Failure, Growth and Threshold Training

Five weeks ago, I sent out my first blog of the year with a statement that I was planning to hold a rhythm of adding a blog article every one to two weeks. This is the second blog of the year. I almost ran out of fingers on one hand by the time I figured out that I completely and utterly failed to meet this goal! So, why set goals at all? How do we handle failure? How do we avoid failure…or is that even the right question?

In some ways, failure is a simple concept…you set out to do something and you don’t accomplish it. On the other hand, it is a complex concept because of the emotions and implications that we tend to cast upon failure. Often, we perceive that, if we set out to do something and fail, that means we are a failure, we are inadequate, and that we will never amount to anything because we just keep failing.

It can be tempting to simply say we’re going to live our life in a “safe” manner that avoids the potential of failure. The problem there is summed up in a quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt that says “a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” If we want to excel in life, somehow, we have to find a healthy relationship between safety and failure. This is summed up by Greg Glassman, Founder of CrossFit, who said, “I want to work at higher and higher power levels, safely.” Whether you are talking about physical fitness, personal relationships, business success or anything else, this is really our goal. We want to become better and better at what we do and be able to do more of it at a level that is safe and effective.

I first heard about a concept called Threshold Training when I was in a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer course. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a CrossFit freak for this blog to apply as threshold training is not unique to CrossFit.) In that course, we were introduced to the idea that, when developing fitness, if we constantly stay within our comfort zone, our body is never forced to develop adaptations to overcome stressors. It is only when we go out of our comfort zone to reach, and sometimes exceed, our threshold that we start to force our body to adapt and develop to form new thresholds at higher levels of fitness. This is done by navigating the fine balance between intensity (ie. speed) and technique (ie. control). If you only focus on intensity, your technique will suffer. You will work hard while not producing much and/or you will cause damage due to your poor technique. If you only focus on technique, you will go so slow that you never produce much of value.

In theory, the “secret” lies in finding the proper balance between intensity and technique. That said, I believe that the real secret is in recognizing that there is not a perfect balance, only the pursuit of it. In this pursuit, you act like a pendulum. Some of the time, you are too heavily focused on intensity while, at other times, you are too heavily focused on technique. The goal, as we learned in the CrossFit course, was to work through this cycle safely and effectively. We were taught to work with athletes to increase intensity until we started to see critical technique failures then encourage the athlete to back off slightly in order to be safe. As the workout progressed and fatigue set in, this “threshold” would move so the trainer had to maintain constant awareness and communication to adjust to the movement of the threshold.

The beauty of this is that you don’t have to be a CrossFit athlete to apply this concept…you don’t even have to be into fitness. (Though I’d encourage you to commit appropriate time and attention to your fitness.) This concept applies to all areas of life. If you’d like to hear from Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, on this, click HERE.

What are the thresholds in your life? How can you apply the concept of threshold training to re-frame your perspective on failure and create an environment in which you intentionally push yourself to the point of failure in order to force yourself to adapt and develop new thresholds? What might the role of a “trainer” be in your life as you navigate through this process?

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