Making the easy easy, to give your best when it matters.
‘Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.’
Gustav Flaubert
This week there was a good deal of buzz centred on a paper presented at ACSM about how athletes train.
The major finding of the study showed that athletes perceived easier workouts as more difficult and harder workouts as easier than their coaches intended.
I know – BOOM, mind blown! Sounds simple doesn’t it? Well there are deep reasons why this is very, very useful, whether you are training for an athletic performance, and maybe, just maybe that this principle can apply to our wider performance.
The fact of the matter is that most elite athletes, aspiring athletes, recreational athletes, occasional trainers make their easy training too hard and for various reason (fatigue from hard easy training; unwillingness, etc) make their hard training too easy. I have long contended that this is the number one training mistake made by most athletes in sports where fitness matters. As a scientist and coach therefore a priority is to look for and if necessary iron out this misalignment.
The reality is nearly everyone (athlete or recreational) seems to make this mistake, however the folks that don’t have probably learned the lesson why they shouldn’t or have seen the light as to why they should. My case study of an Olympic middle distance runner, showed the disproportionate improvements of a) sticking to what the coach wanted, and b) making easy training easier, and hard training harder. Here’s the PDF if you’re interested. The point is, nearly everyone makes this mistake. I make this mistake, I fall into this trap and have spent 25 years helping athletes go faster by correcting it. Why?
The likelihood is that we’re blindly and/or stubbornly wedded to the idea that more effort gives more return. Specifically, if we invest more effort into training – we benefit from getting fit. However, if we do too much training we could over-train or get injured. The elusive sweet-spot is on a tightrope, one that you can never know whether they are balancing correctly because if you under-invest you might have gone faster; but you’ll break if you push too hard. One of the elements that can help is to differentiate the effort invested in training at different levels which itself prompts different adaptations, that add up to more complete fitness. So for example, easier training prompts more fat burning capabilities, harder training encourages heart adaptation and tolerance of the chemicals that burn and bite the nerve endings! Both of these adaptations to fitness are beneficial but neither would be ideally served by the other, i.e. you get back what you put in.
In my case study, there was a small but notable improvement in the hard training performance. My interpretation is that this came from the athlete having more ‘energy’ (read less fatigue) from the bulk of the easy training performed. The more common corollary of this is that easy training is harder and harder training therefore might become blunted. This can be seen as a ‘concertinaing’ of training performed at converging intensities, which in turn will feed the same/similar training stimulus to the body from which the body will probably just shrug its transcription shoulders and say “MEH”.
So if you train a fair amount and you’re interested in developing your athletic performance, the training take home message is to make your easy training easy, which might allow you to, do your harder training harder.
Here’s the thing! I am pretty convinced (and am curious to know if you have had similar thoughts) that this principle can apply to many aspects of our wider performance. Take for example our productivity. It is all too easy for gentle social pressures to force us into compliant but not optimal patterns of effort (think, “Oh, you’re clocking off early are you?”, leading you to increase your adherence to an antiquated and often irrelevant 9 to 5 work pattern). I am sure we can also think of some folks who look like they’re busy, but aren’t getting anything particular done (often involving fast walking, shuffling of paper, maybe some puffing of cheeks). While this is a low-level underhand avoidance of work (maybe a career as a movie extra would be better use of this skill), we can all fall into the trap of getting stuff done or asking for work to be done that doesn’t further the decision making or produce additional insight. Further still we are almost all blighted by unproductive behaviours that drain our daytime energy, sap our decision making capacity and take away from our ability to give our best when it matters. The two scourges that curse me regularly are;
  • Receive email, open email, read email, have a sense of what to reply, close email, wait 20 minutes, open email again, re-read parts of the email, stare into space for 2 minutes, close email, wait two hours, open email, press reply, type persons name, save email to drafts (do you suffer from this too) – by which time I’m spent!
  • Ahead of a moderately important meeting, stand at wardrobe wondering whether to where a suit (formal); trousers, shirt and a jacket (business casual); jeans, shirt and a jacket (casually smart with that Friday feeling); jeans, t-shirt and jacket (I’m busting out with casualness, but I’m still taking you seriously); anything smart but with outdoor footwear (I’m a sporty scientist who could knock out a heart powerpoint, while ably rock-climbing) – argh I don’t know what to wear now…!
We are almost certainly making our own lives harder by making this easy stuff hard. Ultimately doing things, at an expense that don’t take us forward (let’s not even get started on social media). This almost certainly ebbs away at our resources to give our very best when it matters most or for the events that require our unremitting focus or the events and moments that add the most value to our lives.
Couldn’t we set some principles by which we could more effectively deal with email in defined bursts of effort? Could we have a filter that challenges the requirement for more and more work, supported by the strength to divert effort that won’t add value to the priority focus? When we transition from work, could we park our ruminations so that when we’re listening to our children read, we’re present and with them. Could we find ways to make the easy things easy, so that we can free up our resources to step on the gas for the effort that will give most value? With the rise in experiments and underpinning this the open-mindedness and willingness to test initiatives such as the 4 day working week, increasing productivity – why wouldn’t you consider it?
We’d love to hear your thoughts about how you’re making the easy easy, so you can it your best when it matters. Here’s a discussion that sparked in the forum recently, please share some of your tips about how you’re making the easy
Routinise the routine. The things that aren’t important to you, whether it’s breakfast or your commute, try to do them with the least energy possible so that leaves you with more energy for other things.
Robert Pozen

About steveingham

Dr Steve Ingham is one of the UK’s leading figures in sport and one of the world’s leading performance scientists. He is steeped in high performance and has been integral to the development of Britain into an Olympic superpower. He has provided support to over 1000 athletes, of which over 200 have achieved World or Olympic medal success, including some of the world’s greatest athletes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent. Steve has coached Kelly Sotherton's running for heptathlon and to 4x400m Olympic medal winning success. Steve has worked at the English Sports Council British Olympic Association, English Institute of Sport, where Steve was the Director of Science and Technical Development, leading a team of 200 scientists in support of Team GB and Paralympics GB. Ingham holds a BSc, PhD and is a Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. Steve is author of the best selling ‘How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete’, discussing and inspiring the importance of learning and adapting to reach our maximum potential. Steve established Supporting Champions with the ambition of helping ambitious people to find a better way of creating high-performance. Steve hosts the Supporting Champions Podcast on sharing his pursuit of understanding and exploration in performance.

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