Slow Down To Go Fast
Not long after I started racing motocross, my parents sent me to the Gary Bailey Motocross School. At the time I thought it was because I wanted to go but couldn't afford it. Later I found out it was because they had seen me race and was afraid I was going to kill myself.
It was a 3-day school (3 very long days) and it cost about $350. I learned more in those 3 days than I ever imagined I would. I learned lessons that have stayed with me for more than 15 years.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned was that I don't know everything. It sounds ridiculous to put it that way, but it's true. I was a teenager at the time and was very skeptical of the school. I knew how to ride a motorcycle. What was this guy they call The Professor of Motocross possibly going to teach me that was worth $350? I knew I wasn't good at racing, but I figured I just needed more practice. I knew what I was doing; I just hadn't put in enough time yet to be good.
Oh how wrong I was.
I may never forget the first 30 minutes of that school, when Gary Bailey taught us how to ride a motorcycle. We sat at picnic tables while he demonstrated good form. I was doing the opposite of nearly everything he went over. It was like my whole world got flipped upside down. I didn't know shit about the one thing I cared the most about. And if I didn't know anything about my favorite thing, maybe I didn't really know anything about anything at all.
I took that lesson with me when I got into cycling and then triathlon and approached the sports knowing I didn't know anything, and I think that attitude greatly accelerated my learning curve. I've learned a lot, but still try my best to keep that attitude and seek out more knowledge knowing there's a lot I still don't know.
What a lot of people don't know about motocross is that's it's very much a skill-based sport. Courage factors in a bit, but that's not what makes guys go fast. If it did, beginners would be the fastest because they haven't crashed yet and don't know the consequences of mistakes. Sometimes I heard people call really fast riders crazy because of fast they rode. They weren't crazy; they were good (skilled and confident). The crazy riders were the beginners because they rode way over their head. It isn't courage that makes the pros as fast as they are.
You need a certain amount of conditioning to be able to ride hard and fast without getting tired, but motocross is all about form. Your body positioning matters a lot. Bad positioning in a corner and you don't get traction. Bad positioning over a jump and you could crash. This was the main thing I didn't know about motocross that I learned immediately at the Bailey school. Form matters a lot (conditioning helps you keep good form for the entire race). Keep your elbows up, head over the bars, weight the outside footpeg in the corners, squeeze the bike with your knees, etc. The list goes on.
He had a lot of sayings he liked, one of them being perfect practice makes perfect (as opposed to practice makes perfect). He taught us to pick apart sections of the track and practice them over and over rather than just hammer out laps. Pick a corner and repeat it until you do it right. These lessons were reiterated to me recently in the book Talent is Overrated. The author talked about how the best athletes, musicians, businessmen, etc. do what he calls deliberate practice (perfect practice). Deliberate practice requires focus and doing things that are highly repeatable, such as working on one corner for a few hours.
Everything The Professor said made sense, but he had one saying that took a while for me to grasp. Slow down to go fast. Huh?
What he was talking about was getting your form down and learning to be smooth. All of us in the class were trying so hard to be fast that we were fighting the bike, riding sloppy and wasting energy. We were constantly losing momentum with sloppy riding. We needed to slow down, get it right and that would make us faster. Slow down to go fast.
Everything contains its opposite.
I worked on everything he taught for a few years and once I slowed down and really focused on doing things right (perfect practice), I started getting faster. My form came together and I started racing better and having a lot more fun. And my parents were able to relax and actually enjoy being at the races every weekend. A few years later I returned the his school and learned even more having now grasped all the basics. The second time around I picked up on all the little things I missed and once again took my racing to a whole new level.
Motocross is a like swimming. Form is king and conditioning isn't the number one factor for success. It counts, but if your form is bad you can't make up for it by being really fit. You waste too much energy. You constantly lose your momentum by being sloppy and waste energy trying to get back up to speed. It's a skill-based sport.
After Ironman Wisconsin I spent 3 months working on my run. I rarely rode my bike and I didn't swim at all. I ran...and ran....and ran. And when I was ready to return to the pool I decided to go back to lessons learned a long time ago. It's time to stop thinking all I need to do is practice more, that I know what I'm doing but haven't had the time to do enough practice to be fast. It's time to slow down to go fast.
So that's what I'm doing. I'm swimming slow. Easy 50s and 100s. Drills, drills, drills. Form, form, form (perfect practice or deliberate practice). I'm working on things that are highly repeatable. I'm focusing. I'm doing drills and short intervals to work on certain aspects of my form and dial it in. I'm not at all worried about speed. I only care about form. The speed will come, just like it did years ago. It's like the days when I would go to the track and work on corners for 3 hours.
And the funny thing is, I'm getting faster. My slow swimming speeds are quickly equaling what my fast swimming speeds used to be. And I'm doing it with less effort....a lot less effort. Before, I was making things difficult for myself with bad form. I was trying too hard to go fast and swimming sloppy and wasting energy.
It makes sense. If you swim really hard, you accumulate lactic acid in your muscles and lactic acid cripples your coordination, which is going to hurt your form and make you swim sloppy (or sloppier) and reinforce bad form. Everything contains its opposite.
So if you're struggling with your swimming, take a lesson from The Professor: Slow down to go fast.