When I was competing in high school, my teammates knew the drill; always have a trash can nearby. It didn’t matter whether it was a small race or a hard workout; chances were I was going to throw up afterwards. It simply occurred, regardless of any modifications in my diet or drinking habits. As a teenager, I justified the behavior by telling myself how it must have meant I was touch to be able to push myself to that extreme all of the time, which probably only holds a small kernel of truth. Now, looking back as a coach, it gets to the question of how hard should workouts actually be? I don’t mean the difference between a recovery run and mile repeats, but rather how hard should those mile or 400m repeats be? Of course in races, we should dip as far as we can go into the well, but in a hard workout do we need to go that far?

The answer might come from a surprising corner of the research world.  In our search for happiness, people always assume that major life events, such as winning the lottery or a death in the family will impact their overall happiness to the greatest effect over the long term. However, a recent research study titled “How small versus large acts create more happiness” found that small acts such as simply trying to make someone smile increases subsequent happiness more so than attempting to make larger changes.

What does changing happiness have to do with adapting to workouts? It’s my contention that changing behavior and adapting to stress are similar regardless of whether it’s physical or mental. In my own coaching, I use this principle to decide how we try to challenge ourselves in harder workouts.

 In Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile, he introduces the concept of the Barbell Strategy of investing. On one side of the barbell is low risk, low reward items and on the opposite is high risk, high reward ones. What he means is that we should spend most of our time on either extreme, where the weight would be in a barbell, and stay away from the middle where it’s medium risk and medium reward work. In deciding workout difficulty, the principle also applies.

In my own coaching, what we do is perform 80-90% of our workouts on the low risk, low reward side of the barbell with workouts that are challenging but the athlete is able to accomplish them regularly without risk of falling apart in the workout. These are our safe, consistent, small behavioral changers like in the happiness research. The other 10-20% of the time we are doing a hard workout, we do what I’d call a perspective changer, or as my athletes refer to as “see god days.” During these workouts, we want to go as hard as we can and if we fail that’s okay. It’s all about seeing where our limits are pushing our perspective of what is hard.

The beauty of this system is that we get the best of both worlds, it allows for sustainable long-term adaptation without risking burnout from digging too deep in workouts week after week.  Additionally, by mixing the two extremes, what happens is the small moderately stressful workouts allow us to cement some of the changes from the perspective changing workouts. Next time you perform a workout, keep this barbell strategy in mind and you will be more likely to see consistent and manageable improvement over time.

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