New Year objective missed, check! Tears of frustration, check! Holiday to boost morale booked, check! Looks like the January blues have checked-in to Hotel McCombe. I know I am not alone. What is expected after the month of stresses and jubilations which are inseparable from Christmas and New Year. The difference between one year and the next is but one day, yet somehow we mere mortals expect so much from this new beginning. The New Year is a logical date to start a new race, but as on all courses we must pace ourselves and clearly (as possible) understand what our goal is and how it is we can realistically make our way to the finish line.
Choosing your goal to improve yourself, personally or physically, at sport or at work, is step one on the journey to change. Step two is mustering the motivation to begin and sustain yourself on that journey through the easy and hard experiences. Step three is being honest about identifying your areas for improvement and putting in quality efforts to make positive change in order to reach your destination.
Step One: “I want” don’t get
When I first watched the TED Talk ‘If you want to achieve your goals, don’t focus on them‘ by American footballer Reggie Rivers I huffed into the late night darkness “What’s he talking about?! You HAVE to focus on goals, otherwise you’ll drift off course.” It was only whilst brushing my teeth that the crux of Rivers’ speech sunk in. What he meant was wanting something really badly is not enough to achieve a goal, you have to change your behaviours. Hell, I want an Hawaiian island but wishing to own one does not mean I will ever own one. One example Rivers gives is weight loss. By jumping on the scales each weekend willing with all your might they show a lower figure than last week is no good; unless you swap your bus ride to work for a walk or substitute your afternoon chocolate for fruit your outcome is not going to be what you desire. I raise my own hands in guilt at this behaviour on countless occasions. I set a goal, drive up all possible motivation and continue the easy, enjoyable methods and habits I pursued before just with more fervour. The end result is I simply improve what I was good at before but have failed to progress my weaknesses. For example, when swim training alone my coach sometimes sets “5-6 sets of scull drills”. There are certain scull drills I am stronger at, find easier and therefore enjoy more so I am inclined to stick to those as they make me feel good. In the long run, I would be far better working on the drills I am weaker at to improve my technique. There is no point me wanting to be faster at swimming if I fail to change the way I approach training.
Step Two: quality, not quantity
“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” The words of revered coach Vince Lombardi. It goes without saying, if you fail to put time in to improve your weaknesses then enhanced performance is not coming your way. At the same time, going through the motions endlessly is not going to drop you off at your desired destination either. This Harvard study suggests that although the average American worker puts in 50% more hours at work than the average European worker (the American cultural notion being working harder leads to success), Americans are not significantly more economically successful than their European counterparts who work less and value leisure time more. Go back to the good old solid mantra “quality, not quantity”, serial entrepreneur Richard Branson does and Olympic swim coaches are known to stop training sessions early when the athlete is no longer sustaining proper technique.
Step Three: seize the day
Now the goal is set, motivation is mounted and the areas to improve are identified but environmental conditions negatively change or begin hostile so do not even begin to seem to accommodate opportunities for positive change. It is down to you to make the most of the current situation.
In ‘The Heart and the Fist‘ Eric Greitens explains his transition from humanitarian worker to Navy SEAL. When Greitens began his SEAL training he could not foresee the sense or positive outcome of being endlessly shouted at by senior officers and for obsessively cleaning uniform. In less than ideal circumstances, instead of quitting, he determined to make the most of his situation. Coming from an athletic background, he was charged with improving a less fit enrolee. Instead of bearing the brunt of his fellow recruit’s weakness alone, Greitens seized this moment to unite the entire unit to bring the recruit up to par, building an incredible bond between them all. Once, when his charge burnt a hole in a uniform shirt, a senior officer turned to Greitens screaming “How can we put you in charge of hundreds of men and a multibillion dollar boat if you can’t even get one recruit to look after his shirt?!” The senior officer had a point, one piece of lint on the shoulder of a SEAL could set a whole boat and its crew ablaze. Ultimately, Greitens’ charge pulled through. Now pointless actions made sense and an adverse situation enabled Greitens to shine, ultimately putting him on the path to becoming unit leader.
We all find ourselves in what appear to be adverse and irreparable circumstances. Sometimes they cannot be entirely resolved but it is up to you to make what you can of it. Hate your job but don’t have the skills set for your dream position and your boss shows no sign of helping you develop your career? No surprise there. Leaders are meant to organise teams to get tasks completed as efficiently as possible with maximum gains, if you happen to grow during this process great but they are not teachers there to hint at what is on the exam paper. Real personal development comes from within, so take an evening course, write a report addressing an issue hindering actions at work or take it on yourself to mentor the new starter. Over time you not only develop new skills for your CV but you will also prove initiative, endurance and build a wider network to help you on your race to success.
And the rest from January
In the goodie bag given out at the Brownlee Tri last September I found a bottle of this magnesium spray by Better You which professed to “ rid the body of excess tension”, because apparently “A body with the right amount of magnesium will be more supple, will resist fatigue for longer and will better repair itself.” Fortunately, I rarely suffer from muscle fatigue, being young helps but this ache free existence is mostly down to the carefully balanced training plan my coach Fiona Ford devises. The bottle was free though, and I thought it could do me no harm, which it didn’t but I felt no benefits either.
I let the magnesium idea sleep until Christmas when my mum treated me to an intensive neck and shoulder massage at Akasha Spa on London’s Piccadilly Circus. Hunching over bike handlebars, pulling during swimming and pumping with my upper body whilst running means this area is constantly engaged in action. At the end of the treatment the masseuse said she had loosened the area significantly but there was much residual tension remaining. She recommended bathing in Epsom Salts-a product I had not heard mentioned since a kid-which contain magnesium sulphate. Constantly looking for ways to enhance my body and performance I looked into the idea.
My sports nutritionist, and fellow triathlete, Jo Scott-Dalgleish said magnesium “has genuine benefits for endurance athletes, both as an essential nutrient required for conversion of food into energy and for recovery from muscle damage post-training. There is evidence that magnesium is well absorbed trans dermally, i.e. through the skin, so Epsom Salts or a magnesium spray like the Better You product which I suspect you received, may be very helpful as part of a recovery strategy after hard sessions or races. It’s not necessary to use it after every training session. I suggest saving it for after bricks, track interval or hard/long rides. Magnesium is also an electrolyte that is lost in sweat, so that’s another reason to replace it.” Her wisdom is concurred by many sources I consulted. So if you are aching after a Festive break then maybe using magnesium skin products will be an effective on-going part of your training routine, one less intense and expensive than massage treatment.
January was a milestone month for me as I moved into the flat I purchased last Autumn. The process of moving everything from my family home will continue for a while but with nutrition being intrinsic to my sports performance I had to prioritise the cookbooks I was taking with me. Containing quick, cheap yet nutritious recipes, Beyond Baked Beans Green (I am a committed vegetarian of over a decade) was a must. Then of course there was my recipe scrapbook, a collection of cuttings spanning fifteen years. Surprisingly though, my final pick was Aine Carlin’s Keep it Vegan. My cousin is a friend of Carlin’s so gave me the book as a Christmas present a while back but I had hardly touched it whilst living at home. Most of the recipes require at least an hour, not great for shift workers like me, and require some less than common ingredients. Conscious of taking time up in the kitchen and space in the cupboards I left the book mostly on the shelf. Starting my kitchen entirely a new though, I thought this was the time to embrace food alternatives (I still do not really understand veganism unless due to serious food allergies). One culinary chef d’oeurve in the book is her ‘macaro-no-cheese’, an adaptation of the family favourite pasta dish using squash and coconut instead of cheese. Just as filling as the original, this version is less stodgy and more exotic.
Did you know coconuts are in fact a fruit and not a nut? I did not until researching their benefits beyond being a well-known alternative source of protein for veggies or vegans. However, as the BBC Good Food website states they “…between the ‘good’ food and ‘bad’ food camps. Coconut milk, especially the lower fat variety, can be used in moderation (1-2 times per week). Coconuts contain significant amounts of fat, but unlike other nuts, they provide fat that is mostly in the form of medium chain saturated fatty acids in particular, one called lauric acid. Lauric acid is converted in the body into a highly beneficial compound called monolaurin, an antiviral and antibacterial that destroys a wide variety of disease causing organisms. It is therefore now thought that consumption of coconut milk may help protect the body from infections and viruses.”
Because coconut milk is high in healthy fats, it helps fill you up and prevent overeating or snacking throughout the day on empty carbs. Medium-chain triglycerides fatty acids found in coconut milk increase energy expenditure and help enhance physical performance. Following exercise, muscles also need plenty of nutrients — including electrolytes like magnesium and potassium that are found in coconut milk — to repair broken down tissue and grow back even stronger.
Carlin’s recipe incorporates kale, the leafy veg which has skyrocketed in popularity over the last five years. No wonder, it is chock-full of essential vitamins A, C and K as well as minerals like copper, potassium, iron, manganese and phosphorus. One cup contains only 40 calories yet packs almost 3 grams of protein. Also, one cup of cooked kale has over 1000% more vitamin C than a cup of cooked spinach and unlike spinach, kale’s oxalate content is very low meaning the calcium and iron in kale are highly absorbable in the human digestive system.
The love of my life is bag. Not a Chanel ‘2.55’, nor a ‘Birkin’ from Hermes but an Otter Green duffle from heritage Seattle brand Filson. Whilst shopping the streets surrounding Harvard University I drooled at said bag but could not justify the price tag. Come Christmas, my mum hands me a sizeable lumpy parcel from under the twinkling tree. I am thinking back to the rechargeable vacuum cleaner she has just given (I loathe domestic chores) for my new flat so am not exactly mounting my hopes. Yet, from within the papery covering a twill and bridal leather beauty emerges: I hug it like child who has just received a plush teddy bear. Somehow, without me noticing (I have a horrible skill of spotting when presents are being bought for me), she took a photo of the label when we were in Boston and sourced it on the Internet. The tatty gym bag I had been using to haul my lunch box, training kit and multifarious belongings between home, work and social gatherings had been a mutual source of disgrace for the family so Mum decided to amend the situation. On one of the first days I used my Filson bag, the usually silent security guard checking bag contents at the work exit muttered “Nice bag.” Previously, I let my work bag lie on the floor and kicked it along the Tube when it was in the way. How my behaviour has changed. My Filson sits firmly on my lap like a treasured only-child and I swagger when passing gentleman who clearly recognise the understated luxury slung at my back. “Yes,” I beamed at a male colleague “it is a Filson.” Like wearing a boyfriend’s shirt, there is a comforting protection in bearing a ‘manbag’.