Monday, September 21, 2009

Multi-Sport Excellence

Can you be good at everything? Okay, you know the answer to that one, I’m sure. Well then, how many things, like sports, do you think you can be good at, concurrently? I don’t just mean passable at; I mean really, really good at. Like reaching your full potential. Like winning almost every race you go to in multiple sports. Like going to the World Championship in multiple sports. That kind of good.

Does that sound like a dumb question? I hope not because I have lots of people ask me, and they are very smart folks. They simply want to participate in two (or more) sports and do as well as they possibly can in both (or all) – not just finish.

There have been few pro athletes who have tried anything like this. The only one who comes to mind right now is Michael Jordan who retired from basketball to give baseball a try. It didn’t work out for him. But even he didn’t try to play both sports at the same time, even though both involve a ball.

This is what many age group athletes want to do – race in two sports. Not just participate. That is easy to do. Anyone can sign up for races in different sports and have twice as much fun on any given weekend. What I’m talking about is racing competitively and winning at a high level. This is not nearly as common, although a few do manage to pull it off. But very few.

Former pro triathlete Cameron Widoff comes to mind. For several years he was the most successful American at Ironman Hawaii when it comes to consistent top 10 finishes – and he also raced his bike competitvely. Someone else who managed to pull it off for a while was Lance Armstrong who in the late 1980s and early1990s was primarily a triathlete but dabbled in bike racing - and became pretty good at the second sport. And so eventually he gave up triathlon (word is that he’s considering triathlon again for the future). In fact, the athletes who ask me most about doubling up are triathletes who also want to be road cyclists. After all, they always point out to me, both involve cycling.

I really do hate to rain on peoples’ parades, but when they ask me I feel a need to be honest. Sign up and have fun but don’t expect to be the best you can possibly be at two different sports. And the sports of triathlon and road bike racing really are different despite having a bike involved in each of them. Bike racing success depends on anaerobic fitness. It always comes down to three-minute or shorter episodes. Triathlon is a fully aerobic sport. There is no anaerobic in triathlon. It never comes down to a three-minute episode. And the people who are serious about bike racing – your intended competition – ride a lot of miles every week. A lot. They don’t run and swim or do anything else that takes energy and time away from bike training. And, no, there is so little crossover of fitness from one sport to the next that it’s a non-issue. Your running and swimming will not make you better when on a long climb you have to put out 350 watts or get dropped. And that’s what competitive bike racing is all about.

Let me tell you about an athlete I coached for many years. We’ll call him “Ralph.” Ralph liked to be competitive in both sports. At the end of each season we’d have this conversation about next year. I’d ask him if he wanted to stay with two sports or focus on one. And I always assured him he would be much more competitive if he did focus. Ralph was already quite accomplished in both sports with a spot on Team USA for the World Triathlon Championship and top 5 finishes in his state road cycling championship for his age group. He always said that he enjoyed both and wanted to continue training and racing in two. Then in the early spring a few seasons back he came up lame with a running injury that just wouldn’t go away no matter what we did or how much he rested it by not running. So I suggested that he just race his bike to let the injury heal. No more running for a while. He reluctantly agreed. Know what happened? His Functional Threshold Power (an indicator of bike fitness) increased by more than 15% in a six weeks. That’s unheard of for someone who had been riding for decades. The reason why is because all of his training energy and time now went into only one sport. He was no longer a Jack-of-all-trades. He was a specialist. At the end of that season he decided to stick with bike racing and forego triathlon. That was two years ago and he is still going strong as a bike racer.

Ralph isn’t the only one. A few years ago I was also forced to give up running after 50 years. A knee just wouldn’t take it any more. So I became a bike racer also. I had the same experience as Ralph. Even though I had been riding a bike competitively for 25 years I became a much stronger cyclist. Now at age 65 I ride with young guys whose wheels I couldn’t hold just a few years ago. Do I miss running? Sure. It was the love of my life for a half century. But I also love riding a bike stronger than I ever have, and in the seventh decade of my life.

Now I know someone is going to jump to the conclusion that I am a snob who doesn’t think people should participate in sport just to have fun regardless of how many sports that may involve. Please note that this is not what I’m saying. I have absolutely no problem with athletes doing as many sports as their hearts desire. The more the merrier. I used to do that myself. I’m only saying that if you want to excel at sport you can’t spread yourself thin. You only have so much energy and so much time. The higher your goals, the more you must focus on a single sport.

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