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.




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    1. walt chadwick on May 20, 2015 at 10:34 am


      Interesting. I wonder if "finishing fast" is a sign of insecurity rather than confidence. I had a chat with a veteran coach and former D 3 champ who said he saw athletes "tweak" a muscle when needing to finish fast. He recommended making the last interval longer so the athlete would likely moderate their effort. Bill Squires of the old Greater Boston Track Club told me the same thing. He felt the athlete would work on their concentration in a longer finishing interval.

      Walt Chadwick

    2. Karoly Haasz on November 19, 2016 at 1:59 am

      In the field of academic learning there is the idea that both “primacy” and “recency” matter. That is, the beginning and end of a learning experience are more likely to be retained in memory. Perhaps, then, “finality” might be a better word than “recency”, although the last thing that happened is usually the most recent! (Sometimes, the learning experience of a student could be spoiled because something negative would take place after the formal end of the lecture and so the most “recent” event interfered with the positive finale to the lesson.

      In teaching over a weekend of 4 x 80 minute lectures, we would cut an 80 minute lecture in half, with a 5 minute break, thus immediately multiplying the number of beginning and endings to a session. Switching to a new topic/lecture would have a 15 minute break, to allow the first topic to settle and to be fresh for the next. We would try to connect material between topics by teaching content and use clear breaks in the day to keep students fresh.

      This may not appear to have much to do with training or coaching, but I think it is relevant, in that everything we do is a learning experience, this is why heavy strength athletes may avoid doing sets to failure, unlike bodybuilders. The bodybuilder wants fatigue to build muscle, strength is only a tool. The serious athlete wants to teach his body to succeed with a weight as often as possible. Breaking workouts up into multiple smaller workouts not only helps reduce physical fatigue, it also helps the CNS to remain fresh. Although I am not an advocate of HIIT as the sole or best way to train and I am certainly not a fan of utterly random workouts, in Boxes or out, I do wonder whether these methods are attractive because they very quickly give the mind a break or a fresh challenge? One of the “selling points” of High Intensity anything is that it is quick, no long gym sessions, no long runs – “long runs are boring”.

      In the internet age, people expect to be stimulated all the time, and although I am a serious reader, I have become aware how much owning a Kindle has changed my reading habits. Even when a book is interesting there is the knowledge that I am holding an entire library in my hands – useful if I want to look up something mentioned in the book I am reading, not so good if I just give in to wanting a change.

      I am not suggesting that we should simply give in to people’s craving for newness, hopping from programme to programme is a great way to fail, but understanding how the mind learns can have great benefits for the body.

    3. Karoly Haasz on November 19, 2016 at 2:13 am

      Re-reading my comment, I should make it clear that I am not advocating short sessions or intervals as the only way to train. My focus was on how maximizing “primacy” and “recency” helps with learning and with training. I have cerebral palsy and breaking up my strength workouts, including breaking up a set into more sets with fewer reps, is one way to try to reduce CNS fatigue, a particular issue with my disability. In terms of endurance training I have always found that I need a good aerobic base and got best results from a mix of longer, slower sessions and shorter and faster ones, with some sprints. HIIT on its own never seemed to work for me, too much fatigue too quickly. Pavel Tsatsouline speaks of “Greasing the Groove” aka improving a quality or learning a skill by frequent practice, doing as much as possible as often as possible while remaining as fresh as possible. Balancing these requirements means finding a minimum effective dose and avoiding getting trashed by a workout just for the sake of it.

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