I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

author : EnduRight
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Training is often a lonely proposition and sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Finding good training partners can provide you with that extra external motivation to bring out your best.

An old college swimming teammate of mine from Notre Dame emailed me out of the blue yesterday. He had run across my email address while doing a Google search for somebody else. I hadn’t been in contact with him since the disastrous Ocho Cinco Fiesta Bowl of ’00 that was ND football’s jump the shark moment. I’ll save that diatribe for some other time. Hearing from Rob resurfaced some great memories about swimming with him and specifically, the importance of training partners.

In my college swimming experience, training partners were a function of the placement of athletes within the team’s training organizational structure. Most college swimming programs follow a pretty standard protocol for this org structure. Warm-up and base aerobic sets are usually done as a complete team for the first portion of practice. After completing this portion of the session, the coaching staff separates athletes into lanes primarily by stroke specialty or the specific emphasis the coach has for the athlete for that session. For me, personally, I was somewhere between being an IM and breaststroke specialist, so I spent time in a lot of different lanes during my collegiate career. However, I spent proportionally more of my “specialty” time in the breaststroke lane.

As Rob was a year ahead of me, we both swam in the breaststroke lane together for the better part of three seasons. He wasn’t the most talented guy in the pool, but he was a workhorse. He squeezed every bit of talent out of himself and when he had exhausted his genetic reserves, he went to the next available option – outworking the guy next to him.

Over the course of those three years, he kept me accountable during workout on a day-to-day basis. I would even go as far to say that his presence was the single most influential factor on the consistency of my training. If I was looking to take a 100 off in a main set, Rob would be there pushing. Rob’s unfailingly high level of training output forced each of us in the lane to raise the baseline performances in our workouts every session. In short, his output was the starting point, and we had to push ourselves in order to meet or to surpass it.

My junior year, we had a highly touted incoming freshman breaststroke specialist join the team named Steele Whowell. No, seriously, that’s his name. Steele was, and still is, an incredibly gifted athlete. Note the choice of words here: athlete vs. swimmer. Athletes and swimmers are often mutually exclusive, so to be both was more rare than common. Steele could have probably played another sport at the collegiate level if had devoted the same amount of time to it as he did swimming.

Where Rob set the starting point for the bar each day, Steele was the Serge Bubka of the breaststroke lane. At a moment’s notice he could place the bar as high as he wanted and invited others to measure themselves against his performance. He didn’t always set the high mark for the lane on a given day. He tended to pick and choose when he was going to drop the hammer. But when he did, you had to be lights-out to come close to him, let alone beat him.

I never questioned Steele’s work ethic given his seemingly whimsical effort. What I came to learn was that he had an intrinsic knowledge of his body and his ability to absorb training loads. With this uncanny instinct, he self-regulated accordingly. In my experience coaching and competing at all different levels of sport, it’s the truly elite who have this self-awareness. It's wrapped around an intrinsic knowledge of their own physiological, psychological, and kinesthetic environments. Steele was an elite athlete. Throw on top of this gift that he was a total gamer, a Chris Drury-type, and he inspired the best out of you. Between training with Rob and Steele over my college career, all I had to do was get out of my own way and I was sure to improve.

Unlike a team sport or team organization, multisport training is quite often lonely. We spend a lot of time before our family and friends are awake, logging solitary miles on the road or in the pool. Often these moments are the only time we can be completely alone and self-reflect. It’s rejuvenative and cathartic by nature. Other times, the solitude can be our own worst enemy. Independence allows us to make our own decisions, and sometimes we make the wrong decision. You can hear the monologue in your head:

Threshold intervals this morning? Maybe I’ll dial the intensity down a notch or two.

4x1600s? Let’s do 2x1600s, 1x800 and 1x400 instead.

240 minute ride? It’s cold and there’s a chance of afternoon showers, so let’s go for 150.

Sometimes we need some external motivation (dare I say peer pressure?) to get us moving in the right direction. Training partners create that external accountability. The right training partners give you a better shot at making better decisions when those decision points take place. Couple some external pressure with our own internal drive, and we have two very powerful forces working in our favor before, during, and after a training session. Is it any wonder why multisport elites flock in droves to Boulder, San Diego, or Thailand (TBB)?

Finding good training partners is a difficult task. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, event priorities, unique work and life schedules, and so do our friends. I tend to keep a small group of people that I can contact on short notice who all provide some portion of that external motivation that I need when I need it. I like to think that I provide some of that same positive influence on them, too. Ultimately, though, the most important partners you can find to help you along your way are specialists in consistency and performance. Rob and Steele were those pillars in college, and now my quorum of training partners here in Atlanta provides that similar influence.

As my college swim coach said so accurately in a recent speech, the two hardest moments in a swimmer’s day are pulling your two feet out of bed and on the floor when the alarm goes off, and taking those same two feet and putting them in the water to start a workout. Good training partners, just like any other partner in life, make those hard moments easier. And along the way, a good partner will always bring out the best in us – socially, professionally, intellectually, and even athletically.


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date: October 20, 2008