Training doesn’t have to be crazy

More it more it seems like we are surrounded by craziness, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I recently read It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the two founders of the project management software company Basecamp. The main point of the book is, as the title suggests, work doesn’t have to be, and indeed shouldn’t be, crazy.

It doesn’t have to be like this, say Fried and Hansson. This is an important message for those involved in various different industries, especially start-ups, where there can often be the thought process that more time at work equals more work, leading to 12-hour days, all-nighters, and the erosion of the weekend, all with the well-intentioned, but poorly-executed, thought that you always have to be working. You shouldn’t wear your lack of sleep as a badge of honor. Motivational posts on social media about how many hours you have to put in miss the point, and talk of the hustle is misguided.

Instead, removing the roadblocks to good work—distractions, meetings, simply having too much to do—and focusing on what actually matters leads to better work. Getting more sleep leads to better work. Having more time to focus on doing actual work, and being in a physical and mental state to do good work during that time, leads to better work.

Does this sound familiar?

It should, because we have a similar problem in sport. Motivational slogans abound. A quick Google search pops up mantras like:

“Don’t stop when it hurts, stop when you’re done.”

“When my body shouts stop, my mind screams never.”

The first sounds like a recipe for injury. The second sounds like a roadmap to overtraining. Both of these “motivational” quotes promote the maxim that hard work equals success.

Consider this then; at various points during my athletics career, I had in my training group three athletes who have run under 10 seconds for 100 meters. In any given session, they didn’t work harder than me, in terms of effort or duration. Conversely, many times during my career I had training partners who couldn’t break 10.5 seconds, or even 11 seconds, for 100 meters; if you turned up to watch a session and judged it based on effort, you’d be hard pushed to differentiate those athletes from those breaking 10 seconds.

Quality over quantity

Instead, elite athletes are very good at being consistent, and distributing their training energy across sessions as required. They don’t work hard, always on the grind; instead, they work smarter. For the sessions you can just turn up for, they do that; turn up, get the training done, and go home. This means that, for the key sessions, they can put in the required intensities. I once trained with a World Champion, and I remember (on more than one occasion), him telling me that he was going to miss the next day’s training session in the gym because he was feeling too tired, and the gym session was the least important of his weekly sessions. This didn’t happen often—he was no shirker—but it left an impression on me. This approach is the direct opposite message to all the motivational slogans we see plastered across the internet.

Similarly, Fried and Hansson write about focusing on doing work that matters, and ignoring that which has no impact. We can say the same about training; as tempting as it is to always add more exercises to a gym session, or do more reps on the track, this would be a mistake; instead, strip it back to the exercises that matter, and do them well.

Work smarter

Of course, I’m not saying that elite athletes don’t work hard; they do. What I’m saying is that, in my experience, most people work hard at training, and are motivated to do so. But, in my opinion, elite athletes are elite athletes because they work better than non-elites, not necessarily because they work more, or even try harder. Outside of training, they focus on factors that support high performance; sufficient sleep, downtime, and a good diet, as opposed to doing more training – just as Fried and Hansson promote the need for getting enough sleep and having enough relaxation time to do your best work at work.

Instead of always being on, high performance is about being on when it matters, with plenty of time for recovery in-between. Instead of doing more training (“working harder”), elite athletes are more likely to focus on their recovery. They also tend to make smarter decisions about when to stop training because something is painful, or they feel too fatigued – understanding that tomorrow is another day, and that by stopping now, they can have a better session the next day.

The clear take-away, is that consistency in approach—effort, intensity, lifestyle—trump short-term highly motivated spurts of work. Instead of focusing on working hard, work better; make better decisions regarding food and sleep away from the athletics track and gym, balance training load with recovery, and, if something starts to hurt and it’s harming your performance, do something to fix it, as opposed to be just grinding through and hoping it will go away. In sport, as per in business covered by Fried and Hanssons’s book, it isn’t crazy levels of motivation that lead to success; it’s targeted pieces of hard work, with consistent periods of the right work, that create champions.