Human psychology is a strange thing. We’re full of bias, fallacies, and weird quirks. Philosophers, scientists, and all around intelligent people have been trying to make sense of the world for centuries with varying degrees of success. It’s a side interest of mine because, in the end, we are coaching people, not hunks of muscle that respond to some training stimulus via following a set pattern of adaptation.
As a coach, we can exploit our natural tendencies and for lack of a better term, flaws. One such flaw is what I call recency. It’s a made up word as far as I know, but the general gist of it is simple. We tend to remember what occurred more recently. I’m sure there’s some correct term for this cognitive bias buried away in a psychology textbook, but, for now, I’ll stick with this made up term. The idea is that if we go through an experience, whether it’s watching a movie, reading a book, hanging out with friends or going to a concert, we’re biased by the last thing we remember. It weights our experience much more so than what occurred early on in the experience. It’s why bands often reserve their best song for last, or the invention of the word “grand finale” came around.
And the story is no different in running. In a recent conversation with my buddy for random philosophical conversations, Phoebe Wright, we got to talking about this phenomenon. I called it my coaching practice of “people remember the last interval.” Her response was pretty accurate “What a simple and accurate yet silly coaching tip. You always want to finish the workout well.”
And that’s the point. I first realized this when I saw Alan Webb run something like 8-10×800 working down from 2:10 to 2:00 for the last few. I can’t remember exactly how many I did, but it was in the 5-6 range, and I remember distinctly watching Alan run something like 2:00.2 for the last one. And here I was amazed at this guys ability to click things off so consistently, but he was upset that he didn’t drop it further. The whole workout had been downgraded from brilliant to average simply because of that last rep. He was still satisfied with the workout, but it didn’t become that killer workout that it might have been up through those 1st 7 reps.
It’s the last rep that often determines how an athlete walks away from a workout.
Therefore, it’s that last rep that we should make sure gets the result we desire. I’m not saying that we should manipulate the workout so that athletes blast the last rep. Occasionally, we need to challenge athletes to be put in a hole and figure their way out of it. We also need them to fail, sometimes miserably. But what I am saying, is that your goal as a coach is to plan the workout so that you get the desired response out of the last rep. If it’s to challenge them and work on a particular aspect, then do that. If it’s to get them to realize how great a workout it has been, then do that.
Far too often, coaches think the goal of the last rep of the workout is always the same, exhaustion. If the point of training was to get people randomly tired, that’s not a very hard thing to do, just ask crossfit. But that’s not how we get better. We’re trying to ingrain a pattern of behavior, or responding to a behavior, as well as get all of the nice physiological adaptations that we are looking for.
In talking with Phoebe, the topic arose out of a question about how to get 800 and 3k/5k athletes to be able to work together in certain workouts. If they were simply to do the same thing, often what happens is that while they are pushed, someone fails. What we’ve done in the past is to do ¾ of the workout together and then end with a strength for the athlete. For instance, I’ve had Brian, who’s run 3:44 and 13:56 for 1500 and 5k, do 8×800 working down from high 2:teens to 2:03 or so over the course of those reps. If I need to work on some aerobic support for my 800 guys like Chris and Dre who are both 1:49 guys, they might sit out the first 1 or 2 800s, do 5 reps with Brian and then instead of doing the last 800 in near 2 minutes with him, they might take a little extra rest and do a 400 in 52-53. It puts both groups in a position where they get what they need and nail the last rep so that they walk away feeling good about it and getting the training response they need.
It’s these subtle manipulations that matter. While the bulk of the workout is about the physiological, often the psychological component is what separates a success and failure. Set your athletes up for success, especially during the later portion of a workout. Put them in a place where they have to deal with some uncertainty and discomfort, but make it the appropriate challenge where they can learn how to figure their way out of it.
As George Costanza found out in the TV classic, Seinfeld, sometimes it leaves the best impression if we go out on a high note.