Posted On:
Tuesday, October 12, 2021
Updated On:
Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: The Law of Diminishing Returns

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A photo taken in a forest looking up to the sky. The tall trees in the photo show an example of “diminishing perspective.”

Hey hey, it’s Coach Tip Tuesday!

Raise your hand if you’ve been around the block a time or two in endurance sports.  I can say with certainty that a majority of you reading this are not brand-new to it.  You’ve been “in the game” for a bit now; you’ve probably done more than one race, and you may have even trained in more than one discipline (i.e. maybe you started as a runner and then started training for triathlons).

When you started your journey in endurance sports, you more than likely found that you were able to chart “progress” quickly. I say “progress” with quotes around it, because I’m referring to “tangible” progress (i.e. times and data), which is what most people directly correlate with progress. If you’ve been following Coach Tip Tuesday for a bit, you know that I definitely don’t subscribe to the idea that numbers are the only thing that measure progress.

This being said, those numerical gains are important, as they can (and usually do) help motivate someone who is new to exercise to stay the course and maintain consistency.  For the majority of us (i.e. those who do not have genetic superiority or gifts when it comes to athletics and those of us who are setting endurance sports goals are part of a busy life that includes a full-time job, raising families, etc.), we make those numerical gains quickly in the beginning of our endurance sports journey because we are going from a low level of fitness, and any increase in activity (no matter the source) drives gains.

Some examples of this include (but are not limited to): Personal Records (PRs) in most distances or events raced, Functional Threshold Power (FTP) increases, increased efficiency and economy of movement, body composition changes (to include weight loss), increases in flexibility, the ability to lift heavier weights, etc.

However, as we spend more time training and pursuing goals, we often find that we are not having the radical “success” and “progress” that we did early on. I’ll share a personal example with you: The first five times I repeated racing the Dunn Tire Mountain Goat Run, I set a personal record. For five consecutive races, I was able to run those 10 miles faster than I ever had before. How did this happen? Put simply: When I first ran the Dunn Tire Mountain Goat Run, I was brand-new to running. As such, my finish time was relatively slow that first year. As a result, I had a lot of room for growth.

Over the next five years, training became and remained a consistent part of my life, and that consistency led to fitness gains that progressively dropped my running paces.  However, by the time I was running my sixth Dunn Tire Mountain Goat Run, there wasn’t as much room to “go”.  My finish time in that sixth race was a full 37 minutes faster than my first, representing a 31% overall time gain.  I knew then that that year was likely going to be my last in my streak of consecutive PRs.  (Spoiler: I was right; I did not PR the race the seventh time I ran it. :) )

Some might say I was being down on myself, but truly, it was just me being realistic.  I was acknowledging that The Law of Diminishing Returns was coming into play, and it’s this that I want to share with all of you this week.

Visual example of The Law of Diminishing Returns (Source: Wikipedia)

While The Law of Diminishing Returns usually is used in finance, it’s very applicable in endurance sports. Put simply, The Law of Diminishing Returns states there is a point on a production curve where additional output will result in loss. Applied to endurance sports, this means that we will not always be able to progressively chart numerical progress, even if our energy expenditure (training) is the same.

The longer we stay in endurance sports, the harder it is for us to make progressive gains.  Once we’ve been consistently in the game for a bit, any gains we do make are smaller and are extremely hard-earned.  We see this all the time with professional athletes; Eliud Kipchoge is a good example.  He holds the world record in the marathon, which he set in his 11th marathon.  But his results in those first ten races were not progressively faster; they varied.  And since setting that world record in 2018, he has run anywhere from one to seven minutes slower than his best in subsequent races.

Does the fact that he is currently slower than his best stop Mr. Kipchoge from training?  No, no it doesn’t.  And so, I want to encourage all of you: Understand and embrace that The Law of Diminishing Returns applies to you, too, and that it is very okay.  Just because we cannot expect numerical progress in every race or workout we do shouldn’t stop us from reaping all of the other benefits that exercise, training, and racing give us.  

If we DO want to see numerical gains once we reach this stage of our endurance sports “careers,” then it is important that we understand exactly what it will take to make those gains.  Specificity will become critical.  Changes will need to be made in training and variables of training will need to be tweaked; perhaps the type of workout needs to change, perhaps different intensities are what is needed, or maybe some “extras” need to be layered in (such as strength training, nutritional changes, or increased sleep).  At this stage, “shortcuts” don’t work anymore, and all of the various elements that impact training become important (i.e. strength training cannot be skipped for athletes seeking higher levels of performance, but one can usually get away without it early on in their training).

No, you’re not immune to The Law of Diminishing Returns. None of us is. There will come a day (perhaps it is already here for you) when you will be faced with a choice: change how you train to facilitate gains that will be smaller and harder to earn than the ones that came before them or keep things the same and embrace that you may or may not see further numerical progress. But know this: if you can accept that you are much more than the time that appears on a finish line clock, that will really help you find joy in sport, it’s that joy (not your time-based gains) that will fuel your fire and keep you ticking off the miles over the long haul. :)

About

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 laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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