The best shape of my running career was not when I ran my mile, 3k, 5k, 10k, or even half marathon PR. Instead, it was at a time when the best race I could muster was a 3:51.4 1,500m, or 8 seconds slower than my best. How does this happen? How do you get in the best shape of your life, yet not run anywhere near the fitness that your body is telling you?

Let’s travel back to my senior year in college and look at the hard workouts (days in between were mileage, about 90 miles per week during this period)

Monday: 4×400 with 1 minute rest (58), long rest, 4×300 with 1min rest (42.7 avg), long rest, 4×200 in 27.3 with 1min rest

Wednesday: 800m in 1:56, 5min rest, 2×400 in 55sec in flats. Really windy.

Saturday:  10 miles in 50:15 (splits- 25:30/24:45) on a hilly course with 2.5 mile warm up and cool down.

Monday: 4x100m from standing start (11.7), 1×200 in 23.7 with 12 miles of running total for the day.

Wednesday: 600m, 500m, 400m, 300m, 3x200m, 2x100m with 2minutes rest decreasing by 15 seconds each rep (so only 15 seconds rest the last rep) Splits 1:31.7, 74.0, 59.7, 42.9, 28.5, 27.8, 28.2, 13.8, 14.0

As I look back over the training during this period, there are two main conclusions:

  1. Getting fit is easy, expressing that fitness is the challenge.
  2. If you are sufficiently motivated, it is easy to train yourself into the ground.

Contrary to the common notion, the job of a coach is not to get athletes fit, it is to get them to express their fitness. Fitness is the easy part. Throw a variety of hard work at someone and fitness will soon follow. But having the ability to utilize and express that fitness on the right day takes skill.

When athletes don’t express their fitness, we need to find out why. Are they overtrained? Are we working them too much in one direction, while neglecting a different factor? Do they waste their mental and emotional energy in practice, leaving nothing there on race day? Are they low on iron or another vital nutrient that is preventing them from expressing their fitness?

Whenever I encounter this issue, I always look to the physical first. Knock off the easy problems first (i.e. nutrition deficiencies, overtraining, etc.) before you dive into the complex. Far too many coaches (and athletes) blame the athlete (He/She is “mental”) because it’s the easy way out. The reality is the physical and mental are so intertwined that it’s impossible to distinguish and separate them.

As I look back on my own training during this period, I think the culprit is clear. There was an insecurity that was filled by working hard. Because of several years of poor performance, I felt a need to prove that I was in shape. Every workout represented a test. Am I fit enough to hit my goal?

When you approach training in this manner, you’ve shifted the goal. It’s no longer about getting ready to perform on race day, but instead feeding your need to know that you are ready. By the time you get to race day, one of two things likely happened

  1. You wasted your bullet in practice and are physically and emotionally drained.
  2. You killed a workout and your mind got the message that it wanted “you are fit.” The problem is, you subconsciously feel like you accomplished your goal. As the race was never the true goal, proving fitness to yourself was the goal.

The need to prove oneself comes from insecurity. It’s a lack of trust in the plan and the process. Stop trying to prove fitness, and start trying to do what is best to get you to the starting line fit, healthy, and ready to go.


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    1. Michael I. on January 18, 2018 at 8:39 am

      Basically, I do agree that this insecurity originates from a lack of trust in the plan and the process. However, I also think that it’s often derived from the fact that you just “don’t know better”. Sometimes you could be properly informed or educated but still be confused and thus unable to keep an overview and do the right things in the right order.

      When we actually don’t know what to do, then we do our best from our own point of view – and often we overdo things, trying to maximize and not optimize the needed components for succes. Like so many others, I have been there myself, so I know.

      But we probably have ask ourselves how to get rid of this uncertainty. Personally, I believe that the coach have to be strong enough to teach or lead the athlete in the right directions about having confidence so that he/she does the right thing. If you do not have any coach, yes then I am likely to say that it’s maybe going to be a long journey 🙂

    2. […] But having the ability to utilize and express that fitness on the right day takes skill.” Read more here. Good […]

    3. Louie on January 19, 2018 at 5:18 pm

      It seems like an athlete in the off season would be at less of a risk of the first pitfall you mentioned. If there are no races for months at a time, then wasting your bullett in practice isn’t that bad, because you’ll get it back soon and you can reschedule an important workout if need be.

      The second pitfall has gotten me thinking… If an athlete is killing workouts early in their offseason, could this have a negative effect months later when they are competing? Or is getting too comfortable more of a short term effect?

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