ConsistencyConsistency is the mother of mastery, and if I knew who was responsible for this nugget of wisdom, I’d give due credit. Or maybe it’s simply an observation put forth in its simplest terms. In any case, it’s as germane to the technical aspects of cycling as the non-technical, comparatively straightforward fitness gains we strive for when we train day after day, week after week, season after season.

But it’s often our consistency to blame for fitness plateaus, injuries, and temporary or even long-term declines in power output (which depend on just how far, and how obstinately, we push our ourselves) in the quest for improved capabilities & peak fitness. This is something easily avoided when we listen to our bodies’ signals, and it’s also something addressed in greater detail in an earlier post on training responsively. In this post, however, I’d rather focus on the benefits of proper consistency – being on the mark, as often as possible – as well as some of the pitfalls we encounter even though our intentions are sound. As I see it, consistency can be good, it can be bad, and in some cases it becomes downright ugly.

Nutshell:

  • Consistent practice yields improvement regardless of the skill or sought-after adaptation. 
  • But there’s a significant difference between consistency and proper consistency.
  • Practicing proper consistency during your efforts – in racing and training – can be the difference between fair results and your best results.
  • Really make your interval workouts count by treating each interval as though it were the only interval in the workout – strive for near perfection.
  • Form work for the sake of form work is pointless – perform form drills exceptionally well or modify them such that you can.
  • GIGO – Garbage In/Garbage Out dictates that improper training yields less than optimal results and can lead to poor habits & even injury.
  • Muscle memory can just as easily acquire bad ‘memories’ as good ones – memorize proper movement patterns & work ethics.

You don’t need me to tell you that practice yields improvement. Do 100 pushups every day and you’re bound to not only get a little stronger, but you’ll get better at performing pushups. If you practice playing guitar every day, your fingers will become more adept at fretting chords and picking strings. Even typing improves relative to the amount of time you spend tapping away at your keyboard on a consistent basis.

So it’s not exactly a miracle to see a rider who ‘rides lots‘ become a better rider due to little more than rote repetition (italics are used to acknowledge that the type of improvement that comes with high mileage is limited & closely dependent on the intensity of this mileage, so ‘better’ is a pretty subjective word). But repetition alone won’t optimize improvement – not in your level of efficiency, not in your level of fitness, and not in your all-important performance. Reaping measurable, significant performance gains is not merely a matter of consistency but more a matter of the quality of consistency.

Take the pushups for example. If every half hour you were to bang out 5 sloppy pushups where you snaked your body off the floor, head jutting forward, elbows coming nowhere near locking out at the end of their full range of motion while your friend maintained a plank straight body, elbows in tight, lightly grazing the ground with his chest and quickly pressing upward, fully extending his arms in steady sets of 20 pushups every 5 minutes, would you expect the same level of improvement as him? Even if you both did an equal number of pushups, it’s still pretty clear who’s going to get fitter and who’s wasting time & effort.

In much the same way, simply surviving intervals will not make you as fit as if you sought to perfect how well you performed each of your intervals. How did Vince Lombardi put it? Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. And while perfection isn’t the objective here, the idea is the same. We can’t expect optimal results from less than optimal performance, and that goes for training as much as it goes for racing.

In the case of intervals, our goals ought to center around performing the best possible version of each interval, every single time – intervals that closely hug our target watts, intervals that don’t fade at 1min 50sec even though we’re shooting for 2-minute repeats, intervals where our bodies mimic the hard-working yet relaxed posture we want to emulate on the road. When any of these qualities or abilities degrade, we know it’s time to either make some minor workout modifications or wrap things up for the day. But regardless, when we strive to maximize the quality of our workouts, we all but guarantee ourselves better performances when it really matters.

In the same vein, consider efficiency drills. It’s not realistic to expect optimal technique improvements by repeating 5-minute intervals at 120rpm if you spend the latter 3 minutes of each interval bouncing around on the saddle. Rather, you’d derive far greater benefit and would have spent your time inarguably more productively by slowing things down to 115 or 110rpm or perhaps reducing the interval duration to 2 minutes and performing more of them. In both cases, there’s nothing to keep you from eventually reaching 5 minutes at 120, smooth revolutions per minute if you go about it the right way, i.e. consistently applying high quality, proper form.

This all comes back to the idea of GIGO (Garbage In-Garbage Out) which gives us a pithy little term to describe the process of building poor habits, ones that can haunt us for years, maybe even the rest of our lives. Building proper habits isn’t just good idea, it’s a necessity that can not only further your capabilities but also prevent injury. And you’ve undoubtedly heard the term ‘muscle memory’. Well it’s this ingrained memory that’s responsible for the difference between the elegance and grace of a grand tour rider and the convulsive spin-bike wrestling you can witness in any indoor cycling class taking place at this very moment.

What’s even more interesting about muscle memory is that, to some extent, it can be learned through observation. Simply watching a grand tour rider sail up Alpe d’Huez can make us better climbers! But I’m getting away from the point I’m trying to convey which is how very important the quality of our consistency truly is. It’s not enough to do something often. What really makes our (limited, in most cases) training time all the more effective is the standards to which we hold ourselves when training consistently. Don’t just “ride lots”; instead, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to dedicate hours upon hours to riding, ride lots really well. And if time is in short supply, pursue near-perfection in riding form & workout quality, do it consistently, and you’ll soon gain an understanding of how this simple combination can bring surprisingly high levels of improvement.

So from this point forward, try to stop seeing consistency as a key to improvement all on its own and start recognizing that it’s only part of the equation that brings us closer to optimal fitness and dramatically improved performance. Consistency is vital, no doubt about that, but without proper habits, ever-improving techniques, and high quality, our consistency can only take our performance so far.



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Chad Timmerman

Chad Timmerman is the Head Coach and Co-Founder of TrainerRoad — cycling’s most effective training system. He has nearly 10 years of coaching experience as a Level I USA certified Cycling and Triathlon coach. When he’s not developing structured training plans for TrainerRoad, you can catch him sharing his coaching advice on the Ask a Cycling Coach podcast. To get Chad’s best cycling knowledge delivered to your inbox, sign up for his free 6-part email course Train Smart, Get Fast.

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