When you can make time for more practices each week – with good design and focused effect, and in good balance in your other priorities in life – that is a very good thing. All things being healthy, practicing more often will give you a boost in performance and more momentum in your motivation. It has definitely been my experience, the more you practice (in a mindful way) the more you will want to practice, and the better it will feel.
Note: I know some of you reading this may be on an intense program, working at the maximum your body, brain and 7 days a week allow. I trust you are doing that appropriate to your goal. This post is not addressed to you. Rather, this post is for athletes-on-a-budget – those of you who have other life/family/work priorities which dominate your limited time, attention, and energy.
I recall several times in my athletic life where I had anywhere from one to four weeks of much more intense training in one of my activities, and it was thrilling to feel the increase in my general performance because of it. The increase in volume and intensity was accompanied by an increase in excitement to do more, and I definitely slept harder (and ate more food too). If I was steady and smart when I switched back to my regular, more limited training schedule I could maintain some of that for quite a while.
Conversely, if I take too much time between practices I do notice that I lose some physical and mental momentum (I am writing in present-tense because this applies now, even at moderate training). I notice this if I am away from my activity for more than two days. (I currently alternate swim day and run day, with general conditioning on those run days – I regard 3 days per week this as minimum to maintain physical and mental momentum for either of those activities).
There is certainly a way you can do too much – too much volume, too much intensity, not enough quality design, not enough rest, out of balance with other things in life. But, let’s assume that you are going to handle that responsibility well (or ask for coaching help to do it well).
More frequency is going to do you good if:
- You maintain high quality practices,
- You vary the ways in which you stimulate your systems (a balance between consistency, incremental increase in challenge, and variety to prevent ruts and widen range of skill), and
- You balance higher intensity, higher volume with more high-quality rest, recovery and nutrition.
Let’s briefly look at the effect of frequency on the three performance systems (which I referred to in the previous post Detecting Progress):
The more frequently you make demands on this system to convert fuel to energy, the more you require it to process fuel in a certain way for a certain kind of work (= consistent food type, and consistent exercise type), the more efficient your system will become to support you in this kind of work.
Powerful muscles are like leaky balloons – you’ve got to keep pumping them up. To keep up higher-than-baseline levels of power, you have to regularly stimulate those muscles with appropriate loading. So, if your swimming goal requires more power, you will soon notice an increase in power from more frequent (and proper) stimulation of your swimming-specific muscles.
There are no short-cuts to mastery of a skill. Got your 10,000 hours of deep-practice in yet? I spoke to this in the post How Long Will It Take?
Like a musician or fine artist, or martial artist, the more frequent, high-quality practices one executes, the sooner one reaches new levels of mastery. Unlike building powerful muscles, the great news here is that neuro-muscular training is like attaching a ‘hard wire’. Once you’ve done the work to put it in place and wrap it with myelin insulation, it’s doesn’t take as much stimulation to maintain those wires as it did to build them. The longer you’ve been practicing (in terms of years) the longer you can afford to take some time off then bounce back quickly (in terms of skill, not power). Just keep in mind that the more exacting you become in technique the longer it may take to get there to that hard-wired state that holds up under high strain.
I’ve made a quick case here for the benefit you would get from more frequent practices… if you can afford more.
What if you feel you can’t afford more?
First of all, if you are working hard doing good things for the world and can afford only one day a week for practice, then I bless you. Make that one practice full of quality stimulation for your body and brain, and do it in a way that brings great enjoyment. May it refresh you so you can get back into your work and stay at it.
If your life permits just two or three practices a week, likewise, make it smart and make it wonderful. On this blog I am constantly encouraging you along that path.
But, if there is a chance you could regularly increase practice, or could make an occasional change in your schedule to add a few more, then I urge you to try it and experience the effects.
Weekend warriors, dabblers, posers – those who practice inconsistently and then show up for game day hoping to play big – these suffer the worst when they do the activity, and have the biggest risk of injury.
Even if you practice just once or twice a week, be consistent about the day, be consistent in your routine on that practice day, and be consistent in your weekly routine leading up to it. The brain will do better under this condition to support your activity. And, when you do come to practice, or come to a race event, exert yourself at a level similar to what you do in your practices – that way you have more assurance that your body is prepared for it. From practice to practice, make only small, incremental increases in challenge and stress imposed upon the body so you give it the best chance to adapt to the new loading without injury.
Ways To Fit More In
Here are some ways you may be able to get more practice.
If you practice just one day, make a goal to eventually add one more day. Don’t force it, but rather allow some time to seek out opportunities for change that may appear in your schedule (opportunities that you cannot see yet) and be mentally ready to jump on that opportunity when it comes. Once you claim a second practice day, stake your claim on it and be consistent with those two practices for a while. Hopefully, everyone and other things in your life will slide over and let you keep it.
If you practice three days and want to move to four or five, do likewise. Consider scheduling one more practice into your week for a while rather than trying to add two or more immediately. There may be more people and more variables than you realize that need time to adjust to your increased investment in practice.
Rather than making stressful changes to your normal weekly schedule, look for some time in the year where you could schedule a special 1 to 4-week period of special focused training. Well ahead of this special training period you could inform those who may be affected that you have planned to divert some time, energy and attention at this certain date. By utilizing special training periods, you can boost yourself to a higher level of performance with short periods of higher intensity, then use a thoughtful practice plan to maintain your gains as you go back to your regular schedule.
Is there a predictable decrease in your work load at certain times of the year? Are you going on holiday? Seasonal changes in activity? Where could you schedule a special week or two of more focused, more intense training then ride that boost afterward when back on your regular practice schedule? (You could plan a holiday with your favorite companion to one of our open water swim camps, hint, hint!)
For triathletes trying to excel in three different sports, consider how you can arrange your monthly schedule to emphasize one of the sports for a few weeks, dropping a practice or two from the other disciplines, rather than always giving them equal time. Then in the next cycle shift to emphasis on another discipline, while maintaining your gains on the other two.
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I am sure some of you have other ideas how to schedule more practice time – share your ideas, please! And for others, I am sure some of you are good at (or content with) getting the best you can out of the limited time you have. More power to both kinds.
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