Training Through Uncertainty
Training Through Uncertainty
Uncertainty is very uncomfortable. It breeds anxiety, and it can kill motivation. And we are currently living through one of the most uncertain situations that many of us have ever experienced. So, how do you continue training through this?

Uncertainty is very uncomfortable. It breeds anxiety, and it can kill motivation. And we are currently living through one of the most uncertain situations that many of us have ever experienced. So, how do you continue training, planning, and hoping through this time of (what feels like) total upheaval? I’m not a psychologist (maybe some day, though!), so all I can give you are my own thoughts and experiences. Hopefully there’s something in here that can give you a little boost.

First, let’s be honest about uncertainty. As athletes, literally everything we do has a degree of uncertainty. We may have tricked ourselves into thinking that that’s not the case; that our lives are stable and reliable, but they most definitely are not. Our jobs actually depend on uncertainty. If we knew who was going to win races before they started, or the course a competition would take, no one would watch and we likely wouldn’t have a desire to toe the line in the first place. Race results, event schedules, team selections, and even finances are uncertain elements of what we do everyday. And this isn’t just exclusive to athletes - this operational uncertainty is a key part of the human experience: tomorrow is never guaranteed, as much as we plan and count on things to be reliable. Nothing is ever certain.

So, if we think about it, we all operate with a large degree of uncertainty on a consistent basis. We have just developed an ability to manage this uncertainty. And if you can manage - or even thrive - in the uncertain lifestyle of a competing athlete, then you can definitely adapt these skills to apply to the global situation we’re currently facing.

So, what were the first steps I took when this situation snowballed? They’re the same steps that I take whenever I have to move forward despite the unknown:

  • First, I establish what I DO know. In this case, I know that racing will resume eventually. Life will return to normal. We will have to operate in a state of social distancing and modified functionality for a while. Likely, these things will be on the scale of months.
  • Then I acknowledge what I don’t know. In this case… I don’t know what the end date will be. I don’t know exactly when we will resume racing. I don’t know if I or my loved ones will get sick. I don’t know where I’ll be living past April, as we only rented our place until the beginning of what would have been the race season.
  • Then I acknowledge that these unknowns do change my specific plan and preparation, and my degree of long-term certainty, but notice that these don’t greatly change my degree of daily or even weekly certainty. It is still possible to make relatively stable plans for these micro time cycles (days, weeks).

Now that I’ve established my reality, I start planning. Planning may not be possible or helpful for everyone, but I thrive on having control over my environment, so these plans do help me a lot.

  • Each Monday, my coach and I establish a training plan for the coming week. We keep it a little flexible, but this means that I know the shape of my schedule at the start of each week.
  • Every day gets a to-do list. Knowing what I have to do and working towards those tasks builds a sense of control and certainty.
  • Increase the amount of time and energy I devote to planning things other than training, like meals and social media content. This helps me feel in control of my situation (though I’m sure for some it would be TOO much planning/control).

Inevitably, when we think about training through all this uncertainty, the question of motivation pops up. What are we even training FOR? How do I train when there’s just no sense of immediate urgency to be fast? Well, for me, motivation relies on goals, routine, happiness, and a sense of optimism. While the uncertainty of this situation has impacted these elements, I can strategize to fill these gaps.

  • Goals: our immediate racing goals have evaporated, but you can still set other motivating goals. You can set objective performance goals, which is something I like to do ALL the time. I’ve also found it helpful to give myself a predicted “racing by” date that I think seems realistic. It’s made up, but it still gives a sense of direction. Also remember that no training is ever wasted, and training is cumulative. So what you do now definitely will impact your racing in the future.
  • Routine: having a solid routine actual removes a lot of the need for motivation, because we can rely on daily habits to carry us through rather than having to conjure motivation. Set a wake and sleep time, start your training sessions at the same time each day, and make sure you have other time-sensitive things (FT meet-ups at a specific time with friends, online live workout streams, webinars, etc) that keep you accountable to your schedule.
  • Happiness: I think it’s really important to identify what makes you happy and work these things into your routine. For me, a sense of purpose and productivity, cheesy movies, baking, face timing with family, and getting enough sleep are all things that contribute to happiness. When you’re happy, everything is just easier.
  • Optimism: just remember that this simply won’t last forever. I’m reminding myself daily that there will be an end and it will come when it does. It’s my job to be ready for whenever that is. Just think - now we have more time to get faster!

I think the last element that makes training in this time so difficult is the anxiety that comes with uncertainty. While I may not be an expert, I am at least highly experienced in the field of Calming Myself Down, as I’ve been anxious for pretty much the last 26 years (lol?). In all seriousness, I feel well-prepared for this, as I’ve been actively training myself to better handle anxiety for the last decade.

My biggest strategy is something you’ve heard parroted a million times: start meditating, and practice breathing exercises. These work on a physical, emotional, and mental level. Another thing I do is lean on my routine. Routine actions help quiet my mind and keep me focused on the present and what I can do right now. Sometimes, I actually find the complete opposite helpful and I employ the tactic of “switch gears and ignore it” - i.e., I’ll turn on a TV show or begin reading a book and my brain eventually comes to rest in that activity rather than on the feelings of anxiety I was experiencing.

I’ll leave you with this: if you can train, that’s awesome. But if you’re just not in a place where you can handle it right now, that’s okay too. You don’t need to force it. All of the above things are helping me to stay focused and work towards my goal of being in and performing in Tokyo in 2021, but I’m sure there will be some rough days ahead. So, I’m anticipating those, and hoping I’ll be nice to myself when they come around.

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