The story of the phoenix is one of long life and renewal. It is one of many legends across many different cultures, but there are consistent themes that run through them. The majestic gold, red and purple colored phoenix is a long lived bird and legend says lives 500 to 1000 years. As it grows old and nears death, it will build itself a nest where the phoenix will purposefully ignite both the nest and itself and burn down to ashes. It is from this pile of ashes a new phoenix is born and the cycle of its life is renewed for another 500-1000 years.
As Heather and I were sitting around and trying to come up with a name and concept for our new company, I was drawn to the parallels between training and racing in endurance sports and the phoenix. Good training is created through a regular, cyclical pattern of training stress and recovery. Depending on the sport, an athlete will spend two to twenty weeks, like in swimming, building up the training stress and breaking down the body through workouts that increase in either time or intensity. It is the act of training, like the phoenix growing old, that sets the stage for the renewal of the athlete and when the athlete is sufficiently tired, they will take some time to recover and rise up out of the stress of training as a stronger and more fit person.
Not only is this pattern seen over weeks, but in shorter lengths like days or minutes or longer lengths like years. I remember being out at the Olympic Training Center for a cycling coaching conference and seeing the training plan for the Olympic cycling team. The amount of training and racing built for three years, 1993-1995, leading up to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Then the plan called for a reduction in training and racing in 1996 as the team made final preparations for the Games.
Emma Snowsill, three time World Champion, adopted a similar pattern on her way to winning the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal in Beijing. She raced many, many times all over the world in a successful 2007 season that was capped off with her third World Championship Gold Medal, but then in 2008 she hardly raced at all and even skipped the World Championships to make sure that she was prepared as best as possible for the Olympics.
A friend of mine and Head Coach for the very successful Innovative Endurance triathlon team, Greg Muller, share a philosophy: triathletes are consistently over trained. During one of our conversations, Greg shared with me one of the criteria he used at the time to determine if he would agree to work with a professional triathlete. One of the very first things he would tell the athlete to do is to take two weeks off. Like totally off. Like no training at all. He said that if they couldn’t do it, he wouldn’t work with them. He wasn’t about to take on a new coaching client that wasn’t able to rest and recover when he wanted them to. He wasn’t going to fight the battle to convince the athlete to take time off if needed. If they could embrace both parts of the cyclical pattern of training and recovery, he would take them on.
I listened to another great athlete, running champion Bob Kennedy, talk at a cross country coaching conference. He talked about his experiences at IU running under the guidance of Coach Bell. It was Coach Bell’s philosophy that the only training days that were set in stone and that wouldn’t be altered were recovery days. The days of intervals and tempo runs were subject to change or cancellation. If the athlete wasn’t recovered enough and fresh enough to perform up to the standards that he wanted, that workout was thrown out and the athlete was sent out on a recovery run.
Endurance athletes are, in general, really good at training hard and pushing themselves. Where many of them are confused is that they think that training hard is building fitness and this is why I love the parallels to our company’s mascot, the phoenix. The training is the same as the phoenix growing old and getting slow and tired. The emotional space of the athlete and the phoenix are the same that when they are at the end of the cycle, they long to be reborn and feel fresh, light, powerful once again. It is only by letting go and willingly ending the cycle of training where the training stress is remade into better fitness.
When I am coming into the end of a big training block, I imagine myself building my nest and purposefully climbing in and letting the flames of recovery wash over me. In that fiery moment, all of the achy joints, the sore muscles, the general malaise, the fatigue are all burned up and I rise up out of the ashes of the previous training cycle renewed and invigorated both physically and emotionally and ready to start the cycle all over again.