The Only Variable That Matters

Inconsistency in your training doesn’t just leave you weak, it leaves you injury prone.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s something you need to know. Your program doesn’t matter. Neither does your coach, or your diet. In fact, not a single article or piece of advice or video on this very website is going to do the tiniest bit of good for your health, strength, or athleticism. There’s only one variable in training, nutrition, or life in general, that matters. It’s the key to everything else you want to accomplish, everything you want to become.

It’s consistency. And without it, nothing is going to work. The soundest advice, the highest level of coaching, the most balanced meal plan ever created, all fall to pieces without consistent application.

There are no shortcuts – put in the time. [Photo courtesy of Pixabay]

The Key Ingredient of Progress

Lack of consistency is why you aren’t reaching your goals. You say you want a double-bodyweight back squat, but you’re only squatting once a week. And that’s if you actually make it to the gym on “squat day” every week. When you do show up, you try to make up for missed sessions by going too heavy, doing too many reps, or adding extra sets. Then you can’t walk for the next four days, which means you aren’t squatting. And so the vicious cycle repeats.

You say you want to be below 15% body fat, but your diet is all over the place. You worked to come up with a meal plan, maybe even paid for one. But you’ve made so many exceptions that your actual intake doesn’t look that much different than it did before you started. Between the brownies at the office party, and the weekly cheat day pizza, the third plate of lasagna at family get-togethers, and the funnel cake at the cultural festival, you might even be eating worse than before, on average.

And the averages are what matter. The body functions on patterns. In order to achieve a desired change in ability or body composition, you have to convince the body that what you’re asking it to do is the new normal. This is a huge simplification of a lot of very complicated science, but on the practical level, that’s how it works. So if you think you’re eating well because you’re “75% paleo” but the other 25% is a mountain of garbage, you aren’t really eating well. If you think you’re training hard because you spend 20 minutes a day doing AMRAPs and the other 23 hours and 40 minutes sitting on your ass, the pattern you’re establishing isn’t exactly athletic.

The point is, before you go ranting on social media about how this program or that diet doesn’t work, ask yourself objectively if you’re actually doing the work. If you aren’t following the program as it was designed, how would you even know if it’s working or not?

Consistency and Preventing Injury

Inconsistency in your training doesn’t just leave you weak, it leaves you injury prone. The first question a lot of new runners ask is, “how fast can I be ready for a marathon?” The proliferation of “couch-to” programs has left a lot of people under the impression that tackling one of the athletic world’s most difficult events is something you can do on a whim, and in very little time. And then we wonder why just about every runner ends up injured at some point.

Instead of spending years gradually building up mileage and running proficiency, people look for a quick fix to get themselves that 26.2 sticker. A whole lot of people who aren’t running at all go online and find a 12-week marathon training program designed for an athlete who is already turning in 20 miles a week. Then they do the first three weeks of it, get bored for a couple weeks and stop, then wake up one day and realize they’re three weeks out from their race. So they cram in as many runs as possible, do no taper at all, and show up at the start line under-rested and under-trained, then wind up with an injury that stops their marathon dreams at mile eight. Then they blame running because, you know, “it’s bad for you.”

But it isn’t just running. I see it in CrossFit gyms and indoor soccer leagues and amateur cycling teams. People getting hurt because they’re asking their bodies to perform at a level they haven’t prepared for with consistent, methodical training over a course of years. There are adaptations, especially in the joints and ligaments, that just take a whole bunch of time to develop. The only way to do it is through long, unglamorous, consistent training. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

Consistency and Skill Development

There’s been a lot of hubbub about whether or not Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule is gospel or garbage, but the argument misses the point. Consistent practice over the course of years is the only way to develop mastery of a skill. This is just as true in athletic pursuits as anywhere else, and the more complex the skill, the more frequent and deep the practice must become.

If you want to be competitive in Olympic weightlifting, hitting a few dozen power snatches in a WOD once a week isn’t going to get it done. If you want to be a good writer, a once-monthly Facebook rant isn’t going to get you there. If you want to have a shot at the podium in your local summer 5k race series, you aren’t going to get there on two runs a week.

The uncomfortable truth universally espoused by masters in every field is that there are no shortcuts to getting the reps in.

Once you’ve accepted that, life becomes a matter of priorities. If you’re like me, you find your greatest satisfaction in doing a bunch of different things. But that preference comes the with the cost of slower progress in particular areas. If you have three sports and two jobs, your fullest energy cannot be focused on all of them. So the task becomes to pick the one or two things that are most important to you, and allow yourself to be happy with just maintaining the rest.

The Consistency Hack

So how do you fix it? With everything going on in your life, how can you make sure you’re giving your body and mind the consistent input and stimulation required to become what you want to be? The answer is so simple that it’s already in front of your face right now.

Write it down.

I don’t care what media you use, but find a way to track the things you are doing. Log your workouts, log your food, log your sleep, log the amount of time you spend on developing your skills. Keep it in a notebook in your back pocket, or in one of the zillion apps built for just such a purpose. For planning and quick reference purposes, I track a whole lot of my training in Google Calendar.

Writing it down and constantly referencing that record keeps you honest about your training and nutrition. There’s no arguing with a record you wrote yourself, so when you look at your notebook and see you haven’t had a leg day since last Tuesday, you run out of excuses to skip it real fast.

Life is going to throw you curveballs, and your progress toward your goals will almost never be linear. But there is one thing for certain: If you do nothing consistently, that’s exactly what you’re going to achieve.

Push past your own hang-ups:

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