Most athletes are in search of that one workout or training secret that can help them unlock their best performances. Well, the secret is out and, and that secret is training consistency.
We can marvel at the Strava profiles of professional athletes that make us ooh and aah for workouts they (seem to) perform effortlessly and hit out of the park. The part that we do not see from Strava are the years of sub-par and average workouts that they had to stack on top of each other in order to build the solid foundation they have today. While many times the media likes to coin some of these athletes as overnight successes, there are years of training under their belt. If you had the chance to ask your favorite professional cyclist, triathlete, runner, etc. what their number one key to success is, 9 times out of 10 they would say: consistency.
What do we mean by consistency? Is it simply day in and day out training? Is consistently connecting weeks, months, and years of uninterrupted training together? It is all of the above. The ability to train hard and most importantly stay healthy for years at a time takes diligence, resiliency, dedication, and sometimes a bit of luck.
First things first: try to avoid looking at specific workouts as the end all be all of your training. While it mentally feels great to hit great power numbers and run paces in key sessions, don’t place your self worth as an athlete into one workout. Whether you knock it out of the park or crawl across the finish line barely holding on, this single session will not dictate how you perform at your goal race. The most important piece you should consider each session you begin is to focus on getting the work done, and done properly. There will be days when everything clicks and feels easy and others where you have to fight for every watt possible. Each of these sessions is important in building your fitness. If you approach each session believing you need to knock it out of the park, or it doesn’t matter, then you should reconsider how you mentally prepare for a workout. The days where you must push deep to barely make an interval may be more important than others that come with ease. Many times athletes will skip a workout or alter a session midway if they begin and immediately feel that “today isn’t going to feel great, perhaps tomorrow.” This is where you begin the slippery slope of inconsistency. It is this type of inconsistency that will hinder your performances down the road because you are removing important building blocks of your fitness foundation.
Let’s take a look at consistency through the science of what occurs within our body. In order to create change within our body from training, we must stress our system. If we continually perform activities at the same intensity level day after day, then our tissues will adapt to this stress, but not adapt to stress beyond this point. Pressure on a system is not always a bad thing. Take, for example, the diamond. Diamonds are formed from a combination of temperature and pressure placed on igneous rock. Just like diamonds, our systems responsible for the response to exercise also form under pressure or stress. Without this stress, our systems would not be able to create change to adapt to increased exercise demands.
The principle of overload states that an organ system or tissue must be exercised at a level beyond which it is accustomed in order to achieve a training adaptation.
Tissues will gradually adapt to this overload and result in improved function over time. Variables that constitute overload are:
The consistency of training sessions creates the groundwork for the eventual muscular, cardiovascular, and respiratory adaptations over time. Time for some review of what occurs over time with consistent training:
Short Term (Single Session) Adaptations:
- Synthesis of new proteins that improve muscular function
- Increased neuromuscular coordination
- Increase in mitochondrial volume
Medium Term (Weeks to Months) Adaptations:
- Increase in respiratory capacity
- Increased ability to oxidize pyruvate (necessary for the creation of ATP or energy)
- Increased efficiency at VO2 max workloads
- Lower blood lactate levels during submaximal exercise
- Increased plasma volume; allows for increased thermoregulatory properties
Long Term (Months to Years) Adaptations:
- increased number and size of heart capillaries
- increased stroke volume
- increased cardiac output
- lower resting heart rate (RHR)
- lower HR during submaximal workouts
- improved HR recovery
- decreased blood pressure
- increased blood volume and hemoglobin levels
- increased endurance of respiratory muscles for both inhalation & expiration
- increased O2 utilization
- increase in size and number of mitochondria
- increase in myoglobin stores
- increase in muscular fuel stores
- increase in the oxidation of glucose and fats
Big picture: understand that each session you perform whether an easy recovery spin or a key threshold session plays a pivotal role in creating the groundwork for your fitness. In the section above, you can review how singular sessions are the building blocks for developing strong pathways to increased adaptations overtime. While it may be the easy road to take a day off when you “just don’t feel like it today,” perhaps this can help you reconsider the downfalls of these decisions. That being said, it is important to listen to your body. While there will be days when it is your mind that is saying no, you must listen closely when it is your body telling you no. Consistency does mean stringing together workouts day after day, it also means the ability to do this for large periods of time. If you push your body to injury, then consistency will take a back seat. If you have heard the saying, it is better to be undercooked than overdone, this is very important. We are always striving for our peak fitness, but peak fitness only matters if we are healthy enough to toe the start line. Pushing our bodies beyond what we are physically capable of will set us back not only in the short term but also in the long term when we are trying to piece together years of work together. Looking at an Olympic athlete is a great example: they work within four-year training blocks prioritizing one day and one event. If they take the first day of training hot out of the gate and continue this trend every day, they risk not only overtraining but injury. In a four-year span, a lot can happen to an individual with regards to their athletic performance, and having multiple periods of sickness, injury, fatigue can derail the long-term plan.
Always think of the long game when it comes to endurance training. Most of us are looking through a microscope when we really need to take a step back and broaden our view. As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and either is your current fitness score.
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Mac Cassin is the Chief Cycling Physiologist at Wahoo Sports Science. He holds a degree in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado-Boulder and has won multiple National Championships. The experience of juggling athletic goals with collegiate and career responsibilities has taught Mac that peak performance is achievable even for those who cannot focus exclusively on training. While concentrating on exercise physiology in an academic setting, Mac competed at the World Championships, Pan American Championships, and World Cups on both the road and track.