I have often thought that training is akin to cooking. You have the ingredients, you have the method and you have an element, usually an oven, which cooks and brings everything together into a final product. I have titled this blog “The Perfect Training Soufflé” because, as a child of the 70’s, the soufflé was a mythical dish that everyone spoke about. It was the dish that was impossible to get right but if you did it was amazing and you became the talk of the town. If you failed the final product was quickly assigned to the bin and wasn’t to be spoken about again. Such was the fine line between culinary hero and purveyor of expensive food for the worms.
With my culinary tastes and talents, agricultural to say the least, I have never even tasted a soufflé let alone attempted to cook one but that does not stop me having a deep appreciation of the talent that goes into mastering a skill such as this. However, when it comes to training I have no compunction at wading into the quagmire of a set goal, whether that be a 5 km park run or a three day endurance triathlon, with an unreserved enthusiasm and scant regards for the talents and dedication that I need to produce the perfect result. If I continue the cooking analogy, my personal athletic endeavours are a dish that, fortunately, only one person has to stomach. If I don’t do enough speed sessions or I don’t work on my core strength enough it can be equated to not adding enough herbs and spices to the dinner I am cooking for myself. It is edible and still provides nutrition it is just not something that I would serve up as my signature dish if I owned a restaurant. If we dig deeper into this we could possibly attribute this ‘have a go, no matter your ability’ mentality to a society that completely supports and encourages a near enough is good enough attitude. If you complete a marathon, everyone who crosses the line gets the same medal. It is similar to the reward a chef receives when they produces a Michelin star 5 course meal and the house cook who plated beans on toast. Both produced food that satisfies, comforts, possibly brings people together and at its base level provided nutrition where no one ended up in hospital with the botulism. Similarly the athlete that won a race in record time versus the weekend hack that crosses the line as the finishing balustrade is being dismantled both achieved their goals and did so by covering the same ground. It can be seen, if you squint your eyes and hold your head at a slight angle that cooking the perfect meal can be equated to producing the perfect race.
Let’s start addressing my tentative link between cooking and racing by breaking down the elements that are needed for making a perfect meal and equating this to the perfect race.
1. The Goal
Just as we have our A, B, and C races throughout our season we have our A, B and C level meals. The C level race could be a park run on a Saturday morning. A race that we might use to test out our new shoes. See how our legs feel after a big training week. Not a lot of preparation goes into these races and we are not disappointed if these races go poorly. If we have to walk to the finish line it is not a soul sapping experience.
These C races can be equated to breakfast. Something we grab as we head out the door. If the toast is burnt and the hard butter rips a hole in bread it doesn’t affect us. Generally speaking breakfast is not really a meal which is a shared experience and as such it is generally perfunctory in its delivery and utilitarian in its outcome.
B level races on the other hand are more serious. They require more preparation and attention to detail. They are races which are performed on a grander scale. B level races are the 70.3 ironman 3 months before a full ironman that you are using to qualify for the world championships. These races are the equivalent of inviting the parents over for dinner to announce your engagement or to reveal that you just found out that you are pregnant with your first child. The meal is important but if it flops then the later event will quickly cover for the lack of salt in Mexican black bean soup or the slightly burnt smell emanating from the kitchen signifying that the good news will be the desert replacement.
Finally the A races are the ones that loosen your bowels when thoughts of it come into your head at random times weeks before the event. A races are your Olympic games, they are your magnum opus, and they are your chance to be someone. You have invested blood, sweat and tears to just get to the start line and this race will be a PB or you will end up in the ER trying. You have devoted too much time to your selfish goals and have possibly ruptured friendships so badly that you have metaphorically agreed to sell your soul to the devil to go 5 seconds under your goal time just to justify the cost to your relationships. These races are equivalent to inviting your boss over to dinner on the eve of a promotional opportunity. ‘A’ races are the family dinner at Christmas where your lactose intolerant Grandmother is joined by your son’s vegan girl friend of two weeks and your gluten free Aunt and socially intolerant Uncle all surrounded by 7 children under 7. It requires painstaking planning, execution and more luck than you care to admit too just to get your guests to sit at the table. Despite the anguish that these events put on you it is the pull of the sadomasochistic high along with your type A personality that sees you sign up again and again to these A races which equates to you putting your hand up every time someone asks who wants to host Christmas dinner this year.
The goal to the perfect race and the perfect meal is the purpose. Needless to say this purpose and this focus is the driving force that determines how important it is to you. How much time and attention you will give it. How much will you invest in the process, how many resources are you prepared to sacrifice in order to reach your end point? In choosing this goal it is important to note that man did not go to the moon by dreaming about going to the shop. Therefore you need to dream big and visualize the goal in order to achieve to your potential but at the same time you need to place your goals in an A, B or C race continuum mindfully. This ability to know where to place your races in the calendar is vital for your development as an athlete. This mean that you understand that having three back to back Christmas dinners is unsustainable and the quality of each performance will be below your potential. You should also be attentive to giving the right amount of gravitas to each of the different intensities of races. Racing the local 5km park run pushing women and children to one side as you step to the start line, yelling on your right as you race through the back markers of the field on the second lap, is not conducive to you positive reputation within the general community as a whole. Deciding the amount of effort to apply and using the lower importance ‘C’ races to gain skills to enhance you higher races are the keys to managing your athletic career. While toasting your bread doesn’t seem like it will enhance your ability to make the perfect soufflé if you treat it like a simple thread in the tapestry then you are more likely to gain more from the simple skills that it has to offer.
2. The ingredients
After you have decided the goal of your racing and training program you will need to add the ingredients. Many would say, “hold on don’t you need a recipe first?” Then once you have the recipe you can go off and buy the ingredients to make the food.
I obviously disagree with this. I believe that you need the majority of the ingredients first and then the recipe will chose itself which marries the elements together to make the perfect end point. You will see many signature dishes of the most famous restaurants around the world which lean heavily on the local produce. For example it is no accident that ‘Sake the Rocks’ is a mere 3km from the Sydney fish market where the freshest fish is sourced to make their signature King Fish sashimi. The same is true for athletes who are born with good genes but these genes are nurtured and enhanced in the environment they were born into. It can be said that a sashimi restaurant in the middle of Texas, USA might have the best Japanese chef in the world but the access to quality produce may limit the quality of the final product. As an athlete you are made in the forge of the village that created you. If you were fortunate enough to be gifted with gold medal winning swimming genes but were born in Alaska to two parents that were champion Iditarod competitors in a town 300km away from the nearest swimming pool you are not likely to get a chance to put in the 10,000 hours of training needed to reach your potential. Therefore the athletic ingredients that you have access to are a combination of your environment and your genes.
So what are the ingredients that are needed for your signature athletic dish? At the risk of oversimplifying a champion has the following common elements. Endurance, strength, speed, stamina, recovery, nutrition and mental acuity. These ingredients can be seen in the title fight boxer, the Olympic sprinter, the weight lifter, all the way through to the locals involved in a pickup game of basketball. The mixture of the ingredients is different. The weight lifter mixes more strength, the sprinter more speed, the boxer more stamina and the local basketballer will use whatever slight gains they have in any of the areas to extract a victory in any way that they can.
The difference in the quality of the athlete comes in the how they mix these ingredients to make the most of their “A” event.
3. Method: Mixing the ingredients
For many years I have heard the expression. “In the mix!” Meaning the person has placed themselves in a situation that gave them the same opportunity to win as everyone else. Think Stephen Bradbury in the 2002 winter Olympics. Stephen snuck into the final by the finest of margins. In the final he was in a distant last place behind the raging hot favourite Apolo Anton Ahno. Coming around the final corner the whole field fell under the tripped skates of Ahno except for Bradbury who skated across the finish line into the Australian sporting folklore. Stephen was in the mix to take advantage of the situation that arose and he won the gold medal in sensational style. In order to be in the mix he needed to have the right ingredients. I listen to Stephen speak at a motivational event at a school I taught at. He got a few of the students up the front of the room to do a simple squat jump exercise. The students were required to hold a squat for 45 seconds then explosively jump as high as they could before going straight back into the squat again. They were instructed to repeat this and Stephen dutifully and gracefully demonstrated how easy this task was for the students. We, as the audience, were in no doubt that this was a simple warm up. But as the cries of pain rung around the hall within 20 seconds of the exercise starting and the fact that not a single student made it through to the 45 second mark let alone making it to the explosive jump, Stephen had made his point. In order for Stephen to be in the mix he had to have the right ingredients to start with. He needed to place himself at the point in time to maximize his opportunities. At that moment, when Stephen made his point to the audience, he showed us the pain, blood, sweat and tears that went into his victory and gave us a sense of awe and appreciation for his achievements without even mentioning the elephant in the room.
In making a soufflé a single drop of grease or a taint of egg yolk can be the death knell to your dreams and aspirations as a culinary guru. An Olympic athlete has to walk a similar fine line mixing the ingredients with perfect proportions and balancing the method of their union with deft touch and attention to detail. With hundredths of seconds between first and second in a 50m freestyle event it can come down to an athlete who spent longer in the gym working on leg strength, or an athlete that stayed after training to work on dive techniques or another who worked on honing their shoulder flexibility. More often than not it comes down to the athlete that paid attention to all the ingredients and made sure that there was not one weakness that could cause their own personal athletic soufflé to drop at the most vital of moments.
In terms of the everyman athlete this means juggling all of the balls and establishing a balance of life and sport. Making sure you follow the plan, take into account that all the ingredients are as good as you can make them so they go into the mix to give you the best possible chance to maximize your chances. When you slide the cake batter into the oven you want to make sure that the cake has every chance to rise and taste perfect which equates to running across the line with a PB in your chosen athletic endeavour.
4. Cooking: The race.
It is true to say that the race is won before the gun even goes off, it is simply yours to lose if you so chose. But if all due diligence has been done and you have sourced the finest ingredients and followed the best method you had at your disposal then the race will unfold before you. Your meticulous mixing of the ingredients will enable you to maximize every possible chance that comes your way. This will allow you to use the skills at your disposal to ride over the bumps that may inadvertently try to take away your dream. You just have to trust the process.
Unfortunately with so much invested in your ‘A’ race it is difficult to trust the process. The desire to second guess and live your race between your ears rather than under your feet means that things can and will go wrong. It is clear to see that while the soufflé does its business in the oven there is an overwhelming desire to open the door and see how it’s going. The same is true for racing. Your race pace is pre-set. Your plan has been perfectly executed in training. But for some reason you decide to go out harder than you planned. Your brain has short circuited you into believing that you are able to run 10 seconds a kilometre faster. The running fairy visited you in the middle of the night and now you have been bestowed the gift of unfathomable endurance, speed, stamina and mental acuity. The ingredients you have been working with for the last 8 months have suddenly changed to the finest man can buy and your skills as an athlete have exponentially improved while you slept. This is like opening the door of the oven and suddenly discovering that the soufflé which has been rising nicely behind the slightly obscured tinted glass has a rush of cold relatively frigid air and its dreams and aspirations have been taken away. The ingredients that were perfectly uniting under the heat of competition have now turned on each other and the world has crashed in on itself. Second guessing the process and trying something that hasn’t been tried in training has killed the delicate balance. While you quickly shut the door the damage has been done. You can repair some of the damage. Walk a few kilometres to get your legs back again or walk out the cramps which have been induced through lack of attention to your pre-race nutrition strategy. The pull of the finish line still beckons but you will not have a PB today you will serve a partial risen soufflé and you will prepare the condolence address on the way to the line. It was the heat, it was the cold, it was the puncture but in the end you simply decide on, it just wasn’t my day.
5. The dinner
The final element is the crossing the line and consuming what you have created. It is your chance to reflect on the method and the ingredients. It is a chance for self-congratulations and also a time for reflection on what can be done better next time. The joy of the meal can be combined with the reflection of what could have been and what will be next time. You surround yourself with what you have created you revel in what you have brought together. You walk away with the medal around your neck content with the experience but unknown to you in the empty cooling darkness of the oven lies a burning ember that wants to reignite. This ember will spur you on to try again with different mix of ingredient or a different method that you overheard in a stilted coffee shop conversation. You know that while it was a good effort you know it wasn't your magnus opus and you are not quite ready to stop trying. Next time will be better. Next time it will be The Perfect Souffle!