A few weeks ago, one of my collegiate athletes, Brian Barraza, made his 10k debut on the track. He finished 12th in the fast heat, 4th amongst the collegians at the Stanford Invite in breaking our school record (a record that was 56 years old and held by Olympic medalist Al Lawrence).  His instructions were pretty simple, hang out in the back, don’t go out too hard and don’t move until the last 1.5miles. The goal wasn’t to run the fastest 10k possible, it was to get a feel for the race, make sure it was a good experience, and get the NCAA qualifying mark out of the way. Brian executed with perfection, hanging out clicking off 69-70sec laps until slowly cranking it down over the final 6 laps to a 62 final lap.

Now that you have the background, I want you to take a look at his training. No, not the day to day details of the training or the specific workouts he has done. Those are the details. What I want you to do is take a look at a graphical representation of his training that shows the bird’s eye view and the concepts.

Brian fills out a daily questionnaire that asks him 6 questions ranging from rating his physical stress to the amount of sleep he got in that night. Brian’s filled this out religiously for the past year plus, so I’ve got lots of nice data.

I want to start with Physical stress. This is a simple 1-5 rating of how hard physically the run/workout seemed to be. Think of this as a modified RPE scale, with 1 being easy and 5 being extremely hard.

The X axes is simply days. So day 0 corresponds to January 1st and day 100+ refers to the beginning of April. The very last peak #4 is actually his 10k he ran, which he rated as a 4 out of 5.

Now, what can we make of these simple lines on the graph, without knowing what any of them represents?

We get a clear idea of what I call modulation. Brian’s graph is marked by a constant back and forth between physical exertions of 1 and 3-4. In other words, there’s a nice flow between hard and easy. Every once in a while you’ll see a few hard exertions in a row or a few easy ones in a row, but overall there’s a nice flow. Remember that these are “hard” in terms of how he perceives it. So just because there are a few 3’s in a row doesn’t mean he’s doing 3 hard workouts in a row. It just means that those runs all felt somewhat hard physically.

We get a true sense of how brian is modulating his training.

The other aspect that we can get out of this graph is in where he spends most of his time. If we were to count out most of the ratings, they would majority be either 1’s or 3’s. Meaning easy or somewhat hard.  There’s only a handful of truly very hard #4’s and several of those efforts are races. So what does that tell me? Even on hard workouts, Brian works hard, but it is mostly controlled hard work.

Lastly, in leading up to his 10k, you see a nice period where he spends most of his runs feeling like he is between 2 and 4. In other words, it’s a good block of training where he is pressing things, with no days that feel really easy. Then leading up to the 10k, training backs down, he chills on some of his normal runs, drops the volume, and a lot more 1’s start showing up.

But that’s only part of the picture.

In this graph, I’ve plotted two different items. The blue lines represent overall stress load. Instead of simply tracking physical stress load, it tracks combined physical exertion AND mental exertion. In other words, it adds in how hard he mentally had to dig.  The other aspect, the red line, refers to how he feels each day. It’s a simple 1,2,3 metric with 1 being below average, 2 being average, and 3 feeling above average. It’s a snapshot.

So let’s start with the red line. If you look, it’s quite clear to see that Brian has a bunch of average days. Days where he doesn’t feel great, but also doesn’t feel bad. Out of about 105 days, only 3 are below average, and 6 above. That means, 91% of his runs are simply average. Even on race day (the 10k), he felt average.

What I hope to get across here is the myth that you need to feel spectacular, or even good, on most days is in fact a myth. A bunch of consistently average feeling days is what leads to performance. Not a select few amazing days. It’s that consistency that matters.

Secondly, on the overall stress load, you get a slightly cleared picture on how stressful each run was. You can see that the truly stressful days of 7 plus, come only 8 times out of 100+ runs. It’s consistent quality work, not work that causes you to blow up, that causes growth.

So What?

In one of our latest podcast, Jon, myself and our guest Brad Stulberg discussed how good consistent work is what leads to breakthroughs. It’s not the tweet worthy workouts. Jon posted Tara Erdmann’s training as an example. In the past, I’ve posted Neely Spence and Jackie Areson’s training as an example.  While it’s nice to see training, sometimes that message truly doesn’t get across.

In this case, you have Brian’s self-report data on how hard he thought each run/workout was physically and mentally, as well as how he felt overall. There’s no bias, no thinking, hmmm how hard was that workout really. It’s clear as day.

Contrary to what old-school football coaches might tell you, it’s not about banging your head against the wall giving 110% every day. It’s about consistent, sometimes boring, hard work that has a nice ebb and flow to allow you to come back two days later and do it again. And maybe a dash of see god every once in a while to keep things interesting.