Interval Training at work

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I just finished my first triathlon a few weeks ago. Going into the group training program, I assumed that triathlons were an individual sport. I was delighted to discover that it’s really a community and that you can come to feel like you’re a part of a team. My sincerest thank you to my TRIMORE and GGTC coaches and teammates for making me feel this way. Another pleasant surprise is that, if I keep my eyes open, there are a ton of learnings that I can apply to my work! The one I want to focus on in this post is around interval training.

I have lots of friends who jog three or four times a week. Each time out, they maintain roughly the same pace. It’s a great way to stay in shape, and I wish I had this level of discipline.

What I didn’t realize was that interval training is an entirely different form of exercise, even though on the surface, both are “running.” With interval training, the goal is to push yourself for concentrated periods of time. You run hard for one lap around a track, say, then rest for a minute. And then you repeat. In some sense, what this does is remind your body that you have that kind of speed in you. It pushes you outside your comfort zone. I’d been running 5-7 miles at a time for weeks. One day, I did a little 2 mile time trial, and almost puked (could’ve also been the Indian food I had for lunch!). But what also happened for me was that, all of a sudden, my times improved in subsequent runs. And not just shaving seconds. Minutes.

In terms of work, what this reminds me of are the late night pushes, the frenzied races for a deadline. And these coding weekends and hack-a-thons that have become so popular. Even those conferences that feel like fire-hoses, whether for learning or networking (TED or SXSW, anyone?). They’re rough, but also incredibly productive and immensely rich for learning.

It also reminds me of training yourself professionally. It takes deliberate effort to step out of your comfort zone and regular routine. But an all-day class, or even the right conference, can result in a step-change in skill. They are a reminder to yourself that you can learn new things at such a rapid clip.

Of course, the point is that you can’t sustain the sped up pace. You’ll burn out soon enough. The key is in figuring out when you should push, but also in what domain. For my triathlon, I was fine with my swimming going in – and so my training swims were more about upkeep and getting out there. By contrast, I tried hard to push on my running. And by the time the triathlon came along, I’m proud to say that my fast time going in was my slow, dead-legs pace for the race. It was a great lesson for me, and I think it’s worth asking more generally: What are you trying to maintain, and where are you stretching? That goes for you, your team, your product, your business, and your life.

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