Wednesday, May 21, 2008

(Un)Reasonable Expectations

Breaking into sub-8:00-minute-mile territory has got me thinking.

Running that fast was really difficult. It hurt. I did not want to do it again.

And I know that improvement in sports (in most things, actually; I experienced this while I was still playing piano) ascends to a certain point and then begins to plateau; it operates on a long curve approaching a largely predetermined glass ceiling. And the improvement at the beginning comes a lot easier and more quickly than the improvement close to that limit. For example, I started really adding in speed work last January under the supervision of Coach Rad at USC Tri. And I saw my average pace drop from around 11:30/mile to around 9:20/mile in about four months. So that was pretty quick improvement. This season, I've seen 5k pace at 9:07 and 2-mile pace at 8:16 (but let's not talk about that 10k Wildflower time, okay?) . . . which is still some pretty significant speed gain.

As much as that 1600 hurt on Friday, I'm starting to wonder if I'm getting to the point where the improvements will come slowly, with a lot more hard work and suffering. Which gets me to thinking . . .

What are reasonable (or unreasonable) expectations? Is a 24:00 5k reasonable? What about a 45:00 10k? How about 24.5 MPH on the bike? Or cranking out 300+ watts on average (not that I can afford a frickin' Power Tap right now)? Should I shoot for a 25-minute 1500 M swim?

Here's my concern: Let's say I set my sights on a 24-minute 5k and accomplish that. Will my brain tell my body, "Hey! Good work! Unfortunately, that's pretty much your glass ceiling. That's as fast as you're ever going to run. Sorry legs, I'm just not going to give you enough oxygen to run any faster. Because that's the limit!"

What if, subconsciously, I set limits that don't exist? What if it's enough that they exist as realities in my mind?

This goes back to a post I wrote a while ago: "Believing in Belief." In it I shared accounts of athletes who did truly extraordinary things simply because they thought--no, scratch that, they knew that they could do it. They knew that they could do it. And they did it.

With that in mind, I'd rather have ridiculously unreasonable expectations than accidentally undershoot my full potential because I set my sights too low. And who knows what my body may be capable of?

Maybe there's a Vanessa Fernandez or an Emma Snowsill hanging out in this short, stumpy little body!

Note: I would also like to comment that Vanessa Fernandez is pulling a ridiculous face in that photo, proving once again that event photographers don't take good photos of anyone. Even world champions.


  1. One alternative is to work from a series of ever-increasing 'reasonable expectations.'

    Since you've got a lot of years ahead of you in the sport, instead of thinking of glass ceilings or of limiting yourself by making your expectations reasonable, think of using reasonable expectations as the stepping-stones to what you think might be 'unreasonable' later.

    As you step from reasonable expectation to reasonable expectation, you'll probably look back at some point and say, I never thought I could do that. Having reasonable expectations can enable, rather than limit you.

    Example- I think I did my first IM (Lake Placid) in 2002. I had literally never swum 2.4 miles and was not 100% sure I would survive the swim. I was concerned the swim would kill me. In 2006, I got a roll-down spot at the same race, and when people had asked me about Hawaii leading up to it, I had told them there was no way I could qualify, and it wasn't a goal.

    I think, at the end of the day, if you can set reasonable expectations and not let them limit you by living down to them if they become to easy, what you do is create a more positive environment for yourself by setting goals you can attain. You're always free to overachieve.

    And the day after you attain those goals, get up, sit down, and set up new, more challenging goals.

  2. Baby steps Jamie.
    I say make the next goal of doing a sub 9:00 pace for a 5k. Then work from there.

    If it matters, I'd go with emulating Emma Snowsill. I'm a fan. :-)
    For multiple reasons...