This is the time of year when most endurance athletes are starting to think about and perhaps even plan for the coming season. That makes it a good time to remember what’s most important when it comes to training for peak performance – the basics. Here are five fundamentals I frequently remind myself of when designing a training plan. There are certainly more than five concerns, but I believe these are the most basic. I’ve linked each of them to a previous, more expanded discussion in case you want to learn more.
1. Train with moderation. Frequently doing extreme workouts that leave you tired for two or more or days afterward do more harm than good. If you’re not recovered from most of your training sessions within 48 hours of their completion then you’re not training with moderation. This will eventually catch up with you. Over the long term, the body responds best when the adaptive changes required are slight. This is not to say you should never do extremely hard workouts. In fact, it’s been shown that a block of several days of pushing one’s limits results in a greatly increased level of fitness once adequate recovery has also had time to remove the resulting fatigue. In my Training Bible books I call this “crash” training. For most athletes this should not be done more frequently than once every six weeks.
2. Train consistently. If you follow the first fundamental in your training then this one probably won’t require anything more of you. It will more than likely take care of itself. Moderation usually results in consistent training. That means you don’t miss workouts. In training, zero is a big number. If you have a lot of them in your training log then you are giving away hard-earned fitness. Sometimes zeroes simply can’t be avoided. With the holiday season now in full swing it’s likely you’ll miss a workout or two. The good news is that it’s probably several weeks until your first A-priority race of 2013. Zeroes in the last 12 weeks prior to your race significantly degrade performance.
3. Make workouts increasingly like the race. As the training year progresses your workouts should become increasingly like whatever it is you are training for. What you’ve done in the last six weeks of build period training before the race has a greater impact on how well you will perform on race day than what you did in the first six weeks of base period training. If those last six weeks were devoted to race-like sessions then you will be ready to race well. If the workouts were unlike the race then you are giving away performance. That seems apparent to most athletes and yet this time of year I read of a lot of athletes following what they call a “reverse” periodization plan. What this means is that their workouts are race-like in the base period but not like the race at all in the build period – training becomes less like the race as the season progresses. It’s reversed. That’s what true reverse periodization would be (periodization is correctly based on what you are training for, not the modulation of absolute intensity and duration). What I think most of them mean is that they are training with high intensity now and will do more miles later in the year. For events like an Ironman that is not reversed at all. That’s becoming more race-like. But for a cyclist who does crits that could be disastrous at the first race. Lots of miles done slowly in the last few weeks before such a short, high-intensity race is a sure way to race poorly.
4. Intensity is the key. Sports science hasn’t been around very long as compared with the other sciences. There are only a few things we have definitively learned from it about training. Perhaps the most common lesson is that the key to performance is how you modulate the intensity (power, pace, speed, effort, heart rate) of training. Performance is not dependent on how many miles or hours you do in a week - volume. Unfortunately, most athletes seem to think volume is the Holy Grail. For the experienced and serious athlete, in their order of importance, the keys to performance are 1) race-like workout intensity, 2) race-like workout duration, and 3) weekly volume. In fact, #3 is a distant third. I think the reason volume is so revered by athletes is that it’s easy to measure. Just add up the daily miles. Intensity, on the other hand, is hard to quantify. Now I should point out that this holds true only for the experienced and serious athlete – those who have been training with a performance focus for three or more years. Novices do benefit remarkably by focusing on duration and training frequency (volume). That’s because any intensity – including very low – will prove beneficial for them. They just need to get to the finish line.
5. Rest when needed. If you employ an appropriate training load you will frequently need to reduce the stress of training in order for your body to recover and adapt. Continued stress without rest eventually results in a breakdown of some sort – overtraining, illness, injury, or mental burnout. How often you recover and what exactly you do to enhance recovery is an individual matter. Some athletes recover quickly, others slowly. Some recover with light exercise; others need a day off. So there is no set pattern that all of us should follow. For some the best plan is to have no plan – recovery on demand. Recover when your body says it’s time and until it’s ready to go again. Unfortunately, many athletes are extremely poor at listening to their bodies and are likely to disregard the common indicators of fatigue thus pressing ahead in order to get their weekly miles number in the training log. These folks need a plan for when to rest. Such a plan should include weekly, monthly, and annual rest periods.