In the lead up to the launch of our new Coaching Unit at The LAB I'm delighted to publish my first blog piece. This is the first in a three part series, with part II coming next week.
Before I start with my take on the life lessons I have learned from doing various triathlons, I feel the need to clarify that my abilities as a triathlete and as an athlete, for that matter, are…well, far from professional. I compete in the shorter category triathlons that are organized. I go for the Olympic distances and have no desire to ever enter an Ironman. I have never won a triathlon - or any race that I have ever entered. I practice sport for sports sake and because I genuinely enjoy it, crazy as that sounds to non-sports-enthusiasts. I sometimes think this is the purest form of sport. There are no prizes and certainly no glory for the majority of us who regularly engage in these competitions.
No one coaches me, sponsors me or takes me very seriously. I have no problem with that. I have no problem with coming in dead last, if I have had a good race and had a good time. SO, if you are looking for big macho life lessons about winning, this is not your article. But if you are looking for more accessible lessons learned from my very mediocre performances, then read on…
Lesson 1: Take time for yourself
While this lesson might be obvious, it is one that often falls into the famous “knowing/doing” gap. That is, we know it, but can’t quite find a way to do it.
Training for a triathlon (or any race) forces you to take and make time for yourself. I think that a lot of managers find this hard. There are so many pressures and deadlines at work. You have family waiting for you back at home. I sometimes think that women have more trouble with this one than men. Maybe because I am a woman, I hear about this lack of personal time over and over again from female managers. It is not easy.
Taking the time to engage in sport sometimes feels like the utmost in selfishness. DO IT ANYWAY! Not only is it good for your mental health by giving you the mental space you need to ponder and process life, but numerous studies have shown that it also improves your performance at work as well. I imagine that the physical benefits are so obvious as to go unmentioned, but lets be honest, being healthy just feels great, too!
Lesson 2: Beware of cramps in the pool
Slightly cryptic, but here goes… Training for a triathlon involves a lot of strenuous physical activity. It is a constant balancing act between really pushing yourself, while not pushing so hard that you cause injury. It is a fine line. I have found that most athletes have little telltale physical signs when the stress on muscles is increasing to an unhealthy level – and most of them know them and look out for them.
For me, my achilles heel is literally my achilles. I carry stress in my calf muscles, down my achilles and into my feet. I don’t generally feel it, but it is there and it manifests itself when I swim. As I stand on my tip-toes or try to push-off with my toe from the wall as I turn (no, I do not do the fancy flip turns, in case you were wondering), I will often get a cramp in my foot that is disabling and incredibly painful. In fact, I have to manually pull back on my foot and hold it to get the cramp to release. After years of training, I can now spot this as a warning sign. When this starts happening, I know I have to pull back a bit from the running and the mountain biking AND I probably need to get a leg massage or an achilles injury is not far away!
I have brought this lesson into my life as a coach and a person. What are the “tells” in my professional and personal life that give me a heads-up that I am carrying too much stress? I started thinking about this recently and I have spotted them. In truth, it was not all that difficult. So, now I know to “beware of cramps in the pool” in various areas of my life and I know what I have to pull back from to avoid the inevitable blowout that a sustained state of over-stress causes. Figure out what your tells are and how to pull back in time to avoid injury.
Which brings me to Lesson number 3: The importance of recovery!
Athletes have known about the importance of recovery for a long time. They regularly time their training to “peak” for the Olympics or some other important competition and then recover. When training for a triathlon, I often have to do two-a-day workouts. I will have to run and swim on the same day, for example. Originally, this seemed a bit silly when there were days in my training routine where I did nothing! It was an older, wiser triathlete that explained the need for recovery to me. The body needs to recover and repair itself. This is the only way we can take advantage of the physical stress caused by exercise. It WILL make us stronger and faster, but only IF we let our body recover.
As it turns out, I believe that this is true in life as well. But how many managers and executives do I know, and maybe work with, who are constantly doing two-a-day workouts and not allowing themselves to recover? How many of us “peak” for the closing of the books and then the annual strategy review and then for the quarterly sales figures and then for…. We seem to feel unable to strategically choose when and where we peak and are always in a state of heightened ready-ness. There is no recovery time on the horizon and we have forgotten how important it is.
Stress without recovery time weakens us and leads to burnout and fatigue. Only a combination of stress and recovery will make us stronger. So, I have built this into my life at work and in training. One of my key strategies – I take sleep VERY seriously. Your strategy might be different, but I encourage you to look for a few small strategies for recovery.