Sexton’s Scribble

By Brendan Sexton

Many paths to the peak

Getting back on track after a setback

It’s an athlete’s worst nightmare: three days out from your big event, and a slight tickle creeps into your throat dragging along with it a slight but nerve rattling cough. Or a minor niggle that’s been in your subconscious for the past few weeks has morphed into an ache that through actual physical impairment is brought to the absolute forefront of attention, latching itself to already peaked stress levels. Months of preparation, planning, early mornings, forfeited weekend social events and sums of cash doled out surpassed only by the sweat exerted in days of back-to-back training. What can you do? Pray to the tri-gods it’s just a 24-hour thing and try to keep panic levels to a minimum. It’s unfortunate, sometimes completely unavoidable and it’s a part of the sport.

So, what about the less feared but more common curse of the injury or illness strike further out from competition? I say less feared because there seems to be less stress or conversation about the threat of hitting major hurdles further out from a big dance when it doesn’t directly affect race day. I am writing about this sort of scenario because I see it happening much more commonly and it often does end up affecting an athletes race day performance just as much as suffering a setback closer in time.

Firstly, let’s investigate why athletes can begin to become unstuck towards the end of their race preparation phase.

Most triathlon race plans go something like this:

  1. While either training on an unstructured program or not training at all, the athlete finds a future event and decides: “That’s the magic right there.” This becomes their big goal – their mountain summit.
  2. With a swim bag full of motivation and inspiration as uplifting as a double dose caffeinated energy gel, the athlete plans (or enlists a coach to plan) the climb to their peak.
  3. Initially, training ticks along, a routine is set, and over time the steady rise of fitness is felt. Confidence grows concurrently.
  4. The lofty peak of their mountain comes into sight; the realisation that the event is soon dawns and intent across all areas kicks up a notch. Sometimes it kicks up more than a notch and all of a sudden that steady build isn’t so steady anymore.
  5. The body or the mind (or both) begin to feel the pitch of the mountain, but the climber believes this part of the plan is non-negotiable. Choosing a slightly gentler path could only throw the plan all out of whack!
  6. The cracks appear, and the plan is compromised either by full-blown injury and illness or having to back off with the threat of injury or illness high.

It’s understandable and common, and I doubt many who read this would not have witnessed a similar scenario either externally or from a first person perspective. I am sure I’ve been both more than once! Sometimes athletes who experience a race preparation with a setback in their training acknowledge that the plan hasn’t been followed to a tee – they drop the climbing pick and ropes and turn back down the mountain. Some athletes who face these sorts of setbacks continue on, believing they won’t quite reach the absolute peak of their mountain because, again, the planned path has been abandoned. Then there are athletes who will face these setbacks and yet still climb their mountain, stand at the top and achieve everything they set out to do. How do they do it?

I was still heading in the right direction – I just needed to find a different route. 

As an athlete and a coach, I have come to learn that training and race preparation plans are made in a world that does not exist – the perfect world. This is a triathlon utopia where nothing goes wrong, immune systems are impenetrable, bodies are overload-resistant, and triathlon wizards cast anti-bike crash, anti-rolled ankles and anti-work overtime enchantments over us all. In reality, we live in a triathlon-friendly but far from faultless existence, and we do find ourselves faced with stress fractures, “man-flus” and uncompromising bosses that encroach on our perfectly laid path to the top. What I came to realise is that the plan mapped out is not the only way to the top.

Planning for an event is always a combination of art and science. The science always gave me confidence the plan I was following was a realistic way to hit my peak. Life would place a hurdle on that path, and the science was changed. The art in the preparation (the element that took me longer to understand) was acknowledging I was still heading in the right direction – I just needed to find a different route. Sometimes this was a slightly different path when a setback was minor, that rounded the obstacle and put me back on the original track. Other times when the issue I faced was a substantial challenge the art was in completely reassessing the path and ensuring I could still progress the elements that were in my control and allow the cause of the issue to be addressed.

I’ve set myself many mountains to climb and watched many others set their own. The majority of the paths drawn out in the original plans rarely remain unchanged, and yet a huge percentage of those peaks were conquered. A big reason for those conquests was the athlete’s and coach’s ability to change and adapt with grace and logic. It was never about trying making up lost ground but checking the compass, adjusting the ropes and putting one foot in front of the other.


Brendan Sexton

As a youngster, Brendan’s life ambition was to be the fifth Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. That didn’t quite pan out. But triathlon did. A decade on, he’s still at it.
Follow Brendan
Twitter: @kung_fu_sexton

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