Updated: Dec 10, 2021
When we talk about training, we usually use quantitative terms to describe it. We mention our weekly hours, how many miles, and the pace we run. It's easy for us to wrap our minds around numbers and, of course, the measurement of sport is ultimately in numbers. A race is a set distance and the winner does it in less time than anyone else. Numbers matter.
In his piece, "The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers," Daniel F. Chambliss spent over six years coaching and observing swimmers of all ability levels train and compete, from local summer league teams to the Olympic Games. What he found was not surprising: elite athletes do train more than us. But another key takeaway he made was that they didn't just train MORE, they trained better.
In fact, what he often found was that often, a swimmer didn't increase his training volume until AFTER he'd made a jump in performance. So how did the jump in performance occur? It came from training BETTER, not more. As Chambliss said, "In many cases, the time spent training did not alter significantly from the start of specialization right up to the top level."
But what is better training? It is much harder to define and much harder to analyze than training volume. We have to use a qualitative lens to determine better training. Chambliss found that changes in technique, discipline, and attitude were the main qualitative attributes that led to improved performance.
We intuitively know that faster athletes are better at moving than us. Their swim strokes are prettier and create much less splash. Their legs spin like a blur on the bike and they can nimbly maneuver around obstacles that the average person would barrel right into. Watching Eliud Kipchoge run 4:34 per mile for 26.2 miles is pure running bliss as every stride flows effortlessly into the next. It is inspiring and also a bit humbling since we know we may never be able to move our bodies in the manner and speed at which these elite athletes do.
Of course, these athletes are born with incredible natural gifting that allows them to rise to such a pinnacle of human performance. But a fact often overlooked is the quality of deliberate practice these athletes put in. They didn't achieve their beautiful technique just through training a lot. They did it by training with an incredible, unparalleled focus and attention to detail that allows them to tap into every facet of their gift.
There is a famous story about Joe DiMaggio, the great baseball player who recorded a hit in 56 straight games in 1941, a record streak that still stands today. In the story I read in the "Myth and Magic of Deliberate Practice," a journalist asked DiMaggio about being such a "natural hitter." DiMaggio didn't respond. Instead, he took the journalist down to his basement where he turned on the lights, picked up a bat, and began practicing swings. Before each imaginary pitch, DiMaggio would call out what type was coming at him: slider, curve ball, etc.
When he finished, DiMaggio walked over to a wall and scribbled a small tally mark. As the reporter looked, he realized that there were literally THOUSANDS of tall marks on the wall. Supposedly, DiMaggio then looked at the journalist and said, “Don't you ever tell me that I'm a natural hitter again.”
The best athletes in the world are not just better at racing, they are better at PRACTICING than we are.
What if we began to measure our training in qualitative terms instead of quantitative? Training that is measured and prescribed in qualitative terms instead of quantitative terms would begin to look like the following:
The first measurements we record in our training journal would be sleep, nutrition, and life stressors. The actual training data would be of secondary importance.
Our first thought going into a training session wouldn't be about the prescribed intervals, but about our mental state, how we'll hold our form and posture, and what our minds and bodies need to prepare.
We would be thinking mainly about moving well when training, not just moving fast.
We would analyze the "success" of a session not so much by how fast it was or what numbers we hit. Instead, we would discuss how easy it was, how relaxed we felt as we executed it in relationship to speed. One of my favorite sayings is: "it's not always how fast you go; sometimes, it's how easily you go fast."
Above all, we would enjoy the process for what it is. Take the good with the bad and don't get too worked up by a single session.
In regards to attitude, Chambliss found that elite athletes have an inverse approach to that of the "C" level swimmer. Where the beginner swimmers dreaded hard sessions and found the training boring at times, the elite swimmers looked forward to the challenge of hard sets and found long sessions "peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic." The high performers looked forward to competing in their "off" events since it was a chance to test themselves and work on weaknesses. And most importantly, Chambliss said that "it is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don't see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it."
Last month we talked about why training more CAN be a huge benefit for an athlete. Adding just one extra hour of training per week might increase their volume by 20%, which can lead to an added depth of fitness. But don't think that just adding volume is the answer. For everyone, the volume is going to be capped at some point due to work, family, training tolerance, or simply hours available in a day. So as you continue training and looking for ways to improve, don't just train more. Train more better.
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