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Breakthrough Performance Part 1: Your Training

Having a breakthrough performance at anything starts with your training.

From music to sport, going to a significantly higher level only comes from amassing a lot of hours practicing. We all know that. Few have the patience to do the 10,000 hours it takes to tip the scale and set you into a new realm. Even fewer spend all those hours doing the kind of training needed for a breakthrough performance.

Just showing up at the office in no way guarantees greatness. It’s how the work is done that enables a person to have a breakthrough performance. What kind of work is that? The kind that is uncomfortable. It’s the work that might look boring because it’s repetitive, feeling like you are doing the exact same thing over and over again that brings you no apparent bump in proficiency. But that is the first part of doing the work of a breakthrough performance: continuing to do repetitive tasks that you have already done a thousand times.

The uncomfortable zone of work that leads to breakthrough performances is  also about intentionally doing training at a level or in a way that at first you are guaranteed to be a failure at.

Gwen Jorgensen clearly knows how to do the work that sets her up for breakthroughs. She won 4-consecutive World Series races in 2014, something no other woman has done.

It’s going for a run with folks who are very likely going to drop you. It’s riding on terrain that your big race will require that is also your least favorite terrain to train on. The uncomfortable zone is perfecting the basics over and over and over, even though you are already really good at them, until you are able to do them perfectly without thinking. And then you keep doing them so they continue to be a skill you can call upon.

Most people migrate toward doing training on a day-to-day basis that is within their comfort zone. They gravitate toward doing the work where they have the skill set to be in full command of the outcome. That will never lead to a breakthrough performance, though. Yes, it will help you muddle around gaining very small incremental improvements in performance, but those will be insignificant compared to the amount of time you put into training in the comfort zone.

In the first six years as a triathlete I had some great races, but none at the biggest race in the sport at the IRONMAN World Championship in Hawaii. I couldn’t figure out how to have that breakthrough performance that would take me from close to winning to being the champion. I did a lot of training in those first six years. But it was clear that everything I was trying was not going to take me across the finish line in first place.

I had to make a shift from doing training that was fairly controlled to doing the uncomfortable before I was ever going to have a huge breakthrough performance in Kona.

Don’t get me wrong, I was doing a ton of training. In 1987 with the focus on getting ready for my 5th IRONMAN World Championship I did about 15,000 miles of swim, bike and run workouts. That’s about 125 Ironman’s worth of training. That’s a lot of work!

But it wasn’t the right kind of work. It was all within my realm of what I knew I could do and was comfortable doing. I needed to figure out where I was avoiding going with my training because it was uncomfortable but also essential to getting me ready for the biggest race in the sport of triathlons.

I thought about it, then analyzed it all. There was a key missing.

My longest training days were around 6-hours at most. But the IRONMAN is going to take at least 8-hours to complete for me. In every IRONMAN World Championship I did my race turned to disaster after hour six. So in 1989 as I prepared for my seventh IRONMAN in Kona I did some training days that lasted about 8-hours. That was uncomfortable!

I also did a number of bike sessions with professional cyclists who were guaranteed to drop me. That helped reset my gauge of what fast really meant in a long hard ride. That too was uncomfortable. I did some key longer run workouts with world-class marathoners. Again this helped reset my gauge of what fast running was all about. That too was completely uncomfortable.

I went into those runs knowing they would be complete guaranteed “failures” from the standpoint that I would be dropped the moment the pure runners really put the hammer down. But they were huge successes because they raised my level of what I was capable of doing. Uncomfortable yes, but essential for making a breakthrough performance in Kona.

Then there was the terrain profile that Kona would throw my way that I was totally uncomfortable with.

The bike in Kona has miles of false flats. No amount of climbing prepares you for them. Those have to be trained for.

The bike course is flat to rolling the entire way. I loved training in hills and doing long climbs. But that would not get me ready for Kona. So in 1989 in the final 8-weeks before there race I did all of my key long and hard riding on flat to rolling terrain.

Yes, it was completely uncomfortable and very unentertaining. I’d ride eastward from Boulder, Colorado out through cornfields and farmland that were just dirt in the late summer. There were no distractions, nothing to keep my mind occupied. I had to deal with riding in my most uncomfortable terrain.

Mark Allen wins 1989 Ironman.

But it worked! 1989 was a breakthrough performance for me in Kona. I won my first IRONMAN World Championship. It came by pulling away from Dave Scott, the guy who had an ironclad grip on those final two hours of the race. We raced step for step until just past mile 24 of the marathon. Fortunately I was finally able to break away on a short piece of road that was my strength. It was the last uphill before coming back into the town of Kona.

My time that year set a new course record. It was a breakthrough performance. I bettered my best time by nearly 30-minutes. All the long training in the world didn’t have an effect until I took it into the zones that the race required that were well into my uncomfortable realms.

Yes, it was uncomfortable but is was worth it!

Find your breakthrough performance here.

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