By Shem Leong 

“ALL OUT” means (slightly more) “ALL OUT”

I recently had my eyes opened by Matt Fitzgerald’s article in Inside Triathlon- “You are a Quitter”. He references Marcora’s ground-breaking study that suggests that our decision to pull the plug on any strenuous endurance effort, weather in training or racing, is a voluntary decision that originates from an “off” signal in our mind, a psychological phenomenon, and not a function of any bio-physiological determinant of our potential maximum exertion effort.

Immediately after a high intensity endurance ride to exhaustion, Marcora’s research subjects were able to triple of their power output in short 5 seconds bursts. (Similar to having a sprint finish at the end of a marathon). According to the conventional model of endurance fatigue, that proposes an involuntary decline in performance when some physiological limit is encountered, this would not be possible.

In short, this new theory states that our mental tenacity to “hang tough” and endure discomfort, rather than our ability to clear lactic acid/ absorb and carry oxygen/ store glycogen is a more significant determinant of true maximum potential performance.

This information plays special significance when training by perceived effort, as ironguides athletes on The Method do. As we have experienced, our ALL OUT efforts are not defined by wattage or speed or even heart rate. Instead, our efforts are entirely determined by the intimate communication between mind and body and this is a powerful realisation to make. Here’s why:

An ALL OUT effort is just that- whether on your 1st 25m sprint of a swim strength session or a 10 min time trial effort at the end of a 4 hr ride, “ALL OUT” should describe your mind set and attitude more than a certain speed or lap split. It should imply a readiness to pull your body and mind to a slightly new level of discomfort. That place will be somewhere you have never been before, somewhere that requires the sprouting of new blood vessels and recruitment of dormant muscle groups, somewhere that forces gaseous exchange at new maximum levels. More importantly, that someplace will cause you to redefine your perception of effort. It is here that you learn to handle new levels of discomfort. It is here that you force yourself to hold perfect running form/ a powerful pull through on your swim stroke or a smooth, even and powerful pedal stroke.

The question is how you respond when you’re there- “in the moment”? When every ounce of energy you produce is begin channelled to forward propulsion and you’re tethering on the verge of blowing up. Mental attacks rain down in the form of split second thoughts to let up and catch your breath or to get off the front of the pack; thoughts that- once you give in to them- bring a flood of relief and comfort. I challenge you to override these signals- like carrying a bowl of hot soup- your fingers are burning, yet somehow you resign yourself to holding on until your broth is safe and sound on the dinner table. You flick your fingers to cool them down. They’re a bit red but everything is alright. Your body’s reflex to let go of the bowl is a feed forward safety mechanism that kicks in way before any real threat to your physical make up materialises.

In the same way, those invading signals to your brain telling you that holding this pace is too tough or that one more ALL OUT repeat is too much are just pre-emptive safety mechanism signals that, given the right practice, can be dealt with effectively and positively. So resign yourself to finishing that ALL OUT effort your coach may have set you, as best as you can.

In our quest to go even more ALL OUT, it helps to break it down into the smallest little portions. Here are some tips to help you out with this:

1. Break it down into even smaller bits. When you are in “ALL OUT” mode, dissect your pedal stroke- think and feel. Are you applying power all the way round through 360 degrees? Which part of the circle needs evening out? Play around and feel the difference between activating the different cycling muscles involved- your glutes, hip flexors, hamstrings. A tiny shift in your saddle can help awaken under-used muscle groups. It’s a great feeling to “find” and develop a new set of muscles that will eventually help you pedal more efficiently. Don’t doggedly sit in the same position mashing down over and over again, as hard as you can until your quads cramp. When you eventually develop a coordinated pedal stroke with all the involved muscle groups firing in the right sequence with the right timing, you’ll find yourself flying along in the big gear, with your HR sitting comfortably low and your legs churning out smooth, even circles.


2. When running, towards the end of a tough intervals/ hills set, you’re close to your limit- break it down. Don’t think, “How hard is this?” Or, “I’m dying…” Instead set your focus on just 1 thing- could be simply driving your elbows to maintain a high stride rate, or breathing that tiny bit deeper to get in more air, or reminding yourself to “Run tall… Run tall or focusing on picking up your heels quickly for a faster foot strike. Whatever proprioceptive cue you’ve called upon, bearing an ALL OUT effort when it’s unbearable, breadth by breadth, second by second, lifts the ceiling of what you had previously thought possible. The next time your body is under the same physical duress, your mental “ALL OUT” signal is only going kick in a little later, or at a slightly higher pace.

You can imagine my disappointment, on urging one of my athletes to “Think about how you want to run the next hill rep”, when I got the sarcastic and uninspired answer “Uphill.” : )

3. It’s the same with swimming- when your arms go cold and are filled with useless deoxygenated, lactic acid blood, when you want to stop in the middle of the pool and just cruise in- Dig Deep. ALL OUT means you’re reaching for more water at your fingertips, ALL OUT means your focusing on thrusting water back with your triceps because your Deltoids and Lats gave up 10meters ago, ALL OUT has you exhaling 3% more air so that you can inhale 3% more.

My advice is that you heed this subtle shift in endurance training paradigms that has us moving away from a pure numbers game, towards a “Brain Training” approach, and tune into what you’re thinking and feeling the next time you are ALL OUT. Always look to redefine perception of effort and go slightly more ALL OUT.

Here I am, doing just that…

ironguides is the leading Lifestyle Facilitation company for athletes of all abilities. We provide coaching and training services, plans and programs, as well training education, health and fitness products to help you learn and live a healthy lifestyle. Come get fit with one of our monthly training subscriptions, event-specific training plans, coaching services, or a triathlon training camp in an exotic location! ironguides also provides Corporate Health services including Corporate Triathlons, Healthy Living retreats and speaking engagements. At ironguides, your best is our business!

Shem LeongShem Leong is our ironguides coach in Singapore. He has been hooked on triathlon ever since winning his age group in his first Olympic-distance race. Many top performances later, Shem still enjoys the challenges of training and racing at a high level, while balancing this with work and family. He is a firm believer in the benefits of an active lifestyle and loves being able to positively affect his athletes’ lives in this way. In the four years that Shem has worked as an ironguides coach so far, he has helped more than 60 athletes achieve their goals. They range from newbies hoping to complete their first sprint race, to 70.3 podium contenders, to seasoned Sub 10-hour Ironman athletes. Shem’s care for his athletes and his attention to detail set him apart. He completely understands the varied pull factors of life’s demands as well as the fiery motivations that drive everyday age groupers and is able to craft sustainable, effective training plans for their time-crunched schedules. An Honour’s Degree in Health Science has given Shem the knowledge to explain and expertly administer The Method. This, in turn, helps his athletes understand how each session contributes towards their ultimate goal; as a result, countless personal bests have been improved upon as his athletes continually get fitter and faster.

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