“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
(Will Durant, writing about Aristotle.)
When I look back at my best ever sessions, there are a few that stand out fondly in my memory. These stand-out sessions were also often closely followed by some of my best races. There was the 13:41 that I ran for 5km of fartlek (on grass) shortly before my 5k PB of 13:10. There was the 4 x 2k session (9 min cycle on grass) starting in 5:37 and ending with a 5:19, not long before winning the Stanford 10k in 27:37. I could list many more, but you get the idea - that the pattern here seems to be that excellent sessions = excellent races. Please read on, I promise this isn't just me boasting about my best pre-strava training accomplishments.
In the pursuit of excellence then, if I were to try to replicate these race results myself, or coach a younger runner to these times, would I program these exact sessions and make hitting these times the goal? No. Would I write similar sessions and make hitting specific times indicative of this level of fitness the goal? No. Would I be disappointed or anxious when session after session were nowhere near this level? Maybe, but I wouldn't necessarily need to be. Whilst these sessions were excellent, they weren't what produced my best ever races. The pattern is actually this: that consistent application of effort + development and repetition of good habits = excellent fitness, which then allows for excellent sessions and races.
Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
If I look further back from these stand-out sessions and best-ever races, I see weeks, months and years of comparatively mediocre, yet consistent, training. I see as many 'bad' sessions as good. I see hill sessions when I felt flat and just couldn't get going, I see long runs in the rain with a stomach ache, I see back pain, achilles pain, hip pain, sleepless nights and sprained ankles. I see 1km repeats unable to hit 10km race pace even with rest and I see 1km reps straight from hospital after a collision with a bus while on my bike - that was one example when I should have had the day off. The point being that I see far more sessions that (in isolation) indicate that I shouldn’t have been able to run the times I have than specific sessions indicating that I should. The important thing though is that I see that I kept showing up, I kept up that consistent application of effort and I developed good habits that made this consistency possible. I also had fun and met some great people along the way to share the journey with.
What I realised (after plenty of mistakes) as an athlete, and now repeatedly try to pass on as a coach with Run Crew, is that we should focus on the process rather than the end result. This applies to a session, a day, a week, a month etc. Rather than stressing about the planned times for your reps, focus on the process of showing up, warming up, drills, strides, and how you should best apply your effort over the session. Do this well and the times will be what they need to be for that day. Another session in the bank. Rather than stressing over your mileage for the week, focus on ticking off each day at the appropriate effort for where you are at in your program - at the end of a decent week of training, your mileage will be what it needed to be. Another week in the bank.
It can be overwhelming to look at the distance between where you are and where you want to be, but if you put the right processes in place and start chipping away, turning days into weeks, weeks into months and months into years - it is honestly amazing how much the body can adapt. You'll achieve this through many tiny victories rather than one almighty effort.
So what is this magical 'process' that we should focus on, what are these 'habits' that will lead to excellence? These can be slightly different for everyone, but at the core it's about building a week that is not only going to be good from a physiological perspective, but one that (in general structure) you'll be able to sustainably repeat week after week, and one that you'll hopefully enjoy. It's about making good choices rather than bad when presented with options that will affect your running - nutrition, training, lifestyle, rest, races, sleep etc. These choices and acts will build momentum, and momentum is a runner's best friend.
Remember that improvement is not a perfect linear progression from where you were to where you need to be. There will be setbacks, bad weeks, great weeks and blah weeks - but don't give up. Keep showing up and the good sessions and excellent fitness will come to you, rather than you having to constantly chase them. If you've got a competent coach, a good personalised program and you've applied yourself well, then this should happen on race day and everyone will be happy! If not, there's always another race - just keep showing up.