Is there any music more inspirational than the theme song from “Rocky?” It’s the ultimate call-to-action. Get in the ring. Put the gloves on. Knock out, or get knocked out.
When I hear those first few brass notes, I picture Rocky in his grey sweat suit chasing chickens or punching slabs of beef at the meatpacking plant. The THWACK! of boxing gloves hitting trainer Mickey’s mitts in machine-gun succession. Or those crazy upside down pushups where one of Rocky’s trainers belts him with body blows in between each rep. (Maybe I should try those in my next strength workout.)
This is what I think about when I need to motivate myself for another morning of solo Ironman training. It’s early. It’s dark. It’s cold—at least by Los Angeles standards.
The path to realizing our potential starts with a willingness to kick ourselves in the ass.
Though it gets lonely training on my own, I’m not really alone. I’m a member of a triathlon team. I receive daily workouts, tailored for my upcoming A, B and C-level races. I meet up with my teammates two, sometimes three days a week and regularly speak with my coach. But the rest of the time, the other three or four days a week, twice a day, it’s me in the proverbial grey sweat suit. No matter what happens at work or home, the training schedule taunts me like a Muhammad Ali verbal jab. I can either cower in the corner or bounce off the ropes and swing back.
Triathletes of all skill levels respond to that challenge differently. Some pros, like 2005 Ironman World Champion Faris Al-Sultan, choose to take matters entirely into their own hands. Al-Sultan, founder and captain of Team Abu Dhabi, has largely coached himself since his first Ironman (Lanzarote) in 1997. He’s currently training for the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon this weekend, where he’s aiming for a top-five finish against a loaded pro field. While Al-Sultan admits he’s made his share of preventable training mistakes along the way—primarily related to over-training and poor nutrition—he has guided himself to four Ironman victories (including Kona), two third-place world championship finishes and three 70.3-distance wins. “You have to be able to kick yourself in the ass to get up and finally do the things that you’ve planned,” Al-Sultan said. “Having no coach is no excuse for less training.”
But wouldn’t having someone screaming in his ear Mickey-style have led to even more wins? Or maybe Faris should have mimicked a different Ferris and just taken a few more days off? Those what-if scenarios don’t faze Al-Sultan. Self-coaching is self-gratifying. Al-Sultan is his own boss—freedom and a sense of authority are his ultimate one-two punch. “You are making the decisions and taking the blame, and the fame,” he said. “I take great joy out of the fact that when I win, it was something that I planned to do. The satisfaction that comes from that is almost as great as success in racing itself.”
Self-coaching isn’t for everyone though. Al-Sultan has the time, drive and experience to craft his own schedule, knowing when to increase or decrease the intensity. Others of us possess the necessary drive to eventually be our own coach, but lack the experience and ability to deftly adjust the intensity meter. My issue is that I want to train hard all the time—a common mistake made by inexperienced self-coached athletes, according to endurance sports coach, author, and Training Peaks web software co-founder, Joe Friel. Triathletes like me, Friel said, are typically so overwhelmed with their desires to succeed that they can’t restrain themselves. This often leads to over-training, hence the need for someone to hold them back.
Even with a coach, I have a hard time with that. Zone three workout sessions often end up in Zone four or higher. Rocky didn’t ease up, so why should I?
Friel, who has trained Olympian and Ironman winners in his 31 years of coaching, says that those best suited mentally to coach themselves have the right blend of motivation, discipline, confidence, patience, and focus to follow a carefully crafted plan. “This is not to say there is no place for hard workouts, there is,” Friel said, “It’s just a matter of how hard and how often.”
Going back to boxing, the more I think about it, the more boxers and triathletes seem like a similar breed. I boxed for a brief time myself, and know that we both endure pain and suffering. Our crafts require total devotion. Endurance, speed and power are key. And a good coach can sometimes mean the difference between winning and losing. Coaches like Friel can help balance smart work and hard work so that when the bell rings late in a grueling race, when our legs buckle and we feel like we’re about to go down for the count, we can fight fatigue and outlast our competitors.
Coach or no coach, pro or age-grouper, the path to realizing our potential starts with a willingness to kick ourselves in the ass, as Al-Sultan aptly stated. Whether we devise our own workouts or have them created for us, when it comes down to race day, we each have to don our own grey sweat suit and slug it out for ourselves.
Hopefully the hard work pays off, and we’re the ones raising our arms triumphantly at the finish—just like a certain boxer from Philly.
Ryan Schneider is an Ironman triathlete and blogger who works in brand development when he’s not swimming, biking or running. You can read his blog at ironmadman.com, follow him on Twitter (@theironmadman), and read his monthly column right here.