The Capacity Workout: When Failure Isn’t

The Capacity Workout: When Failure Isn’t

As an athlete, you know you dread it: Deep into a training cycle a workout shows up in your plan that you fear you’re probably not going to finish. And you don’t finish. You’ll annotate the file or note in your email something to the effect of “I failed. Blew up. Terrible workout.”

But was it really a failure?

The underlying principle of physical “training” is overload/recovery/progression. Go really hard, rest, repeat, and you’ll be able to go harder down the road. The overload part is crucial. For some workouts you need to hit maximum capacity in order to get the full benefit. The key word here is capacity: the maximum something can contain or produce.

Enter the Buddhist concept of the brain being a mad monkey:

The monkey likes things to be easy. It wants to crush every workout and walk away laughing. The monkey hates reaching capacity. The monkey wants no limitations, no discomfort.   Capacity work makes the monkey angry, and an angry monkey uses negative words like failure (or loser, or weak, or…) to describe what is essentially a perfect workout.

Pressing up against your limit from time to time is an essential part of training. Repeat this three times:

“Capacity can be a perfect workout.”

And the monkey is funny. Put it in the weight room and tell it to do an exercise “to failure” and it embraces “failure” as a positive. Put the monkey on a trainer and have it do intervals and “failure” mostly becomes a negative.

So how do we get the monkey to be okay with capacity workouts?

Let’s start by removing the concept of “going to failure” from our dictionary, and start using capacity workout to describe workouts done until we truly can’t continue. We need to move away from negative language to describe ideal workouts.

Coaches know that capacity for discomfort is a finite resource, so we don’t make those capacity workouts everyday occurrences, and we should give our athletes a heads up when it’s likely a workout will hit capacity. That notice can even produce a better workout, drawing out that last bit of effort.

As athletes, we can embrace capacity workouts, knowing that we are creating a launchpad to greater fitness. There’s a certain satisfaction to hearing the barbell hit the floor at the end of a hard set. We should feel that same satisfaction during intervals when the legs or lungs say, “that’s all we have today.” Many of the best athletes frame it in the context of working harder than their competition. Or it can be as simple as “Wow, I didn’t know I could work that hard.” 

If you actually got to a point where you couldn’t continue in a capacity workout, you did well.  If you find that concept difficult to accept, you can start by uttering three words after any capacity workout:

“Shut up, monkey.” 

Associate Coach Kurt Bickel of Reno, NV works with all levels of road, track and off-road riders. Learn more about him>>>