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The Prof Talks: Preparing for Competition

Ben @ U Perform: Hello, everybody. And welcome back to another episode of The Prof Talks. The podcast brought to you by both Professor Greg Whyte OBE and U Perform. My name is Ben. I am joined by The Prof himself for another slightly different episode of The Prof Talks in which I get to ask the questions, or should I say, you get to ask the questions.

All our followers, viewers, and listeners get to ask anything you like to The Prof himself. Really put him on his toes. And this week's discussion topic, because competition season is just around the corner as we record this... we are talking about preparing for competition.

The things to do, the things not to do most importantly. And Greg and I have got a few years combined of competition experience. So hopefully we're going to draw on that experience, those lessons, those mistakes, most importantly, and hopefully provide you all with the tips, tricks, advice, and just confidence that you need to hit your competition challenge or event day on your best footing.

So, Greg, it'll be great first of all, just to start with you and just ask, were you a fan of competitions? Because I know some people didn't like race days.

Professor Greg Whyte OBE (The Prof): I loved it. To be honest with you. Do you know what I loved training and I loved competition; it didn't make any difference to me really.

And I think, you know, the competition was what drove the training. So, I think it was sort of a natural progression to go from training into competition. And I think embracing competition, then means what you start to do is embrace training. So, I loved it both.

Ben @ U Perform: Awesome. And you mentioned there that it kind of drives your training. It drives that motivation. And so, for a lot of people, we can split that kind of preparation, that drive for motivation to compete into kind of three sections. So, I like to consider the mental preparation for competition, the physical preparation and maybe sport or activity specific; the technical preparation.

For us in multisport and triathlon, technical preparation is important, but mental and physical preparation is really, key. So, if you wouldn't mind just sort of breaking down the tips and tricks you have around mental preparation, we can get things started.

 This is something we've touched on in a few episodes previously, the idea of mindset and goal setting and motivation. We really need to hear what you think in the context of competition on mental preparation.

Professor Greg Whyte OBE (The Prof): You know, it's quite broad. I think. I think the interesting thing is that often what people try and do, you know, and you're right it's physical, psychological, technical, tactical and all of those come together. And I think often what people try and do is they try and partition them in training.

So, you know, this training is for physical preparation. And then what we're going to do is I'm going to have some specialist, you know concentration on technical and tactical, and obviously then psychology I'm going to build that on top.

And to my mind they are conjoined. They're all together. Every single session. If I'm doing a session, I'm doing multiple things during that session. There is obviously the physical preparation. But critically it's the mental preparation. And I think that's where the importance of training and planning of training is that what you're trying to do is replicate as closely as you can competition.

So, I think what's key in doing that is that you are asking of yourself in training what you are going to ask of yourself in competition. Whether it's how hard it's going to be. And I think invariably this, it's always the interesting one. I think when you come out for the first race of the season, you think, how tough was that?

I mean, how intense was that? Invariably because that's the intensity wasn't in the session. You thought you were training hard, but it wasn't race hard. And so, I think making sure that you get that into the training session, in that progression, you are planning for that prior to racing so that racing it shouldn't be a surprise I think is critical with that.

I think the other thing around that is the misery. It's towards the end of the race when you're thinking to yourself, how much further, I can't go on. I'm tired. Well, training should replicate that.

And that obviously what you're not doing is truly replicating. If you're an Ironman triathlete, you're not going to do an Ironman in training, but certainly what you can do is train fatigued and then understand what it's going to be like. So, you know, Brick sessions, for example, are a great example of that.

What's it going to feel like? What's the last 10 km of the marathon going to feel like off the back of the bike and brick sessions can bring that to you. So, I think the one thing I would say about mental preparation, I think the critical thing is to make sure that you build it into training on a regular basis and that your planning of training is focused on that delivery to competition rather than competition being this unusual surprise event, which now both body mind, technical and tactical simply aren't ready for.

Ben @ U Perform: I think it's interesting sort of the point you made about race day, shouldn't be a surprise. You know, we always talk about how we should control the controllable and that feeling of intensity, that tactical sort of combination with your physical condition, that should be completely controllable on that race day.

You know, one of the most famous quotes I've heard, I think it was Tim Don; train hard, and the race should be easy. It's an interesting paradox for someone who's competed like Tim Don at both Olympic level short distance racing all the way through to holding the Ironman world record at one point, it's just having that difference and having that awareness of, do you know what race day is going to be really hard competition day is going to be hard.

And it's that reality check beforehand and going do you know what if I can just practice it a couple of times then you're going to be able to better deal with it. And then certainly in multi-sport racing that tactical element. If you are under pressure, physically, you're going to make poor tactical decisions. You're going to make poor pacing decisions.

And that transfers across multiple sports and activities. If you are under pressure physically, your brain is also going to be under pressure and you're going to make some silly moves that could put your whole race day, your whole plan out of the window. You know, you may be working with a coach, or you may be sort of managing your own preparation, but you are almost going to short-change yourself by kind of allowing your body to take over and allowing your mind to just kind of slip away and make foolish decisions.

Have you ever had an experience of that on a day? Because I know I have.

Professor Greg Whyte OBE (The Prof): Yeah, pretty rare. To be honest with you. I think what's interesting, Ben, while you're talking there is, is this thing that I tend to talk to my guys about, I call it the misery gauge. Is that I think that training is an opportunity to reset your misery gauge.

The classic example I always remember with Greg James who I looked after, we did a couple of different challenges together, but I remember the one Pedal to the Peaks. We were doing an awful lot on the bike, and he came into a session one morning and he said to me, he said, what we doing to this morning? What are we doing?

I said today, mate, I'm going to reset your misery gauge. And he looked at me as if I was, you know, some sort of lunatic. And then he fully understood when I passed him the bucket for him to vomit into halfway through the session. He understood what I was talking about and what I was talking about there really is the fact that, you know, it is what Tim is talking to.

That idea of train hard, race easy. Is that effectively, you know, training should be supra maximal at points. You should be really pushing the envelope. You should be going faster than you are in racing, in competition. It should be harder. It should feel harder. And I think what's important about that that is when you are racing, actually to some extent it can feel easy.

The point being, it feels easier than those tough sessions. So, we've got this misery line and what we're trying to do, you know, we've got zero misery at one end where we're sat down watching the tele and at the other end, it's basically the worst we've ever felt, you know, in training and competition.

And what we're trying to do is just edge that up so that what then happens is everything below that feels easier than that point. And I think that that's important because that really does play on the psychology and I'm sure everybody's listening now. Now you get to the point you think, ah, this is brutal. This is misery. So, what you do to escape that you slow down.

Ben @ U Perform: And is this misery gauge entirely different for everybody? Is this something that everybody can quite naturally be able to pick up on in their training?

Professor Greg Whyte OBE (The Prof): Yep. A hundred percent. And it's very personal. And, also, you know, it's very goal orientated as well. You know, what are you trying to achieve? The edge of that misery gauge for Ironman, for example, triathlon, for an ultra-endurance race is very different. You know, I remember racing the Marathon de Sables a few years ago, and on the long day, which was a hundred-kilometre day. Just the misery associated with that.

And that wasn't about speed or intensity. It was just about the sort of incessant nature across the desert in this, you know, enormous heat, over 40 degrees centigrade. So, the misery is very specific. That's a very different misery to a short course triathlon you know sprint distance triathlon it's a different type of misery.

So therefore, training should replicate what that type of misery is going to be. And then it's very much about you and how you handle that and the coping strategies psychologically that you have for that misery.

We're not painting a great picture about competition, are we?

Ben @ U Perform: Unfortunately, not.

We're, really trying. I think we are trying, it's just such a big topic and there's obviously, there's so many things to consider. Sport and activity exercise, in any way is really, complex. So, I think I want to bring it back to sort of more on the physical preparation side of things.

Because if we really want to teach our bodies, then teach our minds what it's going to be like. We've all heard of tapering or perhaps not everybody has heard of tapering. And we've all probably seen a few people in our sort of sport environments. I like to call them training champions where they're exceptional in training. They master the taper, but then on race day, they're just, they're not there. And it, it seems bizarre that suddenly that effort and pure class that they can represent in training just disappears.

So, I'd be really interested, to hear your experiences in that sort of training and tapering environment and help sort of break it down for people. What things they should be looking out for and what things that they shouldn't be doing most importantly.

Professor Greg Whyte OBE (The Prof): The taper. I mean people might have heard of peaking. You know, peeking, tapering, all those things are sort of the preparation for competition where effectively what you're doing is you're offloading. So, training volume is reducing so that you can fully recover. And I think what's interesting about that that is certainly for me and I think for many people I've worked with and talked to is that much of that tapering is actually psychological as it is physical.

The psychology of tapering is important as well, as well as the sort of physiology of it. But I think probably the trickiest part of the training season is the taper. Because if you offload volume too much, you lose condition. And so therefore you get slower. If you don't offload enough, then actually you don't recover. And so, it really is quite a difficult part of the season. I think a much of it comes down to experience. I think if, if you are very experienced you know, you watch athletes who are very experienced and they, and they turn up absolutely on the nail to every race because they know exactly what they're doing.

I think if you're first a first timer, I think it's quite a nervous time. Suddenly you are offloading training. You think I should be doing more training. And I think that generally. I think newcomers to racing are overtrained.

I think the fear, the fear of not doing enough generally drives too much training in that taper phase. On that. I think it's about taking advice, talking to the right people, talking to people that know and understanding yourself. And, that it will develop across time, but it's a difficult thing to do.

So, in general, what we're talking about when you talk about training volume. Training volume is created or made up of frequency, duration, and intensity. Of which intensity is probably the most potent stimulus. It's the one that really does sort of do the damage if you like. And so, what we are doing is we're controlling those three elements.

So, when we talk about reducing training volume what we are likely to be doing in a taper phase for an Olympic distance triathlon for example, is we're reducing the duration of the sessions. We may not be changing the frequency of the session, so we might be doing as many sessions, but what those sessions are, is shorter, but with a higher intensity, you know, so we start to move into that very specific race pace work that we go in, but we really do shorten it.

And then as we get closer, the frequency starts to drop as well. So, we've got this gradual, we reduction in training volume as we come into the race. But at the same time, what we're doing is we are being very specific about the type of work that we're going to do to make sure that what we are doing is speeding up. We're not losing condition and we are race ready.

Ben @ U Perform: And in these moments, it's also important depending on the sport or activity to kind of practice the technical and tactical elements as well. So, whilst you're bringing in race specific intensity, you can also practice those psychological elements around technical preparation and tactical preparation.

So, you're kind of putting all of the jigsaw pieces together. So again, when you turn up on competition day, none of it is a surprise. You've almost been there, done that. You've got the t-shirt, it's a case of just putting it back on and doing it once more, just. with lots of other people around you, as opposed to maybe just on your own, like you usually do in training. Would you agree with that?

Professor Greg Whyte OBE (The Prof): You're right, but I think there's one caveat to that and we see it every year. The best place to look, I think is always London marathon. And watch the number of people who cross the finish line with blood seeping out the top of their shoes.

And that is because what they've done is they've panicked. Two weeks out, a week out, they've panicked, and they've bought a new pair of trainers. And it's the classic mistake that you see every year at the big city marathons. And so, I think the key is yes, you're right, is that, you know, it is a great time in that taper. It's a great time to really hone those skills.

So, you know for example, with triathlon, the transitions, you know, the swim to bike and then the bike to run transitions. But the bottom line is that it should still be at that point icing on the cake. You know, a lot of that work should have started prior to this taper.

You know, you should be doing brick sessions where you've got transition phases in training. So fundamentally, you know what you're doing. And so therefore in that taper phase, what you are doing with your training is you are just tweaking it. You're not making big changes. You're not buying a new pair of trainers.

You've not bought a new bike. You know, if you're swim racing, what you haven't suddenly done is changed your tactical approach. You're not a 200-freestyle swimmer who has decided that you're actually going to go out as fast as you can over the first 50, when you spent the whole of your training period working on the middle 50, you know.

I think what's really important about that is you're right, it's a great opportunity to hone those technical and tactical aspects of training. But at the same time, what you shouldn't be doing is making major changes to the performance because the, the one thing that you should be confident in are those technical and tactical issues. You know because they're the things that you can really get right.

So, you shouldn't turn up to the race line of a triathlon and be worried about how you're going to get your shoes on for the bike. But you do see it, you do see it just, they sort of panic and because they haven't practiced it. And I think the idea that practice makes perfect is true. I think probably extend that is the perfect practice makes perfect.

And so, you know, in training, you should be really making sure that you focus on those technical and tactical aspects, so you get it right. So that on race day, it's just an extension of training. It's just another training session, at higher intensity against other people.

Ben @ U Perform: Yeah, and I think that's, what's going to be sort of important for most people just kind of make it a slightly more relatable.

It is very personal, but you know, the way I like to look at it and the way I've developed, yes, practice makes perfect, like you said, but I think perfect practice makes permanent, almost. You know, the idea of having good habits through good practice is sort of the most important thing, especially for very technical and tactical sports, like triathlon, whatever the distance is.

There's a lot of people, all doing different things and you could cross over, and you could have a complete panic moment because someone else has done something that you didn't prepare for. And it's just about having that confidence to go, do you know what I'm good.

Professor Greg Whyte OBE (The Prof): The same was true, interestingly. The same is true about nutrition. I mean, my favourite is to always watch guys that turn up to race day having never used nutrition during training and suddenly, they've got a shot belt. They've got a belt with shots on it. I remember once my wife was running the Reading half marathon, which wasn't my favourites of all time. I watched this guy come past and it quite clearly was a triathlete.

He had a shot belt on for a half marathon with 12 gel sachets. I'm thinking, number one, you don't need anything for a half marathon. Number two, if you take those 12 in, I can absolutely guarantee you GI distress and likely diarrhoea and vomiting associated with that. Often some people think you have got to do something different in racing you do in training. You haven't. The only difference is that suddenly instead of it being against yourself or against the clock, it's now against other people, that's the only difference when it comes to racing.

Ben @ U Perform: Yep. And nutrition, obviously we've just started talking about it. It was going to be my next point anyway, so you're one step ahead of me.

And I think nutrition is an interesting one because I think lots of people panic both on race day, on competition day, but also just as much beforehand, you know. What do you eat before? What do you eat the night before? The day before? The week before, how do you prepare yourself from a nutritional point of view?

Everyone has their own rituals and routines. I have a pizza before every race day, because if it was good enough for the Brownlee Brothers once upon a time, it was good enough for me. And I do just quite like pizza. So that works for me I found.

Is there something that you have found over your sort of sporting career? Do you have a favourite pre-race meal? And is there something that you could recommend to people to help just sort of find what works for them? Any sort of tips and tricks?

Professor Greg Whyte OBE (The Prof): The interesting thing is there's sort of a science of it and then there's an experience of it and a lived experience of it.

And I think, you know, certainly back in the nineties I would say sort eighties into the nineties, was this concept of carbohydrate loading. The idea that what you should be doing prior to an event is consuming as many carbs as you possibly can, as much as possible, you know, dragging it in there.

And actually, there was a, there was a penchant into the nineties, where what you would do is you would effectively carbohydrate deplete for a period of time. And then you would then super compensate in the sort of three to four to five days. And this evolved over time into the race day where you were consuming high carbohydrates.

That then changed with research, and we understood that actually you only need to do it on the 24 hours prior to racing to optimise that muscle glycogen, liver, glycogen concentration. And what do we think now? Well, I think to my mind, it works for me. I like that approach. I think it does depend on race distance. I think, you know, to some extent the shorter race distances require less focus on, on that carbohydrate load, because you should be because of the reduction in training volume and the normality of nutrition around that, you should be increasing glycogen stores anyway.

There's a lovely debate and argument constant that goes on about fat utilisation and fat adaptation for the longer distance athletes. I mean, as I always say to my colleagues, my nutrition colleagues, I've never met an ultra-endurance athlete who wasn't fat adapted. I think that, you know, that's the point is that training by its very nature induces that fat adaptation.

The short answer to that question is I think it is what works for you. I think again, experience here really does matter. It's interesting people, people laugh at me when I say it, but, you know, I've spoken to Olympic gold medallists all the way through to first timers, and they've all got these little Foy balls, these little things that they like to do, and it might be wearing the same pants, the same pair of socks.

It, it can even come down to the way in which they get dressed prior to racing. What they put on first, how they put it on. That becomes. It's a habit. There are lots of people who say you shouldn't have that because if something changes, it's not going to work.

But I think to some extent, I think having that routine prior to racing is quite important because what it does is, is it is how you prepare for a race and from a psychological perspective, it's, I mean, it's almost purely psychological. It's what you are doing is you are prepping; you're sort of zoning in gradually into that race.

I'd be very careful about making that sort of set-in stone. I think be flexible in that because things change, you know, I mean, look, particularly when you're traveling abroad or, you know, competing internationally, often you can't necessarily get the things that you can when you're at home.

So, you do have to have flexibility in that and not panic and not be worried if you can't do the exact routine. But I think to my mind, I think routine is good. And again, going back to the earlier point. Don't panic and do something. I mean, I love the thing that you say, you know, if it worked for the Brownlee Brothers, it'll work for me.

I can tell you it's probably the worst way to prepare for a race. Unless you've done it before. You said the Brownlee Brothers did it, you tried it and it worked for you. Brilliant. So therefore, you continue doing it. I have spoken to so many people who say, oh yeah. I read an article last week and it said that I should have a vindaloo the night before a race.

And then still wondered why they spent most of the time in the toilet prior to prior to the start of the race. You know, it's those sorts of things. I think, again, don't panic. Don't try something new on race day. You should have tried it in training. You should have experimented with it.

You should have honed it to make sure that it works for you. And if you've done that, then you can be much more confident. And remember that what we're trying to build here is confidence. You can be much more confident that what you do pre-race is going to work for you.

Ben @ U Perform: I think everything we've said all the way up to this point, it's all about building that confidence, building that calmness with an almost routine, but not a hundred percent sort of set-in stone.

We've got to be flexible. So that we can just have peace of mind and, you know, peace in body that we're able to then tackle whatever's coming towards us because we've done it before and we're going to be able to do it again and again, and again, and again, hopefully, you know, we're going to keep doing it because that's the reason why we keep turning up to training sessions that we keep turning up to event days on weekends.

You know, because we love the thrill of doing it almost, but we also love the sort of the progress and the goal aspect, that way that it helps us progress through our lives and interact with other people.

Professor Greg Whyte OBE (The Prof): The interesting thing on that as well, you know, while you're saying that, I think what's interesting is that the racing, I think, sometimes racing is part of the training and I think people sort of lose sight of that.

And I think that’s why it's important. You know, race preparation, there's nothing better for race preparation than racing and I think, you know, whilst you structure training in the right way, and you've got everything done, you've got the taper down, all that sort of stuff.

You don't really know if it works until you race. And so, I think there's nothing wrong. You know, a lot of people will just focus on one race a year, you know, because you can only taper once a year. Well, I mean, it is true that you can only sort of fully taper. I've written on this, you know, much in the past, you can maybe taper twice a year.

If you can taper three times a year, you're incredibly experienced and very, very high quality. So, it it's true about that sort of ultimate taper. But I think there is nothing wrong with turning up to early season races just for race experience. And you know what, you want to finish on the podium, but you might not finish on the podium, but you've learned something through that process, which is going to deliver you to that big goal.

So, this idea of goal setting, the short, medium term goal races should all be building experience onto what you already have in order to deliver at the big race, that one race where you really want to do well.

Ben @ U Perform: I think that's important for perhaps the younger and the less experienced athletes to have that confidence that, you know, it's okay to turn up to an event and be slightly undercooked because you're still going to learn something.

You're probably going to learn more by turning up to that race, not at your hundred percent. So then when you get to the actual big day event that, you know, your proper goal, you know exactly what to do, because you've done some racing before, you've learned what not to do. You've learned what works and then you can go for that ultimate taper on the big day.

And hopefully, you know if you're chasing a podium spot, you'll get that podium spot. Or if you just quite simply want to get through it with as little suffering as possible, there's always going to be suffering at any level. You know, you'll be able to achieve that as well. And that's the most important thing competition gives us that stimulus, that training has also been helping us to prepare for.

Professor Greg Whyte OBE (The Prof): It's interesting. Because I talk an awful lot about this and people always laugh, but I talk about this thing called the happy bank. And I think, you know, the way to approach that is that what you must think is that the brain fundamentally is a bank of experiences. And I think the more experience you can invest into that happy bank.

And that is what I'm talking about here is training, fundamentally the more training that you can put in. The more targeted training, very specific, planned all those things. But what you are doing is you're investing into this happy bank. So that on race day, what you can do is you can withdraw from that happy bank.

You know, if you come into a race completely unprepared then suddenly you run out of happy credits very, very rapidly. And then it becomes purgatory you know; it becomes misery very early on. Whereas, if you've done all the training correctly, if you've got the technical and tactical sorted, if you've got your nutrition sorted, everything is right, then suddenly you start to move through this race and you haven't withdrawn any happiness yet because everything's going to plan. It's doing what you want to, and it's only in the latter stages that you have to start withdrawing. But because you've got so much happiness in there because you've prepared so well, you can really enjoy those latter stages.

Two most important things about racing. I think number one is that you cross the line having given it a hundred percent. And you can be proud about the fact that you gave it everything you've got. And I think the second thing about that is to in part and often it's retrospectively, where you sort of look back on it, but enjoy what you do. And I think if you do both of those things, doesn't matter whether you go on the podium or not, because you already achieved success.

Ben @ U Perform: Yeah, and I think that's such a great way to finish, such a great way to bookend. We started at the beginning on the misery gauge and we're going to finish in the happy bank.

There's no better way to finish that. So once again, thank you very much, Greg. We'll be back very, very soon with another round of questions, discussion topics to keep you on your toes and to keep me on my toes, most importantly, having to keep up with you is a challenge in itself. More so than an Olympic distance triathlon almost.

So, thank you very much for that. And we will see you very soon.

Professor Greg Whyte OBE (The Prof): Great. Great to chat. I'll speak to you soon. 

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