Realistic Expectations In Session Design and Management

For many, the major limiting factor for performance in training sessions is unrealistic expectations. The weight of expectation going into a session can potentially hinder your performance. In some cases, this may be to the point where the completion of the session is counterproductive to your goal. This may drive your progress in a negative direction rather than toward positive enhancement of your overall fitness. 

For those who design their own programs, there is a tendency to romantically envisage the session as a perfect stepping stone of well engineered increments. Each workout is a perfect enhancement of the previous. Only if you are robotically hitting every target, every session, will this result in increased performance enhancements. If you are not superhuman and your program is not designed with contingency sessions you will have a tendency to compound mistakes. If you are not in the right frame of mind, you can further compound the issue by attempting to do even more to make up for your perceived under performance. A self-fulfilling downward spiral of compounding failure will inevitably follow.

This downward spiral can clearly be seen in the all too common story of the athlete who has trained well leading up to an event, but a few weeks out has panicked and abruptly increased their training load / intensity. More often than not the training will be sub-par. In response, the athlete panics further and trains through their taper, ultimately going into the race overcooked. Needless to say this athlete will likely under-perform come race day because they A) didn’t trust the program; or B) failed to listen to their body and reason with their mind to balance all factors to optimise performance.

Conversely, there are athletes that fall into a hole of under-performance under the weight of unrealistic expectations. Depending on the mind space of the athlete and the challenge of the race they are working towards, they may catastrophise missed or misfired sessions. This may cause a recoil from training as a form of self-denial “ostrich in the sand” mentality. The greater the length of time away, the more fitness is lost and the greater the problem will become. An athlete can often spiral out of control with these self-denial symptoms.

Both issues (self-denial and compensatory over training) can be easily avoided by micro-planning every session with three basic components - warm up, main set and cool down. For many athletes who are pushing themselves to higher and higher athletic peaks, there is a desire to get the session started as soon as their foot hits the pavement. This desire may manifest itself as attempting to run a PB for a mid week run which was down as a recovery run. Alternatively, they may look at the run and think they must run a PB, so they simply go back to sleep. This is because they fear that they will under-perform that session, no matter how hard they try. 

To avoid these situations it is vital that the importance of the warm up and the cool down be de-emphasised away from PB efforts. These parts of the training session should be refocused onto qualitative goals, rather than quantifiable (time-based) goals. The warm up and cool down can be a gentle 500m walk and stretching. The warm up should be used to analyse the body, awaken the mind and determine what they are capable of today. The mental negotiation that follows the warm up should be mindful of both your mental and physical stages of fatigue. Decisions should be made that are in the best interest of you as a complete athlete. Punishing yourself or, conversely, avoiding work due to feelings of self doubt are equally counterproductive. You need to make a decision which gives you the best path forward for your overall athletic success. This may involve you pushing a harder gear or simply doing swim drills rather than the prescribed lactic threshold set. 

Once you have completed the main set, it is important to take the time to cool down and begin the recovery process. If you finish at full effort your body will feel the effect the next day, with residual lactic acid that will hinder your performance. Use your circulatory and respiratory systems to rid your body of the toxic buildup of waste products that were produced during the main set. Slow down your heart rate gradually by moving into a walk; finish with leg swings and stretches. During this period reflect on your main set and congratulate yourself on a job well done, but also critically analyse what you could improve. How was your form? Did you sufficiently hydrate? Was your nutrition adequate? Once you are back home, you can then fill in your training diary with an accurate reflection of the session. This will allow you to make the necessary adjustments for your next sessions.

Use this technique of virtually stepping back and making holistic judgements to move closer to your goal. By doing this, you will be able to adapt to changes in circumstance which may detract from cumulative performance increases and ultimately experience meaningful success.

By Sean Riley