Incremental: denoting a small positive or negative change in a variable quantity or function or; increasing or adding on, especially in a regular series. To improve by increments is to get better in small yet sometimes important ways.
Now that you’re incrementally smarter about the roots of the word, let’s consider what increments actually mean to you as an endurance athlete. Because it’s rare that people in endurance sports achieve improvement by leaps and bounds. More often improvement comes about increments, which are barely detectable changes in your body and mind that lead to better performance.
That’s why the word ‘incremental’ can be so illuminating for endurance athletes. It’s not just a question of running, cycling or swimming faster. Getting better at a sport is about mental planning for improvement as well as physical effort. Then it comes down to embracing those newfound capabilities, however small or large they may be.
A growing belief in yourself generally happens in increments.
I recall the first time that I broke 32:00 in the 10k. I’d flirted with the barrier several times. But once I’d run 31:58, it seemed far more possible to take more time off the PR. But the ability to run 20 seconds faster than my previous 10K was hard earned. I set up an incremental training system to achieve that goal. For example, I’d been doing 400 repeats at 68-70 (which is 4:40 per mile pace) and half miles at 2:20-2:25 (which is 4:50 per mile pace). To push my steady state to a faster pace, I dropped my 400 repeat pace by two seconds, doing 8 X 400, then 10 X 400, then 12 X 400 with a half lap jog between.
This incremental change involved two standards: a faster per-lap pace and a bi-weekly increase in total intervals. This took about three months.
This produced an equally incremental change in the 800 repeats, which dropped to 2:15, or 4:30 mile pace. And a month out from the target race I was doing mile repeats in 4:45 to 4:50.
So you can see how incremental training works to increase both speed and endurance.
But my next goal was to run 31:10 for 10K. That was 5:00 flat pace. And that meant plenty of interval training at 4:30 pace and below to build ease of running at a much faster past. I used the same methods that worked to get below 32:00 pace. Within a year, I’d reached that goal.
The same principles hold true with cycling, and now swimming. Breaking your goals down into increments also has a mental effect. You begin to feel and believe in the progress you want to achieve. And to this end there were races along the way in which I shot for 31:40, then 31:30. Finally, in a race where six other running club teammates were helping with the pace, I ran that target 31:10 10K.
These same methods were recently used in an attempt to break the two-hour marathon. Nike athletes were schooled in precise pacing. They also had the benefit of highly controlled conditions on a relatively flat racing surface and a ‘human wedge’ to create a draft space for the lead runners to move with the least wind resistance. As quoted in a Runner’s World article about the effort, the team responsible for the effort decided to “science the shit” out of the marathon. And it worked. They ran 2:00:25, which is essentially a two-hour marathon. It was only a second slower per mile than the pace necessary to claim 1:59:59.
In endurance training, the increments by which we measure ourselves are typically ‘datametrics’ gathered through devices. These devices can range from a simple chronometer to a heart monitor all the way to power meters built into a bicycle crank.
We can thus measure ourselves by increments unimaginable just 20 years ago. But like all endurance athletes, we must be careful not to become too obsessed with such data as indicators of our true fitness. Athletes must also possess the ability to sense the relative merit of their efforts by natural means. Obviously none of these judgements about ourselves, be they supposedly objective datametrics or native sense of pace, are never 100% accurate. A number of factors such as temperature, precipitation, wind and other training conditions can greatly affect perceptions and performance on any given day.
So the true benefit of incremental training is found when the word is broken back down. You do the ‘incre’ part to measure your efforts toward goals, and the ‘mental’ part is found in trusting that you’ve done the work to hold the pace.
Thus it is truly incre-mental work we’re doing.