How Athletes Can Harness The Power of Repetition

Ten miles on Tuesday, workout on Wednesday, 10 miles on Thursday, easy Fridays, long runs on Saturday and Sunday. While it varies, this has generally been my training schedule throughout my ultra career.

Consistency is one of the most useful tools an athlete has. The world’s top athletes thrive on repetition. They practice their routines a million times over while training, especially before big competitions. They wake up at the same time, eat the same breakfast and run the same route or workout that has been there for them day in and day out. Not every day is the same but training plans of elite athletes tend to follow a pattern.

I believe in a weekly structure. Within that structure, workouts can vary based on where an athlete is in their training cycle and how they’re responding to training.

In his book Run, Matt Fitzgerald shows how Olympic Gold Medalist Constantina Dita-Tomescu thrives on repetition.

“Dita-Tomescu’s marathon training is based on a one-week block of workouts that has remained constant for years, with only slight variations for the season and distance from a goal race,” Fitzgerald writes. “Not only are the distances and intensity of each day consistent, but also the location, even the course.”

Repeating specific training sets over time benefits athletes in several ways. They develop an intuitive understanding of their body, more efficiently track their performance and are more likely to stick to their routine.

There can be too much repetition, of course. If I did the same workouts every day with no variation after an initial adaptation period, I’d stop improving. Repeating essential exercises throughout training allows for apples-to-apples comparisons of performance. It encourages the athlete to compete against himself, trying to best his previous benchmark each time, seeing fitness improvement on even the easiest runs.

David Roche, one of the most sought-after trail running experts, establishes norms in training plans for many of the athletes he coaches.

“There are two main things to think of when it comes to adaptation: stress and rest,” explains Roche. “Each training run stresses the body, with responses being individual, varied, and tough-to-quantify.”

The body adapts to the stress during rest, which avoids breakdown or ineffective training. Staying on a somewhat consistent plan lets athletes make delicate alterations to the stress-rest equation without tipping it too far in either direction.

“Introduce totally new stimuli in totally new orders and it might work, or it might not, and it’s tough to predict which it’ll be,” Roche said. “Often, boring means balance and balance means growth.”

Indeed. In Run, Fitzgerald says that effective training programs give athletes the ability to do more with their everyday resources. Following a training program featuring frequent specific bread-and-butter key workouts can enhance the under-appreciated outcome of training with minimal training risk while also increasing training momentum.

“When moving through training,” adds Roche, “it’s usually better to turn the steering wheel a bit on a training plan than to put it in reverse and go another direction.”