Without confidence, you can’t fully take advantage of fitness, Written by Chris Carmichael
CTS Coaches work with athletes in a wide variety of disciplines, and we’ve seen a big increase in the popularity of ultra-distance events. One of the elite athletes we’re working with is Dakota Jones, a young ultra-runner who has been racking up some impressive wins, including the Transvulcania, a 51-mile race on the spine of La Palma in the Canary Islands. He’s currently in Silverton, Colorado training for the Hardrock 100, and his coach, Jason Koop, pointed out a very important component to ultramarathon coaching that has relevance to athletes at other distances as well.
Jason, who has finished close to a ten 100-mile ultramarathons – including two top-10 finishes at the Leadville 100 Run – himself, tells his ultramarathon athletes that their race day performance will depend as much on the confidence they go into the race with than the fitness they go in with. In the final weeks before an event, gaining confidence will do more for them than the slight gain in fitness that might be achieved in that same period. And the opposite holds true as well. If you go into a goal event lacking confidence, that will do more to hinder your performance than you can overcome with stellar fitness.
So, how does a coach instill confidence? Technically speaking, we don’t. We can’t. Confidence has to come from the inside; we can’t produce it for you. What we do is design a series of experiences that progressively challenge you. Those experiences have to push you outside your comfort zone, but enable you to be successful, and we gradually ratchet up the level of difficulty over time. Some people prefer the “throw-them-to-the-wolves” approach and push athletes into training experiences or competitions they are woefully unprepared for as a means of scaring them into taking training seriously. In my view, that’s just stupid. I have no problem with failure as a teaching tool, but smashing an athlete physically and mentally isn’t necessary.
In Dakota’s case, Jason set up a scenario where he’s preparing him for a great workout. He’s going to back down his training for a week to make sure he’s rested, then send him out for a huge run that incorporates part of the Hardrock course and trails that are even harder than the course. And because the subject of confidence is so important for ultra-endurance competitions, Jason was completely forthcoming with the goal for the workout. It’s not energy system development or technique practice. This is about going out and having an awesome day running really hard terrain alone, so he can hopefully do the same at the head of the field when it’s time to race.
So, as your big summer events approach, remember that the numbers on your power meter or heart rate monitor are only part of the equation. To be fully prepared for a great performance in competition you need to actively work on building your confidence level. I like to schedule a big confidence-building challenge about 8 weeks out from a big event. If it goes well it provides motivation for those final big training blocks before the race. If it doesn’t go well, there’s still enough time to make substantive changes to the athlete’s training plan and see improvement. A second challenge can be placed closer to the competition, but you have to be careful not to place a challenge during the timeframe when you’re really fatigued from that last big pre-competition training block.
One more thing about confidence-building activities. They need to be specific to your event, but they don’t need to be exceedingly difficult. For instance, one of my pre-Leadville 100 activities is a climbing workout up a very steep grade in Colorado Springs. It only lasts 90 seconds, but if 1 month out I can do a set of 10 accelerations up that hill and hit all the right markers for me, then I know I’m on track.
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