Just last week I ran my fastest 5k ever at the age of 41 (21:14). It was significantly faster than any I ran in my 20s and my previous PR was about two and a half years ago (21:45). When I looked at my Garmin at 3.11 miles and saw my time and pace, I immediately had a big giddy grin on my face.
My winter training has been going especially well. I am getting faster at all running distances. My swimming and bicycling have greatly improved too. After having an exceptional 2009 and early 2010, my performance started to decline or at least I met a plateau in progress. I think I had been overtraining, so I sort of took 2011 off. I did okay, still setting some PRs, but progress slowed. Then, in late 2011, I refocused. My recent improvements can be attributed mostly to training with purpose and listening to my body.
First, I emphasize quality over quantity. Workouts have specific goals. Some examples: a swim workout focusing on form or maybe just one aspect of the stroke; a bike ride with 20-minute intervals at lactate threshold to improve muscular endurance; or, running hill repeats to improve VO2max, leg strength and power. My training regimen is designed by keeping the end goal in mind. I first answer questions like: What metabolic systems do I need to train? What are my weaknesses? How much time do I have? Next, I consult my resources, do a few calculations, and draw up a plan. Then, it's time to get to work. However, the training plan is always subject to appropriate modification.
Second, I pay close attention to how I feel. If I experience abnormal pain, I address it right away. I won't try to work through it. If my performance declines or it takes significantly more effort to achieve the same performance, I rest. I'll even skip workouts if I don't feel I can achieve the goal of the particular workout. I want to continue training and racing as long as I can. I won't sacrifice longevity for a given race or goal. On the other hand, if I feel really good, I push the intensity. I also monitor how I respond to my diet: what works, what doesn't, what causes distress.
My training and coaching philosophy is "train smart, not hard." I didn't make that up, but I have no idea where I heard it first. A fellow personal trainer is not a big fan of this motto. He's more of a "train hard" kind of guy and training hard is important. I just believe it is important to train appropriately hard. An athlete can be successful just by training hard, but sometimes plateaus in progress occur that cannot just be gutted through. That's when you need to start flexing the brain muscle.
So, that's the secret to my success (such as it is): training smart.