Four Phases of Ironman Competence

If you have realized that endurance training is complicated, congratulations! You are on you way to becoming a master!

Even though endurance training mainly consists of “putting in the time,” there are a lot of moving parts to a complete training program. I’m sure you have found out that simply swimming, biking, and running can only take you so far. There is a learning curve. Where are you on this curve??

The four phases of competence is a model of human development developed in the 1970s. This model outlines the progression of competence from novice to expert. It can be applied to just about every endeavor, from learning a new subject, to mastering a technique, to training for events, to relationships, to learning a new job. We start with very little understanding of the complexity of the endeavor, and with training, learning, and practice, we evolve into an expert.

I’ll relate this concept to my Ironman journey at the end, but as you read about the four phases, I hope that you think about where you fit during past and current experiences in your life. Each of the four phases include a description, a “first person narrative” of someone in this phase (italics), and my interpretation as a coach (bold).


Unconscious Incompetence.

This is the phase where you try something new. You have no idea what you are getting into and no idea what you are doing.  You signed up for an Ironman, full of excitement and confidence. Your friends have done it! You can do this! You don’t yet realize how enormous of an undertaking Ironman training is. With blind enthusiasm, you jump into the training.  Lots of newbies fit into this category. They don’t understand what they are getting themselves into, they aren’t sure how to train, yet they confidently hammer out swim, bike, run, and strength training. They don’t realize what they don’t know. They will not acknowledge they need help, and as a coach, I cannot help these people until they reach the next phase…


Conscious Incompetence.

Once you commit to something, you may quickly become aware that there is a lot that you don’t know. You make mistakes, but you know you are making mistakes. You take it upon yourself to learn, analyze and “try” to become better. You may do research, talk to friends, get a coach, or find other ways to gain knowledge.  “I don’t know what I’m doing” or “I’m not making any progress” or “I’m no fitter on February 1st than I was January 1st.” or “This isn’t as simple as I thought…”  As a coach, this is the phase I find most of my new clients. They have signed up for the race. They are excited. They may have even began to train. But they realize they need help. 


Conscious Competence.

You have learned the basics and sought out teachers, mentors, and others who can keep you on the right track, but you still need external feedback and affirmation that you are doing things right. You are making good decisions, but there is still a lot of  thinking and “trying” that is involved.  Your training is taking you in the right direction. You are making educated decisions about pacing, nutrition, when to back off, when to push it. Your confidence is growing along with your competence. My goal is to get my athletes to this phase as quickly as possible. I use data to educate the athlete on how to correlate quantifiable feedback (i.e. Garmin data) with perceptions and feelings.  The goal is to transcend “thinking” and just “do.” My objective in this phase is to transition to the role of a sounding board to nudge them in the right direction rather than a conductor who dictates all of their moves. 


Unconscious Competence.

This is the peak. This is the goal. Do without thinking. All of the “trying” is gone and you simply “do.” Thinking becomes baggage. Your goal is to be one with the experience. Some call this the “flow state” where things happen naturally, without thinking. You are an expert. Your actions are directed by months and years of intentional practice. You train and race with a feeling of freedom and power. You have confidence, but you aren’t thinking about being confident. You are simply acting. Doing. Ditch technology and trust the gut. It has been trained. You are ready. My goal is to get into the Unconscious Competence phase in almost everything I do. And this is the goal I have for my athletes. I want them to act without thinking.


I was thinking about how this model applied to endurance training. Like most of you, I followed this path. Here’s my story:

Unconscious Incompetence: 2000 – 2002. After 15 years as a track and field athlete, I jumped into triathlon training with blind enthusiasm. Swimming and biking were AWESOME and the fact that I could do this cool sport (triathlon) was so exciting. I swam and biked as much as I could. I didn’t have a strategy, I simply read a few magazine articles and followed the pros.  Unfortunately for me, this phase lasted about 3 years. Had I been more willing to admit that I had no clue how to train for triathlon, I would have immediately sought out guidance. But I was stubborn and thought I could do it on my own. Because of this, I delayed growth and progress by not seeking out coaches, mentors, and quality training partners. I blindly trained and raced, all the while thinking I was making progress.  Until I realized I wasn’t making progress.

Conscious Incompetence: 2002-2004: Late into my second season, I realized I really didn’t have a clue how to train. Luckily for me, I met Chuckie V. He was my first coach and opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about training and racing. I became aware of all that I didn’t know and made it my mission to LEARN. Chuckie and others served as trusted mentors. I sought out coaches and athletes and learned from them. I replaced many aspects of incompetence with competence.

Conscious Competence: 2005 – 2010: For A LONG time, I was a student of the sport. A student of my body. I was obsessed with new technology, new training methodology, scientific concepts, and figuring out what worked and what didn’t work. I used coaches and technology for feedback to assure I was on the right path. But the key element was that I was keenly aware of was cause and effect. I paid attention to everything. What I ate. When I ate. How much I slept. Life stress. How a training session affected these things. How these things affected training. I basically became an expert on myself. Until one day, I realized that I didn’t have to “think” anymore. I simply knew.

Unconscious Competence: 2010: I’d like to say that the entire last 2 years of my competitive career was a flow state, but that would be a lie. I had moments where everything “clicked.” But most of the time, I was still making conscious decisions. BUT…. the difference was that these decisions were quick and based on gut and intuition rather than external feedback like Garmin, power, and other people.  My action and reaction were simultaneous. Almost no “thinking” and almost always proper action.

As I transitioned out of sport into academia and professional coaching, I continued to vacillate between the Conscious and Unconscious Competence phases in academia and athletics. I spend a lot of time learning until the lessons become ingrained and I don’t have to think about the “why” anymore. Interestingly, even though I haven’t formally trained since 2010, my training competence has evolved and grown. I have become more intuitive and “at peace” with the journey. And hopefully, this competence will make up for age as I embark on a new chapter in the Ironman journey.


Obviously training is a metaphor for life. I’ll leave it to you to translate this message into other aspects of your life. All I can say is that identifying where you are in this model can help you get to where you want to be.


So…. Where are you on this path?