In a 2011 interview for Flotrack, Bernard credited his prolonged greatness to moderation in training. "My coach always tells me, 'We do not need to do unnecessary mileage,'" he said. "'We do only the mileage that is going to benefit you.' My body reacts so well to that kind of training. I feel strong the entire way. At the end of the season, I feel, 'I can still do this, I can still run,' because I did not burn myself out." How do athletes like Bernard Lagat manage to avoid the trap of the "hard work security blanket" while others, such as Paula Newby-Fraser, get suffocated by it?
Research by Michael Mahoney of the University of California and other psychologists has shown that certain personality (or coping) traits are more common in athletes who allow themselves to become overtrained. One of these traits, perhaps not surprisingly, is compulsiveness; the other is perfectionism.
Psychologists distinguish two types of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive.
Adaptive perfectionism is a never-satisfied mind-set that can have a positive influence on performance. Maladaptive perfectionism, on the other hand, often leads athletes to engage in self-destructive behaviors such as overtraining. This variety of perfectionism is known to be associated with low self-esteem and insecurity. Athletes who harbor a general feeling that they are never good enough are prone to overtrain in their unending quest to prove their worth. Confident athletes tend to be much more able to shape their training on the basis of rational internal observation.
Bernard Lagat and Paula Newby-Fraser both conform to this pattern. Bernard, as anyone who has met him will attest, radiates self-assuredness. Paula, however, has battled insecurity throughout her life. A lack of self-confidence fed into her disastrous 1995 training experiment, and she knew it.
"Parents and schooling turned me into a total archetypal overachiever," she said in a 2010 interview for slowtwitch.com. "I came from a totally different culture. Back home in South African schools, every flaw was exposed. You were held to such a high standard. My mother was a very accomplished person and I was always filled with insecurity. I didn't think I was good enough. I always felt like I could not live up to my parental influence. If I did well, I thought, 'Shoot, I have to do it again.' I do not think my success [in triathlon] was a fluke. I was not a one-off. But a little voice kept insisting that maybe I was."
The coping skill that is required to avoid overtraining is self-trust. An athlete must base her decisions on whether to push or back off on the messages that she receives from her own body rather than on what other athletes are doing or on a generalized fear of resting. This can be difficult for athletes who are lacking in the coping trait of self-assuredness, but understanding the psychobiological dynamics of overtraining--its true cause and cure--makes it easier. If Paula Newby-Fraser was to walk away from the sport of triathlon on top, she would have to draw the right lesson from the lowest moment of her career and start trusting herself.
Paula wanted to get as far away from triathlon as she could after the 1995 Ironman. That meant getting far away from San Diego, her adopted home and the center of the triathlon universe. A decade earlier, Paula had spent a year in London, and she remembered it fondly. She decided to return. She rented an apartment in the city and spent a month riding the underground, attending the theater and the ballet, and neglecting her training.
The time alone--and away from her usual routine--gave Paula space to reflect, and reflection brought her heart and mind to a new place. London did not cure Paula of insecurity (she says she still struggles with the issue to this day), but it did grant her enough self-insight to know what her next step should be--what felt right. Paula realized how lucky she was to have a job as a professional triathlete, a rare and fleeting opportunity that she wasn't quite ready to give up. But no longer would she race to impress others or allow insecurity to influence her training.
At the beginning of 1996, Paula announced that she would go back to Kona, but with "no expectations." She dusted off her old, minimalist training methods and found a more appropriate daily training partner in her friend Heather Fuhr. The young Canadian pro was a weaker cyclist than Paula, but instead of forcing Fuhr to ride at her tempo, Paula slowed down. In return, Fuhr, the stronger runner, held back for Paula when they ran together.