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Triathlife With Jesse Thomas: The Secret To Stress-Free Adaptation

  • By Jesse Thomas
  • Published Jul 9, 2013
  • Updated Jul 11, 2013 at 4:00 PM UTC

Jesse Thomas introduces you to the Get Screwed Fund.

My family used to go on a vacation almost every summer. My mom, a planning pro, would detail what we were going to do, where we’d stop, what we’d bring, who we’d see, etc., and we’d set out on our adventure. Then sure enough, within a day or two, something would happen. Our luggage would get lost, it would rain all day, we’d have to stop for four hours because of carsickness from too many donuts, you name it. „

Whenever these things happened, we’d freak out until my mom would settle us down and say, “Don’t worry. It’s OK. We’ll just take it out of the Get Screwed Fund.”

The Get Screwed Fund (GSF) was established by my grandpa Woodard, a prolific traveler back in his day. He realized on his crazy trips to hundreds of countries (not an exaggeration) that no matter how well you planned, things go wrong. When they did, the cost to you—money, time, energy, change of plans—would come out of the Get Screwed Fund. I don’t think we ever directly contributed to the fund, but it was expected that it was there in any time of need. Eventually, the GSF started applying to any project that required a plan with lots of variables.

What’s great about the GSF is that it gives you an excuse not to freak out when something goes wrong. It’s expected that you’ll have to use the GSF on your trip, so it allows you to adapt your plans to your new reality relatively easily, without too much worry/tension. When your luggage gets lost, you go to Ross Dress for Less and get some new shorts. When it rains at the beach, you rent “Wayne’s World” for the 12th time and eat ice cream. It’s a simple tool, but a powerful one nonetheless. It gives us an out under the expectation of change.

So if our logical brains expect things to change no matter how good our master plan for a one- to two-week vacation, why do most of us expect things to go exactly right when we create a two- to six-month training plan for a race or a season? And worse yet, when things inevitably do go wrong, why do we make it worse by reacting in a way that compounds the problem? If we encounter an injury, illness or bad weather, we stress out, increase our cortisol levels and forgo rest to “push through it”—making the problem significantly worse!

Getting screwed before Escape from Alcatraz
I relearned this lesson in my final week of prep before my season opener at Escape from Alcatraz. I’d had an awesome four weeks of training and built some confidence going into what I knew would be a super-stacked field. Then, seven days before the race, I took a clumsy step down the stairs and BAM! Ankle disaster.

My initial reaction was typical Jesse: some scream-crying that made my wife run out of the bedroom expecting to see a little girl who either lost her stuffed animal or just got a Valentine from Justin Bieber. After a few minutes of gingerly walking around and drying my eyes with a tissue, I realized my ankle wasn’t broken, and the world wasn’t over. But my ankle was badly sprained and would need some rest. I started freaking out about the training I’d miss going into the race. “What am I going to do, oh my god, I have a long run today, this can’t be happening!” Until my wife calmly stated to me, “No stress J, you’re OK. Just take it out of the Get Screwed Fund.”

Huh. The GSF? Really? I’d never used the GSF in sports before. But the more I thought about it, she was (like always) totally right. This was a perfect GSF moment. I was getting screwed! My nearly flawless prep going into Alcatraz just got rolled out from under me.

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Adapting the plan
Applying the GSF to my situation was perfect. It gave me an out, a reason to stay calm and say to myself, Of course this happened, it’s expected that things will change, so now I’m going to adapt and reset my expectations. Now my training plan didn’t matter anymore. Rather than focusing on what I was going to miss, I now had to focus on what I could accomplish that would best set me up for the race given my new situation. That meant resetting my expectations and focusing on injury management—two of the trickiest things to do as an athlete.

Injury management: Keeping it below an 8
I put all my injuries and illnesses on a scale of 1 to 10. My mantra for how to train with or “through” injuries is to keep everything below an 8. To me, a Level 7 injury is something that can heal with one to three days of rest and proper attention. A Level 8 injury takes one to three weeks to heal. Obviously, you want to avoid a Level 8, but I’ve found that blindly “training through” a Level 7 typically leads to a Level 8 injury. And this is fairly easy for most of us endurance athletes to do because of our high pain tolerances. Sure, it hurts, but it’s not killing me, right? I’ll just keep on the plan. Before you know it, you’ve turned your mildly sprained ankle into Achilles tendonitis. There goes your next race, and maybe the one after that.

So for the next seven days, Coach Matt and I used my mantra to adapt the plan accordingly. I skipped two runs. I swam, but didn’t kick and didn’t push off the wall to avoid pain. I skipped swimming with the team because I knew I’d try too hard to keep up. I backed off my bike rides. I iced and tried to stay off it whenever I could. Basically I babied the hell out of it. Each day, I reevaluated my progress with the following questions:

Is it better than it was 24 hours ago?

Can I exercise without limping or compensating?

Does it loosen up/feel better as I go along?

Does it feel better after?

In general, if I answered “yes” to all of these questions, then I know I was keeping it below an 8, and trending toward getting back to full health. If I answered “no” to any of these questions, I adapted and/or canceled my training. Because of the patience and change, I eventually got back to running with little to no pain before the race.

You can’t race fast if you can’t race
What’s the point of all this training anyway? It’s to race. Surprise! I know that sounds obvious, but I think a lot of us forget that in the moment. We get so focused on following the training plan and validating our fitness through blindly completing each workout that we forget what the actual goal is. My wife calls this “training to train,” as opposed to “training to race.” Yes, the journey and the process are important, but most of us do it in the hopes of it all leading to a singular great performance.

You wouldn’t skip the beach if your luggage got lost and you had no shorts. You’d go in jeans, or if you were my family, you’d go in your tighty-whities. You adapt the plan, because ultimately, it’s about going to the beach, not going to the beach only if you can wear your favorite swim trunks. Who knows, maybe the chicks dig tighty-whities!

When I was prepping that week, I had to keep reminding myself that performance on Sunday was the important stat, not performance on my long run, or my hill repeats, or my bike ride. Yes, I wouldn’t be as sharp as if I’d had perfect prep going into it. But, if I got to the race healthy and confident I wouldn’t damage my ankle, then I at least had the opportunity to race well. I might not race well, but at least I have the opportunity. If I forced myself to stick to the plan then I could check off all my training boxes, but potentially miss the bigger goal.

With this proper mental and physical prep, and of course a little bit of luck, I did have a great race. I didn’t think about my ankle once. I got to enjoy the race. Yeah, I felt rusty on the run leading into it, but come race day I ran surprisingly really well. Who knows, maybe I needed the extra rest? Best of all, I didn’t injure myself, which allowed me to bounce back for the next race even stronger.

So next time you create your master training plan, don’t forget to include access to the Get Screwed Fund. Allow stress-free adaptation to injuries, sicknesses, weather, etc. Don’t be so hard on yourself when they happen—remember, it’s expected! Listen to your body and be cautious in recovery. Bottom line: Do whatever is necessary to get to the starting line, even if you’re not as fully prepared as you originally intended.

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is the 2011 and 2012 Wildflower Long Course champion. He lives in Bend, Ore., and is the CEO of Picky Bars (Pickybars.com).

More “Triathlife” columns from Jesse Thomas.

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Looking for a triathlon to sign up for this year? The eight-event TriRock Series features sprint and Olympic-distance racing in a fun atmosphere for triathletes of all levels.

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