Posted On:
Tuesday, May 14, 2024
Updated On:

Coach Tip Tuesday: You Don’t Always Need to Do The Hardest or The Most

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When it’s up to you to decide what to do in a workout, what do you choose in terms of duration, distance, and intensity?  When presented with a workout that has options or ranges for duration, distance, or intensity, do you typically gravitate toward or select the lower end of those ranges or the higher end?

If you’re like a lot of athletes out there, you likely gravitate toward selecting a duration or distance that is on the longer side and/or an intensity that is on the harder side.  I’ve heard variations of the same sentiment time and time again from athletes over the years:  

“I need to work hard.”  

“I want to feel like I’m working hard.”  

What Does “Hard” Mean?

When athletes utilize the word “hard” like this, they don’t necessarily always mean that they need or want to work hard in the traditional sense (meaning intensity-wise), though it is very possible that they do mean high intensity.  However, they might be using the word “hard” to say that they feel that they need to do something long or far; something long or far, even if completed at an easy or moderate intensity very well might meet their definition of “hard.”

When left to their own devices, athletes very often will self-select the longest option, the furthest option, or the highest-intensity option.  (I like to colloquially call these “The Most” and “The Hardest”.)  And this self-selection happens whether athletes are self-coached and having to come up with their own workouts or if they are working with a coach who is giving them ranges in workouts.  

A lot of coaches (including me) will sometimes plan workouts with a range.  For instance, I may say: “ride for 1-2 hours” or “run for 5-8 miles” or “swim at the effort that feels best for you” or “workout for up to 2 hours”.  When I do this, it’s not uncommon at all for athletes to self-select the highest or top end of the range I specificity, whether the range is based on distance, time, or effort.  In fact, I’d say it’s much more uncommon that someone chooses something shorter or lower-intensity when they are presented with options like this.  And to all of you out there who resemble this situation, I have some (perhaps hard to hear) advice for you:

The Hardest and/or The Most is not necessarily The Best.

Don’t Assume The Hardest and The Most is The Best

When I (and probably other coaches, too!) write ranges into workouts for athletes, I am intentionally turning over some of the control and power of the workout and the overall training plan to the athlete.  The athlete gets to self-select their intensity, duration, and/or distance in this scenario; I am not planning the exact parameters down to the minute details.  Instead, I am empowering the athlete to both practice and demonstrate their self-awareness skills and their own abilities to manage their effort and what they are doing.

As mentioned, I observe that athletes almost always do either The Hardest or The Most that the range I planned “allows” for.  These observations are really valuable insights because the reason why I plan ranges and the reason I give some of this control to the athlete is to see and gauge how they manage it.  I observe what choices athletes make in individual workouts and I observe trends over time, over the course of several workouts that are planned and scheduled like this.  Does an athlete show thoughtfulness about what they do?  Do they do something that makes sense for them on that day or in that situation?  Or do they automatically default to doing The Hardest and The Most version of what is planned whenever they have a workout with ranges scheduled?

The Hardest and The Most is NOT necessarily what’s best.  While there are absolutely times when longer durations, further distances, and higher intensities make sense in an athlete’s training plan, going easy, short, or slow is also necessary to help athletes adapt to the training stimulus that is being imposed on them and to make gains over time.  In fact, it’s honestly necessary more frequently than doing The Hardest or The Most is.

Planning workouts with ranges and seeing how athletes navigate them gives me insight into how an athlete will manage and navigate something unexpected that pops up for them in a training workout or a race.  It takes many forms (that’s an understatement), but no matter what form or shape it takes, adversity is a certainty in endurance sports training and racing.  Thus, it’s critical for athletes to be able to successfully navigate and manage it when it does happen.  Giving athletes opportunities to make choices and seeing how they respond to that is one way to gauge how they will respond to adversity; adversity will require them to make choices they might not expect and to leverage the tools they have in their Athlete’s Toolbox.  If I observe that an athlete is always choosing to do The Most and The Hardest when they are presented with options, I know I need to give them a lot more guidance because they are not demonstrating mature self-awareness skills.

Prove Your Ability be Thoughtful and to Exercise Restraint

All too often, athletes feel the need to “prove” themselves by doing The Hardest or The Most, meaning that they think that doing anything less than either The Hardest or The Most is not good or that it will say something negative about them.  But this thinking is flawed.  You are not necessarily proving something positive by doing The Hardest or The Most.  You may, in fact, be showing and proving that you lack self-awareness and the ability to exercise self-restraint.  This is not a good thing.

One of the most important skills for an athlete to develop is to be able to resist the temptation to go hard or long and to reign themselves in…both when it really makes sense and when it’s just a good choice.  This is a mental skill more than a physical skill, and mental skills are just as important - if not more so - than physical skills in endurance sports.  Thus, training mental skills is just as important as training your physical body.  It’s also important for you to prove that you have strong mental skills so that you can progress to more advanced level workouts over time and to learn how to properly manage your efforts in a race situation.  

Contrary to what many athletes think, exercising self-restraint, implementing thoughtfulness about which duration, intensity, or distance you choose and choosing to do something that is less than the top end range of a planned range is not a negative thing and it doesn’t say something bad about you.  If you do do this, you are proving something important and worthwhile.  You are proving that you can and will resist the temptation to do what you want and that you can instead do what is pragmatic both in the short-term and in terms of the larger scope of your training and racing.

The Bottom Line

If you realize that you are someone who always defaults to doing The Hardest and/or The Most, recognize that you have an opportunity to “prove yourself” by developing and broadening your skills to do things in a variety of durations, distances, and effort levels.  You have an opportunity to Face the Discomfort Dragon and sit with the discomfort of doing something “less than” you think you “should” be doing.  So choose this.  Choose to do “less”.  Choose the shorter end of the range.  Remember: There’s nothing wrong with feeling good.  Like anything else, continued exposure to executing these types of choices will help breed comfort and familiarity.  Once you have that comfort, familiarity, and confidence, you’ll be able to leverage those skills in both workouts and in races to help yourself reach your goals and your best performance.


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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