6 Jul

Practice Makes Perfect?

Running GoalsThe old adage: 'Practice makes perfect', has always been regarded as highly relevant in mastering the skills of running but not according to runABC writer, coach, runner and self-confessed pedant, Alan Newman, who believes it is only perfect practice that makes perfect.

Certainly, in endurance running there has to be volume but a recent study in USA contests the ‘rule’ that with 10,000 hours of practice anyone can reach a high or elite level in sport. Sometimes less is more.

Most coaches accept there are both physical and psychological factors at play in learning and applying any new skill. Running is no different and there is much more to the activity than just getting out there and doing it. In psychology, the four stages of competency learning model can demonstrate how we can progress from incompetence to competence in any skill…

Unconscious Incompetence
At this lowest threshold of the learning model we simply don’t know what we don’t know. We are like a sponge, ready to absorb knowledge and keen to try new things. We need guidance to keep us safe and in running terms we are a beginner with bags of enthusiasm but no idea how to gain any benefit from our training. Coaches, run leaders and experienced runners have a responsibility to support us, so that our first run is also not our last.

Conscious Incompetence
After a few solo runs or appearances at our local Couch to 5k group we are just beginning to discover how much we don’t know about running. We are starting to appreciate the gulf between our own ability and that of the ‘experts’. We start to accept that it is OK to make the odd mistake and this only helps strengthen our resolve to master this new skill. Typical errors we observe at this level are poor clothing choice leading to chafing or temperature regulation issues and badly timed nutrition resulting in a stitch or rather worse stomach problems.

Conscious Competence
Now we are making real progress and can manage our training quite well as long as we concentrate. We still need some encouragement and guidance but we are beginning to make our own, well informed choices regarding footwear, training routes, use of technology and frequency and intensity of training. We may have decided to join a local club to help us realise our goals and we are probably setting realistic and achievable targets for the future. We are almost certainly keeping some form of running log and learning from the practice of reviewing sessions and race experiences.

Unconscious Competence
We have finally arrived at our running zenith in terms of mastering the basic skill. We know what to do and how to do it so well that it is an automatic activity. We are well organised, our training programme is an integral part of daily life, we have established the running habit and we may even be able to pass on some of our knowledge to others. Now all we need is that perfect practice, the fine tuning, to reach our optimal level, whatever that may be. However, it is just when we think we know it all that disaster often strikes. At this level we are most likely to take risks, over train, try an activity we are not sufficiently prepared for or skip recovery time – all of which can lead to injury and at least one step back in the learning model.

Never fear, we have all been there and any setbacks can be used positively as we start the cycle all over again. Remember, only a fool repeats a mistake that hurts!

Alan Newman is a UK Athletics Level 3 Performance Coach.