By Dr. Jack Daniels
Most serious athletes are on a pursuit to achieve greatness. The question is, what does becoming “great” really mean? During my athletic career in the Modern Pentathlon I was twice U.S. National Champion, a three-time World Championship qualifier (one Bronze Team Medal) and two-time Olympic medalist (with Silver and Bronze Team Medals). Interestingly, I never thought of myself as “great,” even a year or two later when I was given the unofficial title of the World’s #1 horseman in the pentathlon.
Maybe the best definition of “great” is reaching your potential. The nice thing about this definition is that it can apply to any athlete at any level. This allows many to think of their friends and family members as “great,’ even if they don’t win a major competition. Maybe you are great if you reach your self-designated goals.
About 25 years after I studied 26 of this country’s best middle and long distance runners, I got them all to return for a follow-up study in the lab. In addition to the tests we ran each runner filled out a seven-page questionnaire about various aspects of their lives as elite athletes (13 of the 26 actually made the U.S. Olympic Team and three won medals). One of the questions to which I found the answer particularly interesting was whether they had reached their athletic goals, to which about half of them answered, “Yes.”
Overall, half of the group made it to the Olympics and half of that group felt they achieved their goal as a runner. Was it the same half? I don’t know because I did not have them put their names on the questionnaires. In another question, I asked them to indicate what they set for a goal once they got into running as a serious sport, and about 1/4 said they wanted to break the 4-minute mile and 1/4 said they wanted to make an Olympic Team.
Does achieving your goals in an endeavor make you great? It may in your own eyes and in the eyes of those who think highly of you. Let’s face it, some people have more ability than others for performing any particular sport. Smaller adults have an advantage over larger adults in sports like gymnastics, diving and riding a race horse. Larger adults have an advantage over the smaller ones in sports like football or shot put. In fact, international sport federations admit that body build is important in sport; otherwise we would not have weight categories in weight lifting, boxing, wrestling, etc. Certainly, an undefeated Olympic Champion in lightweight boxing can be just as great as is the heavyweight champion.
Many would argue that winning an Olympic Gold medal is enough to make an athlete great. And there has always been the argument as to who is greater, and Olympic Champion or the World Record holder? Maybe, again, it depends on your goals. After all, we talk about someone being a “great” mom or a “great” dad, or a “great” coach or “great” teacher, and those designations do not depend on winning in some international competition. They depend on who is doing the evaluation. As with beauty, greatness is in the eye of the beholder.
All this being said, I must admit that I feel greatness can be achieved by anyone and moving from a beginner runner to a good runner is one step and moving from being good to great is another step in achieving what can be referred to as “great.” Further, I feel that achieving personal greatness follows basically the same path for the top-level runner and those not-so-gifted.
Have A Passion For Running
The first step in achieving greatness is to have passion for what you want to achieve. In other words, you must have a true desire to become as good as you possibly can be. Oftentimes you see passion for a particular-event destroyed because a coach too easily assumes switching events is the answer to success. Certainly, this may be the case, but has the coach done everything possible to let this runner achieve success in his/her favorite event?
A good coach may be able to make a decision regarding what is best for any particular individual, but there must be solid reasons for making such a decision; and hopefully not because the team is weak in an event that the new athlete is being pushed into. Given adequate opportunity to train for and compete in a favored event, with only moderate results, will very often prompt a runner to make a decision to move to another event, or at least try some other events to see how they go.
I have always felt Natural Ability (#1 Ingredient of Success) and Motivation (#2 Ingredient of Success) are two of the key ingredients in any chosen field of endeavor. With plenty of ingredient #2, along with Opportunity (#3 Ingredient of Success) and sound Direction (#4 Ingredient of Success), any runner should have a good chance of achieving personal success, or greatness if that is the favored word. Having limited ability may limit the degree of greatness achieved, in the eyes of the world of running, but the road to world greatness is pretty much the same, regardless of the level of achievement. It is only a matter of inherent ability that sets the world greats apart from local greats.
Have A Sound Training Plan
Beyond passion for the sport, the next important factor in achieving greatness is Direction. Direction is a training plan to follow, whether it’s a written plan that the athlete follows without a coach observing, or having a private coach monitoring the training that takes place. There is no doubt that there are some basic principles of training that, if adhered to, will lead to a better chance of success than will a program that is more haphazard or generic in nature.
Some of the basic principles that will benefit any training plan include:
- When the body is subjected to stress there is a reaction to that stress, and the body’s reaction to a stress is typically a positive one, provided there is adequate recovery time between workouts and days, or even seasons, of stress.
- That part of the body that is stressed is the part that stands to benefit from the stress; this is the principle of specificity of exercise. For example, when the heart muscle is stressed the heart muscle becomes stronger and can therefore learn to handle greater stress in the future.
- It takes some weeks for the stressed system to reach full benefit from the stress. This is obvious, but often ignored, by imposing too much increase in the stress in too little time. Increasing weekly mileage by 10 or 15 miles each week for a number of weeks would be an example of too much stress in too short a time. In other words, it is wise to impose a stress and stay with the same amount and intensity of stress until the body tells you it has made a pretty good adjustment to this particular stress and is ready for more. This typically takes at least three or four weeks and often six weeks or more.
- The fitter you get, the less benefit you get from an increase in stress. This is what I refer to as the principle of diminishing return. It is fairly simple to accept the fact that going from 20 to 40 miles a week will produce greater improvement than will going from 60 to 80 miles a week, or from 80 to 100. The benefits reaped are not linearly related to the stress being imposed, and in fact there may become a time when increasing stress will not be rewarded with any greater benefit, or it may result in injury.
- Somewhat related to #4 above is the principle that relates training stress to chances of injury or illness. When the amount or intensity of running is advanced to rather large amounts of stress, there becomes an increase in the chance of something going wrong, a breakdown either physically or mentally. Obviously, the window within which to train is one that produces generous amounts of benefit and minimal chance of something going wrong. No doubt this changes with experience and with a good coach-athlete relationship.
- One final principle worth mentioning is that it usually takes less stress to maintain a level of fitness than was required to achieve that fitness in the first place. Obviously this is partly mental, but the physical side is also very important.
The key to a sound training plan is to understand some basic training principles and to have a thoughtful coach or plan to follow so there is minimal chance of a setback as the training stress is increased.
I remember a symposium I attended one time that was on the topic of the best way to deal with injury. I was asked to give my opinion on the matter and the best I could do was to say that you should avoid injury so you don’t have to deal with them. One has to wonder if we have ever sent our best athletes in any running event to the Olympics. The “best” may not have gone due to injury at the time of the Trials. No doubt we usually send the best we have, from among those competing at the Olympic Trials, but how often is a very talented athlete not even in the trials because of injury. It happens every year. So how do you avoid injury? Easier said than done because it is always tempting to increase the stress of training just a little bit further in hopes of achieving an edge that will put you on the team or allow you to set a new personal best.
The best chance of avoiding illness or injury is through sound nutrition, good rest and some quality supplemental training. Most non-running activities that you do may not specifically improve your running, but they may strengthen you against injury so you can run more and become a better runner. We all have weaknesses and often imbalances in our bodies and there are usually ways to deal with these imperfections so that they do not lead to injury. The key here is to seek guidance from experts in areas like strength training, nutrition, flexibility, footwear, etc.
I remember a good many years ago when I was talking at a science conference and the Soviet National coach was attending. He said to me, “You know what I think is the main difference between the American way of training and the Soviet way? It is your failure to attend to detail.” I have often remembered that statement and I wonder if it is true. Maybe more so in sports that are not so popular in any particular country. With large numbers interested in doing something, the best, who usually filter to the top of the pile, are usually good enough to get the job done. However, if there is not good mass participation, then those who are at the top better not overlook the details.
Set Reasonable Goals
Goal setting is very important, but maybe even more important is to set some goals that are within reach and some that require a real commitment to achieve; having both short-term and long-term goals is the ideal way to go. Remember, goals can take on a variety of types; every running goal doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, to set a personal best time every race that is entered or every workout that is performed. There are lots of good goals that do not require best-ever running. For example, a goal for an upcoming race may be to go out a little faster than usual and see how well you can hang on to the pace. If you go out as planned and die a horrible death, and run a disappointingly poor performance, not to worry, you achieved your goal, and may even have learned something in the process. A goal may be to try a different type of warm-up. Keep in mind that goals associated with some new approach to a race situation are best experimented with in not-so-important races; it is never a good idea to try something new in the season’s most important race.
When you achieve your goals make a special note of it in your log so you will have that achievement to rely on in the future. Some important races will have a particular performance as a goal, and make it a point to be reasonable with performance goals, but don’t be afraid to challenge yourself when recent training indicates you are ready for the challenge.
Learn From Your Mistakes (And Successes)
It seems many runners are happy when they win or run well and upset with poor performances, and this is understandable. However, a runner should make a point of making comments in a log about how each race goes. We often hear the comment that you need to learn from your mistakes, and I agree completely with that sentiment, but don’t overlook the victories. Too often they are taken for granted and it is easy to forget what led to that victory. It may have been the training that led up to the race, or it may have been the way the race was run. Don’t take for granted that a win is just something to enjoy and there is no need to learn anything from it. Always look back at how you prepared for races and how you performed each race and use that information to help you succeed in future races.
In summary, to reach that level of greatness that you want to achieve, be honest with yourself and make a commitment to attend to the following concerns.
- Be passionate about the event you are trying to achieve greatness in.
- Follow a sound training plan every season.
- Maintain good health and nutrition to help avoid injury.
- Set reasonable goals.
- Learn from your mistakes and victories.
Learn more about Dr. Jack Daniels’ online training here.