By Bryan Green
When it comes to training, are you a simplifier or an optimizer? Simplifiers look for the easiest way to get a task done, and accept that there are some costs or lost opportunities that come with their approach. Optimizers continually tweak, adjust and update their plans in order to get the best possible outcome.
I first heard this distinction made by Scott Adams, author of the non-running book that has most affected the way I think about training: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big (Adams’s book is, by the way, one of my 5 non-running books all runners should read).
In the book, Adams broadly classifies people as either Simplifiers or Optimizers. While this framework has some use, it ignores the reality that not all situations call for the same approach. Simplifying and Optimizing are two strategies for solving different types of problems. Or in complex situations, for dealing with different stages.
Successful people know how to do both, and in the right order.
When to Simplify, and When to Optimize
If you want to be great, you will need to optimize your training. In fact, you will need to continually optimize not just your formal training program, but your hidden training program, too.
But a training program is not one thing. It is a collection of hundreds of discrete activities that together contribute to success or failure. Depending on your situation, optimizing may actually get you worse results. Optimizing takes energy, focus, and willpower…and those are in short supply. When you optimize for the wrong thing, you waste that effort.
My general rule: Simplify first, then optimize. Isolate the essential to ensure you are optimizing what adds the most value. In terms of workouts, identify the main goal and plan the simplest training activity to achieve it. Then optimize it when you are confident you can execute it.
Here are five training situations where this approach will benefit you.
1. When your situation is unstable or unpredictable
One thing we all learned last March when covid hit was that nobody knew what was okay to do and what needed to be avoided. Races were cancelled, gyms closed, and training groups couldn’t meet. All the routines and support networks we took for granted to optimize our training were suddenly unavailable to us.
Covid is an extreme example, but we are always dealing with periods in our lives where our schedules, our obligations, or our environment become unpredictable. Running a new route, recovering from an injury, training while on vacation, or getting through peak periods at school or work (i.e. finals week, quarter end) are great times to simplify what you are doing.
You’re not going to lose ground if you do a little less while you figure out how to navigate other variables. In fact, you may need to in order to be successful in both.
2. When key variables are out of your control
This is related to the above, but slightly different. It’s not just about the range of outcomes, but how many aspects you can influence. If you can control most of the variables, then you should feel comfortable optimizing. If not, you need to focus on what you can control and simplify as much as possible.
This past summer saw some extreme temperatures at major races. Whatever the ideal race plan was for the competitors at Western States or the US Olympic Trials, as soon as the temperatures reached high triple-digits, athletes put most of their attention to managing this one factor. They did it by simplifying around what they can control…their plan and their preparation.
This is also important for coaches. You can control most of the variables for your athletes at practice. But not when they go home. What you do together can often be much more optimized than what you ask an athlete to do on their own. When you can’t be there to guide the workout, simplify it to ensure the main purpose is clear and executable.
3. When communicating or setting guidelines
A good rule of thumb for all communication is “keep it simple.” The same thing applies to setting rules or guidelines for groups. Simple rules are more likely to be followed.
Here’s a simple example I like: if you feel pain higher than 3 out of 10 while resting, you’re too injured to workout. Can you talk about it and find a workout that might still make sense? Sure. That’s a great way to optimize. But the first step is to simplify and ensure you don’t make an injury worse.
On his Companions of the Compendium podcast, high school coach Ryan Banta shared his guideline for his athletes: “Do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time.” This is a great simple rule that guides behavior while allowing plenty of room to be optimized for specific situations. Another I like for daily training: “Don’t let today’s workout put tomorrow’s at risk.”
As with all communication, adjust to the level of the group you’re working with. Experienced runners can handle more optimized rules.
4. When forming a new habit or routine
The bigger the change you are trying to make, the more you benefit from simplifying. Find the one metric you’re going to measure, or the one change you’re going to make, and only do that.
Change is hard. Changing many things at once is very hard. For most people, changing more than a few things at once is impossible.
Are you trying to add a little more prehab or cross training into your program? Simplify it by focusing on doing it at the same time and in the same place. Focus on the routine first. Then slowly optimize it.
The main value of habits and routines is the ability to do them efficiently and consistently. That’s the only thing you need to focus on in the beginning. Optimizing them before that just makes it more likely you’ll fail before they’re established.
5. When you are fundamentally resistant to the activity
If the activity is beneficial but not critical, then it’s often ok to make sure it’s “good enough.” I recently interviewed champion triathlete Dede Griesbauer, who broke the Ultraman world record last year at 50 years old. She said she really struggles to care about her diet. I think her actual words were, “Left to my own devices, wine and a banana make a perfectly reasonable dinner.”
In her case, optimizing her diet by counting calories and preparing a variety of healthy meals with ideal nutritional value is overly exhausting for her. So she aims to keep it as simple and positive as she can, while investing as little energy in it as possible. She only optimizes it when it is easy or enjoyable.
If you’re trying to be a great runner, you will need to optimize your workouts. But you may be ok to simplify other areas and keep them “good enough.”
Okay, so when do we optimize?
This may seem counter to everything I just wrote, but optimizing is an ongoing process. High performers are constantly optimizing. Their successes are the result of countless small tweaks and optimizations, to their routines, their training programs, and their mindsets. You should be optimizing continuously as well.
But high achievers are also relentless Simplifiers. They isolate the essential, focus on doing the most productive work, and optimize from the strongest base possible.
When and where you choose to optimize is key. You should optimize when your situation is stable, predictable, and controllable, and when you have the foundation in place to know that you’re optimizing the right things.
Until you’re sure, simplify first, then optimize.
Bryan Green’s book Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Run Faster, has been praised by Olympians, coaches, and competitive runners as “a pathway book” that “should be on the shelves of every coach and athlete.” You can purchase the book, workbook, and coach’s guide or sign up for his weekly newsletter at his website. Bryan is also the co-founder of Go Be More, co-host of the Go Be More Podcast and Fueling the Pursuit, and has been a frequent contributor to Runner’s Tribe (dating back to 2008!).