No Safe Harbors

A few months back, I found myself under the surface of the ocean holding my breath at 80 feet, lying on some sand, just looking up at a rock cliff beside me. Utter silence, fish all around me. All I could think of was a song by The Talking Heads:

“How did I get here?

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down

Letting the days go by, water flowing underground

Into the blue again, after the monkey’s gone

Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground.”

I had run out of cliché statements to keep my athletes and I floating through this unknown. I had passed that stress level of just withstanding the current situation, and instead had entered paralyzing stress state due to no end in sight. The initial "we got this", "use this time, don’t get used by this time" mindset had run its course. We were now on an Ironman course with no aid stations. Races were being canceled, and seasons were quickly turning into stages of just trying to keep some emotional health intact by executing something, anything, each day to feel some sort of semblance of being athletic. I did, however, find some confidence to keep moving; I realized I had become a forager. Scoring the sea floor for meals, becoming aware of clues nature was throwing at me in order to indulge in what each day had to offer.

This approach at my own human level started to transfer over into what we as coaches and athletes need to do in this time of uncertainty. We need to pivot, become subtle in our approach to the unknown each day will bring. All within a storm that clouds the future with each passing week. At a biological level, we are either farmers or hunters. After the onset of the Agricultural Revolution, our species adapted to a lifestyle of either continued consistent habits of farming, or an approach to BIG hunts that would reap much reward.

As a science teacher, we see these types in our students. The farmer works meticulously day in and day out, finding confidence in repeated habits of study. While the hunter, pauses often, waiting for the big events to be on the horizon and shows up fully prepared to produce on test day. As endurance athletes, we tend to follow in similar programs of mindset. The farmer checks the boxes each day, finding confidence in doing the little things in training at every moment. The hunter struggles with the day in and day out sequencing. Having great days on those key workouts, but struggling to string together the fine point details of preparation. Each one shows up on race day, the farmer feeling prepared that they did each moment of each day the best they could. The hunter is prepared knowing they are finally in their element, the hunt, the race, and the opportunity to be the predator. We all know the person that loves to train, versus the person that loves to race.

Without any races, endurance coaching and training now requires the farmer and hunter to pivot their approach to preparations. We were once on a ship, with known safe harbors. We would prepare for these landings, and once there we executed our fitness in order to be rewarded with plentiful bounties. We would return to the ship, and approach the next safe harbor with our treasures and experience to do even more at the next landing. Instead, the storm is upon us. The ship is rudderless, no sail, and we find the ship anchored off the coast of a new land. This land we find our self on now is not rich with fertile soil for the farmer, nor plentiful with game of the hunter. It does however have the capacity to find the minimal essentials to exist in a healthy lifestyle, we just have to adapt to our mindset pre Agricultural Revolution, that of hunter-gatherer. We need to spend each day moving, differently then we had before, searching, observing and doing all we can to gain in the moment of the day to find within it the essentials to survive.

During this time, as athletes and coaches we must find within us our weaknesses. This time is presented before us as an opportunity to do things differently. The farmer needs to get use to big test sets; the hunter needs to get use to a consistent focused daily approach to the little details. We must continue, knowing there will be no grand harvest this year, nor plentiful big game to store for lean times. Instead, each day does provide something for us all and as the athlete progresses through this time it becomes increasingly important for the coach to realize the needs of the athlete daily. Are they a farmer, or are they a hunter? In the move towards adapting them to a hunter-gatherer approach you need to understand where they are coming from in their approach. As an athlete, becoming proactive with your coach about your needs is paramount. You may need to do big efforts, take on big challenges, or just need a sequence of consistency to harvest some improvements. Yet don’t lose sight of what the current terrain offers. This island we find ourself on does lack what you ultimately desire, safety of the known.

This strange land we do find ourself on is temporary, but it shouldn’t mean this time should lack rewards that can be used when we once again anchor in a safe harbor. Pay attention to your needs and weaknesses as an athlete, and attend to them. If you are a weak swimmer, you should be swimming more, focusing on upper body strength. Cycling and running inefficiencies can also be attended to through focused blocks of stress. You don’t have to equalize out stress to be race specific, but instead you have the chance to stress limiters.

We are currently on the Queen K, yet to even make the turnaround. Its hot, humid, and the headwind is like no other year. You are at the moment where you ask yourself....”How did I get here?” It will eventually be “the same as it ever was”, but for now you have to have the internal conversation with yourself about how to move forward. This conversation then needs to happen with your coach. An adaptable, limiter focused series of training blocks will soon bring with it a consistency that will breed improvements. Only through improvements can confidence build once again. Find these daily improvements. If you look too far back, it will only bring depression. If you look too far forward, you will only find anxiety. Yet, when we focus on the day, on the moment, we can then find exactly what we need. Be safe, be well and forage for your daily needs.

This post was written by QT2 Level 3 Coach, Vinny Johnson.

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