On Improving. And how to be great.
“I dove into work showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident-a dangerous combination.”
Somewhat of a late revelation, my training shifted from hyper-specialised to a more general approach this year. I coach myself, write my own programme and carry it out with one close friend. We train hard; high-intensity track sessions with short recoveries. I discovered training to failure, and adopting a more general approach to exercise yielded the best results.
I had always heard of bodybuilders – the legendary Dorian Yates – training until failure, as it’s at this point, under great fatigue, that your body adapts. And it mirrors life in this way: as children we are encouraged to try new things and to fail at them, getting better by learning from errors.
You hit your head. You break a glass.
At first a wonderfully chaotic, amoral animal.
Asking your mother a question, making mistakes, and slowly colouring in the cracks of the
world around you. Learning about nation-states, black holes and Pythagoras’ theorem.
You learn about boredom and pain, and the blurry concepts of good and bad.
You learn responsibility.
You learn that, despite seeming giants of perfection, orbiting around the safe glow of sensible adulthood, your parents also make mistakes. Mind-blowing. Amidst all the car keys and meetings and 6pm news and black coffee, your parents too are children to their own parents. A cyclitic realisation repeating an evolutionary echo of fucking-up.
As we grow older, our independence and choice become bittersweet. We quit courses, leave jobs and end relationships. We start new careers and make new friends. Trying new things wars against the fear of getting it wrong.
I stumbled through my twenties with no clue what I was doing. But this decade brought with it the flush of excitement and a joyful rush of youth. It also brought with it knowledge from all the mistakes I had previously made, from youth to neo-adolescence to adulthood. And two things I gathered, whether it was learning Italian in my spare time, or improving as an elite athlete, were that you need to keep going until failure if you want to improve at anything, and you need to try new things.
When my mother passed last year, I began training as a focus – a fitness goal – and a form of escapism. I ran until I couldn’t run anymore, and felt a new ability to push further and longer in to the dark place. I failed at sessions for two months before seeing a noticeable progression. I improved my times, got sick less during sessions and began to lead-out running reps against the machine that is my training partner.
Then it was the 22nd of March, my birthday, and I had a great workout.
5x 200m (3mins recovery)
Track sessions I had only half-completed in January were now becoming impressive, and easier. My body had learnt from its own failings. I was as strong as I had ever been, and healthy, and had no excuse to avoid a return to elite level competition.
And when the day finally arrived, I ran faster than I ever had, only eight months after deciding I was going to quit. What started as a form of escapism culminated in my best form of fourteen years.
Just as we learn from moral or academic failures, unavoidable in a life of stumbling error, our body learns from the stress we put it through, and gets better. For a long time, I trained in a comfort-zone, continuing to do things I had always done, without pushing myself past my threshold. I listened to coaches, who were much wiser than me on the topic of training regimes. And I took lengthy recovery, ran at the correct effort-percentage for each session, and I saw the same results I had always produced.
It took perspective, experience and a blind faith to try something new. I learnt that text-book training methods, hyper-specialised and confirmed by science, were less effective than a broader, general approach. Plyometrics, gym work, ‘wickets’ and acceleration-development were my Holy Grail, yet when I stopped doing these things altogether, I ran faster. I substituted these with a wider range of training methods – from 5km to park runs to a weekly yoga class – and then honed in on high intensity, low recovery track repetitions. I found this generalised, non-functional method, where I failed again and again in training, to be a more effective approach to progression.
“Many experts never admitted systematic flaws in their judgement, even in the face of results.”
Top experts in any field can profit from broader knowledge and a more generalised approach. In my own sport, I see talented juniors go in to ‘elite’ set ups and regress.
I’ve seen athletes move from club coaches to a super-group and run worse with the help of bio-mechanists and trackside osteopaths.
I’ve learnt a lot about myself in the last year; about what it is to fail, and how you can use this to learn first-hand life-lessons of growth, experience and resilience. And maybe even more importantly, I’ve learnt how to progress at something, even something you have been pursuing for many years, whilst seeing very slow improvement.
Be willing to consider new ideas.
Learn a new language, read more fiction, take a weekly Pilates class.
Question why you’re doing something.
Try a new warmup, because doing the same warmup everyday is mind-numbingly boring!
“There is a particular kind of thinker who becomes more entrenched in their single big idea even in the face of contrary facts, whose predictions become worse, not better, as they amass information for their mental representation of the world.”
Super-specialisation is an exception, not the rule. Failing a test is the best way to learn, and frequent quitters often end up with the best careers. A wide-ranging, broader approach to whatever you’re trying to progress at will give you new knowledge, a fresh energy, and in my own experience, a better chance to be great.
Words by Antonio Infantino.