Photo credit: Flickr user Chris Hunkeler

You swim, bike, and run multiple times a week, but you aren’t getting any faster or more efficient, why? It could be the way you are training, i.e. practicing. We’ve all heard the phrase “practice makes perfect”. While I believe that phrase to be true, I don’t think it gives us the entire picture. For practice to be effective, it needs to be deliberate.

Deliberate Practice

“What most of us call training is really just playing around - we’re in our comfort zone. Understanding the difference between fun and deliberate practice unlocks the key to improving performance.” - Farnam Street

Staying in your comfort zone, whether it be pace, speed, distance, or heart rate zone won’t stress your body and cause it to adapt. In order to get better, you need your body to change. The body is an amazing thing, once it detects stress from training, it will re-engineer itself to cope with it. Examples of such adaptation can include increasing lung capacity, improving circulation, and building muscle in your legs.

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

What exactly does that mean? Let’s take a closer look at each element that makes up deliberate practice.

Designed to Improve Performance

What makes a designed workout? If you run twice a week and each run is three miles at whatever pace feels comfortable, that workout is not designed, and it’s certainly not going to improve your performance. As mentioned before, to improve, you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone. A designed running workout will either push you farther or faster than you are used to.

With a Teacher’s Help

For us triathletes, a teacher’s help equates to having a coach. A coach will see you differently than you see yourself. Not only will they improve and hone your form during training, they can observe your performance and figure out what type of training you respond to most. With this information, they can tailor your training to give you the “biggest bang for your buck”.

Triathletes have three sports to train and we only have so much free time to do so in. Making the most out of your time is important. If you’re spending your free time training without purpose, you’re just wasting it.


Repetition needs to happen in the “learning zone” and it should be accompanied by feedback which we’ll look at next. Doing swim drills with the use of swim training gear is a great example of this. Let’s say you’re using swim paddles for a 200 meter set. The paddles help you learn what a good pull feels like. They’ll also give you immediate feedback on whether or not you are doing it right. Either you’ll go fast and smooth or you’ll struggle to go anywhere. Performing the drill for 200 meters will give you plenty of stroke repetition to learn and gather feedback from. You can count strokes or time your laps to see if you are indeed improving over time.


“Training every day without knowing if you are getting better is pointless. You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.”

Feedback can come in many forms. It might come from the data you analyze after a workout or it could be directions from a coach during or after a training session. It is important that feedback is continuous, so you know whether or not you are getting better.

Mentally Demanding

Going out for a run where you pop the headphones in and shut your brain off for 30 minutes isn’t exactly mentally demanding. Having that designed workout where you must maintain a certain pace for a period of time takes focus and is both mentally and physically demanding.

An Example To Tie It All Together

As I was writing this post, doing speed work in the form of intervals came to mind as a perfect example of deliberate practice and how to tie it all together.

Suppose you get the following workout from your coach: Warm up for ten minutes then do six intervals of a half mile run at a 6:00/mile pace followed by a one minute jog for recovery. Cool down.

  • Designed - The workout is specifically designed to push you out of your pace comfort zone by having you run faster than your normal pace (assuming 6:00/mile is fast for you).
  • Teacher’s Help - Your coach might have noticed that incorporating speed work into your training has brought down your run time significantly, which is why they are having you do more of it.
  • Repeated - By doing multiple sets, it’s repeated by nature.
  • Feedback - By training with a device, which can be a basic sports watch, and timing your half mile efforts, you can get immediate feedback on whether or not you were able to hold the pace.
  • Mentally Demanding - As with most speed work, the first couple of sets usually go pretty well, but getting through to the end will push you to your limits mentally and physically.

If you are happy just to finish a race and you are simply in the sport of triathlon because you have fun doing it, deliberate practice probably won't apply to you. However, if you are looking to compete and improve you'll want to start applying the concept to your training.

Keep in mind that deliberate practice can be applied to anything you are learning, not just triathlon. There are many good resources out there to learn more about deliberate practice.

Here are a couple I recommend checking out: