It was in the days that Lance Armstrong dominante cycling. Mart Smeets had a daily audience with Lance. During one of their one-to-ones, a boy intervened. If he could ask Lance a question? He got permission. ‘What is your secret to winning the Tour?’ Lance took the question seriously, thought hard before coming up with his answer. ‘Consistency boy, it’s all about consistency’. And so it is. Consistency is the champion’s secret.
Lance’s words reminder me of my before-sunrise Monday morning swim sessions in the early nineties. In those years the alarm went off at the unmercifully early time of 4.50 am so that I, together with my brother Ard, could immerse ourselves into swimming pool ‘Keerpunt (in proper English: flip turn) in Barendrecht. That training lasted until 7 o’clock. My goal was to get 90 seconds faster on the kilometer. I had set aside five months to accomplish that and a minimum of three weekly swim sessions: 1.5 seconds per training.
The first weeks we always went together. Until Ard slept in one time. That was the beginning of the end of hij Monday swim workouts. For quite some time, I knocked at his door when I came home tired-but-satisfied from another inhumane early morning swim training. The joy of shouting at the closed door of the room to awake my o-so peacefully sleeping brother with the words ‘Another one and a half seconds!’ was more than worth the sacrifice of that early start of my week.
Consistency in the coaching practice
Also in my coaching practice, I see that consistency is the main difference between athletes who keep making progress versus athletes who stick around. It’s very simple: if you train consistently, you get better. To illustrate, I show the TrainingPeaks Performance Management Chart of an athlete who started with me in February 2020 with the ambition to do an Ironman distance triathlon. The chart continues through September 2020 when he made his Ironman debut. In the period February-April he worked weeks of 12-14 hours – interrupted by three weeks of corona care – after which he trained 16-20 hours a week in May and June. You can see that the blue line, which is indicative of his form, continues to rise: from 60TSS/day to 150TSS/day. His FTP rose from 230 Watts to 275 Watts during that period and his Ironman debut was outstanding. Consistency is the champion’s secret.
That’s a different story from the athlete who alternates 10 to 12 hour weeks with 2 to 4 hour weeks. You can see that his blue line fluctuates back and forth: from 35TSS/day in the low weeks to 60TSS/day in the weeks when he rises a few times above 10 hours a week. Making real progress this way is seriously difficult. While this athlete finished his target race – 4km swim, 120km bike and 30km run – he and I know there could have been more in store had there been consistent training.
How do you get consistent?
The simple answer: by prioritizing your workouts and fitting them into your schedule. Somewhere around the turn of the millennium I had an extensive consultation with the renowned sports doctor Peter Vergouwen. The part that has stayed with me the most is not in the field of exercise science, but in the field of coaching. He asked me to fill in how I spent my time from Sunday to Sabbath hour by hour. My days turned out to be packed: every minute was filled in, so that I could complete at least two training sessions a day, and study, and work. No lack of consistency. But my schedule seriously lacked rest. That’s for another article 😉
In those days I enjoyed the luxury of being able to manage my time, without the responsibility of having a family or being an employer. The majority of my coachees have a family or relationship and responsibilities towards work and society. That’s why I go through a typical week with an athlete during an intake for Personal Coaching. Just like Peter Vergouwen did with me. We discuss when there is room for which training and whether the week offers an opportunity for consistency. If not, it’s either adjusting the goals or rearranging priorities. Sometimes it is necessary to sit together with the family or with your organization to jointly create the space to for your training. That can involve making hard choices and erasing things from your current weekly program. Consistency therefore has its consequences.
Consequences of consistency
My standard question during an intake is what training and racing may cost. The funny thing is that most take that question in the financial realm. For this reason, I’ve added more specification: relationship / family, work, social and time. If you’re in a relationship, discuss your training blocks and the moments your family can count on you. This way you have clarity on both sides. You can also do this with your work. I know triathletes who choose to work extra shifts in the winter, so they can work less in the summer. You may give up income and perhaps career opportunities for your sporting ambition, but you will not become that mom or dad who is only working or training.
Five tips to become consistent
Block dedicated time slots for your trainings
Blocking time slots for training in your calendar is a simple, effective way to make sure your workouts happen. Yes, it can be difficult to allow yourself those kinds of sacred moments – sacred means: set apart – but it works. In the professional cycling years of Michael Boogert, he got on his bike at dedicated times. Whether the heavens where pouring with rained or not: he got on his bike to do his training. Otherwise, he’d be waiting all day for that magical ‘right’ moment. Which never came.
Make yourself accountable
Simply make yourself accountable, for instance to your wife or husband or to a close friend. Your coach can also have that role. I prefer to leave this to the athlete, but it sometimes happens that an athlete has to text me for a while if the training for the day is not done. Such an agreement between coach and coachee always has an end point in my coaching practice. Ultimately, it’s up to the athlete to muster the training discipline, but helping someone to get into the rhythm can help.
Meet up with others for your workouts
In the introduction I mentioned that I used to meet up with my brother Ard for those very early Monday morning swim training sessions. I’ll get you out of bed, and vice versa when I am the one not getting vertical in the middle of the night. Club trainings or meeting up with training mates can help you enormously to go out at prearranged times. Training together can be great fun, but it also carries the risk that the training is too fast for some and too slow for others: the well-known club member who always keeps his front wheel half a wheel in front of yours. That is not for this article, but it is good to realize. Train, don’t race.
Keep track of key numbers
Track a few key numbers that will help you track and trace your progress. Then you also do something relevant with the data you log on your Garmin, Suunto or Wahoo. Like your Efficiency Factor. The formula for running is: number of meters per minute / average heart rate. For example: 12km/h = 12000/60 = 200 meters per minute / HF 150 = 1.33. The calculation for cycling: Normalized Power / average heart rate. For example: 180 watts NP / HF 120 = 1.50.
If you compare similar training sessions with each other, you can see whether you become more efficient. And that motivates. Assuming that the numbers move in the right direction 😉 The more consistent you are, the higher the chance your values improve. Consistency is the champion’s secret.
It’s fun to set process goals. It can be as simple as training the three disciplines twice a week for two months. Or bike an average of 200 kilometers a week for three months. It’s not difficult to set goals. You can then give yourself an exercise test as a gift, or spend a day relaxing in the sauna.
Types of consistency
Consistency is regularity in training rhythm, and more. In this part of we discuss three types of consistency.
Consistency in training rhythm
The first type of consistency is the weekly training rhythm. It depends on one’s background (swimmer, cyclist, or new to endurance sport) what the basic rhythm looks like. My rule of thumb – which, I admit, can be debated: for finishing a sprint or Olympic distance triathlon three to five workouts per week (three to six hours) throughout the year, increasing to ten to twelve sessions in peak weeks for someone who wants to qualify for Kona (fifteen to more than twenty hours a week).
Consistency in training methodology
Consistency in training methodology is the second type. My experience is that beginners, as well as ambitious self-coached triathletes, can tend to use different methodologies at the same time. When they read an article about HIIT training, a High Intensity Interval Training is included in the program with great enthusiasm a few times a week. In ‘How do I find the right triathlon coach’ you can read about the importance of choosing a coach with a clear, systematic and appropriate training method.
The third type is consistency over the years, both in training rhythm and training methodology. In the early 1990s – it was in the early years of my triathlon career – I read about the Maffetone method. He had helped Mark Allen to win Kona six times. The principle was to train the aerobic system exclusively for a few months in the base period, to maintain it during the competition period and to keep developing that system year after year. (Nowadays, thinking about this has become more nuanced, but that is outside the scope). The bottom line is that the lion’s share – around 90% of workouts – is done aerobically and that you should know why, how hard and when you’ are doing your high intensity sessions.
Mark Allen’s aerobic threshold heart rate was 150. He did not exceed this heart rate during the winter period. I started applying that too, regularly doing my version of the Mark Allen protocol of an 8km endurance run on my aerobic threshold to see my progress. When I was 18 I ran 4.24/km at a heart rate of 150. At 25 it was 3.49/km and at 38 I scored my best-ever: 3.39/km. That’s a progression of 17%. Mark Allen went from 4:05 to 3:19/km in ten years, a 19% gain.
What does consistency bring you?
Consistency throughout the year ensures that you are fit and well prepared at the start of your races, provided that no crazy things happen of course. Your body and, most importantly, your mind are ready. I always found it reassuring to know that I had completed my training regimen of 12 weekly workouts, be it summer or winter. I knew I was ready to race, improvise and deal with the surprises triathlons can throw at you. In the words of Brett Sutton: Amateurs train until they get it right. Pro’s train until they can’t get it wrong.
Consistency over the years can lead one to unprecedented achievements. I already showed you can become 15-20% more efficient at your aerobic threshold in a multi-year trajectory. Alain Couzens, an American exercise physiologist coach, even dares to say that any healthy triathlete who trains consistently long enough should be able to qualify for Kona.
Like Maffetone, he stresses the importance of a high VO2Max – your maximum oxygen absorption capacity. That is the main energy system for endurance sports. If you wear a smartwatch, you will see an indication of your VO2Max. That will be somewhere between 40 and 60 for most. Elite triathletes have a VO2Max between 75 and 85 ml/kg/minute; women are about 10 units below that. The rule of thumb for Kona qualification is a VO2Max over 55 for women and over 65 for men.
How much can I improve?
The Big Question is: how feasible are those values for you? The prevailing view is that your VO2Max is mainly genetically determined and can only be trained to a limited extent. Standard textbooks assume a progression of five to maximum fifteen percent. In other words: if you were born for a dime, you can never become a quarter. The study of Jack Daniels (1978) is the classic reference in this field. This study followed relatively untrained athletes over an eight-week period. However, that is very different from years of consistent training. Couzens examined a group of athletes who trained consistently for three years and saw an average increase in their VO2Maxx of 24%, with peaks of up to 40%. This shows that your talent (fortunately!) is not everything. That offers hope for people who are willing to train consistently. Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book Outliers: the story of success that it takes 10,000 hours of dedication to become excellent in an area. That means almost 3 hours of daily training work for ten years. Consistency is the champion’s secret.
Whether I finally achieved my goal to get 90 seconds faster on the kilometer? Yes, I did. And it didn’t stop there. My swim kilometer times have developed over a period of fifteen years from around 17 minutes to a ‘high 12’. Not because I had so much talent, but mainly because year after year, summer and winter, I was in the pool three to four times a week.