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The Non-Linear Performance Progression

April 4, 2018

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the correlation between training and performance to try to discern the key factors that have led to my best performances and my underperformances. The goal is to use this knowledge to increase the probability of bringing forth a peak performance when it matters most.

 

We all know that improvement in any activity or skill requires practice, specifically deliberate practice. If I want to run a 2:18 marathon and qualify for the Olympic Trials, then I will need to do a whole lot of running. There is no way around that. But if I increase my training from 70 miles per week to 100 miles per week for my next marathon cycle, does that warrant a personal best time come race day? Our hardest training will translate into our best performances, right?

 

Training vs. Performance

 

To answer the preceding question, I dove into my personal data. To better visualize performance over time, I plotted my best mile time each year since I was in 5th grade. I chose the mile because that is the race distance I ran most frequently growing up, but any race distance tracked over time would yield a similar result. The chart clearly shows a non-linear progression in performance, with some years resulting in stagnation or regression from the year prior. 

 

Just looking at the performances themselves doesn't really tell that much of a story. They show that I saw improvement most years with slight regression in the others. They also show my long-term performance trend is positive, albeit decreasingly so, which is expected because improvements become progressively more difficult the better we get thanks to human limitations. Nonetheless, without knowing the training and other factors that occurred behind-the-scenes, it is unclear whether each performance progression/regression was warranted or not. Thus, I added every runner's favorite KPI to the chart: average weekly mileage.

 

Not surprisingly, the two are positively correlated for the most part. The more mileage (training) I put in, the faster I got. However, there are a couple major discrepancies visible in the chart above. In 2012, I was putting in more mileage than ever, but my mile time did not improve over previous years. Then, after decreasing my running volume, I suddenly saw a spike in performance in 2015 I haven't matched since. If running volume were the best KPI for improving running performance (and a lot of people train like it is), then logic would have predicted that all my best times would come from 2012 and 2013.

 

Note: Of course, this does not take into account other contributing factors, like the amount of strength training and cross training I was doing, how healthy I was eating, my mental state, or the fact that from 2003 to 2010 (my teenage years) my body was growing rapidly and there was an extremely high likelihood I was going to get faster whether I put in any training or not.

 

So what's the point? My key realization looking back at my top performances was that they came at the times I least expected, often after a forced break from running entirely due to an injury or sickness. The personal best times I set in 2015 in all distances from 1 mile to 10k still stand today. In fact, some of my fastest times ever came after not running at all for almost two weeks because of achilles tendon pain. In times where conventional wisdom and rationale would have predicted a poor performance, a peak performance was achieved instead.

 

Hiding Behind Hard Work

 

As runners, it is commonplace to ask one another "how's training going?" before a race to get the lowdown on our competition. Often, the answer is something along the lines of, "Training is going great. I just my highest mileage weeks ever." But does that mean a great performance is imminent? Or does it actually mean the opposite?

 

I am not sure where I originally heard this quote, but it has held true in my personal progression and anecdotally for others: "High mileage is not for this season, it is for next season." The human body takes time to adapt. Distance running is certainly a lifetime sport, where the fruits of our labor are not rewarded until many years down the line. Metabolic, musculoskeletal, and neuromuscular systems (among others) take years to fully develop. This fact helps explain how we can achieve breakthrough performances following a training downtime. To improve, our bodies need recovery as much as they need stress.

 

Many athletes (myself included) fall victim to the mentality that we should be working harder if we expect to improve. The need to do something, anything, to feel like we are making forward progress is always in the back of our minds. It’s what happens when driven individuals lose sight of the big picture and believe that hard work is the only ingredient to success, forgetting the bigger picture of what goes into performance.

 

As mentioned previously, the magic is in the work; it has to be done. However, the work can also become a security blanket, a fall back that prevents us from actually figuring out what is wrong or why we are not achieving our goals. In many ways, it can prevent driven individuals from reaching their goals. When the KPI of work, typically weekly mileage for runners, gets mistaken as the barometer of success, our training often does not translate into the performance desired, leaving us disappointed and questioning all the work we have put in. Thus, the challenge is not in working, but in NOT working. We need to realize that mastery is a lifetime game and have the confidence in our abilities to understand what we need to do, and to do just that. 

 

A Performance Perspective

 

To draw a comparison, I like using the stock market as a metaphor for performance progression. The stock market is comprised of up days and down days, rarely producing a day that is perfectly flat or a trend that is linear. The down days always hurt mentally and instill anxiety about the future just like poor performances in racing. Sometimes the down day is negligible, but other times it is significant. On the catastrophic days, we question whether we will ever achieve the top again or should throw in the towel entirely. Stock market dips can be likened to performance dips caused by injury, sickness, fatigue, or no clear reason at all. Just as the stock market can drop sans any real news, we can perform poorly without a coherent explanation.

 

However, if we stay the course, then we are eventually rewarded with another breakthrough to the upside, often when least expected. Just as the stock market has always trended upward over the long-term regardless of short-term turbulence, our performance does the same if we continue to practice deliberately and focus on mastery. Too often, we let the short-term peaks and valleys cloud our judgment and blur our sights on the long-term goals. When we step back and zoom out to see the bigger picture, we realize we have been on an uptrend all along. 

 

Conclusion

 

Whether we are training to set a personal best in our next marathon, studying to earn an 'A' on a final exam, or practicing the violin to perform in Carnegie Hall, the performance improvement curve is not linear. There will undoubtedly be days we are inexplicably 'off' and 'just don't have it.' As these occur, it is crucial to remember the bigger picture and realize that short-term obstacles are inevitable. Enduring and learning from these hiccups are what separate us from those who buckle when the going gets tough and allow us to come back mentally stronger the next time. 

 

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