Prior to reading any post in the thread “We Race As We Train” its imperative that the reader watch and listen to the Youtube video of Lionel Sanders reviewing his performance at the 2019 Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. The context for the “lessons” stem from the statements made by Sanders in that video.

Lesson #4

In his post Ironman World Champ review video Sanders states (@ 10:50, 12:35 and 18:40mins into the video) the following:

“I put myself in a place that wasn’t good… it was scary… it wasn’t fun, in fact it was quite dangerous

“its not what you want to do or should do, and its not what you see these guys doing amazing performances – they are not putting themselves into dangerous – biologically dangerous – situations

I don’t want to be in that situation again where I am doing damage to myself

Hold on… what damage? Sanders didn’t pull his hamstring, he didn’t sprain an ankle or strain his back… what damage is he talking about? Seriously, its not like he crawled across the finish line like so many others, and isn’t ‘hurting’ after an 8 hr event to be expected? Ahh… yes, living in the bliss of ignorance is wonderful until ignorance comes up behind you and whacks you with a 2×4 and you end up face down flat unconscious. There is far more to damage then simply muscles, tendons and ligaments, and most of the stuff that athletes damage is rarely linked back to their heroic courageous effort of driving themselves to near death… so the two are never connected. Which brings us to the first point of this post…  maybe not all but I would definitely wager a % of the ‘health issues’ that athletes have are 100% connected to the manner in which they train and race, hence their ‘health issues’ are 100% self inflicted.

Where to begin? We will need a bit of physiology to connect the dots…

When you dig deep, what exactly are you ‘digging deep’ into?

In the state of blissful ignorance that Sanders lives, there are “no limits”! Really… there are no limits? Wait a tick…

What is a max HR?  Oh right… that’s a limit.

What is a max VO2?  Oh right… another… what you do call it…. right… a limit.

What is lactate threshold?  Once again, another one of those things that “don’t exist” according to Sanders… a limit.

And the three above are not a comprehensive list, there are loads of limits in the systems of the body and ignorance of human physiology does not render these limits non-existent or irrelevant to peak performance. Just because Sanders wants to pretend that limits don’t exist hoping that he can ‘will’ himself onwards doesn’t render truths to be false. According to Sanders… “limits do not exist” which must mean that limits are figments of the imagination which are to be ignored. That is until I suppose you are puking your brains out, swerving all over the road, and finally humiliated by your non-existent limits bring you to your knees on the Queen K Highway.

Back in reality, let me advise you that limits do in fact exist and on the other side of those limits is “damage” that is “biologically dangerous”.

Physiological limits exist for a specific purpose: namely to keep you alive, and do so by identifying the healthy and hence the unhealthy side of the red-line which all these limits create. Stay above the red-line too long and ‘stuff’ begins to happen… yes… biologically dangerous ‘stuff’ that does in fact do damage (some temporary, some not so temporary unless specifically treated).

Up to our physiological limits, we use all of our body systems (e.g. circulatory system including the heart, our lungs, our musculoskeletal system, etc…) all within healthy sustainable levels. Beyond our physiological limits, well… that’s when the body’s internal pharmacists are called in, in order to ‘medicate’ the situation by releasing hormones and neurotransmitters that ‘super-charge’ the nervous system and numb us to the damage occurring while super-charged. This state of over-drive is referred to as the flight-fight-freeze reflexive state (i.e. a facilitated sympathetic nervous system).

All animals have the ability to go into this flight-fight-freeze state in order to escape danger, be it predation, be it environmental (e.g. flooding, fire), be it the threat of confrontation by another animal of the same species seeking to take over territory or mating rights or resources such as food and water. But in nature, the threat is short lived and animals return to a natural state of aerobic being. No animal lives in a permanently ramped state on purpose.

And then there is the human animal… an animal that has figured out that the flight-fight-freeze state offers a “high” that not only provides strength, but it provides endurance, capacity, focus and since we champion all of these qualities, humans have pursued getting ramped/high and staying ramped/high as much as possible to short cut the processes of training, learning, developing because being ramped/high provides a quick route to what we believe is the goal… the finish line. It doesn’t matter whether that finish line is the end of exams, the end of the school year, the end of a work day or work week, the end of a sports team practice or competition… whatever we can use to get ramped/high and stay there, the better.

There is a little problem though with this short cut… ah yes… the blissful ignorance has to come to an end at some point, and that point is when the glands that you have stimulated by ramping yourself in pursuit of another higher high (of energy, of strength, of endurance) are no longer able to spit out any more of the hormone (i.e. stimulant) needed, or having developed such tolerance for high levels of stimulating hormones in your body that what your glands can spit out is no longer enough… all of a sudden the hope of hitting a higher high vanishes as the floor falls out beneath you and you realize that you weren’t actually skillfully masterfully achieving the “successes” that you were targeting instead your high was pure levitation built upon the momentum of running your glands on full flight-fight-freeze survival mode. And with that drop off comes a wave of depression as the high is long gone replaced with a freefall that leaves the addict falling, falling, falling and falling further still.

In hopes that we can recover our prior highs… this is when we sign up for another event, add some additional complexity or craziness to our lives in hopes that we can ramp ourselves up, trick our hormonal survival systems to kick in just one more time lifting us up hopefully to a high that we have never reached before. And when it doesn’t, suicidal ideations are but one of the issues we have to deal with as we face the reality that the life we were living was all pretend, build upon little more than a chemical addiction to the hormones evolution provided us to escape danger, not as a means with which to live our lives.

So what? If these glands exist and these glands can be forced into supercharging our performance – if we can short cut the timeline to “success” – why not? Because when you are not over-reaching and trying to bullshit your way to a finish line by forcing your glands to continue to cough up more and more hormones and neurotransmitters to keep you going, these glands are actually needed for the healthy day to day function of your body as follows:

  • Oxytocin release (involved in social bonding, sexual reproduction, childbirth, baby bonding & milk prod)
  • Coricotropin release (involved in appetite suppresion, increased anxiety, attention & focus)
  • Somatostatin release (reduces gastric acid secretion and slows down digestion)
  • Circardian rhythm
  • Thyrotropin release (acts as an anti-depressant, anti-suicidal and anti-aging function)
  • Regulation of blood pressure, heart rate & GI stimulation and satiety
  • Growth hormone release
  • Dopamine release (sensation of pleasure, motor control, arousal, reinforcement & reward and higher executive functions)
  • Thermoregulation
  • Sexual differential development
  • Vasopressin release (anti diuretic)

And its just one of your glands that is responsible for all of the above functions!  The roles of the other glands are in addition to this list. Look at the list… how many of these items are athletes going regularly to their doctor for a diagnosis: body weight issues, sleep disorders, blood pressure issues, GI issues, or what about attention & focus issues in children? Add on sexual dysfunction, anxiety/depression and diseases that develop from a chronic shortage of hormones and its almost the entire top 10 list of diseases that we have covered.

Which brings us to Sanders’ epiphany…

“its not what you see these guys doing amazing performances [are doing],
they are NOT putting themselves into dangerous – biologically dangerous – situations”

Which brings me to the second point of this post…

I have nothing against Sanders.  Sanders can do as he pleases… if he wants to gamble with his life by disregarding his physiological limits short cutting the process by ramping himself as high as a kite in the sky on his hormones by going beast-mode to try and take the podium at Ironman World Champs… so be it.  The broadcasting network will surely appreciate it tremendously if he does as the viewership it will attract will blow out prior records. Its his life, he can do as he pleases with it. The fact that the best of the best do not win like this… well maybe Sanders has done enough damage to wake up and to realize that his strategy of ‘taking’ more and more pain is not bringing him any close to his prize of the podium in Kona (and only closer to a toe tag).

My issue is this: when stupidity and absolute dis-respect for life is glorified as heroic, courageous, as admirable and sold to novice athletes especially young amateur athletes in their tweens and teens as the pathway to “success”… that boils my blood.  Teaching young athletes that self inflicted harm is the pathway to “success” is criminal. I can only hope that the poster child for self inflicted harm Sanders himself is authentic when he shares that:

“I am not going to put myself in that situation again”

“I won’t put myself in that situation again until I have answers”

Why? Because hopefully Sanders has realized that..

“that’s not racing… its fighting for your life at that stage”

And fighting for your life is not what needs to be told or sold as the way to achieving success in sport, or anything else for that matter. The best of the best do not ‘destroy’ themselves in pursuit of their potential. No, they train and hence race within themselves knowing that success isn’t built on one year of training or racing, not even a few years of training and racing, but consistent training and racing built year over year over year typically on the timelines of a decade or more, rarely less.

I hope that these posts will wake up all of those who were sold on the bullshit marketing of… ‘no pain, no gain’, that you have to hurt to win, that you have to train in a “pain cave”, and so on. I hope that with Sanders’ awakening comes a wider awakening in amateur sport because our potential does not exist in self harm, but by respecting ourselves and our competitors. With respect comes an appreciation for true training, true racing, true learning, true development… for truth and as Jordan Peterson recently stated “truth yields health”. I hope the triathlon community – especially coaches – has come to the point that truth will finally be pursued, not short cuts, not superficial success. Too many have hurt themselves, too many are hurting now… why do we need others to repeat the mistakes that we have learnt far too many times already?

Oh and if you think Sanders is the only pro triathlete who has been burning the candle at both ends in order to short cut the system (of proper healthy training and development as an athlete), then let me list the others…

  • Cody Beals – Beals over-reaching and over-stressing of his system led to low testosterone levels, yup… he torched his testes (and yes the testicals are a gland and part of the endocrine system).
  • Alex Vanderlinden – dido… another athlete who torched his testicals.
  • Karsten Madsen – he fried the electrical functioning of his heart by over-reaching and over-stressing his body systems. Madsen was diagnosed with heart arrythmias which are another byproduct of tapping the flight-fight-freeze reflex system which allows for the heart rate to go into overdrive (again, evolution designed this so that we can escape danger… not as a bypass to proper training).
  • Jackson Laundry – he fried his electrical functioning of his heart as well.
  • Daniel Clarke – well he tried to fry himself as well and that led me to writing the post where I asked if Clarke has a Death Wish after Clarke posted in a vlog how he finished workouts, blurry, dizzy, lightheaded… oh gee… where did we just hear about similar symptoms… right Sanders in Kona! Monkey see-monkey do.

And that’s just the men who all seem to be more willing to discuss the struggles they experience in pursuit of the podium. The ladies? I believe it can be equally assumed that our top triathlon ladies are in the same predicament. Why? Well if these top pro men are being coached and ending up damaged like this, why should we expect that the ladies are any different? I would suspect that they are hurting just as badly but for whatever reason havent shared it (or I’ve missed it).

Yet online and print triathlon magazines will turn to who for “training ideas”… pros who are hurting, who have damaged themselves and amateur athletes will read and emulate thinking that they are training properly and with that we propagate ignorance.  Its time to break the cycle and start over… with proper training, a proper approach to racing.  Its time to use sport to lift our quality of life not destroy our health, our well-being.  There is an healthy way to train, find a coach who knows how to do that… because… its your health, its your well-being, its your life and in the end no number of podiums, medals, and trophies will make up for a damaged body and brain.