareness as we were walking across the Eiffel Tower gardens in June 2010. I say 'walk' but both of us were hobbling a little, having just completed the London to Paris 3 day ride. My hobbling was definitely muscular (!) but Juliette's 'waddling' was more duck like (sorry Robot!). I noted how swollen her ankle was - I remember feeling guilt, as I had 'made her' wear the PBscience socks during our 'heavily branded' ride, and the high ankle had been rubbing on an insect bite. At the time, I just linked the swelling with that bite being irritated. Over the next few months, it transpired to be something else...

In the Spring of 2010, and indeed previously whenever we had tried to instigate a period of high intensity training, Juliette would really struggle to hit the numbers I asked of her. It didn't really add up in my mind - surely, based on her 'zone 3' powers (where she could give me ~200W for a 3h ride) she should be ok with me asking 220 to 230W in 15 min efforts? But no, it wasn't that easy: as soon as we moved above the endurance zones so comfortable for an athlete with a diesel engine, she spiralled in to not only premature fatigue, but also such despair that she once confessed to wanting to sit road side and weep. Maybe she was just an extreme example of an endurance rider with a very flat 'power-time' relationship? Very comfortable for sub-maximal powers over long durations; but once above the first LT powers can not be held for very long. We had sort of resigned ourselves to that being the case. But as I say, other symptoms began to rear their heads.

You can check out the symptoms of lymphoedema online. From a sports performance angle, the reduced efficiency of transport of waste materials is incredibly damaging to someone trying to ride at high power outputs and withstand fatigue. So, looking back at Juliette's attempts to complete zone 4 work we are probably looking at a bottle necking of lactic acid removal away from the muscle bed (to name but a few consequences). There is also the slow carriage of any interstitial fluid away from damaged areas - hence the high swelling in her leg. This has all impacted her chosen goals. Juliette (coming from a marathon running history) has always been pre-disposed to long distance events, but this condition has almost limited her aspirations of competing in short distance events (time trialling or indeed hill climbing which she excels at with her high power to weight ratio). I say 'almost' limits her, because I know the very challenge of overcoming this condition to still fulfill goals is something she relishes...almost more than the going faster itself!

So, taking all this in to consideration, when Juliette told me she would like to 'give something back' through her sporting life by running for charity at the Brighton marathon I was excited, but a little lip biting did take place! How on earth would we balance the running and cycling AND this physiological nuisance? Juliette chronicles that aspect very well in her blog post. The process for me started with thinking about how we would break the year down:

  • a general phase in which we explored how to maintain a cycling load whilst building the running element (we had to keep the cycling in, as Juliette has not given up on cycling goals in 2012, the London 2 Paris is on the cards again)
  • a marathon specific phase (which she is just entering)
  • a post marathon phase, building the bike work back in, as well as upping the intensity of training to cope with the high intensity efforts she will no doubt have to face in L2P (the timed sections, working on the front of the group now in her new role of Ride Captain)

I am really proud of the results we have so far. you only have to look at Juliette's 'Chronic Training Load' graph to see how well we have managed it. Just look at:

  • The intial phase from the summer last year to November - where the aim was to control CTL but introduce the running to a maximum of 3 sessions per week: across a mix of reps, tempo and a long run per week
  • Once we had achieved that, we were building intensity of the bike a litte (zone 3 work) and also the quality of the run sessions
  • The pink line shows Juliette's projections (its fab to have a mathematician athlete who relishes the planning at this level of detail!). We are holding CTL steady whilst she tackles every marathon runners' 'Pièce de résistance' ...achieving the long run mileage.
  • The rate at which we build CTL is carefully planned: whilst its commonly reported that 5 to 8 points per week is okay, this is a generalisation which Coach's must be aware of. I get to know just how much build an indivdual can handle and build a picture as I work with them over seasons.
  • The same is true for the level of CTL. As well as being a Robot, Juliette is an endurance monster - she can eat miles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, she is fragile with high intensity. So not only do we have to think about total CTL, but also the contribution coming from above first LT exercise training.

I have to say, Juliette's 'performance management chart' has always been one of the most beautiful to see unfold - and this small segment is an example of that. It is quite easy to see the build each cycle, with a short respite in the 4th of the 4 week cycle. Those familiar with the concept would also enjoy looking at her 'Acute Training Load' - the 'saw teeth' profile is evident, and we can see the switch in how we get to the outcome CTL pattern so effectively: The two demanding sessions of the week being performed back to back at the end of the week give us a big peak before the rest day on Sunday. This has been a very useful finding for the pair of us: and we are looking to keep that 2d block in the programme past Brighton.

My process

I have spent a fair amount of time considering my coaching philosophy: and indeed, I have recently contributed to a forthcoming book with a chapter on the coach-athlete relationship. With my recent decision to reduce the number of clients I work with, the philosophy of my coaching has deepened even more: whilst I have always valued the human behind the athlete, I find myself more and more connected to the personal stories behind the quest for athletic excellence. This has had its impact on me: I am more engaged, more empathic, and more resolved to supporting each person through the ups and downs of not only training and racing, but life in general. My training as a Life Coach has been really valuable in providing this service to my athletes.

Another consequence is closer relationships with the five athletes I currently coach: friendships are building. It means the process becomes more and more two way. Not only do I guide them in their journey, but I get something back in return. I mention this now as Juliette is a good example. Since 2008, we have become very good friends. First that was our shared love of all things cycling; then it became a passion for coffee and cake (!); and now she is one of my most trusted confidantes.

This wasn't always easy for me. In the late summer of last year, as I was struggling to understand where my work life was going, I felt a conflict. I wanted to talk with Juliette as 'my buddy', yet I felt scared to reveal my angst to a 'paying client'. How could I talk about my stress, anxiety and lack of motivation to someone who was paying me to BE motivated? I felt a little trapped, I felt I had to keep away from that topic in our bike rides. That in itself became a stress...arghhh!

As I mentioned earlier, Juliette is one of the most reflective people I know - thankfully for me....as she was able to bring up the conversation after one of our Saturday rides over coffee. Her compassion brought me to tears: the relief that came from her understanding just flowed out. She told me if if there was a conflict she would rather stop working with me and maintain our friendship. That meant SO much to me. It not only cleared the tension from me, it also opened the way to me using her as a sounding board. The relationship was now truly two-way mentoring!

I am learning the power of being authentic. Historically, I would put on a front, be 'Coach Helen'...I felt I needed to be strong, to be all knowing - just so I could reassure my athletes that everything was ok, I would make sure of that, no matter the walls we hit in exploring the training and racing projects. Being more 'me', being more open, being more comfortable NOT to have the answers has really brought something to my coaching.

I wanted to recount that story because I think it shows something we can take from sport. It opens doors to meeting new people, to sharing some great experiences and to finding ourselves.

PLEASE sponsor Juliette's run at Brighton in April - you can donate on this page. Thank you

Published in Blog