TRAINING: Lessons from Napoleon

My next posting was supposed to be about training in tropical Singapore, but recent volcanic events on Iceland triggered a desire to talk about something else: Staying adaptive, being fluid in your planning and your approach.

Dogmatism is our greatest enemy wherever we find it, in life, in politics, at work, and in our approach to running. When the news broke that my flight out on Friday evening could be cancelled, I sank into despair for a few hours. Mentally I had said goodbye to Singapore, to running in the searing heat. When I concluded my last run in the late afternoon that Friday my body was infused with a feeling of elation and relief. Finally, the ordeal was over, I could complete my toughest two back-to-back weeks ever in the cool welcoming hills of Wicklow and how I longed to see my house on the hill.

So driving back from the airport, dejected, I was in a state of sulk. Thoughts such as “get me out of this hell-hole” soared through my brain. Leisuring a bit later in the Balti pool of our hotel before sipping the luscious local smoothies and going to bed, I realised these thoughts were out of proportion, but there was a part of me that was ready to give up and just lurk in the hotel room and wait for news from the airport. My great plan for the 3 loops of Clara were gone.

Snap out of it and go with the flow – like Napoleon!

When Napoleon swept into Northern Italy during his famous Italian Campaign of 1800, he had a well laid out plan that would almost certainly bring the Austrian army to heel. However, the campaign had barely started before bad fortune started to beset it. At every turn the assumptions Napoleon had inculcated into his plans fell to reality. The Austrians took the offensive earlier than expected; the French army besieged in Genoa surrendered much earlier than expected and so on. At every turn, however, Napoleon was unfazed, even amused and in the end at the famous “Battle of Marengo” the French scored a decisive victory. To many it seemed like luck in face of the many plans gone awry, but that is underestimating the tactical genius of Napoleon. Where others saw misfortune, the great general saw opportunity. When the Austrians took Genoa, Napoleon didn’t despair; instead he knew it would be easier to goad the Austrians into the offensive. The plans of the great French commander were never chiselled in stone, Napoleon knew better than anyone how to improvise, to use extreme mobility to his advantage and prepared himself in advance so he could adapt quickly. He knew ahead of time almost all permutations of any situation (the lack of those same traits, much later in his life, would lead him to doom in the empty void that is the Russian heartland).

You don’t quite need the genius of Napoleone Buenoparte, as he was once known, to be successful with your training but adaptability, mobility, positivity and flexibility are all essential skills as is the ability to see only opportunity in every misfortune.

What are the prerequisites?

Well, even geniuses like Napoleon relied on meticulous preparation, before they “go into battle” and so must we ordinary runners. While he pored over maps for days on end alone in his room, we reflect on our previous experience, read books, consult wise old runners and coaches, and learn anything else we can that could in any way give us an edge in training.

Informed decisions are called such because they rely on information, the source is irrelevant as long as it is trustworthy (e.g. if you prefer books over coaches, that’s fine, but make sure you consult someone who know what they are talking about).

To abandon or not to abandon

So, in the depths of my personal sulking on Friday night I remembered the little corporal and a voice said to me “If you throw in the towel now because of this misfortune or plan so badly that you don’t get any running in this weekend, this week will just be another ordinary week. On the other hand, if you lay a plan for all eventualities, you could rack up you best week yet.” I instantly recognised the wrong choice: Doing a medium-length run on Saturday in the hope that I would get to Ireland Sunday in time to do my 3 loops.

The right choice then became readily apparent: Get in another long run, as long as I could expect to take in this heat. My options were constrained to the daylight hours as I needed to be back at the hotel on standby if my flight left in the evening. So early afternoon, I left and put in a 25k run at the East Coast Park. Now, even another flight cancellation would mean that I could fairly easily put in the miles I needed on Sunday while waiting for another potential flight out.

The 3 loop course was an integral part of my plan and it was not easily sacrificed, but under the current circumstances it was desirable because:

1. Arriving Sunday was very unlikely

2. Getting the overall mileage in for the week was equally important for the great scheme of things

3. There were opportunities to be found in this cancellation

Not all was bad about not having to do the very long Clara Vale run. Firstly, I will be fresher for my two races next week, which should be good for confidence. Secondly, the session was very risky, circumstance steered me onto a safer course. Thirdly, the opportunity to do the session is not lost forever. Although my aerobic training completes tomorrow, I will still have a slow long run every week to maintain aerobic fitness during the next 17 weeks and there may be ample opportunity to fit the session in at some stage.

Mobility and Improvisation

Finally, whilst I knew I couldn’t complete a 40km run in the heat and the hard road of Singapore at the end of an intense training week, there were other ways to create intense aerobic stimulus. My choice was to insert a fairly taxing pace from kilometre 17 to 22. Again, this was not a pre-planned choice but guided by opportunity. At around kilometre 17, heavy rain and lightning started to sweep the coast and the temperature dropped rapidly. This was a golden opportunity as I was feeling quite ok, and I upped the intensity to a level that made me suffer without going anaerobic. I knew that by changing the intensity now I was essentially shifting my session to a progression run, taxing a tired body into harder effort and triggering a training effort not unlike a much longer run and one quite suited for the type of racing I will be doing next Saturday. When Fortuna smiles at you, you smile back.

At the time I slowed down for the final kilometres I was ready to crawl, everything screamed STOP. Yet standing with my feet in the lukewarm ocean afterwards, the stiffness quickly wore off and I felt the sense of victory and achievement: over my own ingrained ideas and plans, over the part of the brain that wants to use every inconvenience as an excuse to give up and give in. This was more Marengo than Waterloo and only one day remains of my aerobic campaign….