Optimal Training Principle: Certain behaviors, if practiced with consistent quality, ensure Optimal Training.
Skipping a run
Pulling an all-nighter
Self-inducing a food coma on holidays
Eating the world's largest ice cream sundae
Skipping a meal altogether
Drinking a few beers
Skipping a warm-up or cool-down
Washing down that ice cream sundae with a root beer float
What do the above have in common?
There are really two possible answers to this question (both related). First answer: "Sometimes, I just have to do it." Second answer: "Doing it just this once won't hurt me."
I recently read a couple articles--one an article at Runner's World about Meb, the other a post on Seth Godin's blog--that inspired me to write on the behaviors that actually lead to Optimal Training. But I don't want to go too in depth about each specific behavior. Forgive me if I don't outline every muscle you need to stretch. There are many good books for that. Like this one.
This blog is really about how we think about training. So after we briefly outline the core behaviors that are required, I want to discuss how to think about those behaviors in order to get the most out of them.
Greatness is Elemental
It's no fun to just make a list of things we need to do. The fact is, some things are more important than others. It might be nice if everyone ate their Wheaties every morning (especially for General Mills), but if you want to be great and you only have time to eat a bowl of semi-tasty wheat flakes or go for a run, you'd better choose the run. (And this goes double if you prefer to eat Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs. (Copyright Universal Press Syndicate))
Anyway, here are the five categories of activities that make for a great runner. These levels are based on the building blocks of life, and the activities therein correspond roughly to how relevant they are to achieving success in distance running.
This category includes only one activity: running. Running is to being a great runner what oxygen is to being alive. And if that is too "SAT Testy" for you, here's the simple logic: Runners run. If you don't run, you can't be a great runner.
Water is the next most important element of life, so it's not surprising to note that hydration is one of the next most important components of training. It's crucial. And just as your life won't last long without water, your running career won't go far if you don't stretch, eat enough, properly warm-up and cool-down, get enough sleep, and employ some sophistication to your running (intervals, fartleks, etc.).
In my experience, this is what most athletes get out of their training programs, minus the sufficient sleep. Most runners don't invest enough time in their sleep. That said, most dedicated runners can reach the Water stage.
Many runners start to falter at the Food level. Why? Because of food, actually. First and foremost, this level includes eating a healthy diet. Most distance runners I know fall back on an "it's all fuel in the furnace" mentality about food. That's simply junk food justification and there's no place for it if you want to be great. Other activities in this category include weight training/exercises/plyometrics, form drills, studying and reading (about running), keeping a training log, and getting massages and icing pre- and post-workout, respectively.
Animals can go without eating for quite a long time. But in the end, it catches up to them. Same for runners. These activities are what separate the very successful from the guys who tell their kids how they coulda woulda shoulda.
In nature, shelter helps to keep you alive long enough to get more oxygen, water, and food. In that vein, these activities aren't so much extensions of the previous categories, but complementary to them. Like shiny rims on your car, you can get from point A to point B without them, but it just doesn't feel as good. This category includes wearing appropriate gear, developing tactical race strategies, following a pre-race routine, utilizing visualization techniques, and relaxing/meditating before a race.
Some people try to skip Oxygen, Water, and Food activities and go straight to Shelter activities. This is the runners equivalent to a Meatball Sundae.
(In other sports, having a cool nickname would belong here, too. Never underestimate the power of a good nickname. Can anyone tell me why this is not more popular in running? Is "Pre" really the best we can do? I mean seriously.)
Wait. Don't scoff. Think about it. Discipline is absolutely an essential element of life. Zebra strays from the herd: lion lunch. Young male walrus tries to take on the patriarch despite being too young: beat down. Early bird sleeps in: no worm. Examples abound.
Discipline is about choice and consistency. In the case of Optimal Training, that means consistently choosing to be extraordinary, to push your limits, and often, to sacrifice. Choices can be positive. Like choosing to get your work done in a timely manner so you don't lose out on sleep. Or choosing to live near where you work so you don't spend all your time commuting rather than training. Or choosing to live with people who will be supportive rather than distracting.
But choices can also be "not negative". Like choosing not to do any of the things at the top of this post, not even once, even though "You just have to do it" and "Doing it just this once won't hurt me."
Certain behaviors, if practiced with consistent quality, ensure Optimal Training. This list is by no means exhaustive. And that's because the list itself is just that: a list of things to do. It's how you do them that makes difference.
Making Elemental Exponential
It's important to recognize what the Quality-Consistency Curve means.
The green or red line is your ability. The first part of the line is exponential, going off to the right and getting steeper and steeper as it goes. For each additional step, improvements are greater and greater. The second half shows the line flattening out again, a concept known as diminishing marginal returns. That is, no matter how hard you work, improvement comes slower and slower once you reach a high level of ability. Example: you stop getting 5 second PRs when you're running 3:44 for the mile.
What this shows is that doing everything listed above will not be sufficient to make you extraordinary. It will make you improve, but that's it. Without a focus on the quality of your effort--the way you perform--you won't get the most out of them. In short: Nike is wrong. You can't just do it. You have to do it right. Always.
If you do only a few activities on the above list (Oxygen and Water activities, let's say) but you do them with a high Quality of Effort, you may be pretty good, especially if you're very talented (this curve is talent neutral). More importantly, you will probably be better off than if you do all the activities, but only "go through the motions."
That's why I always argue that the key to Optimal Training is not what you do. To be quite honest, I could care less what workouts most people choose to do. At the highest level, that starts to matter. But for the most part, you can be equally successful working on the roads every day or working on the track every day. What I'm much more interested in is how you approach whatever it is that you're doing.
Do you understand completely what the purpose of the workout is? Do you know what tomorrow's workout is, and where this workout relates to that one in terms of priority? Are you distracted with other things or are you focused entirely on the workout/race at hand? Are you enjoying your training or are you dragging right now? Are you trying to do too much, and thus lowering the quality of your effort in each activity?
Great runners, runners who consistently train Optimally, not only apply a high Quality of Effort to their Oxygen, Water, Air and Shelter level activities (and have great nicknames). They also apply consistent Discipline in the choices they make. They make a lot of sacrifices.
But here's the paradox. The more disciplined you are, the easier it becomes to apply a high Quality of Effort to your training. It is a self-perpetuating cycle. Once you get in that groove, when everything starts going right, it actually gets easier to say no to all the negative behaviors at the top of this post. Heck, you may actually find it hard to stop being disciplined.
And when that happens, your competitors will find it hard to stop you.