You register for a goal race that sounds really exciting and fun. Due to how race organizers market their races, you may actually have to register for this race a year in advance to secure a spot. Either way, race day is many months away. In your mind, you tell yourself “I have plenty of time to be ready for this race.”
Several months go by, and all of a sudden you realize that race day is not so far away anymore. In fact, it’s less than three months away. Where did that time go? All that time you thought you’d have to prepare now feels like it’s gone (mostly because it is ;) ). PANIC sets in, and you try to make up for lost time. You may try doubling up to make up. You may try to add extra mileage or duration to the sessions that you have planned. You may try to add in extra sessions. ANYTHING to make you feel like you’re going to be successful at reaching your goal and that you didn’t waste your money when you registered. Race day comes, and things don’t go quite like you planned.
Sound familiar? If it does, you have been a Crammer. Yep, you tried to cram for your race. And just like when you tried to cram for a test in school, it is incredibly stressful and it backfires more than it is successful.
As I mentioned in last week’s Coach Tip Tuesday, the month of July always prompts me to reflect on the Peak and Taper Phases of training due to the fact that so many of the athletes who I coach have goal races in this month. This week’s Coach Tip Tuesday is the second in a series of reflections on these phases and how certain things over the course of a full training cycle/plan can significantly impact not only these phases but goals and race day as well. Cramming definitely falls into this category.
Cramming is dangerous. One of the main reasons why is that it carries a very high risk of injury. If you haven’t been consistent in your training and then try to increase volume or intensity too rapidly, injury risk skyrockets. Consistency is key - in so many ways. But one of the biggest things that consistency “buys” is durability and injury resistance. I’ve said it often, but it bears repeating: It’s better to be uninjured and undertrained than it is to be “properly” trained and injured. Anything that increases injury risk should absolutely be avoided in a training plan.
Another reason that cramming is dangerous is that it leads athletes to (incorrectly) convince themselves that they can make up for lost time. As usual, I’ll be extremely blunt and honest with you all: You can never, ever make up for a lack of consistency. Ever. EVER. If you are inconsistent and/or avoid what you actually need to be doing to be successful at your race, you will not be able to recover from that. Yes, you may be able to get by. You may even have a result that is pretty good. But you will not ever reach your true potential if you “yo-yo” - that is fluctuate between periods of being super-serious about training and then other periods where you don’t do much as far as training goes.
The negative effects of cramping do not just apply to the physical side of training. If you haven’t been consistent with the “extras” that are necessary to be successful (which are essential for success regardless of the distance or type of race being targeted), then you have a high risk of having a difficult or unsuccessful race because you didn’t give yourself the necessary time to identify problems and fix them before it is too late.
Additionally, cramming has a negative impact on the mental side of training. It causes a significant amount of stress. Just think about it: When you are rushing to get somewhere on time, do you feel calm and confident? (If you say yes, you’re not being very honest. ;) ) The same is true if you are rushing to prepare for a race (which is what cramming effectively is). You will not feel peace, confidence, or strength by cramming.
Along those lines, once an athlete enters a “cramming timeframe” (which varies, but is usually the window that starts three months out from race day), their attempts to “help” themselves may actually backfire and cause more stress. One common manifestation of this that I see is with the specificity of workouts. No matter what type of training I’m writing - whether it’s a Custom-Built Training Plan, a Pre-Built Training Plan, or a plan for an athlete on Performance Coaching, I write workouts early on that will snowball into the athlete being ready and prepared for the subsequent necessary workouts in their plan, which then further snowballs into them being prepared for the specificity that they will encounter on race day. Their level of preparedness on race day and/or the end of a training cycle is determined by whether or not they are consistent in their execution of those workouts. If they are skipped or altered, that slows and delays the timeline of preparedness because the overall series of workouts needs to be modified or shortened.
Unfortunately, athletes often realize too late that what they could or should have been doing four or more months ago would have led them to being more confident and ready when race day looms near. What you do early on is what ultimately makes you successful at the end o the road. I’ve observed that this is a very, very difficult truth for athletes to acknowledge without actually making this mistake at some point in their own training and seeing for themselves what their lack of work early on snowballed into. Trying to make up for that by doubling down and adding tons of specificity in the cramming timeframe will often be better than doing nothing as far as specificity goes, but it will be a far more stressful timeframe than it needs to be.
Cramming can also be harmful because it just augments the problems in one’s training without adequate time for a full and proper fix or resolution. For example, doing a course preview too close to race day can cause a lot of panic and stress if it is harder than the athlete anticipates (which then makes the athlete realize that they are underprepared). While things like course previews are typically incredibly useful, they can be harmful when there isn’t a sufficient timeline to apply lessons learned in training from the course preview. That added stress prior to race day significantly impacts the lead-in to the race, which impacts how the race itself can and does go.
As of the time of this writing, 43% of the athletes I coach on Performance Coaching have been working with me consecutively for two or more years without any breaks in coaching. I publish race recaps whenever athletes I coach race and as a result of that, readers can see over time which athletes frequently have strong race results. I am often asked “How is so-and-so always so successful?” Almost every time, the answer lies here:
The athletes I coach who are the most successful (whether success is defined by them reaching their own personal goals or achieving “good” results relative to others in their races) do not cram for races. Ever. They consistently train, day-in and day-out. They don’t avoid conditions that challenge them physically or emotionally; they see opportunities where many other people see obstacles. They provide detailed notes and communications on how that training is going. They provide more details than “I felt fine” and always include notes on weather conditions, their nutrition, hydration, execution, and any other relevant happenings during the workout. They work on their weaknesses early on so that they are strengths by the time race day rolls around. They test out gear, nutrition, hydration, and any other relevant tidbits far enough in advance of race day that they have time to correct any issues that arise without it causing them immense amounts of stress. The consistent training paired with consistent quality communication allows us to really dial-in their training, which not only optimizes their physical results, but builds confidence on the mental side of the game.
As you navigate the path to your own personal goals, don’t be a Crammer. Avoid falling into the trap of thinking that you can make up for lost time. You can’t; it is called “lost” time for a reason. ;) The only way to reach your potential and give yourself the highest probability of successfully reaching your goals is to address your weaknesses early on, consistently train the specific and appropriate elements for your goal race, and to acknowledge that the extras (such as logging workout notes, communicating with your coach if you have one, testing nutrition and hydration, etc.) matter a great deal.
Cramming is a crummy strategy. Don’t accept a crummy strategy; seek instead to have a solid strategy that sets you up for success.
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.