Sunday, 28 September 2008

Healthy competition...

The title and photo of this week's post refer to a subject close to my heart... competition, something feared by many and understood by few. According to Wikipedia, " Competition occurs naturally between living organisms which coexist in the same environment" and "may give incentives for self improvement"... with regards the above photo (100 yards to go at this year's Vitruvian), myself and the other two athletes were 'temporarily' inhabiting the same environment, unfortunately this lead at least one of them to achieve just enough 'self improvement' to take me right on the line... had I realised they were there perhaps I may have improved just enough to hold on to fourth?

From the start of training to the finish line of your A-race, competition is a valuable tool to keep you on the path to success... but what do I really mean by competition? For as long as I can remember, in just about every area of life, I've loved pitting myself against someone my equal excited by the unknown as to who would come out on top. I've never really enjoyed winning that much though, and certainly not been that bothered about losing... it's competing that really floats my boat. That however, is precisely the bit that people often fail to understand... the way I see it, to be 'competitive' means to love 'competing', not winning... there's nothing better than finding yourself in the final mile of a race, shoulder to shoulder with your arch rival, a situation guaranteed to bring the absolute best out of both individuals regardless of who gets to the finish line first. Really then it's a win-win situation as even if you do get beaten to the chequered flag you'll have achieved that little bit more than had you been miles ahead or behind.

Unfortunately most people who get classed as 'competitive' are actually just bullies who's insecurity creates a desire to beat others into submission or throw their toys out of their pram whenever they find themselves coming off second best. In reality they hate nothing more than actually competing, they're just bad losers! Perhaps that's why it bothers me so much when I get called competitive by others? Perhaps that's also why I'm never that bothered by my finishing position and much prefer to measure myself against the clock, seeing my rivals as a tool to pull me to a faster finish time rather than someone to beat or be beaten by? For example, last year when I finished 3rd at the Ballbuster duathlon I posted on my favourite Triathlon Forum ( that my finish position didn't mean that much to me, particularly due to the weaker than normal field, but the fact I pb'd by miles and broke three hours for the first time meant everything. Several people mistook this for a negative thought, replying that 'you can only beat who's there so don't put yourself down'... my reply to this however would be that all that finishing third means is that only two people faster than me turned up... a measure of other people's ability to get out of bed on a cold and wet March morning not a measure of my winter training! The fact that I took my time from 3.09 the previous November to 2.58 four months later was however an accurate and significant indication that all the hours on my bike and early morning starts had been worth every heartbeat... see 'self improvement'.

In the same way, I like nothing more than warming up for our weekly club time trial and seeing my LBT rivals getting ready to race... not that I care particularly whether I'll beat them or not... but I know their presence in the race and my desire to compete will pull me to a faster time. This was particularly evident at the Ashbourne Duathlon earlier this year when, with a pre race target of sub 2.20, I found myself chasing Richard Hamilton from gun to tape and although I came off second best I hit my target with only seconds to spare... with nothing left at the end I'm sure our two hour competition made the all the difference to my finish time!

This love of competition is not only beneficial during a race but can also bring out the best during training sessions... something I'm currently working on in order to develop my run speed (or lack of). Recently my good mate Dave McGuire has been doing rather well at the Hyde Park Time Trial where a sustained period of work has seen him dip below 18 minutes for the 5k on more than one occasion (my pb for the same distance is 18.10) and suddenly I see an opportunity to compete and therefore facilitate a little self improvement ;) For the time being however I'm a little way off this level of performance and so, in order to bridge the gap, Hels and I have been racing each other on the same course using a handicap system. Having done the race earlier in the year, I'd finished two minutes and 42 seconds ahead of H... last week then I gave her exactly that head start setting up a grandstand finish where she pipped me by a mere five seconds! This week, she set off 2.37 before me... only to shade it yet again by the narrowest of margins. Both times however I was pushed to my absolute limit and subsequently will have gained maximum benefit from the session... had we started at the same time the result would have been a foregone conclusion and neither her nor I would have found those extra few ounces of effort that make all the difference. Next week we'll see what happens off 2.32 ;) At the moment, Helen is pulling me closer to Dave and once I get within touching distance hopefully he'll help to pull me under 18 minutes...

At first this may all seem a bit contradictory to my number one goal of qualifying for Hawaii, something which is achieved purely by finishing ahead of others and has nothing to do with a set finishing time! When I think about my aims and ambitions within Ironman triathlon however, they all relate to who I would like to compete with, as opposed to who I would like to beat, it's just that the specific athletes who I would like to find myself shoulder to shoulder with at mile 140 are typically found in Kona every October, and if I'm going to compete in the Ironman World Championships I'll need less than nine or so athletes who are faster than me to turn up in Lanzarote on May the 23rd! The faster I am the more likely this will be and the more I 'compete' (remember, this applies to training, eating, sleeping and lifestyle just as much as actual organised racing - if I'm trying to have more sleep than someone else, regardless of how many zzzz's they get I'll no doubt up my count as a result) over the coming winter, the faster I'll be on race day.

If like me your aim is to achieve self improvement, in any area of life not just triathlon, I'd urge you to embrace competition without fear of failure and as often as possible place yourself in that 'shoulder to shoulder' situation where only then are you able to truly question yourself. I'd also suggest you avoid environments where you are the top performer and in the absence of someone faster, stronger etc. you should manipulate the environment to facilitate close competition. A great example of this was a couple of years ago when I found myself refereeing a game of Dodgeball between the Sales and Personal Training teams at the gym where I worked (bare with me on this)... after a few ten minute rounds the PTs were consistently beating their significantly less athletic rivals by 30 or so points and with both teams assured of the same outcome each time neither were putting in much effort. I called for a deciding game, yet this time awarded the sales team a 30 point head start, in the end the result was the same however both teams upped their performance several fold with the personal trainers only claiming victory after achieving a two point lead at 52-50. Interestingly I overheard a conversation just after where someone from the losing team was recounting the closeness of the match and how he'd given everything and played the game of his life, only to loose by two points at the death. The fact that the true margin of victory was actually 32 points had been lost to all involved and the Dodgeball version of self-improvement was testament to the value of true competition.

Talking of sleep, I'll refer you to my good mate Ben G's blog post for this week and leave you with a quote to ponder...

"Position is a measure of others, whereas time is a measure of yourself."
- me ;)



p.s. to quickly talk stats... next week is the Great North run and for once I've no idea how I'm going to do! Long runs are going better than ever with a hilly 16 covered 'conversationally' with my mate Tony this week in 1.49 (6.50 per mile) yet in terms of speed I'm slower than I've been in a long time with both this and last week's 5k tests a struggle to finish just above and below 19 minutes respectively. Last year I pb'd for the course in 1.21.17, this year it would take sub 1.20 or plus 1.25 to surprise me... whatever happens though the season will have been a great success and I'm really looking forward to removing my foot from the proverbial gas for the remainder of October :)


runtilyoudrop said...

tom you wrote
"The faster I am the more likely this will be and the more I 'compete' over the coming winter, the faster I'll be on race day."

Now I am not sure that competing all the time is all it is cracked up to be. What about Mark Allen and the 'patience phase'. I am sure however that motivation is key so there must be a balance of the two somewhere. All the ebst with the GNR. looks like I am doing snowdon on my own.

Tom said...

hi Gabriel,

it depends on how you define the term 'compete'....

For example, we'll be setting heart rate caps for the October training sessions... the competition will be to keep below a set number. I'll also be competing against my training diary to beat the previous year's sleep volume by one hour per week. I'll be competing against H to see who can cook the healthiest yet tastiest food. This week by the way, I entered her world of chocolate deserts, and having raised the bar with a heavenly chocolate pudding and organic ice-cream I'm already looking forward to the benefits when it's her turn to cook this week ;)

Even in something like a 'patience phase' - which for us will run from Monday the 6th through to Friday the 31st of October - there is plenty of scope to achieve self improvement through competition... how many rest days you taking? perhaps I could manage one more? Perhaps I could get from the bottom to the top of a hill at a lower heart rate than someone else? (assuming continuous forward motion is compulsory)

The stereotypical view of competition, as in legging it down the road as fast a possible, only represents a tiny percentage of the areas of life where we can apply this strategy in order to improve.

On a seperate note, now that Lanza has sold out I seem to be rather more excited about the whole thing ;)