Rocks Vs Sand

February 21, 2020

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There’s an age-old story that I vaguely recall first hearing about from a high school teacher many moons ago which seems to come to the front of my mind more and more frequently since I began coaching triathletes. The story goes like this…


‘A teacher gave every student in the class a bucket and tasked the students with filling up the bucket with rocks. The students all went away and came back with buckets seemingly full of rocks. The teacher asked the students whether or not they believed their buckets were full, and the students all replied with confidence that their buckets were definitely full. The teacher then gave the students a smaller bucket of little pebbles and asked the students to pour the little pebbles into the bucket with the rocks. The students followed this instruction. The pebbles were able to be poured into the bucket as they trickled down and filled in the cracks and gaps that the bigger rocks couldn’t fill. The teacher then asked the students if their buckets were NOW full. The students were adamant that the buckets were now definitely full. The teacher then gave each of the students a small bucket of sand and asked the students to pour the sand into the bucket with the bigger rocks and smaller pebbles that the students were adamant was already full. Similarly to the smaller pebbles, the sand trickled into the bucket filling the gaps that the bigger rocks and smaller pebbles just couldn’t fill.’


Now I understand that there could be a few different messages you could take away from this story, but for me, the key point is that while there might always be more that you can do to add to a seemingly ‘full’ bucket (or situation in life) by adding pebbles or sand, you will find the majority of the filling comes from the bigger rocks. So why get so caught up in the sand?


You’re probably wondering what the hell this has to do with triathlon, and why this comes to mind when I’m coaching athletes…and no, I don’t have my athletes out there shifting rocks or filling buckets for training. My point is that triathletes tend to get so caught up in the sand. They’re worrying about supplements, compression gear, altitude masks or tents, power meters, how many grams their racing flats weigh, reducing the surface area of the front end of their bike…the list really does just go on and on. But the reality is, that this stuff is the sand, it’s the icing that should only come after the rocks and pebbles. The opportunity to pour sand in on top should only come after you’ve already ‘filled’ your bucket with the bigger rocks – the absolute essential basics to building a good athlete. We are talking about getting the training right (micro, meso, and macro cycles in your programming), sufficient amount of sleep (6 hours just doesn’t cut it, we are talking 8 hours each night) to allow your body and mind to recover after each day of work, training, family (life!), getting the right foods into your body (at the right times of the day), and managing good recovery habits each and every day.


As an athlete, focus on getting the big rocks into your bucket first to lay the foundations. Then, and only then should you start looking at the pebbles or even the sand. Yes, many professional athletes are at a level where they are filling in any spaces they can find in their bucket with sand (or they may have even progressed to adding water – whoa, talk about fine tuning!), but just because you read about what they are doing at the top end of the sport does not mean it will have the same outcome or be of any benefit to someone who hasn’t first ‘filled’ their bucket with the bigger rocks.

The key message here is to really make sure you’re getting the bigger rocks in place first. Don’t start with the pebbles or the sand – it will take you forever to fill your bucket. If you can get the big, key things consistently right in your life and training over the course of at least a year or two, then absolutely take a look at the gaps and areas of opportunity for improvement, but my advice is that this is not the starting point. The flashing gadgets and impressive things you see in magazines and on social media feeds of the pros is not the place to start. Make sure you get your big rocks in place first and you will see much greater benefit in your performance in the long term.