Productive Failure & Excellence


Today focuses on two areas that were swirling in my head whilst on a bike ride. Typically ideas are generated from recent athlete interactions, performance observations, training peaks logs or my own experiences. Hopefully you resonate with one of the paragraphs below.


In theoretical terms, I have always understood that when things don’t go to “plan” there are always lessons to take away from it. You’ve been told by many that failure is the best way to learn. But isn’t that true only if we actually understand the lesson and apply it? If you are one of the lucky few that never repeat mistakes twice, I commend you. The failure-lesson paradigm suggests we make smarter decisions and choose differently based on our “failed” experience. 

It’s only when my hair started to turn grey that this “failure as growth” concept started to really sink in at a deeper level. I get it now. Applied to athletics, true learning, authentic skill development and fitness gains come almost exclusively from intense struggle, discomfort and failure. You can apply this anyway you want and you will this is in fact true. 

I was reading about a world class surfer - Nic Lamb. Surfing is a skill and sport I admire and would surely fail at numerous times before competency was even a consideration. He talked about seeking waves that scare him, stepping outside his comfort zone and getting comfortable being uncomfortable.  His mindset is “the opposite of complacency.”  Times when Lamb is supremely challenged (and maybe fails at an attempt) are the most valuable. He is stressed physically and psychologically which magnify areas he needs to work on. 

Another term for all this is called Productive Failure - be highly challenged, maybe fail, examine the problem, figure out a solution, improve next time, acquire the new skill. 

Great quote by Vern Gambetta, one of USA’s top track and field coaches:

"if you fail, fail forward, get up and keep moving. No need to try harder, try different but keep trying.”


Here we are in the thick of the summer. Athletes are racing ferociously, training intently and maybe getting a bit obsessive about having everything just "so”.  Perfection, to me, is frustrating.  Excellence is a great substitute for perfectionists. Excellence means you are doing your best right now. Excellence means you are accepting yourself (your performance, your watts, your pace, your speed) whether or not you are achieving said “outcome.” 

Focusing on excellence is hard work, takes focus and may never get easier.  So maybe the real question is about your ability to excel? How good can you be? How fast can you become? How happy can you live? How responsible? How cultural? How healthy? How authentic? How humble? How evolved? 


Forecast looks warm for this weekend. Pay careful and close attention to your heat regulation & dissipation, hydration, and output. For those of you racing, keep in mind that by continually cooling the body, you will optimize blood flow to the gut to digest calories as well as to the working muscles to maintain workload. The key is to manage your heat load throughout the day. 

Be the one to take the sponge and ice from aid stations. Wear and re-apply sunscreen (in hair too) - this can be a life saver. Use cool water on muscles, armpits, hands and groin. Keep hands cool by carrying ice or a sponge. Did anyone see Jan Frodeno dunk his entire head in the ice bucket at an aid station in Kona? When asked about how he manages heat in the marathon:

"Walking through aid stations. And taking in heaps and heaps and heaps of liquid. Even stopping at one or the other ice boxes and throwing sponges over myself.”

When recounting his race, he gave much credit to his habit of walking through many aid stations on the run. He explained that slowing down to take in the hydration and nutrition and letting his core temperature cool down was just like his Olympic distance days when he trained running speed intervals on the track.