Don't Work on Your Weaknesses: Train to Your Strengths
By Mark R. Turner
Changing the way you think about your training from remedial thinking to strength thinking will yield greater rewards than working on your weaknesses. Many well-intentioned articles often urge us work on our weaknesses. On the surface it makes sense, especially given the fascination with the remedial in our culture. There are almost always one or two areas where we know we could improve our performance during multisport events. But does that make those areas truly weaknesses? Or is there a better and greater truth about our potential being hidden by a “fix my weakness” focus? I believe that hidden deep within the language of weakness lies a huge problem. The language of weakness and its accompanying thinking are both mental strength thieves. A focus on weakness (no matter how limited we think we can keep it) robs us of our chance to achieve our deepest potential, because we start from a position of perceived failure that often bears little resemblance to reality and may not really be rooted in a weakness problem at all.
Let's take swimming, for example. In my experience, this is the most often cited weakness in triathlon. We hear people say it all the time. Early in my own preparation for my very first triathlon I even used the remedial language myself, in spite of all my training and personal convictions against such a mindset. The sad part is I viewed swimming as my weakness more as result of a process of elimination than any real serious consideration: At the time I was clearly a better and more experienced cyclist and runner, so default remedial thinking identifies swimming as a weakness. In this scenario, swimming was only my weakness relative to the strength of my bike and run performance or perhaps the swim speeds of others. But in contrast to what has basically become a cast-off line in the multisport world, is an unspoken counter-question, “What is it about my swimming that makes it a weakness”? Am I a weak swimmer because I am not the fastest swimmer in a given competition? Is everyone who places behind the leader of the swim a weak swimmer? What the obvious answer to these questions seems to tell us is that perception of weakness is really quite relative, as evidenced in the kind of casual conversation that often takes the form outlined below.
The conversation often goes something like this:
Izzy (the tri-girl): Hey Sarah, how you doing today?
Sarah (munching on a doughnut and sipping her coffee): Just fine. Overslept a little today.
Sarah: You seem pretty up and at 'em today.
Izzy: Yeah. I was in the pool at 5 a.m. this morning for warm-ups and then I had a 3,000-yard swim workout.
Sarah: Wow. I could never do that.
Izzy: Sure you could. But anyway I have to.
Sarah (munching down the rest of her doughnut and sipping her coffee): Why?
Izzy: I am signed up for a half Ironman triathlon.
Sarah: What's that?
Izzy: It's a race where you swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles and then run a half-marathon.
Sarah: How far is a half-marathon?
Izzy: 13.1 miles. My bike and my run are solid but swimming is my weakness.
Sarah: How far did you say you swam this morning?
Izzy: 3,000 yards after the warm-up.
Sarah: Three ... thousand ... yards? How many miles is that?
Izzy: Oh ... about 1.7 miles.
Sarah (rolling her eyes): And swimming is a weakness for you?
Sound familiar? You see, to most people I know outside of the tri-world, I am the greatest swimmer they personally know. They cannot imagine swimming 2.4 miles, without stopping, in any length of time. They cannot wrap their minds around the idea of the discipline required to get up at 4 a.m. in order to be in the pool by 5 a.m. for a couple hours of swimming laps or speed work.
But before we go too much further, let's get something clear. A person who currently swims slower (or bikes slower or runs slower for that matter) than they would like, can still improve their times. But they should also think about what constitutes weakness as they develop their plan for improvement. Otherwise they will start the process of improvement from a negative mindset that will do very little to help them improve and possibly a great deal to hinder their improvement.
We typically don’t have the same conversations about elite athletes, although with remedial language so prevalent in our society, even among the ranks of elite athletes I hear it sneak its ugly camel's nose under the tent from time to time. Most often with elites we hear more talk of a “playing to their strengths” strategy in order to maximize efficiency during various aspects of the race to provide the greatest opportunity for the highest level of success in all three events. Sounds like a very sound strategy for success, doesn't it? Not only is it a sound strategy but a far superior mindset with which to enter training or racing.
What most of us have been conditioned to see as a weakness in others and ourselves is really a lack of recognition of a person's strengths. The first step toward correcting this is to rid ourselves of the stinking thinking of weakness and look, instead, to discerning which aspects of the discipline(s) in which we perform best are transferable to the area(s) that are not our strongest disciplines. The key to improving in all three disciplines lies in what we’re doing well in the areas where our performance is best. Focus the majority of your time and attention on your strongest suits and then look to what you can bring from those areas to the areas that need improving. While it seems counterintuitive, that is mostly because we too often measure our performance by others' scorecards.
When we set out to improve, excel and achieve, framing our initial thoughts in such a negative weakness-focused manner makes it extremely difficult to develop a plan for improving performance that will lead to real improvement: a plan based on our own scorecard. That is a vital approach to real success in anything at any level including triathlon. A good strengths-focused mindset and strategy in both training and racing, as well as a race day plan that reflects both, are the keys to consistent, long-term success.
Whether it is swimming, biking, running, transitions or some combination of the four that represent your biggest opportunity for improvement (i.e. faster times), stop thinking of those areas as weaknesses to be fixed by sheer effort or added time alone. Instead begin thinking about what makes your strongest elements strong. Is it the way you can go hard on the ride for short bursts? If so, why not begin incorporating significant bursts of speed in the pool as part of your training? Or is it your steady efficient spinning that gets it done over the course of the bike ride allowing you to pass many of the riders who went out too hard too early? If so, why not incorporate drills that will enhance your swimming efficiency so you have even more juice left for the ride and run? These are just a couple of examples of how retooling our thinking about training can create serious benefits for athletes of all levels of ability.
Changing the way you think about your training from remedial thinking to strength thinking will yield great rewards — in your training, your racing and the rest of your life. Seeing your training as an opportunity to get stronger, more efficient and ultimately faster in all areas of your race in a way that plays to your natural strengths will yield far more dividends on race day than a fixing my weakness mindset. So lay aside remedial thinking and go for your great by thinking and playing to your strengths.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.