Every athlete knows that a great race cannot happen unless a fair amount of hard work and suffering precedes it. But how much suffering is the right amount?
Obviously, there is such a thing as too much suffering, just as there is such a thing as too little. Opinions on the proper definition of what we might call the “misery fine line” vary. Some coaches and athletes believe one should train more or less according to Nietzsche’s motto, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” In other words, the more you suffer in training without breaking, the better you will race. Others believe that athletes should suffer in carefully measured doses and should feel good at most times in the training process.
Still, most athletes (and coaches) who have a philosophy of suffering in training hold their beliefs implicitly. They do not actually put much thought into the question of how one should feel as the training process unfolds, and while they recognise that this emotional-sensory dimension has some importance, they do not recognise or believe that every athlete should instead train by feel, in the sense of intentionally steering the course of their training in ways that make them feel how they should feel. Instead, they view the emotional-sensory dimension of training as secondary and focus on the physiological dimension.
A Reliable Indicator
I strongly believe that ‘by feel’ is the only way how athletes should train. The reason being that how a athlete feels about and during their training generally at any given time is the most sensitive and reliable indicator of how well the training process is going. The mind and the body are deeply interconnected. Your mind receives a million times more relevant information about how your body is doing than gadgets like a heart rate monitor or worse (being dictated by) a training programme, and is able to interpret it much more clearly and immediately. If you feel really strong during a hard ‘tempo run’ for example, then you are fit and your body is responding well to your training. It doesn’t matter what number your heart rate monitor spits out.
I try to promote that athletes should plan their training with the intent of producing certain feelings as their top priority, and that athletes should adjust their training as necessary along the way to maximise desired feelings and minimise undesirable feelings. Furthermore, they should do this with the help of their coaches. So, that makes communication between the coach and the athlete a key factor to future success. Back to training by feel, so then, how should you feel during the training process? It is a fact that some athletes achieve great success with a grinding approach to training, where they accumulate as much hard work as they can handle and feel kind of lousy most of the time until the very end. When they taper down, however, their bodies spring back to life and they race like superheroes. But I think the best approach for most athletes is to try to feel as good as possible at most times.
Now, reading this you might be thinking, “Well, the best way to feel good in training is to not train very hard — and that’s not going to result in a great race!” Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Feeling good in training is about feeling fit. The fitter you are, the better you will feel generally. And the only way to get fit is to work hard and, yes, suffer. Paradoxical though it may seem, suffering is essential to feeling good in training as an athlete.
The joy of feeling fit is different from other pleasures, like the pleasure of slopping on the couch in front of a good movie. The joy of feeling fit is the pleasure of hard work. If you’re like me, the most enjoyable work-outs you experience are not easy ones but very challenging ones that happen to fall on days when your body feels up to the challenge. In almost any sport, you can experience pleasure and suffering simultaneously. In fact, there is probably no better indicator of successful training than enjoying one’s hardest workouts — that is, maximising both pleasure and pain in the same sessions.
There are two enemies of feeling good in training. The first, as I’ve already suggested, is lack of fitness. If you train too lightly to stimulate steady improvement in your fitness, you will not enjoy your training as much as you would if you worked harder, suffered more, and grew stronger for your pains. The second enemy of feeling good in training is fatigue. The more fatigue you carry into a workout, the lousier you will feel, regardless of your fitness level. Therefore, maximising your enjoyment in training requires that you minimise fatigue.
Of course, fatigue and increased fitness both come from the same source: hard work. You cannot get the benefit of hard work and increased fitness without the cost of fatigue. However, there are a million different ways to divide up hard work in training, and each yields its own unique balance of fitness and fatigue. Some yield more fatigue than fitness, others more fitness than fatigue. The best way to train is in a way that maximizes the fitness/fatigue ratio in the output of your hard work.
Balance and Planning
How is this done? The most effective way to optimise the fitness/fatigue balance is to pay careful and consistent attention to how you feel and steer the course of your training in the direction of feeling as good as possible as often as possible. Again, feeling good is the most sensitive and reliable sign that your fitness is improving and that your fatigue level is within manageable limits. When you don’t feel good, you must determine whether it’s because of lack of fitness or excessive fatigue. Lack of fitness is corrected by more hard work; excessive fatigue is corrected by more rest.
In addition to adjusting your training appropriately as you go, you can also maximise your enjoyment in training by planning it appropriately. If you train with a coach, communication is key! Talk to your coach and let them know how you are and how you feel. Even better advice: as you decide to train by feel and before you change your approach to training, take the time to have a conversation with your coach and everyone else who has a bearing on your training performance.
Enjoy your training… Keep motivated! All good efforts call for reward…and remember Pain is temporary, Glory is forever!