Better Coaching, Fewer Tears: Flexibility and Adaptation During Covid-19

September 12

As coaches we have to plan. It's our task to deal with facts and realities in the moment. We must consider weather, terrain, fuel. We must read the competition. We must anticipate and adapt to the unforeseen. It's our responsibility to make decisive calls, moment to moment, from the training deck to the race course.

With the rise of glamour sport and unseasoned coaches, fewer of these calls are grounded in science and experience. 

Glamour sport is more about appearance than performance. It is more invested in gear, or followers, or abs, or proximity to fame and speed, than it is in doing the hard work, over time, often without recognition, that is necessary for success. 
All too often the unpracticed and the unqualified make choices for the wrong reasons. They do so for social media display, or for approval, or to promote a product, or worse, to boost a coach's image or ego. At our best, however, we must base our decisions on what each athlete needs, regardless of whether the call is popular, or pretty, or chic.

This spring and summer, with Covid-19 in the air, too many coaches, athletes, and race organizations based their most important decisions on fantasy, delusion, and wishful thinking. Through the heart of the 2020 season, this led many athletes astray and caused unnecessary frustration and tears. Since the pandemic began, I have made tough calls and assiduously avoided the social media fueled fads and whims that were so common in the early weeks and months.

On Friday, March 13, I emailed my squad and instructed them to cease swim training. This was to avoid contagion, but also with the expectation that racing would soon be cancelled. In this light, I felt that any short-term losses in swim fitness would not impact race readiness. The following Monday, I sent a detailed video to the squad on how best to use dryland stretch cords and to be prepared to use them a lot in the months ahead.

My primary concerns this spring were athlete safety, motivation, and direction. It was essential to provide my squad with a sense of purpose in the face of vanishing races and profound, pervasive uncertainty. I saw other coaches succumb to insecurity, anxiety, and doubt, catering to athletes' whims, passing desires, and fits. The developing situation would demand hard calls. It required that I adapt in the moment, anticipate what was coming our way, and endeavor to guide my athletes with a coherent long-term vision. At the start of lockdown, I explained that continued, focused, daily training would help to maintain a sense of routine and provide an outlet in the face of these new stresses.

My coaching colleague, Lauren Vallee and I instituted a series of weekly bike and run time trials for our respective squads. We saw this moment as a unique opportunity to make focused improvements on the bike and the run. We alternated bike and run time trials by week, within four consecutive six-week blocks, from March through August. 
This wasn’t about virtual racing or trying to fill a vacuum left in the absence of racing. This was about testing oneself and building grit. This was about learning the hard fought lessons, earned in the isolation of an all out effort.
Whereas other coaches and athletes were putting in huge training loads or aimless hours, Coach Lauren and I saw this as an opportunity to provide increased quality and intensity in place of the volume that we would typically program as preparation for half and full-distance events.

Coach Lauren hosted a weekly Zoom bike session for both of our squads. We also hosted intersquad Zoom meetings to connect, answer questions, and motivate the squads over the course of the spring and summer. These Zoom calls and training sessions helped to provide a sense of community and continuity during a time of uncertainty and isolation.

The series of time trials were progressive. On the run they built from 5K fresh to 21K off-the-bike. The bike time trials were all completed on the trainer. They included 10 minute to 40 minute efforts in a range of configurations, such as: 4 times 5 minute best effort, 2 times 10 minute best effort, 30 minute best effort, etc. 
Time trialing is a trainable skill. These sessions demanded focus and grit. Our athletes made significant gains in power output on the bike and flat-out time on the run. They learned how to be more competitive racers and they learned about themselves. They learned about pacing and feel, they saw their own anxieties laid bare, they rehearsed and repeated, they developed toughness. They went to the track and set personal bests when no one was watching. They rode their trainers alone, turned themselves inside out, and took their training and future racing to new heights.

My squad finished their fourth block on August 22 with a 70.3 run simulation off-the-bike. Twenty-four weeks of focused work since mid-March without a race was a most unusual season. After the final time trial, a week's proper rest was in order, and then five weeks of fun to simply enjoy being an athlete. 
September 2020 is about running, cycling, or strength training, just for fun. This means trail running for pleasure, long days in the hills and mountains, on the bike or on foot, with no specific training demands. And also, a welcomed break from four, structured, 20 minute, high-intensity, stretch cord sessions per week.

In the first week of October, my crew gets back at it with a run block aimed at an 18 mile time trial the week after Thanksgiving. After that, a bit of maintenance through the holidays. Then, on the first Monday of 2021, we're back to work building toward a race season in anticipation of vaccines getting into broad distribution and races safely coming back online.
From the start, my squad has been clear-eyed about the realities of our current situation. I've coached them without illusion or pretense in the face of Covid-19. My squad has been training with discipline, direction, purpose, and passion throughout the 2020 season. There have been few tears, except those shed along with sweat, through clenched teeth, in the depths of a best effort.
Flexibility, composure, focus, and resilience are a part of our daily training. They've all been strengthened in 2020. When racing comes back, my squad will be stronger, tougher, faster. Until then, they're putting in the hours with purpose and heart.