Arthur Lydiard, my greatest training inspiration, coined the today ubiquitous phrase ‘train, don’t strain’, a principle so simple it boils down to understanding the graphic below:
The ‘war-face’ gives away an athlete outside the boundaries of what they can control. Arthur Lydiard had another illuminating quote on the topic:
‘Train to failure, train to fail’.
Listening to a podcast with Z-Health founder Dr. Eric Cobb, I recently got a modern perspective on this old observation providing the scientific rationale. Any coach or personal trainer knows the SAID principle: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. Dr Cobb warns us in his teaching material that we must add the two words ‘ALWAYS’ and ‘EXACTLY’ to this fundamental principle of training:
Your body always gets better at doing exactly what you practice regularly.
– Dr Eric Cobb, Z-Health, I-Phase Product Manual
His observation came from the effortlessness with which the world’s best performers carry out their sport. Many have made this observation before. If we ‘strain’ to the point where we make our ‘war-face’, you can be pretty certain that many other aspects of how you carry out your running are also ‘falling apart’. Since you ALWAYS get better at training EXACTLY what you practice regularly, you should aim to finish your hard sessions with your form and technique mostly intact so this becomes the conditioned response when the going gets really tough in races.
I know from experience how difficult it can be to fully internalise this principle because many of us are drawn to the masculine values of running and the notion of ‘having the most guts’ or ‘being a good sufferer’. This can happen to a point where it becomes part of your athletic identify. For many reasons – physical and psychological – such an approach cannot be sustained healthily for long.
Elite athletes who look like a picture of calm at the end of a world class performance will often still be suffering inside. The difference between them and you is that they have learnt to do so without falling apart. We must do the same and from a training perspective this begins by avoiding ‘training to failure’.
This principle holds sway in all areas of your life – if you spend more time sitting slumped and collapsed than standing tall and erect, then you are also ‘training to fail’. If your normal position is sitting down for 8-10 hours per day then you will ALWAYS get the adaptations that are EXACTLY appropriate for sitting. You can deduct without difficulty that these adaptations are the opposite of what you will require as a high performance runner.
If you are not yet convinced consider another nugget of wisdom from the good Dr Cobb: exercise is a drug meaning it is dose dependent. Incidentally, this is true even of healthy substances – too much water will kill as surely as too little will. In the world of drug the challenge is to find the ‘minimal viable dose’ so we can get the benefit without the risk of an over-dose that harms us. Most runners I know train as if this principle did not exist: more is always better and ‘exercise is good for us’. In reality ‘the right amount of exercise is good for us and the wrong amount is harmful for us’ sums things up more neatly and lies at the heart of the ‘train, don’t strain’ principle. This requires that you have confidence, intelligence and patience. If you believe you lack these skills, do something about it or hire a coach to keep you on a leash until you learn.
An entirely different dynamic also comes into play when we look at how your brain responds to regular high-threat and high tension stimuli. I will touch on that in the next post when I discuss another useful metaphor provided by Dr Eric Cobb called ‘The Threat Bucket’.
In the meantime, I hope this little insight into the ‘train, don’t strain’ principle helps you make better decisions in your regular practice sessions.