There are essentially two approaches to getting better at something. You can do something better, or you can do something else. The first is being more efficient, the second is being more effective.
For example, say you're training for a 5k and you're running two interval workouts and a tempo run every week, as well as a few road runs. Well, one approach to getting better is to continue doing the same workouts and to focus on getting more out of them. We all do this, because we all strive to get the most out of our workouts. But there's another approach that we sometimes fail to consider. That is doing something else entirely. Rather than an interval workout, how about some hill repeats?
Am I recommending we all substitute hill repeats for intervals? No, of course not. If you're coached, there should be a reason behind everything you're doing. But in those areas where you don't have a coach watching over you it is very easy to fall into a routine, and it is very hard to continue getting more and more efficient at something over time. As competitive distance runners, we're looking for an edge. Incremental improvement is necessary, but sometimes we can get a lot more out of a bigger change.
At some point, all runners need to consider doing something different, be it run longer, run faster, run differently or (gasp!) not run. (Maybe that cross-training session is a good idea.) And this doesn't simply apply to running, either. It applies to all aspects of training, including stretching, sleeping, eating, and balancing other responsibilities (school, work, family...). Heck, it applies to your whole life.
- You can try to eat your double cheeseburger and super-size fries more efficiently, but you should probably be considering another meal altogether.
- You can try to make five hours of sleep more restful by optimizing your pillow placement, or you can go to bed earlier and get your full eight hours.
- You can try to maximize your lunch break by running 30 minutes everyday, or you can take two days a week and run 20 minutes harder with a few strides at the end mix it up.
- Or, for example, if your junk mail problems are interfering with your
lifetraining, you can try to read it all more efficiently, or you try to be more effective and save yourself precious time and energy. (I wish my grandma used the internet...alas...)
Think about your training critically. First, ask yourself whether you're even doing the right behaviors in the first place. Chances are, there are changes you can make for the better. There always are. They aren't always fun, and they are never easy to sustain, but they can be made. As you look at the little diagram I drew above, note that I drew effective changes as little islands or stepping stones. I did that on purpose. You can't go from zero to Optimal Training in one jump. Not because it's impossible but because it's not sustainable. What you need to do is make one change, develop that into a habit, and then consider another change. For example, don't try to up your mileage, change you diet, sleep more, do more weight training, and start keeping a training log all at the same time. Just start going to bed earlier. When you've got that under control, pick another area in which to improve.
After you've developed the most effective training behaviors, then focus on how you can make them more efficient. That is, only after you're sleeping eight hours should you worry about optimal pillow placement. The hardest part of Optimal Training is managing the process within the context of your life. You will always be able to improve your efficiency. And you'll always have to. But you're wasting a lot of time and energy if you're trying to optimize the wrong behaviors in the first place.
Optimal Training in one sentence: Doing the most effective training the most efficient way possible. It sounds simple but it's the hardest thing in the world to do on a consistent basis.