Consistency versus excellence

During my athletics career, I trained with two truly world-class athletes: one a gold medalist and the other a world champion. What struck me at the time was how normal they were; they turned up to training, trained fairly well, and then came back the next day to repeat the process. There were no superhuman sessions—although there were occasional exceptional performances—but just consistently decent sessions, strung together over an extended period of time.

My own training at this point in time did not match this. Highly motivated to achieve success, I thought that every session was important, and that I had to achieve excellence on a daily basis. When I failed to deliver the required excellent training performance, I doubled down the next day, resolving to work harder than ever in a bid to become successful. In short, I subscribed to the hard work = success concept. It did not end well.

Consistency rules

Last year I read The Little Black Book of Training Wisdom by Dr. Dan Cleather, which is a book I wish I had available to me when I was still competing. The main theme running throughout the book is that there is a cardinal rule that must be obeyed when planning, and delivering, a training program; be consistent. Anything that reduces the athlete’s ability to be consistent in their approach to training should be avoided as much as possible. These include inducing too much fatigue—or not providing enough time to recover from it; getting injured (and, as the majority of injuries are overuse injuries, this is linked to the previous point); and changing training so frequently that the overall training stimulus is reduced.

By keeping this cardinal rule in mind, Cleather then gives a novel, in-depth overview of training theory; essentially, there are sessions that cause adaptation, and there are sessions that are practice orientated. Within the adaptation-based sessions, there are “hot” sessions, where the training volume or intensity is increased to drive adaptation. The training block should be built around these hot sessions, with sufficient light sessions programmed to enhance recovery for the next hot session, whilst also proving some other form of adaptive or practice-led improvement. The priority is being able to perform these hot sessions at the required intensity/volume, and building the rest of the program to ensure this can happen. Importantly, this tends to mean leaving some training capacity in the tank, as opposed to having every session being as hard as possible.

Training as hard as possible in every session—as I used to—limits the athlete’s capacity to train hard in the key sessions; and, as a result, performance does not improve. Cleather uses the term “adaptive capacity” here; what we want is to maximize the capacity of the athlete to adapt to the imposed demands of the key sessions, which, if they’re fatigued and/or injured, they can’t.

From physical to psychological

This then has a knock-on effect to psychological factors. Controlling emotional arousal across a training block becomes crucial, because higher arousal levels tend to lead to higher workloads and/or intensities, which can then induce greater than affected fatigue. As such, athletes shouldn’t get in “the zone” for every training session—because this harms training consistency—but instead should use this approach sparingly for hot sessions. Again, elite athletes are not superhuman at every session, they are just very good at being consistent. In fact, Cleather states that athletes should mindfully, and deliberately, not train at 100% in most of their sessions.

The book is excellent; in fact, I’d say it’s the best book about training that I’ve read and my top book of 2019 across all categories. Given today’s social media driven environment, where everyone is posting their hard training sessions and boasting about “the grind,” the message contained within is very timely; excellence is built upon consistent training. Of course, we have the evidence to back this up; research around athlete availability suggests that athletes who completed more than 80% of their planned training are around seven times more likely to reach their performance goal. Training, therefore, is a balancing act between providing sufficient stimulus to drive improvements—but perhaps no more than this—and allowing for sufficient recovery so that any subsequent stimulus can also drive adaptations. Whilst a simple message, as my experience shows it often goes awry. The book is also simple to read and hugely engaging; given its important, and potentially hugely impactful message, I can’t recommend it highly enough and