"Another brick in the wall" - it's one of the unique phrases that seemed applicable after all of my training sessions, because both the good and bad workouts contributed in some way to ‘the greater good’.
During the latter stages of my endurance career, I stopped to reflect on what the analogy of placing another brick in a wall actually means and why I have come to use it with the athletes I now coach...
Another brick in the wall
Building a brick wall is by its very nature a step-by-step process. If we fail to place a brick in its rightful place, there remains a cap and the subsequent bricks can't be placed. Once all of the bricks are correctly in place, we’re left with a strong, robust structure that’s much better prepared to withstand loads.
Training for an event, much like building a brick wall, is about regularly putting singular sessions together in a deliberate order to build a body that’s prepared to withstand loads, stresses and fatigue. Critically, we cannot skip the lower level/base sessions and expect to be able to put the higher-level sessions ‘on top’ when there’s nothing supporting them from below.
In the same way we observe that ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, we need to recognise that every training block towards a goal event demands a certain timeline. Building a wall ‘brick by brick’ creates a tangible visual of how training sessions, strung together regularly over weeks and months, eventually produce a finished product, or in this case a ‘fitness profile’, that’s adequately prepared for the task at hand.
The key to building as much fitness as possible is consistency. Consistency is achieved by being diligent about training, but not greedy. We want to keep stacking bricks one by one, but avoid the temptation of trying to stack them two or three at a time. It’s when we try to be heroic on one training day (by training a lot harder or longer relative to your recent training history) that we risk a major compromise on the consistency front.
Ultimately, going too hard or too long will compromise training consistency as we’ll likely lose days to extra recovery requirements or worse: risk injury and illness. One good training session doesn’t define our fitness and ability, but weeks upon weeks of sessions do.
Equally, this adds perspective to the bad training sessions where you perform below expectations or pull the pin earlier than planned. These sessions will inevitably come and go as part of the process of asking the body to continue to be better and improve throughout a training block, but it’s important you don’t allow them to define your overall level of progress. Fueling well with considered approaches to nutrition and sleep will go a long way to supporting the consistency of training and help minimise the bad sessions along the way.
So, what happens when sessions are missed?
This is real life after all - injuries, illness, work and family commitments compromise the process of building fitness from one session to the next. We'll inevitably miss sessions and the bricks won't be placed in the position or date originally planned.
If time, injury or illness prevent you doing a planned 20km long run this week, then my advice is to target the same session when circumstances next allow, rather than simply aiming for the next long run equivalent that was part of the original plan.
If you missed your 20km run when the previous long run was 16km, then decided to jump straight to the 24km, you’ll be playing Russian roulette with your body and its ability to maintain consistency. Our body’s ability to improve and adapt relies on the stimulus that comes before the next. A runner with a few 60km weeks under their belt will absorb a 70km week much better than one who's averaged 30-40km in the weeks prior.
As a coach, an example where the brick wall analogy can be a powerful informer is in the off-season and base training phases, when goal events are usually still a long way off (perhaps in around 12-20 weeks' time). When an athlete lacks motivation or even an understanding of the importance of the regular run sessions that aren’t all that exciting on paper (i.e. not far or fast, but usually rather frequent), they’ll commonly slip into a habit of missing singular sessions, thinking they somehow hold less importance and they’ll save themselves for the key sessions in the build phase that look much sexier on Strava (i.e. longer and faster).
Referencing the fact their brick wall is lacking in height and looking rather patchy with missing bricks in various spots, the athlete will probably be quick to realise the importance of the sessions that happen long before race day.
If we have a plan to swim, bike and run for 12-15 hours in the key race build, but the planned 6-10 hours in the base phase turned into 4-6 hours, we’re then having to recalibrate the loads the athlete’s body is capable of absorbing. We simply can't stack bricks in place when the ones they belong on top of are missing. We’d be putting excessive load through unstable foundations.
Preparing for race day
Training for an event is really about making race day feel as familiar to the body as possible.
The reason most of us need months to prepare for endurance events is because our body is incredibly intuitive. If we only ran once a week, we’d wake up tired and sore the next day, but by the time we ran again a week later our body will have decided ‘running is something I only need to do weekly and I’m better to put my energy and resources (adaptations) into other functions that are requested more often.’
This is also why regular and consistent training is so powerful because it plays to the intuitive and adaptable nature of our physiology. To run well on race day, we need strong and resilient muscles, powerful heart and lungs, efficient technique and mechanics, and a mindset capable of executing on the day. These are all qualities that are achieved with regular, consistent run stimulus over time. Day-by-day, brick-by-brick.
So, keep going out and ticking off the sessions and in the process remember to consider yourself a bricklayer. Every session at each stage in the training season is another brick in the wall, each important in its own way and each contributing to the overall goal that you set yourself.
If you miss a brick or two, that’s OK, but remember to make sure you don’t miss too many for too long or you’ll risk compromising the integrity of the wall. Be sensible with training loads and give yourself enough lead-in by working to a realistic training timeline. Fuel well with adequate nutrition and hydration and aim to get a good night’s sleep.
Consistency in training builds the best chance of a successful race day performance.