In skill-based sports training sessions are often referred to as practice. Not so in sports like running and cycling. However, simply changing the terms of reference - from workout to practice - can instigate a mindset shift that is ultimately reflected in performance, as Matt Fitzgerald explains.
There once was a runner named Vivian who was training for a half marathon. Three weeks before her race, she was given a workout featuring five 3-minute intervals at 5K race pace. Instead of making a good-faith effort to hit the prescribed pace, however, Vivian ran each interval as hard as she could without bonking. When her coach asked if she could have sustained her average pace for the five intervals for 5 kilometers straight, she replied with three 😂emojis and the words, “Maybe someday!”
Vivian’s goal for the half marathon was to break 90 minutes. Unfortunately, race-day weather conditions were atrocious, battering runners with cold drizzle and winds gusting up to 35 mph. Nevertheless, Vivian went ahead and ran at her goal pace, refusing to adjust to the elements until she no longer had a choice. She made it 9 miles before the wheels came off, crossing the finish line in 1:32:48. Nothing Vivian might have done differently would have gotten her under 90 minutes in such challenging circumstances, but it’s equally certain she could have gotten to the finish line faster if she had made appropriate adjustments from the beginning.
The thing I want you to understand is that these two incidents are directly connected. Vivian’s refusal to make a good-faith effort to execute her training as planned is why she was unable to adapt her effort to race-day conditions and run the best race she was capable of.
It’s telling that while other athletes refer to their training sessions as practice, we endurance athletes refer to ours as workouts, suggesting they are intended to serve entirely as physical stimuli
The goal in racing is to get from the start line to the finish line as quickly as possible. Succeeding in this effort requires mindful control of pace, where the athlete bases moment-to-moment decisions about whether to speed up, slow down, or hold steady on not just the goal they bring to the race and whether their watch says they’re on track toward it but also how they’re feeling and external conditions. A new study appearing in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise reported that successful outcomes in distance running events were associated with conscious goal revision during the race based on how things were going. Runners like Vivian who do their workouts on autopilot lack the ability to make mindful pacing decisions in the heat of competition, and are therefore unlikely to complete races in the least time possible.
There’s a lot of buzz lately surrounding the idea of deliberate practice, which sports scientist Daniel Memmert has defined as “targeted and task-centered training programs based on instructions.” What distinguishes deliberate practice from other kinds of practice is how the mind is engaged. “While regular practice might include mindless repetitions,” writes Atomic Habits author James Clear, “deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.”
In skill-based sports such as basketball and golf, deliberate practice is common, though some coaches and athletes do a better job of it than others. But in endurance sports (with the exception of swimming), deliberate practice is grossly underutilized. It’s telling that while other types of athletes refer to their training sessions as practice, we endurance athletes refer to ours as workouts, suggesting they are intended to serve entirely as physical stimuli. It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to. Endurance athletes can turn their workouts into deliberate practices with a simple mindset shift.
Step one is to go into each workout with a clear understanding of what it means to execute it perfectly. On a good day, when the athlete’s body is ready and external conditions are favorable, this usually means completing the workout precisely as it was drawn up. On not-so-good days, when adjustments to the plan are called for, perfect execution means adhering to the spirit of the workout rather than the letter, for example by running 5K-pace intervals at the fastest pace you could sustain for 5K that day rather than on your best day.
Step two is to make a good-faith effort to execute the workout perfectly, making no excuses. This entails giving mindful attention to the task at hand from start to finish and making every decision reflectively rather than reflexively.
No outcome in all of sports is more difficult to achieve than that of completing an endurance race knowing you couldn’t have gone any faster, and there’s no better feeling than pulling it off.
In the case of Vivian’s 5K-pace workout, step one would have consisted in reflecting on how fast she could run a 5K at her present level of fitness and selecting a target pace based on her conclusion. Step two would have entailed trying her best to nail that pace in her first interval while assessing how she felt, then adjusting subsequent intervals as necessary to ensure they felt like an honest 5K pace.
What matters is not whether Vivian executes the workout perfectly but that she aims for perfect execution. Treating a single workout as practice in this manner won’t make a huge difference in any athlete’s developmental trajectory. However, when it becomes habitual, such mindful attention to execution will greatly improve the ability to achieve desired outcomes. No outcome in all of sports is more difficult to achieve than that of completing an endurance race knowing you couldn’t have gone any faster, and there’s no better feeling than pulling it off. But it’s a feeling that’s reserved for athletes who have cultivated the capacity to execute perfectly through deliberate practice.