How hard do we need to go in a workout? Do we need to push the bounds of fatigue, get our athletes to experience a new level of discomfort, ‘shock’ the system with a new stimulus?
It’s a question I ponder often. One we could answer by diving into the world of stress and adaptation, or perhaps by looking at the research around training to failure in weight lifting. Both areas that would provide some guidance, but recently I’ve found the answer by asking a different question: How do we increase happiness?
Imagine for a second that you won the lottery. All of the sudden, you’d have life changing money at your disposal. You could pay off the mortgage, buy a new car, and take that trip to Tahiti you’ve been daydreaming about. Surely, you’d be happier.
A classic study asked, and then answered, both of these questions. In comparing a group of lottery winners to a control group, the results were pretty clear. Lottery winners saw a momentary jump in happiness before settling back down to right around their original level, no different than the level of happiness of the control group.
Recent research has largely validated this finding, with different groups finding winning the lottery having no effect on mental health or happiness, although some research has found a connection to life-satisfaction.
Venturing beyond lottery winners, when it comes to changing levels of happiness, research shows that frequency is more important than intensity. According to psychologists William Compton and Edward Hoffman, “consistently feeling moderate subjective well-being seems to have a more beneficial effect than an occasional experience of bliss.”
In other words, if you want to impact your level of happiness, then the secret is in the mundane. The day to day practices, activities, and routines that you establish. That dream vacation works, for a short time, before you adapt and return back to normal.
So what does this have to do with how difficult workouts should be? This analogy holds true for performance fields. We tend to think of the one off, big workout as the key to adapting. To get stronger, faster, more resilient, we need to nail the impressive workout. After all, it’s what we remember when we have a successful race. The big workout must have made the difference.
But it’s the mundane, the getting up everyday and going through our runs or workout, regardless of the difficulty that matters most. It’s the consistency. It’s showing up, changing your habits so that exercise becomes part of the routine, that likely impacts our performance the most. The simple gets us 95% of the way to our performance goals. The final few percent–the incredibly demanding workouts– seem like they must contribute more. But that’s a façade, a trick of the mind thanks in large part to the way our memory works. Thanks to the peak and end rule, we remember what occurred last and the most intense period of emotion or pain. We remember the “see god” workouts and what we did during the few days leading up to our big competition. We don’t remember what we did on a random Tuesday 3 weeks ago.
So to answer the question of how hard should our hard workouts be? Hard enough so that you stress your body, but not so hard that you can’t repeat them week after week, month after month. Because the secret is in the frequency.
Yes, every once in awhile, we might need a ‘vacation’ or ‘lottery’ win to jump-start our training. To give us a moment of ‘bliss’, but if we come to rely upon that, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. Remember, when it comes to happiness and workouts; frequency matters more than intensity.