For a long time I have been an a believer in the value of training consistency. The philosophy being that regular consistent training will get you the results you are after. As we moved into 2011, I realised I had actually been putting this into practice with my own training and had run every day for 10 months and averaged over 9 runs per week.
This was probably the most consistent block of training I had undertaken over the years and it was a good test of this consistency theory. My 2010 goal was to break 35min for 10km. I had previously run ~35:15 twice, but I had never managed to break that elusive barrier. So how did performance during this period compare to other years?
I had some ok races, enough to keep me happy but no PB and in same cases I was actually further than I should have been off my PB. So this got me thinking, how did I achieve those previous PBs? Well it wasn't consistency. My 10km PB came after only training for ~8 months, following several months of no running due to injury.
How can I be running slower now than I did with only 8 months of training under my belt? To answer this, I think we have to look away from the consistency theory. To get that extra few percent improvement, it isn't a matter of just being out there consistently, the key is to be able to really overload the body, test it, try and push it to the limit.
This is a slightly higher risk approach as if you really push yourself, the risk of injury is much greater and you are not going to be running PBs when injured. However, if you don't try, you will plateau and be able to get to that next level. I would call this approach the overload theory. If you are aiming for shorter events, it measures focussing on hard sessions that push you to the limit on a regular basis. For the longer distance athlete, the focus is on volume and tempo based intensity work.
The next question is then, can you have both consistentcy and overload? Well possibly, but when you overload yourself, you also need to allow more recovery as without this recovery you won't be able to maximise the next overload period very well. Therefore, just as you have to have those periods of pushing yourself to the limit, you also need those periods of easing things back and letting the body repair and recovery in preparation for the next overload period.
So what can we take away of this information? There is no doubt that training consistency is crucial; without it you will not get results. However, consistency alone will not help you reach those PBs. Look at the graph below. If both lines are a measure of an athlete's training load, the average in each is the same, but the way in which the load is constructed is completely different. The blue line shows a consistent training approach, similar week in and week out, while the red line shows an overload and recovery approach. The red line is what will get you the results.
In saying this, it is important to consider the training background of the athlete in mind. To use my example from above, I have been running for 18 years, so the consistency theory has maybe done it's dash with me. It is perhaps better placed to assist those with a younger training age or regular injury concerns. I have no doubt that endurance athletes who have been doing their sport for less than 2 years will benefit more from consistent training than the overload approach. This just goes to show that your training approach needs to be individualised: horses for courses!