I first encountered the term ‘purposeful practice’ whilst reading ‘Bounce‘ by former Olympic table-tennis player Matthew Syed. This term originated from the now more generally adopted idea of ‘deliberate practice’ coined by psychologist Anders Ericsson. It has three components each of which are often missing in runners individual workouts and each of which can easily be brought back in.
Under the hood of deliberation
Deliberate has many meanings and as we go through them I believe you will recognise that our physical culture today suffers from a general lack of such ‘deliberation’ and ‘purposefulness’:
- Deliberate: careful and unhurried, done consciously and intentionally, fully considered.
- Purposeful: intentional, serving a useful purpose
The precise term ‘deliberate practice’ has been given an even more formal definition:
Duvivier et al. reconstructed the concept of deliberate practice into practical principles to describe the process as it relates to clinical skill acquisition. They defined deliberate practice as: repetitive performance of intended cognitive or psychomotor skills. source: Wikipedia
The components of deliberate practice
When we use the word ‘practice’ instead of purely ‘training’ or ‘workout’ as I do in my professional training plans and when working with clients it denotes a view of running as a skill. This is consistent with recent breakthroughs in the understanding of training such as the work of Frans Bosch (Strength Training and Coordination – an integrative approach) which show that traditional athletic qualities like endurance, strength and power cannot be separated from the motor skills that generate them. In layman’s terms: how your coordinate the movement of the parts of your body individually and in relation to each other has a direct bearing on the endurance you can express, the power you can generate and the strength you can showcase. These qualities do not exist as independent factors that can be trained in isolation.
The four components suggested by Ericsson* for deliberate practice are shown below. As runners we can substitute the word task for ‘workout’ or ‘practice session’.
- You must be motivated to attend to the task and exert effort to improve your performance.
- The design of the task should take into account your pre-existing knowledge so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.
- You should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of your performance.
- You should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.
Let me briefly examine them in turn.
* Ericsson’s work has become known as the 10,000 hour rule leading some to believe ‘simple’ repetition is enough. There are many caveats to the 10,000 hour rule (such as the fact it does not hold for everyone) among them that these hours have to be ‘deliberate practice’ and not merely ‘practice’ or the natural antonym ‘mindless practice’.
You must be motivated
Running has changed from being purely a vocation for a fringe group of fanatics to an obsession for the few, a passion for some and means to an end for the masses whether that means to an end is bragging rights, weight-loss or a feeling of greater well-being. Quite often even for fanatical competitive runners the act of running itself is simply a means to other ends rather than a process to be enjoyed for its own sake – i.e. the enjoyment of the sport rests purely on achievement of certain objective targets such as placement in races and
These motivations often create a culture of disassociate training where the runner attempts to divorce himself or herself from the act of training and the experiences generated from it. The classical example would have been day-dreaming during a workout to try and forget about the discomfort whereas the contemporary strategy tends to be ear-phones (the future may be Pokemon Go).
Before I tell you why you should favour associative training, I want to note that for the majority of people dissociate training harbours powerful benefits in the high-stress existence manufactured by the current neo-capitalist and consumerist culture. Disassociate training can help restore a parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ state and serve as a period of mental relaxation. Associative and thus deliberate practice cannot offer this haven. This may be one of the main reasons full-time athletes hold a deciding edge over even the most mercurial amateurs: the mental resources required to work most jobs take away from the time the same mental and neurological resources we need to invest in deliberate practice.
In the daily training we must remember that our brains priority (or call it central governor if you wish) remains survival and energy conservation both of which are linked. It will therefore prefer to make the least necessary effort. We often call this ‘lazy’ – a quality representing a virtue in the wild. So in our practice and training design we must first assure that we are motivated both by the goals (truly and honestly)* and by the process itself. Arthur Lydiard said that training ‘starts with enjoyment’ and we can see why here: without enjoyment, trust and belief in a training process it will be impossible to enjoy the daily run. It will also be difficult if every workout is executed against time pressure from work or family.
* I feel the need to emphasize this as my observation is that many people have goals that are not their own. They merely represent goals they believe they have to hold in order to maintain their self-esteem and standing within a peer group or because society is sending the signal that this is ‘something to do’ rather than something the person truly connects with and deeply and passionately wants to do.
As a coach my observation is that the majority of people need to understand ‘why’ they are doing ‘what’ they have been told to do and that we often underestimate the instruction needed to master the ‘how’ of each session. Which brings us to the second element of deliberate practice:
The design of the task should take into account your pre-existing knowledge
Doing something poorly or incorrectly is generally worse than not doing anything at all. Coaches and athletes alike need to ensure they do not merely copy the approach of others or rush out to do something taken out of context.
From a coaches perspective this merely means you need to be very aware of the knowledge of your athletes and provide clearer instruction or simpler workouts to less experienced athletes (and children). You do not ask someone to train Olympic ring moves who cannot master basic scapular control and you do not ask someone to perform intervals who barely understands the essentials of pacing at slower paces and so on.
This seemingly trivial observation becomes important because of the third point:
You should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of your performance.
When we simply ‘go run’ we often have no way of knowing whether we are improving or not. From a technical perspective injuries, pains and niggles are signals that the way we move or the volume of training we have chosen are unacceptable to the body. Such feedback is generally immediate unless you wear lots of support and use excessive cushioning in your footwear in which case the feedback often comes delayed (and thus after you have a chance to alter your approach).
Running training can be insidious because over-training often leads temporary benefits as the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ system becomes geared up. This creates an illusion of improvement where there is actually regression and health risks involved. In my methodology we try to move around this risk by establishing very realistic starting points from athletes based on a number of tests, previous race performance, heart rate monitored training and a heavy focus on subjective feedback.
Since early in the last century the watch has been the most common feedback tool for runners and with good reason as all our performances are eventually measured against pace. This represents an objective feedback tool. Today we prefer these types of measures. While the watch is essential for high performance it can become a problem if we divorce it from subjective feedback tools – how you feel and what signals your body sends you. The absence of subjective feedback arises as a result of disassociate training methods such as running while listening to a song or watching the tv while pounding the treadmill. In general our culture pulls our focus away from our bodies and what it tells us and into our mind where we don’t listen or are too distracted.
I try to work around this by providing both foci: objective measures such as heart rate, pace, duration and distance are used to ensure the ‘lazy brain’ does not unduly limit performance and subjective measures are put in place to ensure the athlete has to think about what happens before, during and after the run. We can look at how you feel through a Rate of Perceived Effort Chart or by setting an ‘effort’ for each workout by using systems like Arthur Lydiard’s (1/4 effort, 1/2 effort, 3/4 effort, 7/8 effort and full effort).
The risk with objective measures is that they can limit performance: when you set a number of repetitions (’10’) you may begin to get tired at 8 because your brain expects that 10 is the maximum effort. If you set a pace target that you believe is challenging then running faster in the race and seeing this may stress you out (‘oh no, too fast’). Your experience from training in interpreting subjective measures will be your anti-dote so you can have the best of both worlds (‘ok, 10 reps was called for but I still do not feel the level of tiredness I planned for this type of workout’ or ‘oh, I am 10 seconds ahead of target pace but my body feels very relaxed, so I must be in great shape today’).
This approach happens at all levels of training – the daily practice sessions is the most important but also to look at the development of objective and subjective measures every week and every month. If you do not monitor whether your pace and volume are moving in the right direction and whether your body seems to be getting healthier rather than more broken, then you are not training deliberately and this is a major impediment. Today we have a culture of following training plans blindly and in-spite of clear subjective or objective signals to the contrary. I cannot identify exactly where this notion comes from but suggest it is a mixture of a culture brought up to comply and follow rulesets and a general lack of self-esteem and self-belief among athletes.
You should repeatedly complete the same task
We live in a distraction-rich culture and with new sexy workouts emerging every week on websites and running magazines, we have more athletes than ever ‘program hopping’ or ‘switching horses in the middle of the river’ (a Danish saying) . Many approaches – whether training or rehab – are abandoned long before enough repetition has occurred to showcase any benefit. This is a result of an increasing level of impatience and expectation of instant gratification.
The basic lesson here: once you have chosen a certain way to train or a certain type of practice session, you must repeat it long enough to generate meaningful progress. You cannot simply hop from one type of workout to the next randomly and expect improvement. Running is in this regard an ideal sport because you can repeat each stride 180 or so per minute meaning you can do 10,800 repetitions of a movement in a mere hour!
This recommendation comes with a big disclaimer, however, due to the recent findings in the study of motor learning. In traditional training the ‘overload’ we apply to generate positive training adaptations focuses on increasing forces (a physics-led quantitative approach and has ignored the equally, or maybe more, important sensorimotor overload (a qualitative motor learning approach). Expressed less academically: stress is not simply about doing more or faster (more total forces) but a matter of ‘how different’ the task we execute is to our nervous system. This is dictated by three constraints: the environment in which we run, the movement task being trained (a certain running speed or type) and the runner performing the movement. To explore this idea we would need a separate article but to summarise the implication here: repetition of task does not mean repetition of one exact task as this is impossible to achieve anyway in the real world (an open dynamic system).
Training research suggests that we need (again to steal Arthur Lydiard’s words) ‘consistent variety’. So we need to run but we need a certain amount of variety the three constraints we can modify:
- Task constraint: paces, duration, rest periods, coaching cues, distance, repeats
- Environmental constraints: terrain, slope, weather conditions, time of day, time of year, training partners, obstacles, shoes, tools
- Organismic constraints: fuel intake, hydration intake, level of rest and recovery, motivation etc.
Completely monotonous training is therefore not ‘deliberate practice’ even if you are highly focused. You need to introduce variability – even if small – on a regular basis to reap maximum adaptations. This also passes the test of whether we can make sense of this logic from an evolutionary perspective: the natural world would challenge our bodies in different ways with a lack of uniform surfaces as a primary example and it makes sense we evolved to respond better to variability than monotony.
To improve your chances of success as a runner you need to engage in more deliberate practice. This requires setting accurate goals which truly motivate you and executing your sessions and your training schedule in a way that provides you regular and immediate feedback on whether you are improving or disimproving. You need to practice consistently and regularly and not abandon training practices long before you have a chance to learn them properly. At the same time you must ensure you keep enough variability in your training to avoid monotony.
The only exception to the recommendation of deliberate practice are highly stressed individuals who should focus on mentally relaxing training where they can let their minds drift.