Everyone has one special thing. —Boogie Nights
I have spent my life as an enthusiastic, mediocre athlete. Years of swimming, soccer, other various ball sports, surfing, rock climbing, yoga, and cycling have kept my body fit, my life full, and my trophy case empty (save the occasional participation ribbon and one chintzy third-place plaque from a 24-hour orienteering race that had three entrants).
Then came cyclocross.
For the uninitiated, cyclocross is an obscure hybrid of road racing and mountain bike racing. You spend about an hour on a reinforced road bike hammering as hard as you can around a two-mile circuit made up of dirt, mud, sand, gravel, pavement, and/or grass. Along the way, you need to dismount your bike to jump barriers, climb stairs, and scramble up rocky slopes. Crashes are common. It’s widely considered one of the most painful forms of bike racing. Unfortunately, I have a knack for it.
If you look at my USA Cycling statistics, you’ll see that I’m a complete Joe Average, finishing dead middle-of-the-pack in every road race I’ve ever done. Last October, as I started my first cyclocross season, I expected to do the same. To my complete shock, I placed 5th in my first race! Then 2nd. Then 7th. (I got a flat in that one and had to run the last 1,000 feet.)
And then, on a cold, sunny afternoon in San Luis Obisopo, for the first time in my life, I finished 1st. (I may have cried a little.) The next day, I did it again. And again. And so on. By the end of the season in December, I’d secured the Southern California Cyclocross Prestige Series title for Men’s C 35+. Basically, this means I won the beginner’s division for old guys, so we’re not talking Paris-Roubaix or anything, but it was a huge victory in my little world. I’ve never known the thrill of scoring a touchdown or hitting a homerun. This was my first taste of victory — and, man, is it ever sweet.
In 2016, I’ll be up against the big boys, so it may be a different story. But for now I can sit back and know that I’m pretty good at something — and that feels great.
So why, after 45 years of middle-of-the-road performance, did things come together? Why did I win — why does anyone win? Here are a few plausible answers.
Do What You Love
I. Love. Cycling. There’s no place I’m more comfortable than on a bike. I’m more at ease around other people. I’m more at ease around myself. With all the neurosis of my wheel-less life tucked away, it’s so much easier for my best possible me to shine. If you find an activity that you like to do (that doesn’t hurt anyone around you), do it. Life is too short to not do what you love.
And for the record, not everyone has a competitive drive. Doing what you love doesn’t necessarily meaning going for the gold. Maybe you don’t need to ride 20-foot Waimea Bay. Maybe you’re perfectly happy as a soul surfer. That’s cool — just dig what you do the way you want to do it. I envy non-competitive folks; they tend to be a lot more Zen than I’ll ever be.
Try New Things
I’ve never understood it when adults dismiss things without giving them a go the way a five-year-old might balk at Brussels sprouts. How do you know you don’t like it if you’ve never tried it? Are some sports dangerous? Sort of, but so are driving cars, drinking cocktails, and taking showers. Yet, that doesn’t seem to stop us from those activities. To quote an old Australian movie called Strictly Ballroom, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.”
…But Stick with Them for a While
Most of the time, you’re not instantly going to be awesome at something. All those concepts we teach in Beachbody workout programs about mastery and adaption apply to just about any activity. You get better at it the more you do it. Sure, I had a knack for cyclocross, but I put a ton of miles behind me on the road and in the mountains before I reached that point.
If you’re fretting over author Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that you need 10,000 hours to master an activity, stop. First, if you’ve found an activity you enjoy, learning should be fun. (Can I have 10,000 more hours on my bike, please?) Second, even Gladwell himself admits his rule doesn’t necessarily apply to sports. A Princeton study shows that “deliberate practice” only accounts for 18 percent of the “variance in performance” for sports. Of course, anyone who has ever participated in — or seen for that matter — any form of racing knows that 18 percent can make the different between first place and, well, no place at all.
Do What Makes Sense
So what about that other 82 percent? Aptitude has a lot to do with it. You need to know your strengths. I love dancing — but I’m terrible at it. Even a program as simple as CIZE exposes me for the uncoordinated Clydesdale that I am. I still like to cut a rug from time to time, but you’re also not going to see me trying out for Dancing with the Stars anytime soon.
Cyclocross, on the other hand, just came to me. It took a practice session and a couple races to dial it in, but then it all made sense on a level no other form of bike racing ever has. Road racing is calculated and strategic — not my strong suits. On the other hand, cyclocross is chaotic, brutish, and calls for nonstop improvisation — which also describes the way I live the rest of my life, even off the bike.
Don’t confuse “practice” with “training.” Training is more than just learning how to do something better. It’s also preparing your body to do it right. Competition is hard work. If you’re body isn’t used to hard work, you won’t be able to do it well. Also, the harder you push yourself, the more your body adapts, and the better you can do it. As three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond put it, “It never gets easier; you just go faster.”
Some of you may know I’m the Senior Director of Nutrition Content at Beachbody, so you probably saw this coming. Food is fuel. People living a “normal” life can get away with more nutritional digressions, but if you’re seriously training with an eye on excelling, take food seriously. You’re pushing your body beyond its intended limits. You need to make up for that.
This hit home for me when I started using the Beachbody Performance (BBP) line. I’m not saying that these supplements are some kind of magic cure. But keeping up with your nutritional needs when you ride 200 miles a week, hold down a fulltime job, and raise a kid is a challenge, even for someone with my nutrition background. The difference I noticed when I started using BBP to target my protein intake, hydrate properly, and keep my electrolytes up was remarkable. So pin down your nutrition, either entirely with whole foods, or with help from supplements.
Even with all the above factors in your favor, you’ll still lose races. You’ll still screw up, get injured, or just have bad days. That’s no reason to quit. I’m not going blow sunshine up your hoo-hah and say you’ll absolutely succeed if you keep on trying, but I do know you’ll fail if you stop trying.
…Except for When It’s Time to Quit
There’s no point in wasting your time being miserable. (See: “Do what you love.”) Sometimes, we can lose perspective. What started as a fun activity can turn into a dreary, gear-grinding obsession. Next time you feel like throwing in the towel, take a few days away from your sport, allowing the frustration to fade. Then check in with yourself. Is it more gratifying than frustrating? Then carry on! Has it just become an exercise in lameness? Then maybe it’s time to take a break. If you were meant to surf/run/bike/eat hotdogs competitively, you’ll come back to it once you’ve gained a little rest and perspective.
Well, hopefully not the hotdog one.