With October upon us, the last of the triathlons are done and the annual battle for control of the thermostat is beginning in households across the UK. It is also the perfect time for reflecting on this years sporting performance and starting to think about the next. Often we focus our attention on the outcomes and achievements - the events we finished or how fast we moved. But it is as important to reflect on how those results came about – the process and circumstance that contributed to those outcomes. Our training is just one part of our life – even for elite athletes – and understanding the interplay between the parts is important if we are to adapt, improve or exploit the process for the coming year. So before diving into setting goals, assessing limiters and building detailed training plans, I like to do a more general review to flush out some of the insights from the bigger picture.
The starting point for my review is the stem questions of critical reflection - “What? So What? Now What?” - a super useful tool that I use all the time. I settle down with some blank paper, pens and I download my Garmin data for the last year. Then I think about:
What? I start by recalling what I set out to do last year. What were my goals? What events did I enter and what did I hope to achieve? What did my proposed training plan look like?
So What? Next I look at so what actually happened. I like to bring a mix of data points to the table – mind (emotional), body (physical) and machine (practical) – to build the story of what actually happened. I step up and out of the detail with a quarterly or monthly summary. I analyse my Garmin data and add narrative about what else was going on and how I was feeling at the time
Now What? Comparing What and So What highlights opportunities – either to do something differently or to build on something. I reflect on why things happened, what I have learned and think about now what am going to apply to be even better next year
It’s a very simple but very effective framework, particularly if you apply it with both brutal honesty and kindness. It produces valuable insights irrespective of how “good” or “bad” the year has been, creating a positive focus for the coming year.
To illustrate the process at work, below are some of the highlights from my review of 2018/19. I do feel a need to point out that it was not a “typical year”, as I lost my Mum suddenly in March 2018 and as a result, there are some aspects of my sporting year that make me wince as a professional coach. However, integrity and authenticity are really important to me, so I won’t pretend to be perfect and sometimes real life just isn't pretty. And besides, for all the flaws in my process the last 12 months, it shows how using the What/SoWhat/NowWhat framework can still turn up some really valuable learning that will benefit me as I go forward into 2020.
WHAT did I set out to do?
My goals were set against a backdrop of very little training and a lot of trauma and disruption in 2018. My training has always been one of my coping strategies for stress as it is one area of my life where I have more or less complete control. So after several months of turmoil, I wanted to start getting things “back to normal” and so my “What” looked like:
Complete the Outlaw Triple – Nottingham 70.3, Holkham 70.3 and the Outlaw full – in similar or better than my 2017 times
Return to consistency in my training and follow a plan that would build my volume gradually and peak at about 15 hours a week. Coming into this my training was very sporadic and random, averaging only about 3 hours a week. I opted for an “unstructured” approach pre Xmas, as I thought I would be better motivated by the freedom to do what I felt like doing, at least to get me back in the groove of regular exercise. Then I would adopt a structured plan in the New Year as I focused on my endurance.
Significantly improve my nutrition and move towards my ideal racing weight - I had gained about 12kg of Kommerspeck (a beautiful German word which translates as "Grief Bacon"), mainly in the form of Lynda McCartney sausage rolls. Whilst I have always been proud of what my body can do at whatever size it happens to be, I know that a pastry based diet offers little in the way of vitamins and that I have an ideal body composition if I want to perform at my best.
SO WHAT actually happened?
I did achieve my goal of completing the 2019 Outlaw Triple and I have some exceptionally gaudy bling to prove it.
But….firstly the two 70.3’s were a very much a case of “just get round and survive”. Secondly the Outlaw Full wasn’t the complete race as the bike leg was cancelled whilst we were in the swim due to flash flooding.
I did sneak in my first 5k swim at the end of the season at the Big Brutal Swim in Lake Padarn. My goal was sub 2 hours and I managed 1:55 which I am really pleased with given how windy it was.
I definitely did not follow my training plan
October to December: a high stress project, lots of travel and anxiety about the “first Christmas without Mum” left me little time or energy for training. The lack of a clear training plan made it worse as I needed to think about what to do as well as go and do it. I finished the year another 5kg heavier.
January to March: I started off well, full of New Year enthusiasm. Also a decision to change career meant I had more time to train and I was managing about 5-6 hours a week. Alas the year had taken its toll on my immune system and I contracted the Mother of all chest infections. A sneeze of epic proportions led to an excruciating back spasm which in turn caused me to lose control of my pelvic floor - I went from Triathlete-in-Training to Triathlete-in-Tena Lady and an average of just 45 minutes training a week in March.
April to June: I abandoned my plan because every time I looked at it, I felt bad about how far behind I was. Training was averaging about 7 hours a week and goals were downgraded to “Just Get Round”. Outlaw Half Nottingham rolled around too quickly and with a Power:Weight ratio heavily favouring the Weight side of the equation, I had to ride like a bat out of hell to make the Bike cut off. A 7:32 finish time was a stark reminder that I was not fit enough and my response was to bury my head….
July to Sept: I managed to finish Holkham in 7:40, and I quite enjoyed it despite the incredible heat and it being another painful reminder that I had not done the training. On the home straight, I embraced the Taper for the Outlaw. I arrived with gritty determination to finish, I swam strong and then hung around to run the soggiest marathon ever. I honestly don’t know if I would have made that Bike cut off – I was pinning a lot of hope on a single 125 mile training ride back in June but I also know I would have given it my best shot. Post Outlaw I focused most of my attention on my swimming, the one discipline which had gone quite well all year and was averaging 3 hours a week and really enjoyed it.
Lastly I did improve the quality of my diet, with the reintroduction of non-beige foods and I did shift about 10kg and reduce my body fat by about 5%.
NOW WHAT will I take forward into next year?
It was a pretty exceptional year and I need to evaluate it in that light – I know that there are a lot of things that I did which I would never recommend, but I also know that I did the best I could at the time. There's no benefit in berating myself.
My 2019 goals need to be much better balanced and considered. My decision to enter the Triple was pretty rash. My commitment was entirely grounded in an emotional need to reassert some control and a desperate desire to try and “get back to normal”. I made little consideration for my physical or practical capabilities. Whilst the overall impact for my mental health has been hugely positive, I recognise that I adopted some fairly unhealthy practices as a result of my need to finish. I have proved again that my mental resilience is strong but I didn’t pay enough respect to my body. I don’t want to keep taking that gamble and next year I want my performances to better reflect my physical potential.
If I have challenging goals, I really do need a structured plan. Freedom was less motivational than I anticipated and it made it harder to adapt when things got tough. I not only wasted the pre-Xmas period but I actively got myself to a worse starting point for January. I have also recognised that having more time available is not a panacea – without many constraints, it actually became too easy to keep putting training off. This coming year I need to develop discipline and organisation particularly as I settle in running my own business again.
And my plan needs to reflect both Outcome and Process Goals. I was too heavily focused on the big Outcomes this year – but they were so big and far away, they didn’t have enough “in the moment” impact. Then when they did finally get up close, it was too late to make a difference.
I would have benefited massively from some objective support. I do have an amazing team of family, friends and colleagues who are always there to support me. But this year in particular, I think an independent coach could have been really valuable. If I had had someone to challenge me and hold up the mirror; to help set the plan up and help me adapt it before it went totally off the rails; to hold me to account and provide some tough love, it might have played out quite differently.
So that’s my What / So What / Now What. It’s been a bit raw to stare at that in the flesh but it has been really helpful. The next step will be to start properly forming my goals and formulating my plan, making sure that I’m properly embracing Body and Machine as well as my Mind as I take on some new challenges in 2020.