How do you know you’ve made an improvement from one practice session to another?
By measuring failure, or rather, by measuring its reduction from one session to the next. If you repeat a challenging practice set and have measured what, when, where, and how and find that the previously encountered failure was reduced in some way, then you’ve improved. A productive training set induces soft failures at some point and your job is to prevent (or delay) a failure from occurring or correct it as soon as it appears. If you delay that failure longer than before, or correct and sustain it better than before, you’ve improved. When your practice sets no longer provoke failure, then it’s time to increase the challenge level. This kind of training-for-quality game keeps you fully engaged in your practice.
Rock climbing is the epitome of this kind of approach – improvement-oriented climbers will pick a new route, one that provides interesting challenges or puzzles. The goal is to practice each section of the route enough times to where one can climb it ‘clean’ all the way through, with no falls and no need to hang on the rope (the objective measure of failing). When the route is sufficiently difficult, the climber feels the uncertainty and the threat of failure in the challenging sections and – combined with the biological urge to not fall – this keeps them completely engaged in the puzzle. Climbing is the perfect example of an activity that requires total interdependence between skill and strength. While it can be relaxing to do a climb that provokes no uncertainty and no threat of failure, every climber knows that only those routes that push their technical and strength abilities will make them better.
What are useful forms of failure in endurance athletics?
If you want to emphasize neural development – i.e. improve your technique – then you need to do activities that impose the most training stress on your ability to maintain or improve control over some aspect of body position or movement quality. You know you are getting better when your form increases in precision and consistency compared to the previous experience of the same practice set.
If you want to emphasize the development of the muscular system (including small supporting muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia) then you need to do activities that push your body’s ability to generate force, to move your body forward in certain amounts – like lifting heavy weights while maintaining best form. This is where stroke counting and training with tempo (in swimming) come in. You know you are getting better when you feel less muscular fatigue and tissue stress in the same activity.
If you want to emphasize the development of the metabolic system then you need to do activities that impose the most training stress upon the body’s ability to process and deliver energy to the muscles over greater distances or longer periods. You know you are getting better when you feel physically better than before at the end of a long effort.
If you want to emphasize the development of the mental system then you need to do activities that impose the most training stress on your ability to maintain attention in a chosen direction, your prioritization of effort, and control over a positive attitude under difficult conditions.
What is meant here by ‘impose the most training stress’ is that the system you are targeting is getting pushed more than the other systems by the way you’ve designed the set. If you are wanting to push some aspect of technical control then set your technical standard high enough (in terms of precision and/or consistency) and set the muscular or metabolic demands low enough (i.e. set to lower intensity or allow more rest intervals) so that, as you work through the set, your technical control encounters soft failure before you experience it in your muscular or metabolic systems.
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