Runners of all levels are constantly told that ‘consistency is key’. As a coach and athlete I am not adverse to this phrase, in fact, it is something I frequently remind myself of, both when it comes to my own training and the training of the athletes I am coaching. However, there seems to be a general lack of understanding surrounding what consistent training looks like and how to actually achieve it.
For many runners and coaches, the concept of consistency seems to be something that almost falls down to chance. If you are able to complete 6 months of training without disruptions, then you are deemed to be lucky. The opposite is also true; if you get an injury, or have to take a break from training due to fatigue, then you might think yourself unlucky. While luck sometimes does have a say, there are things we can do that mitigates the risk of needing to stop training and improves the chances of us being able to train effectively, day in day out.
We should also consider that truly consistent training is not just about avoiding injury, illness, or something else that forces us to stop training for a prolonged period of time. Being consistent also means not skipping the occasional session because you are feeling too tired or unmotivated. This is also something that a good coach will consider and an effective training program should be sensitive to the fact that mental fatigue, will power, and motivation are things that can seriously affect the consistency of training.
What can we do to make sure our training is consistent
So, we are reminded constantly that consistency is important, but what can we do to ensure we are consistent?
The first thing we can do is learn to control the effort of our training sessions and realise that a few amazing training sessions carries little weight in comparison to 100 good sessions. This concept is extremely powerful when fully understood. In order to train well, several times per week, for many weeks in a row, we have to be very careful about how frequently and how hard we push ourselves. Many athletes are caught in the trap of thinking that if they do not push themselves to the limit then they have not done enough to stimulate improvement. However, the aim of most training sessions is not to push limits, it is to work on a particular area of performance, such as our lactate threshold, aerobic capacity, strength, etc, and for the most part, improving these aspects of performance does not require us to run at or close to our physical limit. By controlling the effort of our training sessions we are able to gain all of the desired benefits of the session, without causing so much damage to our bodies that we have to spend extra days recovering.
Of course, part of being a runner is learning how to push yourself, but that does not mean you must practice that in all or even most training sessions. One training session per month where you really push yourself to the limit is enough of a stimulus to practice going into the red zone. But doing that multiple times per week, for example, is simply unsustainable for most runners. It is important to understand that pushing a workout to the max is extremely taxing for the mind and body and should be done sparingly.
This is not to say that we should not regularly train hard. But we should note the difference between hard training and ‘all out’ training. By doing an interval session at an effort level of say 90-95% we still get all the physiological benefits of the workout. The extra 5% of effort does not add much, if anything, to the session, but it does have a large impact on how long we take to recover and how hard we can train in subsequent sessions.
Not only is it important to control the effort of the hard workouts, we should also ensure that all the training sessions we do are at the desired intensity. That means easy runs should be easy, moderate runs should be moderate, threshold runs should be at threshold effort, and so on. The temptation for many runners is often to push the pace when they are feeling good. Easy runs become moderate efforts, moderate-threshold runs become very hard workouts and interval sessions become all out races! This is one big difference we see between elite and amateur runners. Elites are very disciplined when it comes to the intensity of the session they have been set and this leads to them being able to complete many months and years of high quality training without the need for unplanned time off.
Progression is not always in the form of faster times
To help us ensure that we don’t always feel the need to push training to our limit it is helpful to know that just because we don’t run faster, that does not mean we aren’t progressing. It is natural to want to see your times for certain training sessions getting faster and faster, but improvement can come in many forms. One good way to view improvement is not to run the same session with faster times, but to run the same session, in the same times, feeling easier.
For example, if someone does a session of 8 x 1km, each in 3 minutes, that does not mean the need to run them in 2.58 when they repeat the session. Then next time, 2.56, then 2.55. etc. This is where many people go wrong in training; they get to a stage where the only way to improve their training times is to dig really deep and push themselves to the limit, again and again, until their body and mind can no longer handle it. A more sustainable way to improve this same workout is to repeat the session, again running the intervals in 3 minutes, but now feeling easier. Enjoy the feeling, that’s improvement! Of course, at some point, running that same session in the same times becomes too easy and then you can take a step up. But doing it in this way makes it far easier to control and ensures that the improvement is sustainable.
Will power and mental fatigue
Training should not only be physically sustainable, but mentally manageable too. Think of your will power like a battery, that can be drained and recharged. Hard training drains the battery, while rest, recovery and easier training allows the battery to recharge. If we train too hard, too often, eventually the battery simply becomes flat and we have to wait a long time before we are mentally ready to run hard again.
If we want to continue training well for long periods of time we must ensure that not only can our bodies withstand the workload, but also are we mentally capable of handling the training. Often it is the mind that gives out before the body and we feel ‘burnt out’.
So, controlling the effort of our training sessions not only means our training becomes more physically sustainable, but mentally too. It takes a lot of mental energy to push ourselves to the absolute limit, but far less mental energy to push ourselves to, say, 90-95% of our limit. Running to our limit may completely empty the battery, while running slightly below our limit may only use half of the battery. Keeping the battery half full is far more sustainable than repeatedly emptying it, and therefore far more likely to lead to consistent training.
Get a coach
Most runners think that a coach is someone who will push you harder and faster. In fact, quite often the opposite is true. A coach is not there to push you harder, rather they are there to tell you when to push hard and when to ease off. All runners know that training is tough and they know they have to work hard to improve, a coach does not need to tell you that. What they will do is help you to appreciate the delicate balance between hard work and recovery. As a coach, I spend many more hours telling my athletes to keep their training under control and not to get carried away when they are feeling good, than I do telling them to push harder and run faster. Most people don’t realise it, but often their body is crying out for them to ease off the throttle and a good coach will quickly recognise that.
So, in summary, the consistency of your training is something you can take control of by making some small adjustments to your program and the way you train.
- Don’t feel like you have to push your hard workouts to the limit. Keep them controlled.
- Remember that you don’t have to run faster and faster in every training session to prove to yourself that you are improving. Feeling easier is also a form of (more sustainable) improvement.
- Stick to the required intensity of your training sessions, don’t be tempted to run harder than is necessary. Stay disciplined.
- Remember that your will power can be fatigued just like your body. Controlling the effort of your workouts helps you stay mentally fresh.
- Get a good running coach, they can help you with all of the above!
Thanks for reading!
We are a team of two dedicated and passionate running coaches with over 30 years of combined experience. Between us we can design the perfect, bespoke training plan for you, whatever you goals, whatever your current ability and whatever your lifestyle. We have worked with people who are new to the sport, Olympic athletes and everyone in between. Whether your aim is to run your first 10km or smash your marathon pb, we can help. Click HERE for more information.