The Three Most Important Words for Understanding Feedback Loops
Note: A summarized version of this article was also the topic of a recent Think Better Newsletter. You can read that here.
Feedback loops may be the single most important mental model for aspiring athletes to understand. This one simple mental model can help athletes identify issues with a training program, set better and more productive expectations, and ultimately get more out of every workout.
Feedback loops are what drive our success or failure. Specifically, positive feedback loops determine how much and how rapidly we improve.
When you understand them, you train better.
Exponential vs Linear Improvement
One of the common misconceptions about progress and improvement is that it's linear. It's not. Over a long time horizon, progress and improvement are always exponential. (Also note: exponential is not equal to excellent.)
Linear progress--which again, doesn't exist--would be like the dotted line, with the exact same amount of improvement happening each day in perpetuity. It's ridiculous, but here's the thing: We (humans) typically think linearly, so we often default to assuming that's how the world is.
Exponential progress is the result of consistently improving, and building on those improvements over a long period of time. In the beginning it doesn't look like it's changing. But eventually, as we improve upon our improvements we start to improve faster. If we keep it up, the improvements can be big and sudden: we make a leap.
So why does our progress so often look linear? Let me add another line. This one is also exponential, but it's a based on a poor, inconsistent feedback loop.
It looks pretty linear! Again, it's an illusion. Most of us don't build strong feedback loops into our training, and the result is an exponential curve that never skyrockets. It just kind of barely moves upward, just enough to confirm our incorrect assumption that progress is slow and linear.
Visualizing a Feedback Loop
In reality, progress goes slowly, then rapidly, then slowly again. That cycle I call a Leap Cycle, and it is essential to understanding how your training will play out over an extended period.
(This is the topic of Chapter 1, which you can get for FREE if you sign up for my newsletter.)
The curves above are what the results of a feedback loop look like over time. Let's zoom in and look at a feedback loop for one day.
You have a training program for your day. After you execute it, you have either improved or declined (say, if you fry yourself or get injured). Whatever change you created is then fed back into the start of your next day's training.
If you improve AND carry that improvement into the next day, you have the potential to train even better the next day. If you hurt yourself and start the next day injured, your training will be limited and your progress slowed down.
This is very simple, but most runners don't fully appreciate it and internalize it. It is the repetition of this cycle that will determine how fast and how much you improve. Not tomorrow, not in one week, but in the distant future after you've repeated enough cycles to generate exponential growth.
The Three Most Important Words
Now it's time to get to the three most important words for understanding feedback loops. When you think about your training, use these three words to maintain focus on the areas that will make or break your feedback loop.
Quality is a combination of what you bring to the workout--your attitude, effort, and focus--and how much that workout aligns to your fitness goals. Both your workout and your approach to it must be aligned to your goals for the session. Some simple questions:
- Is this the right workout?
- Do you know the goals for this workout and how to hit them?
- Are you executing well both mentally and physically?
A feedback loop gets broken when you overdo it and hurt yourself. The best athletes focus on doing purpose-driven workouts to the best of their ability, and stopping before they go too far.
Remember: It's not about maximizing one workout. It's about maximizing the feedback loop.
In training, the "feedback" portion of the loop is primarily how much you recover. It is equally as important to arrive ready to perform at tomorrow's workout as it is to maximize today's.
Recovery is about retaining all your improvement. We do this through our pre- and post-workout regimens, strength work, stretching, sleeping, eating, hydrating...
Recovery is what many runners fail to focus on. It's a major part of what I call the Hidden Training Program: everything you REALLY need to do to be successful.
A few questions:
- Do you have a plan or routine you follow to maximize recovery?
- Are you sleeping enough?
- Are you eating and hydrating sufficiently?
If you have a great workout and then stay up all night eating junk food, you will likely lose all of the gains from the workout. You will break your feedback loop. And that doesn't just set you back in tomorrow's workout, it could take many workouts to get back to where you should have been.
This one is likely the most under-appreciated. The exponential results of a feedback loop take a long time to build up. You absolutely must be consistent to achieve your exponential gains.
What does this mean? It means one workout doesn't really make a difference. It takes hundreds of workouts to make a leap, and thousands to reach your potential.
It is more important to get a little better each day than to do one insanely great workout and then have to extend your recovery for days as a result.
Every day your positive feedback loop makes you better is one step closer to you making a leap. Every day you don't maintain that consistency is a day you fall further behind. Ask yourself:
- Are you applying the same effort and focus to each day's workout?
- Are you setting yourself up for success in tomorrow's workout as well?
- Do you have other areas of your life that make consistency difficult to maintain?
Any aspect of your life that interferes with your consistency is limiting your potential. Identify those aspects and create systems, routines, and rules to improve them.
I focused this article on the idea of one day's training. But the same concepts apply to training cycles, seasons and years. The questions are a little different, but the principle is the same.
Quality. Recovery. Consistency.
A great feedback loop MUST have all three. Pick the one that needs the most improvement and start making the necessary changes.
Want to learn more?
- Read the Introduction to Make the Leap here on the blog.
- Then sign up to my Think Better newsletter and get Chapter One: What is a "Leap?" for FREE.
Or if you are ready to think better, train better, and make the leap, Buy the book today!