Posted On:
Tuesday, October 26, 2021
Updated On:
Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: Don't Overlook Subtractive Changes

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A close-up of two calculators, one blue and one pink.

Just like that, it’s time for Coach Tip Tuesday again!

When you identify the need to change something in your life, no matter what the something is - personal, professional, athletic, etc. - how do you go about deciding how you’ll execute that change?

This may seem like an odd question, but I encourage you to really think about it.  When you seek to change something in your life, what specifically do you usually do?

Humans are biased toward solutions that involve adding to, not taking away from.  In short, this means that we will usually seek to add something to our lives or to a situation to change or solve a problem.  We usually don’t inherently seek out subtractive changes; in fact, we tend to systematically overlook them.

In endurance sports, I see this manifest all the time in various ways.  For example, when an athlete wants to make an improvement in a specific area, they usually think that they need to add more to their training schedule.  (What an athlete sees as “more” can manifest in a few different ways - the athlete might mean more mileage, more training sessions, more intensity, etc.)  When an athlete wants to set a new goal - perhaps to start running to train for their first triathlon - they do usually think about what it will take training-wise to reach the goal, but they often think about what they will need to add to their life schedule, not what might need to come off of their life schedule to make time and space for their new goal.

I’ve written about this concept in other ways, most notably in how we should aim to layer in versus layer on. But this week, I want to encourage you all to take this one step further by actively seeking out the subtractive changes you can make in your lives to help you get where you want to go.

Time is a zero-based budget. As much as a frenzied life pace is celebrated in our current culture, none of us is exempt from this fact that we only have a finite number of minutes to work with in a given day. As such, we need to be mindful about how we spend those minutes if we want to cultivate a sense of contentedness (rather than frustration that we’re unable to get in everything that we want to).

I have talked to a lot of athletes over the years about the idea of “budgeting backwards”, a method of prioritizing the things that are most important to you.  Write these things down, and then budget your time based off of that list, with the highest priority items getting scheduled first.  When you run out of time in your schedule, you’re forced to confront subtractive changes.  Some items will simply not be able to fit into the finite, limited amount of time that is available.  It generally feels much better if we are actively choosing what things will be subtracted, rather than succumbing to life deciding for us when we try to cram too much in.

I deploy a version of this method when I am working with athletes.  I am not the one who is ultimately budgeting their time in their daily schedules, but I am the one who is seeking to make the best recommendation of how we can get from Point A (where we currently are) to Point B (where the athlete says that they want to go).  Thus, I work with the athlete, making suggestions of how we can accomplish this.  Many times, I advocate for subtracting something so we can add something else in.  These suggestions are often surprising to athletes, as what I recommend might not be what they think “needs” to happen at first glance.

For instance, someone who wants to improve their running might actually benefit from scaling back their running training and volume in favor of strength and mobility work.  Athletes who want to improve their bike handling skills would likely benefit from subtracting some time from the “sexy” part of the workout (the Main Sets or parts of the workout that are fun to post about on social media) to include some specific drill work.  Someone who wants to become a stronger swimmer might benefit from subtracting out some cycling or running training to be able to spend more time at the pool.

When we do something in endurance sports (and in life, really), we should be aiming to do so mindfully, thoughtfully, and with our full presence.  Often, layering on or cramming things in results in exactly the opposite; we’re so stressed about what we have to get to next or the limited time we have that we are mentally distracted during the workout and do not reap the full benefit.  By seeking out subtractive changes, we can increase our chances of being fully present in all that we do, which thereby increases the quality (and end result) of all that we do.

Don’t overlook or devalue subtractive changes. Truly, they can lead you down the exact path to help you get where you ultimately want to go.


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.

She can be reached at

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