10 Lesser Known Training Principles

Base training, gradual adaptation, hard-easy, specificity of training, periodization: these are among the many tried and true principles behind healthy, adaptive training for runners, swimmers, cyclists, rowers and athletes of just about every ilk. Beyond the better known concepts that form the basis of our training, we can gain insight from what might be termed secondary or even tertiary principles. Equally important, but perhaps not as widely publicized or as well understood, are 10 such ideas worth keeping in mind as you pursue continuously improving athletic performance.

1. Use it or Lose it. This principal applies specifically to flexibility and strength, which are lost every year we age. Not losing sight of this fact helps to see regular stretching and strengthening not just as optional for performance gains, but optimal to keep pace. In this way, one secret to winning is to age slower, and one way to do that is with a daily stretching routine and a weight training program that works your muscles every other day. And of course the stimulation our muscles, vessels, heart and lungs receive from our regular chosen activity contributes further (even primarily) to our longevity; remember though that this happens not just from the main effect of exercise, but often indirectly too through better dietary choices, improved rest and avoidance of destructive habits like smoking.

2. Reversibility. Once speed, strength or aerobic capacity is developed, they can be lost easily if neglected. This principal goes beyond Use it or Lose it by calling attention to holes in your training. You may feel fit, but if you ignore one area of your training for too long, specific adaptations may be lost.

This means that if strength built up in the base training period is neglected in the sharpening period, it will be lost. Many people omit speedwork in the base period—one reason it takes a long time to get it back. The best performance is achieved with a long buildup. Include some speed in the base period, not for speed's sake but to maintain a significant amount accrued in the sharpening phase. It's important for muscles and the neurophysical system to “remember” speed to achieve that fast turnover later. Keep fast strides during warmup, as well as fartlek and short and medium hills at a fast pace.

3. Maintenance. Once a training effect has been reached, it can usually be maintained at less volume, but intensity must remain the same. After, say, a 12-week sharpening phase that readies you for peak racing season, you may have major competitions a month or more away. Therefore, it's safest to reduce volume and track sessions but keep intensity; the reason is this extra sharpening period is prime time for injury.

4. Supercompensation. This is a phenomenon in training where performances increases above the original level of increase. It typically occurs after the athlete is optimally stressed and then rested. The following graphic represents supercompensation in an interval training session:

5. Intuition (Training Flexibility). Many renowned coaches and athletes (Percy Cerutty, Herb Elliot, Arthur Newton and George Sheehan among them) grant a high level of importance to a training principle that can be summed up as “Listen to your body.” This works best in conjunction with a deep understanding of the other training principles, of course. Still, there is something ephemeral yet important that athletes describe as being able to feel what their body is lacking or getting too much of in training. Iron-clad goals can work against you, leading to injury or sub-optimal gains. Extreme weather also introduces the need for flexibility—remind yourself that this is okay. Learn that a very sore muscle is a warning; it's usually better to reduce your scheduled workout or rest. Disregard your body's signals at your peril: six months on the DL is the least optimal result you could ever ask for.

6. Continuity/Consistency. “Nothing new on race day” means don't wear a brand new running shirt that hasn't been tested repeatedly for chafing or overheating during training runs, but the principal of continuity/consistency extends to the days leading up to a big event as well. Do not deviate from your routine (other than tapering training of course). Keep food, drink, supplements, sleep and warmup consistent. If you're not used to massage before a race, pass on the free offer at the race expo. On marathon day run in the same shoes you ran your long runs in. Sometimes ill-advised deviations in your routine can creep in subtly: sitting for hours in the stands watching other events before your race begins, or walking excessively seeing the sights of an unfamiliar city. Save shopping and tourism for after the race.

7. Paradoxically, the Weak Mind Can be Strong. This principal is simple but often neglected. You can do more than you think you can. The mind is certainly the master, but it isn't always strong in the sense of being confident; the body is often stronger than the mind thinks. The key is to remember this, which is itself a mind trick. One good illustration of the idea that the mind can trigger fatigue before the body is actually ready to succumb to it is this: imagine rounding a corner during a race and suddenly you are faced with an unexpected, steep hill. Your brain, surprised and discouraged, can actually send the initial message that it's time to throw in the towel. It can incorrectly fool the body into believing the outcome is dismal. Fight these tricks of the mind with the mental prep work known as visualization: Imagine an obstacle during a race like a hill or fatigue or another runner suddenly passing you, and then imagine yourself overcoming it.

8. Relaxation. This principle is the key to racing fast because it promotes running economy. Any tension in the body can interfere with muscle fluidity. The result is sapped energy. Remembering to relax results in minimum energy expenditure as well as increased confidence, and so faster race times.

9. Least Effort. In distance races, an even pace with few surges (the finish line surge excepting) will give you the least energy expenditure and this, as with the principle above, is a good way to go faster. Believe that you are running with minimal effort and this too will help make it so. You'll feel better, move looser, and avoid the “push harder” mental and physical traps that compromise the effortless effort feeling required to be your best.

10. Regularity. Success comes from years of regular training at an intense level. And having a long-term plan is a terrific way to keep running regular. Training logs are an important way to keep sight of this bigger picture. Additionally, we all also hate to see lots of blank spaces in those training logs; to some extent they keep us going. Finally, to keep your activity regular, whenever possible approach your training as its own reward—an end, not just a means. A great way to do this is simply to strive for a positive attitude, as in, “Hey, I get to run again today!”

The Complete Guide to Running by Earl Fee, 2005, Meyer & Meyer, UK, pp. 117-124

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