Managing the man, not the machine: Stress & Expectation Management by Andy Hamilton

When I looked at my calendar and plans for this year, I definitely felt like I may have bitten off more than I could chew.  It was a jam packed year starting in early Feb with some running races across various distances and terrain from half marathons, a 20 miler, and then London Marathon in April.  Not to mention some tortuous cross country challenges thrown in to really mix it up.

The plan was to then take this running fitness into triathlon season, which started officially in April, with the famous Chirk sprint, throw in a local 70.3 before heading into my long distance season.  Which then consisted of the famous Challenge Roth, Breca SwimRun Coniston, and then culminating with Ironman Florida in November.

Yes, it felt a challenge and people told me I was utterly bonkers, but given I had suggested this could be the last “long” year for a while, I thought why not go out with a bang.

So despite a frustrating early injury issue, which meant a withdrawal from London and some intensive physio and rehab, I managed to progress into silly season feeling pretty ready for the challenge ahead.   Before I knew it, Roth was a only a few weeks away and my training, and early race performances had suggested this could be a good day out with a possible PB on the cards.

As it turned out, unfortunately this was not to be…with a series of disasters leading up to the race, a unfair drafting penalty (whilst going up a hill out the saddle) which resulted in both a standing penalty on the bike and an extra hilly 1km run after T2 (yes…you read that correctly) and then fueling issues throughout the day, it was in my opinion an unmitigated disaster.  My head had gone before the race really got going and I battled (and lost) against my demons all day.

For most, Challenge Roth is a the legendary bucket list race and is a once in a lifetime race experience and having raced across the World at various distances, I can confirm that it is the biggest and best race in Europe.  But for me, it was one of the biggest disappointments I’ve had from a performance perspective and when things don’t go to plan, all that special race hype seems all but irrelevant.

Luckily, a few well planned days in Amsterdam on the way back from Roth meant I was “relaxed” about what had happened and apparently, my legs still worked quite well.  I found this out after trying a few local “coffee shops” and being convinced monsters were chasing me back to my hotel.  Think they were the fastest miles I’d ran in weeks 😉

There is a saying that I’ve had said to me several times in my life for one reason of another…”You need to get back on the horse that bolted”.  In other words, I needed to face the fears or challenges that meant it went wrong the last time and after a long and surprising conversation with my coach, I was suddenly entered into another European Iron-distance race.

Challenge Almere, near Amsterdam looked to be the opportunity to get back on the long distance “horse” after my disaster in Roth.   But with only 7 weeks inbetween these races not to mention a rather challenging SwimRun in the Lake district 3 weeks after Roth, and still another Ironman later in the year was this too much too soon?  My head was filled with questions;

Was it right for my coach to suggest it?

Was I ready to pin a number on again so soon and do it all again?

Would I recover or be ready in time?

In order for the answer to be yes, it meant I would have to focus on the things that needed addressing, and deal with them. This wasn’t about my kit, my pacing, my nutrition or anything that most athletes think need sorting….it was me….the man….not the machine…that needed the attention.  And this was probably long over due and possibly, like perhaps other people, was the one thing I’d neglected.

Now most of you who know me, would probably say I’m Mr Confident, always smiling, good to have around when things go wrong and someone who doesn’t get stressed.  In fact, I think I’ve prided myself on the fact “Hammo doesn’t do stress!!” But under the surface, my stress would appear to manifest itself in other ways to most, which I then struggle to control.

To name they key problems; tummy issues in the days leading up to the race, meaning my bowel movements went one way or the other, the inability to sleep during race week, leading to tiredness, poor decision making or thought processes and the one I’m now apparently famous for…. throwing up and retching uncontrollably before a race, inevitably throwing my supper or breakfast up and then struggling to eat during the race. Add them altogether; these will only ever lead to performances I’m disappointed with.

Thefore in order to deliver a performance I would be happy with, I had to manage myself before anything else and identify the key factors and causes of this stress (and interestingly, from talking to some of my athletes whilst writing this blog, it would appear that these more common than I thought);

  • Pressure of feeling the need to deliver a performance; wanting to be seen as “credible” in a peer / training group that for me, is filled with some of the best AG athletes in the UK, if not Europe.
  • Self Imposed Expectation – This could be chasing unrealistic numbers in training, and then expecting these to magically appear in races or measuring myself against someone who trains twice as hard, twice as long and then feeling frustrated and angry that they beat me??
  • The need to somehow validate my position of or ability as a coach or committee member of my club etc; How could I help others to achieve their goals, when it seemed like I hadn’t achieved my own?

The next steps for me were simple.  Learn how to fix them and ensure they don’t affect me or if I can’t remove them, learn to deal or cope with them.

So after seeking counsel from lots of people around me and hearing some stuff I probably knew, but didn’t want to accept, I built some simple rules that I could apply to both training / racing and even life…. and hopefully ones others may benefit from.

  1. I began to only measure a success or failure based on my own performances levels. If you race or do a performance test and it turns out your pace or power or speed is lower than you thought it should be, don’t assume there is something or someone else to blame.  Maybe it’s telling you something you don’t want to hear.  So accept it and retune your expectation.  The truth is you can only push within your current limits, but if you learn to keep pushing, you will soon enough improve those numbers, times or performances.  There are no shortcuts to getting better….you need to get the sessions done, stick to YOUR numbers and move on.
  2. I accepted that there could always be people faster / better than me…this sounds obvious because otherwise life would be boring and un challenging wouldn’t it?. But for me, it meant listening, learning and trying to understand why they are faster or better, and bring that reason into MY training. This could be getting to bed early to drag myself out at 5am to go swimming or it means going out on that last big ride before the race in the howling wind and rain, grabbing that waterproof and turning those pedals!  You will be proud of yourself that you did and when it comes to race day you will feel much better for it and your performance will be reflective of that quality training.
  3. If I cared about my performances, I had to prioritise my training. As in rule two, this meant ensuring I got those sessions done.  No excuses.  Friends staying for the weekend? I then move the week around to accommodate. Travelling with work? Find a hotel with facilities that allowed me to not miss a session.  Also, have a backup plan if you can do that specific session or ask your coach to switch things around and keep you on the straight and narrow.
  4. Accepting that I am definitely better at giving advice, than taking it. I started to listen to those who were giving it, as I probably asked for it but previously ignored them.   I needed to show them the respect I would expect in return!  Surrounding yourself with great people is key to this sport, but not maximising on their knowledge and experience is just plain stupid.
  5. I knew that everybody knowing I was racing stressed me out….so I didn’t tell anyone I was racing. Other than those closest to me, no one really knew what my focus was.  It meant that whatever happened on race day it didn’t matter.  Good or bad, I could manage the outcome.  And if I rocked up on the starting line and didn’t feel it….I could pull the plug, walk away and just focus on my next race.  Now this isn’t always practical if its a team or club race, but if like me you feel the pressure, balance this by deciding instead of screaming from the rooftops (or social media) your are racing a particular race, keep it to yourself, get the training done and then tell the world.
  6. Not all the best coaches are the best athletes. This can be said in any sport. The best coaches are those who find the right way for each athlete individually to improve.  Whether its knowing to manage more of the man or the machine and understanding the disciplines needed and how to put them together to maximise improvements.  I knew this was true of me, and the relationship with my athletes.

That was it….6 simple rules to help conquer my demons!

In the lead up to Almere, I worked hard to live by these rules.  I got my sessions done when I needed to, I prioritised the training whilst still trying to lead some semblance of a normal live and most importantly, removed all the unwanted stress or pressure that had seemingly dogged my performances over the years.

So as I closed my bike box the night before our flight to Amsterdam, I felt the most relaxed I’ve ever felt before a big race.  I would almost say worryingly relaxed, but although it felt odd, it felt very good.  This is how it should be.

Lets race……

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