When I ran my first marathon, I felt a hurt I had never experienced before but there was a perverse pleasure in that pain because I knew I had just completed something I had set my sights on achieving. It was early July, 2003 on the Gold Coast and I remember the excitement and trepidation standing among the throng of fit, lean bodies ready to pound the pavement for hours on end. I ran 3 hours 41 minutes, and within minutes of finishing I set myself the goal of running a sub 3 hour marathon within five years.
According to studies approximately 2% of all marathon runners have run a sub 3 hour marathon so it puts you in a fairly prestigious club. This stat could have also meant that my emotional post race goal of a sub 3 hour marathon may have been a bit rash. Fortunately for me, it didn’t turn out to be rash as I was able to run that sub 3 hour marathon on the same course on the Gold Coast in 2007. I went back each year to gauge my improvement and I was gutted and encouraged at the same time in 2006 when I ran 3:00:26. So close to breaking that 3 hour mark and disappointed that I didn’t achieve it in 2006 but so enthused to be able to go away and return again to push for those extra 27 seconds.
How did I get from 3 hours 41 minutes to 2 hours 58 minutes?
I certainly didn’t make one big jump. I broke my journey down into 4 blocks after that first marathon as part of my five year plan. I had just completed my first block and had a baseline to work from. The next step wasn’t to reach out and find 42 minutes, it was to take smaller steps to achieve my ultimate goal so I started to chunk my work. I chunked my running together in blocks relating to other races or training periods.
Each year from that first to the fifth I would race shorter races or other marathons and have each of those as a chunk of work that became part of something bigger. It is way too daunting to start a five year journey and the first thing you are looking for is the finish line of the marathon in five years time. There are way too many kilometres to run, roads and paths to follow, recovery sessions to get through and programs to write in between. As a result, we need to be able to see clearly into the near future what lies ahead for us and to be able to work successfully through that. Once the little chunk of time is complete we then move onto the next chunk and so on. Each little chunk is a lot easier to handle than one big one and it is easier for us to motivate ourselves and stay consistent in our efforts so that we can get the benefit in the long run. Without the chunks we lose our way too easily and get distracted by life and all it throws us.
For me breaking down my five year plan made the whole plan achievable without overwhelming me with the big picture. That big picture of me running across the finish line in under three hours was simply part of the process and a pleasant view of what the future could look like if I put the little chunks together.
The Wallaroos are currently in the process of chunking on our way to the World Cup next year. During the COVID-19 period we have been encouraging the players to be very specific on their individual development. But to start with we have been asking them to create their ideal avatar playing at the 2021 World Cup. They are creating a list of attributes that they are capable of achieving and will allow them to do their role within the team as best they can in 12 months time. Trying to achieve that in one effort would be overwhelming so we are getting the girls to break it down into monthly efforts.
What is it they want to start to master this month, next month, the month after?
The idea is that they will make 12 more monthly efforts to complete the whole picture. This way we can sit down with them just prior to the World Cup and look back through their training diary or journal and make it clear they have done the work to be the best player they can be for the World Cup.
This process of chunking has been a very positive one for many of the girls who are doing it because they feel a one month effort is achievable and taking it one step at a time doesn’t make it seem all too consuming. We need to take into account that these girls are amateur, their job is not playing and preparing to play rugby so they face a lot of distractions that your normal professional athlete doesn’t have to deal with, yet we expect a professional attitude and commitment from them. Under these circumstances you can imagine they could easily become overwhelmed.
When creating your chunks, start with your ultimate picture, the finished product and then work backwards breaking that down into individual components. It is important to then prioritise those smaller components and to work out which ones to do first as some elements may need to be mastered first before tackling another. This is an important step because getting the sequence of chunks in the most effective order will help maintain motivation, make the process clear in your head and assist with the coordination of the skills you're wanting to master.
One of the big challenges with chunking and especially when trying to sequence skills is that we can’t simply do a month of development on a particular skill to then let it go while we do others. We need to incorporate a maintenance aspect to our ongoing program that allows for all these skills to continue to develop. Usually when multiple skills are involved they can be incorporated into the overall execution of the game. For example in rugby we would start with defensive tracking skills to ensure we get ourselves in good positions to make tackles, then we would work on tackle techniques. Whilst we are working on our tackle techniques we can include elements of tracking skill. As the program continues we may have developed our drills to include tracking, decision making, tackle technique, and breakdown skill so that we are combining multiple aspects of our defensive game all in one.