Precision is Better Than Pushing
Here is an advanced tip for how to stay technically attuned during your workouts, especially when you get fatigued, whether it’s running or strength training (ST). I hammer home this point in the ST chapter of my book when I discuss the priority of form/technique over mindlessly pushing yourself to simply do more reps ("more, more, more!"). There is an obvious connection here in how our form tends to break down when we go to the upper limits of our long runs and/or harder speed workouts. This is all in itself a healthy reminder, but I'll take it a step further.
As a coach, I want to make sure that my athletes and I have a similar definition of "pushing yourself", or at least have different ways of defining this phrase. Yes, in general, pushing yourself means stepping out of your comfort zone and embracing the harder workouts, the jacked-up heart rate on occasion, the labored breathing, the muscle burn, etc; however, it can also mean choosing to do a workout vs.skipping it (I discuss this in more detail in a section of my book called "Aggressive Training"), and also maintaining proper focus when the going gets tough (i.e., composure and self-talk).
Another section of my book is titled "Mental Toughness is Overrated" and it's relevant here. How do you know when you're pushing yourself? Is it based on how many reps you do? …the #'s on your watch? Or is it a subjective feeling? …does it require extra mental effort in order to qualify as "pushing yourself"? No matter how you cut it, "pushing yourself" might sometimes get in the way of optimum/maximum performance. Wait, how is that possible, doesn't that sound counter-intuitive?
I was at a 3-day sport psych nerd conference in Baltimore this past weekend, with lots and lots of presentations on cognitive elements of performance, motor development, motor control, team dynamics, identity/personality, and a bunch of other relevant topics. Lots to learn. As I already had this topic in my head, I caught a few glimpses of presentations that showed that the specific focal points someone has during endurance tasks and/or high-intensity tasks helps determine actual performance, which is nothing new, nor earth-shattering, but it does lend credence to the importance of making sure we all understand what "pushing yourself" could mean and/or should mean.
For instance, there are internal focal points ("staying in your element" as I phrase it in my book), which are your breathing, technique/form, stride, perceived exertion, etc., and there are external focal points, such as the crowd, the competition, the trees, your pace, etc. Side note: Some of you are wondering if pace is actually internal…keep it as external, this is the difference between Pace vs. Intensity. Most studies show internal focus leads to better performance than external focus, and if you've read my book, then you understand the reasoning. There's obviously room to bounce back and forth between the two, especially in relatively long events (it's natural and needed), and that in itself is a skill, in knowing when to do each, but now I'll bring this back to the main point.
Precision is a better way to improve performance than simply grunting it out (pushing). In fact, you can all think of examples, either personally or observed, when someone was so determined to push hard that their technique suffered as a result and they missed whatever mark they were aiming for. This naturally is more evident in tasks with a cognitive component (running isn't very cognitive, or at least it's not supposed to be!), but it does apply to endurance sports too. For example, cyclists were studied while they either focused on their pedal stroke (i.e., "smoothness" = internal) or were focused on "keep going!" (external). The former group beat the latter group. This should be logical. If your pedal stroke remains smooth (i.e., efficient, just like running form) then you don't put as much strain/stress on your body (muscles, tendons, etc), thereby making it physically/physiologically easier to "keep going." This is the essence of why mental toughness is overrated.
Keep your precision when the going gets tough, it'll help you hit the target. Braveheart and the Kevin Kostner Robin Hood both have scenes about this type of precision under pressure, and I learned it first-hand back in the day when I was doing shot put and playing rugby. So, don't just close your eyes and plow through, you might screw up your form, and it's our form that carries us through!