Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tyler Clary, Michael Phelps, and us

One sports story du jour is swimmer Tyler Clary's "calling out" of Michael Phelps, as detailed here.  According to Clary,

I work my (butt) off all the time. That’s not to say that everybody else doesn’t. But the fact that I know I work harder than he does makes me appreciate every little goal and every little gain that I make.

The subtext is that Clary seems to believe that he deserves success more than Phelps, and that he wil ultimately triumph over Phelps because he outworks Phelps.

Some characterize Clary as "whining."  But that's not the first thing that strikes me here.  Rather it's that Clary seems to be making the same mistake that so many of us do, both in running and in our careers.  The certainty that outworking all others is the surest way to success.

But it's not.  And the reason why is NOT as simple as talent.

You see a similar situation in the workforce.  Imagine the person who is always first to the office, last to leave, and always available.  Their diligence makes them valuable.  But that's rarely the person that rises to the very top.  The person that grinds day after day often without breaks or time for outside interests doesn't produce the best quality work.  And at the end of the day, it's the quality of one's work that matters, not just the quantity. 

[heck, even in the law firm environment, where billable hours are king, racking up a ton of hours is necessary for continued employment, but no guarantee of partnership.  And my observation has been that those who make partner are generally high billers, but almost never the highest biller.]

Similarly, in running, the goal is not to train as much as possible, but to train as best as possible.  Per Joe Rubio, "train optimally, race maximally."  Sure, the person who does intervals-to-the-point-of-puking 7 days a week is outworking the person who does 2 workouts, 4 easy runs, and a recovery day each week.  By a lot.  But wanna guess who races better, given equivalent ability? 

Likewise for the runner who does every workout as an all-out effort, or strives for "PR-ing" workouts, versus the runner who focuses on hitting the optimal effort. As an aside, "PR-ing" a workout has always seemed like the silliest thing to me.  The purpose of a workout is not to work your hardest, but to work at the level that will give you the best training result -- thus a "workout PR" is nonsensical.  Plus, if you're PR-ing your workouts, and not MASSIVELY PR-ing your races, you're doing something very wrong.

My sense is that Clary gets this concept, or at least his coaches do.  Clary's actually working optimally (which is still very hard), and is criticizing Phelps for falling below that level.  But I wonder how many other athletes are out there, continually frustrated because they know that they're outworking their competition, and attributing their failure to dominate on race day to "lack of talent."


  1. I agree, quality not quantity :) Thanks for the great post!

  2. Great post! Train smarter not harder!

  3. I think a lot of athletes who are relatively new-to-running (or whatever sport) fall victim to this thinking. They have the passion, and the desire, and the work ethic, but they struggle with believing in the value of easy days and rest days.
    Of course, there's also FOMO ... joining friends on an unplanned run/ride/swim because it sounds too good to miss out on.

  4. First, I agree with Kirstin...but secondly, I struggle with this a lot. I work hard, and since I've been working with a coach I'm pretty secure that I'm doing the correct work (unlike in the past) but I still get slightly ticked when people who do EVERYTHING wrong in training beat me on race day. But I'm working on it. Growing up sucks. ;)