Optimal Training Principle: Optimal performance is the result of one's attitude, one's effort, and one's training methods.
Last week, I wrote a post on attitude. I argued that attitude is the foundation that supports all of the effort and training methods you put into your performance goals. I further argued that there are four key attitudes that an athlete must possess if they are to be their best: belief in effort, engagement, discipline, and pride.
In this post I'd like to delve a little deeper into Effort and Training Methods. In doing so, please keep in mind what Optimal Training means: getting the most out of your training given the time and energy you have to put into it. Your time and your energy are the two major constraints on your effort and training methods.
The simplest way to analyze effort is to break it down into its three main components: quality, quantity, and time. These are the three limiting factors on any person's ability to improve. You can do something better, do more of it, or do it longer.
Quality is the most important aspect of one's effort to focus on. The word "quality" tends to refer to two different things: efficiency (how well you do something) and effectiveness (how appropriate an activity is). When we discuss effort, we are referring to quality in terms of efficiency. (We'll talk about effectiveness when we get to Training Methods below.)
If you can get the same results using less time and energy, then that's what you should be doing. An ideal workout, for example, would have no wasted time or energy at all. You would arrive, warm up, kick butt, cool down, and go home expending the least amount of effort necessary to get what you want out of your workout.
The chart to the right shows what I call the Attitude-Effort Curve. As your attitude improves, so does the quality of your effort. As your attitude becomes consistently great, the quality of your workouts will increase to a point where it actually becomes difficult to get more efficient. Champions live in this range. Having eliminated bad performances, they are constantly looking for ways to marginally improve upon their good/great performances.
Before athletes attempt to increase the quantity of their effort (mileage, # of push-ups, etc.), they should give serious consideration to the quality of their work. If there is room for obvious improvement, that is where improvement must be made first. It becomes harder and harder to maintain quality as quantity increases, so learning how to do it at a low quantity will make achieving quality with high quantity much easier.
Once you have developed the ability to consistently perform with high quality effort, a decision must be made. What do you change next?
The most common and immediate answer is to increase quantity. That's how you get better, right? You run more. Well, yes, but... But sometimes running more isn't the right choice.
Here's why: Increasing quantity is a necessary part of training, but it is significantly riskier than making other changes to your effort. When you are running high quality workouts, increasing quantity puts you at higher risk of injury. So while you can (and should) increase mileage systematically, you should not be doing so in an effort to get any short-term improvement. Decisions about quantity must be made in a long-term context, and should be weighed against the benefits of time.
Everyone forgets about time. Maybe we're all impatient, but I don't think so. I think it's because time is always just...there. If you're training everyday, time is on your side. If you stop training for an extended period, time will turn on you like a nice guy in a spy movie.
Imagine a runner who does 6 miles at 6 minute pace every day for one year (that is, quality, quantity, and training methods remain constant). His progress would actually look something like the graph to the right. Over the course of a year, he would improve, but that improvement would decrease over time and he'd never reach his highest potential level of ability.
This happens because time compounds effort...to a point. Consistent quality effort will build upon itself so that it isn't always necessary to run more to see increased benefits.
You see this with elite runners. Elite runners don't continue to increase their mileage every year. They build their mileage to a certain point over a number of years, and then they stop trying to run more. They rather focus on refining the quality of the workouts (and the workouts themselves, of course) over many years. And they still improve. Runners without an Optimal Training mindset often equate improvement with "doing more". And they overtrain, put themselves at risk of injury, or simply waste a lot of time and energy.
This isn't to say you shouldn't increase the quantity of your effort. You should, until you've reached a level that will realistically put you in a position to achieve your goals...over time. For some runners, that's 50 miles a week. For others it's 90. For some it's 130+. You need to consult with your coach, your friends, and/or other resources to determine what is right for you.
I use the words "training methods" to mean anything you are doing in an attempt to improve or change your ability. In running, these include your workouts, weight training, stretching, icing, eating, hydrating, sleeping, keeping a training log, visualizing, etc. Each of these activities contributes to your overall performance, to a greater or lesser degree.
Weight training, for example, will never have as much impact on a runner's performance as the running workouts they do, but each can be viewed independently on an "effectiveness scale", ranging from totally inappropriate to optimal. If you're going to lift weights, you need to lift the right weights the right way.
This is the other dimension of quality that has to be discussed: how appropriate is the activity given your time, your energy, and your goals? Or, how effective is what you are doing?
At the highest level, this becomes more and more important. But for most of us, the specifics are not nearly as important as we sometimes think. Of course, if your training methods are counter-productive, there's a problem. You can't be your best off of a thirty minute jog each morning, three hours of sleep, and a diet of Snickers bars and Vault energy drinks (despite what the commercials tell us).
Anyway, specifically in terms of workouts, most coached runners have decent guidance. And those who aren't coached can often go to a local book store and get good advice on the types of workouts or training programs that can get them to where they want to be. What most people don't have, however, is the attitude necessary to execute those workouts optimally and to make all the required sacrifices in other areas of their lives.
In the end, the main point to be made about training methods is that the differences between specific workouts is often marginal. It's been my experience that if you take a 70% effective workout and execute it 100% efficiently, you will get more out of it than if you take a 100% effective workout and execute it 70% efficiently. Why? Because high quality work creates positive externalities.
High quality work leaves runners feeling more confident, more prepared, and more focused than low quality work. The more engaged you are, the easier it is to stay engaged. The more disciplined you are, the easier it is to maintain that discipline. The more pride you take in your performances, the more likely you are to approach future performances correctly. And runners who are putting 100% quality effort into their training will also be the most likely to realize when it is the training methods that need to change and not their attitude or effort.
Training methods are obviously an important aspect of a training program. But they are like the interior design in a house. It doesn't matter how sexy the house will be when it's done if it isn't built on a solid foundation with quality materials. It will just be the illusion of a good house. Similarly, an athlete doing optimally effective workouts with a bad attitude and low quality effort won't be more than the illusion of a well-trained athlete.