Surviving the Journey aka. The perils of Negative Feedback

So here I sit, a day away from my first competition in 18 months, several failed comeback attempts later, an achilles operation under my belt, but still trying. Getting to the first competition seems like a bit of a result in itself, but a result equivalent to successfully escalating only the first step of an old Victorian winding staircase with no hand rail. I can’t see the top, so not sure how much further I have to go but have to be continuously wary of just falling off the side and having to start all over again (that was the no hand-rail bit, next week I’m going to really work on my metaphors). Its taking me to the age of 28 but I’m finally starting to feel like I know how to survive the journey.

The twists and turns

Full training for me as a sub-elite pole vaulter would ideally involve three impact sessions per week. An impact session having either fast running work, or pole vaulting, or both. Impact for me was characterized as high  dynamic loading of the achilles. The first stage was to get back running, once, maybe twice a week and then progress from there.

This I achieved through the summer. In fact, within 5 months I got to the point where I was running flat-out in spikes twice a week with another lower intensity running session in between. Life was good. The whole training group took a couple of weeks break before starting winter. The body was good and I was looking to pole vault in our second cycle, give myself three weeks to adapt to the training loads and then begin introducing vaulting once a week. Then came the niggles….

A tweaked back, missing 4 days training and my first vault session, a painful plantar fascia, two more running sessions gone and vaulting moved back another a week. A Hamstring niggle. These are all those little things that every athlete manages, every athlete deals with and that you never hear about. How often, week in week out, are you performing every bit of your “plan A” training?

I finally got to the point where I was vaulting once a week. The body dealing with two running sessions per week and the additional stress on the achilles of the vaulting session on top of that. 

Vaulting is more stressful because carrying the pole causes an asymmetric undulating action of the shoulder axis which must be accommodated somewhere in the body, unfortunately my body does this at the achilles

But the time had come to push on to two vault sessions per week. Unfortunately this also coincided with the depths of winter, fatigue was accumulating and my HRV values had stared to drop. A joint decision between coach and myself then decided that the best thing to do at this point was to prioritize the two vault sessions over three impact and change the entire training week around to accommodate this. 


The turning point?
The turning point?

The change in the HRV was almost instantaneous. The above picture shows where we switched from 3 down to 2 impact sessions per week (these are also the high intensity work). What looks like a steady downward trend seems to go back up. The extra rest for my achilles worked as well, I was then hitting two vault sessions per week with no fear that I’d still be stiff or only partially recovered from the last one. And the final proof that it worked is the fact that I’m sat here, feeling good about myself and ready to compete tomorrow.

The Moral of the Story

The fact is, this is my personal story, and you probably didn’t find it that interesting, but I’m using it as an example to show how our sport works, very rarely do we get external positive feedback to show we’ve made the right decisions. Once you’re a senior athlete, those every weekend pb’s dry up quick and there’s less direct positive correlation between doing the right thing and good performances. What we’re left with is only the negative feedback.

You turn up to training a little tired and tear a hamstring, negative feedback telling you should’ve rested

You squat too much weight and you back gives out, same thing

You decide to do one more rep, and that’s the one that ends your season

This negative feedback is powerful stuff, and it can end up being all we have left, the game becomes avoiding the negative feedback. I made my change to my training and I’m not immediately reaping the benefits of jumping higher, but I haven’t got injured, so I avoided the negative feedback loop this time. And that I think is worthy of a small celebration, as I continue to survive the journey.


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