Friday, September 15, 2017

2017 ITU Long Course World Championships reflections

I put a lot of hours and a lot of energy leading into the ITU LD World Championships this year.

I was essentially getting up at 4:30 am every morning, training, eating, going to work, training again, eating and sleeping, for 45 weeks straight. The pure training volume (excluding walking and stretching) was set at a base of around 12-15hrs a week and topped to 21hrs leading to the big race. I did not face any injuries or other setbacks and was feeling good throughout. I did my first marathon in March at the beginning of the season, won a couple of local races (half and olympic distances), swam 15 ocean mile swims and I was feeling confident.

On the actual race day, many things did not go right. I do not like to make excuses but the truth is that on race day, my planets just did not align right. I was down with fever during my tapering week but did not make a big deal out of it nor complained. On race week, I started feeling better but I was not at my very best on race day. That morning, I forgot at the hotel my big gel flask full of EFS shot that I was planning to use on the bike. I only realized that when I was at the transition tent so I decided to substitute the forgotten big flask with one of my EFS regular shots that I had saved for the run, and top up with bananas at aid stations. The day was hot, dry and windy. I had an ok swim and bike leg (despite my nutritional deficit) and I was really holding my horses for the run. On a day with 93 degrees (33-34 Celsius degrees) I knew that the last 6 miles of the run will hurt most athletes, and I was aiming to perform my best during those last 6 miles!

I started the run not feeling as well as in my previous races. In general, I know I am not doing well in the heat and against all odds, I kept my chin up and tried to stick to my plan. By mile 10 I started feeling the fatigue, the heat and the nutritional deficit. I slowed down for about 3 miles but kept running. I managed to regain some energy between mile 14 and 18 but the last mile of the race ... hit me hard. I could see the finish line but it was so hard to hang on for that last mile. I jogged on a death line and finished ok but passed out at the medical tent. My body was shivering when I woke up. I had blankets all over me and the friendly medical staff managed to feed me down a couple of cups full of chicken broth. The soup settled my stomach a bit and after about forty minutes, I was able to stand up and get some more calories down.

I had a good race. I finished in 8hrs and 16min bettering my previous time on the same distance by a whole hour and seven minutes! For some reason however, this race left me feeling bumped and depressed. My run was not up to what I could do and what I had trained to do. Whether it was my fever, my nutritional deficit, the heat or all of those and many more, I don't know.

All I know is that I have yet to put together a perfect race.

Triathlon is so beautiful and so challenging because it's compromised of all these different elements that one needs to tune in a very carefully planned and personalized way in order to shine as an athlete! This is why every one of us strives for better and we never want to stop improving.

Till my next season ...

C U around!

Endless gratitude to my support team: husband and coach Dave Williams, athlossports, First Endurance, polar, Kali Protectives, PowerTap/CycleOps, DeFeet International

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Why we need to make mistakes and have terrible races

Some of us learn faster by listening, others by writing and others by doing. The majority of us however, learn more effectively by some sort of combination of all the above. Interestingly though, if you learn a theory, and even if you apply it successfully a handful of times, it still takes time to really sink in.

In sports, things are not that different: the coach is the instructor and the athlete is the student. I value myself as a good student and a good athlete. I listen, I take notes, I try my best to follow directions and apply the theory at practice and training sessions. This year, I finally thought I got it. And I actually did but, as with every piece of knowledge, it took time to sink in.

This year, I have been injury free. This year has been the only year in my entire triathlon career that I have managed to put in 48 weeks of solid, consistent training, without interruption. So, this was the plan layout and this was what I had to do, what I did and what I have learned so far:

Fall: prepare for my first marathon

I gradually increased my weekly running miles to ~60 and my body absorbed it. I kept swimming and cycling at a lower volume and intensity. That way, I created a solid running base for my triathlon training. I experienced my first marathon and learned that going out just a touch faster after mile 16 cost me pain and torture during the last 2 miles. Knowing how to pace your own self is absolutely detrimental.

Spring: transition time to full-time triathlon training and first half-distance race

Considering our move from Atlanta, GA to Metuchen, NJ, things went along pretty well. I completed a 200k brevet and won a local half-distance triathlon race running a decent 1:52 half-marathon at the end. I listened and applied and paced myself well at the bike and had plenty of good reserves for the run at the end. I was now confident.

Summer: bike quality kicks in while run and swim volume stays the same

I joined a local group of fast bike kids, who were kind enough to back off when my jammed legs were dying at steeper or longer hills. I saw a big improvement on my bike endurance and speed within two months, while my run and swim did not really suffer. I started recovering from long sessions a lot faster than before. My body was absorbing the volume and intensity well. Then, the first olympic distance triathlon race came. Even though this was a prep/training race, being too confident on the bike made me push it a touch faster than I should (see: marathon mistake) and I started the run with so much lactic acid that I couldn't really wash off. I had one of the fastest bike splits but ... I did not win the race. I really blew up on the run. I did not listen, I did not apply. The following week, another training, olympic distance race came along. That time, I was really determined to listen and execute. And I did.

I came home 3rd overall and clocked the second best running 10k of all females on the day, negative splitting (with tight splits) a hilly course and sprinting the last mile at a 7:22 mile pace.

Backing off just a little but not too much on the bike leg requires a good knowledge of yourself, a great understanding of pace and effort adjusted to the terrain and race distance, and a seamless application of what you have learned and practiced in training. In other words, you have to make all of your planets align just right.

How do you do that?

By listening, keeping notes, applying the theory numerous times in training and by making mistakes.

Happy mistakes ~ Happy learning from mistakes

C U out there!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Balancing body and mind

I come from a stereotypical, Mediterranean family that values education, family bonding, cultural traditions and heart-healthy food! I grew up spending most of my energy in school, learning the Greek language, literature, history and religion in a painstaking way, practicing science every day, learning good English from elementary to senior high and playing classical music on the piano for over 10 years. My parents spent most of their time at work, struggling to make ends meet, saving and investing on properties for our future and providing us with the resources for an expensive education. With virtually no parents at home, I was mainly brought up by my grandmother who spent the majority of her days in our apartment cleaning it and tiding it up and cooking our daily meals. She was also my occasional shelter and support - both emotional and financial - during the crazy days of parental disagreement against my teenagehood decisions.

This was a sweet, sheltered and well-rounded little world that came to a nearly complete collapse and re-creation when I decided to embark for my scientific journey outside Greece. Cultural shocks were real, eye-opening experiences during my first year in the UK, where I went for my masters degree in Mathematics, and during my first year in the US, where I pursued my doctorate degree in Biology (I finished both degrees earning multiple awards including two full scholarships). During those times, I acquired new knowledge, extended my skill sets, learned new methods, expanded my horizons and world views but most importantly, I experienced different life-styles, food options, cultural believes and standpoints. I developed new friends from around the world, saw how different individuals value different aspects of life in a different way and gradually, I re-invented myself.

My education and life-style became a choice that was completely my own and not just a strict and strenuous process dictated by culture and family. I love music and playing the piano but I found my passion in sports. Sports for my family - and for most Greeks back then - was a bi-weekly, light activity that one could do to keep themselves active and healthy. Sports for me now, is a pursue to become the best I can be. I want to train and teach my body and soul how to overcome adversity and extend its physical limits. This is because going above and beyond my strength and endurance barriers brings waves of emotional, intellectual and physical delight that balance out the hard core mental activities. This daily process harmonizes my body, mind and soul and brings inner peace. I cannot imagine living without the scientific curiosity, creativity and collaborative spirit that lead me to the path of so many discoveries over the years! At the same time, life would be impossible without setting athletic goals and working systematically towards them.

This is my way to balance my body and mind.

I have come to the realization that finding your inner peace is a long, bumpy road that is always dynamic and never straightforward. It is unique to each one of us and for some, this road may never end or may never lead anywhere. I am grateful that during my journey, I have experienced so many cultures, ideas and life-styles, and I am currently surrounded by few, extraordinary, humble and well-rounded individuals strong enough to help me destruct and re-build my initial, sheltered world without letting the foundations completely collapse.

I hope that my bumpy road will keep unfolding and eventually get me to a meaningful place and help others find their own.

Keep exploring, never judge, always love!

See you out there!

Monday, July 17, 2017

The future of social media and sports sponsorships

If you are a professional or elite age group athlete, your sponsorship success is by large depending on the number of followers you have in the social media. Many may think that winning medals is important however, social media exposure is the key.

Unfortunately, facebook has now been over-populated with all sorts of advertisements, "friends" that are not really friends, optional "followers" and a whole lot of nonsense: from ugly sandwich pictures, to how much one loves their partner or how far and fast they ran and biked on their training day, how silly or smart Trump appears on TV and many other statements you are asked to like or share or comment if you agree or not.

Twitter is on a similar route just with a little more flexibility on how to filter your news feed. However, there is still a lot of random advertisement that you can't completely control.

Instagram is a little better off with emphasis on the pictures rather than the text: nowadays, people do not like to read anything that would take longer than 2 min! Unfortunately though, some ads would pop up once in a while in your feed!

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram will die. They appeal to the 30-50 (maybe 50) years old generation. The youngsters are not into them and with all their nonsense and advertisement, soon the number of users will decline.
The sports industry would now have to find alternative ways for media exposure through their athletes.
It is a fact that information, advertisement and shopping will continue to expand through the digital route and the internet, so we just have yet to see the evolution of sports marketing. I personally believe that advertisement will be somehow automated, the same or better way than it has already started: while surfing on the web you can now see on the top or the bottom or left/right banner of your screen a variety of products you can buy that are personalized to your habits and interests. Amazon bought Whole Foods and sooner than we think, the online shopping will surpass (by a lot) the retail option.

If this is what's coming ahead, how would the sports industry react? Retail shops may turn into warehouses or repair facilities, and most purchases will be digital. For the athlete that represents sports products, this means that an updated, accurate and adaptive athletic e-profile will be the key.

Things change quickly and if the youngsters are doing one thing right now, they will be doing something else in a couple of years. One thing is for sure: the screen and the web will stay. Being up-to-date with your online profile is of great importance because trends will come and go but your exposure will be centralized in your page.

I can't wait to see the evolution of sports digital media coming ... I just hope that sports will not fade out and will not turn completely into a digital form of some sort ... I want to see people get out and have fun ... !

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Why do amateur athletes love to race?

Professional athletes race to make a living. The sport of triathlon for professionals is brutal. Unless you are in the world top 10 rankings, making a living from race-award money is a tough pursuit. At the professional level, sponsors will provide endorsements of many sorts but the single most important thing to pay the bills is winning. And although there are many races out there that give options to the athletes, the level of competition just seems to get faster every year.

At the amateur level, elite athletes usually race with a different motivation. Since amateur races do not provide cash rewards, why so many amateur athletes line every year to the start of hundreds of local, national and world races?

One may categorize the amateur athletes in three groups. Athletes within each group have a completely different motivation for racing:

1. The "enthusiastic starter" type of athlete: this is probably the majority of the amateur athletes. They start with great desire to train and race, they typically invest quite a lot in equipment, they tend to race either for health purposes or for winning the local sprint race that typically has 4 participants in each age category. If the stay in they sport for more than 1 or 2 years, they tend to "yo-yo" in their training and personal performance results. Triathlon is not their priority but they love to race because it keeps them healthy, relatively fit and it gives them the local race medal and a sense of accomplishment.

2. The "I want to give this sport a shot" type of athlete: this is probably a small percent of the athletes from category 1. that decide to invest a bit more time in the sport and train more systematically. A lot of these athletes love to race to either achieve better results in bigger races (I call those the "wannabe" athletes) or they are purely enjoying the competitive side and want to explore their own limits. These athletes usually stick around for 4 years or so.

3. The athletes that are here for the "long-haul": these are the few athletes that have matured through categories 1. and 2. and simply enjoy the lifestyle of training and racing. Being healthy, fit and competitive does not have a time limit or age for those lifelong athletes. They have survived injuries, setbacks, family commitments, psychological roller-coasters and other life instances and somehow, they still find the energy to get out every day and put in the work. Medals are optional depending on the goals - but medals don't matter at this point. These guys are here for the "long-haul".

Which category you think you belong? Which do want to end up at the end?

Share your thoughts!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Top benefits from learning and practicing flip turns

I am definitely not the fastest swimmer in the field but I work hard, smart and persistently to improve my weakest discipline: swimming. Since I started triathlons, I had one and only one motivation line:

"If you want to get better in a sport you have to be an athlete of the sport".

Do you want to be a better swimmer? Then, you need to do what swimmers do. 
Simple and straightforward.

I understand that there is a lifelong debate whether triathletes gain benefits from learning how to flip turn or not. I am not a high-performance coach nor a high-performance triathlete to make definitive claims here but this is what I have gained over the years of practicing and doing flip turns consistently and constantly.

Practicing flip turns will make you incredibly faster on race day!

1. You maintain the continuity, the momentum and the rhythm of your swim. To give you an example: comparing flip turns with open turns or with stopping at the end of each lane is like trying to run a mile around the track and having to stop momentarily every 200 meters!

2. You actually get more rest. This is because when you flip turn you streamline and you rely on momentum getting in and out of the wall!

3. You practice breath control. This way you get more efficient on maintaining high intensity speeds in the water during the race!

4. You get a better feel for the water and gain better awareness of your body and speed. You become more efficient overall!

5. It is an awesome workout for the core ~ why spent hours at the gym when you can just practice flip turns and execute them while swimming?

Good luck!

Here is my little flip turn here:

Monday, March 27, 2017

The six elements that prevent most age group athletes from being professional

Age group athletes share more characteristics with professional athletes than you may think.

Age group athletes also lack quite a few features that professional athletes have mastered to perfection. In actuality, these features play a much more significant role in success than physical parameters such as VO2 max, economy, lean muscle mass, metabolic efficiency and mental toughness.

First, let's just define success. A successful athlete, amateur or professional alike, has nothing to do with their number of podium wins. Podium wins are irrelevant. Whether you are an age group athlete that has just started the sport or you have been doing it for a few or many years, whether you are a tier 2 or tier 3 (newbie) or a tier 1 (top 10 in the world) professional athlete, the podium does not define you. You can always find a relevant race somewhere in the world that you can probably earn a podium spot, regardless of your experience, level or ability. This alone does not make you successful.

Success is careful planning and execution along with consistent and long-term progress. 

Let's just now talk about the characteristics of success that age group athletes oftentimes lack compared to professional athletes. The six elements of professionalism:

1. Professionally outlined plan

Whether they have a coach or not, true professional athletes always have a well outlined plan. Tailored to their individual strengths and weaknesses, a well outlined plan has specific goals that are usually challenging but achievable.

2. Professional execution of the plan

True professional athletes are committed and relentlessly persistent. They execute the prescribed workouts at their best of their abilities. And they stick to the plan. They have No excuses. They just make it happen. And when it's time to back off or take an extra day off, they adjust with no extra drama.

3. Professional attitude during injuries and other set-backs

Everybody gets injured at some point. And it is never easy. True professional athletes deal with injuries setting timelines and following the prescribed rehab plans. No excess emotion or depression. It is what it is and they just have to go over it. Oftentimes, they may utilize the injury to take a break and work on some of their weaknesses as long as whatever they do does not affect the rehab and does not slow down the progress of getting better faster.

4. Professional attitude to failure

Everybody fails at some point. Failure is a good thing. Winning is also a good thing but failure is better. Failure unveils the true athlete. The way a true professional handles failure exposes their true character. True professional athletes know how to embrace their failures. They analyse them in detail so that they do not repeat the same mistakes again.

5. Professional commitment to strengthen the weaknesses

Who doesn't feel strong and powerful on their element? In case of triathlon, athletes usually come from different athletic backgrounds or from an individual sport. Therefore, inevitably, they have weaknesses. True professional athletes focus at prolonged and consistent times on their weaknesses. They just outline whatever they need to do in order to get better and then try to nail them down to perfection.

6. Professional passion for the sport

True athletes love what they do. There are no sacrifices while training and racing. There are only future investments and tons of excitement in every step that makes them better.

Always remember that almost every professional athlete started by competing at the amateur level. Some made the transition to being professionals faster, others slower (for various reasons). Others had equipment and resources and others did not. If you really want it, you can make it happen. You should not complain for not having this or the other - athletes make it work with what they have.