I often get emails from athletes asking me how they should train as if there is a single answer that fits everyone. There’s only one answer I can give that fits everyone: It depends. It depends on all of the athlete’s unique variables such as sport experience, age, limiters, body type, training time available, and many more. The list is quite long.
With this in mind I’m going to try to answer that basic question. But before answering it let’s select only one of the variables from the above “it depends” list—sport experience.
At the most basic level there are three categories of athletes when it comes to experience—novice, intermediate, and advanced. There are several ways we could define these broad categories. For the sake of this discussion let’s say that novices are those in the first year in their sport, intermediates are in years two and three, and advanced athletes have been in the sport for more than three years.
Generally, each type of athlete needs to focus on training in a unique way. And since there are only four factors to consider in designing a workout plan—mode, frequency, duration, and intensity—the answers are pretty simple. (Let’s omit “mode” from the list since we can assume that in designing a plan you know what sport to work on.)
Of the three remaining factors, I believe novices should primarily focus on the frequency of their training. This has to do with how often they workout. Simply get out the door and do some easy workouts. Do this frequently. Question answered for novices.
Intermediates should focus mostly on duration—how long the workouts are since they need to build endurance and should have the frequency thing well-established by now. Question answered for intermediates.
Advanced athletes should focus on the intensity of their training. OK, this is a much tougher one to answer. It will take some head scratching. But before doing that let me point out that way too many advanced athletes never progress beyond the frequency and duration answers (taken together, we call these “volume”). They continue to believe that the key to their performance is how many hours, miles, or kilometers they put in during a week. They’re wrong. There’s a considerable body of research going back several decades showing that how fast (or slow) and advanced athlete trains has a greater impact on performance than how much volume they do in a week. And this holds true across all endurance sports.
This is not to say that volume is unimportant. So if both volume and intensity are important for the advanced athlete, how much more important is intensity? I answer this question with a ratio of the two factors. I propose that how well such an athlete performs on race day is determined 60% by the intensity of their recent training and 40% by their recent volume. Can I prove that? No. It’s just my opinion. And I realize it isn’t necessarily true for every athlete in every race. It’s just a ballpark estimate that helps me make decisions when assisting an advanced athlete in designing a training program. In other words, I know that if there’s a decision to be made about doing more volume or more intensity, the resolution is more likely to be on the side of intensity.
In my last post I proposed that an athlete should do a broad range of intensities throughout the year with only the distribution of that intensity varying. It’s based, in part, on the polarized 80-20 training research studies that have been gaining traction among athletes in the last 10 years or so, and, in part, on my personal experience. Several of you have noted that it’s a slight shift from what I’ve said in some of my books. And you’d be right. The times have changed. Training has changed. I’ve changed. (It seems that politicians are the only people who should never change their minds on anything.)
Some have written to me assuming the table in that last post was written just for them. It was written for everybody and for nobody. It was merely an example of how a fictitious athlete’s intensity distribution over the course of a season could look. It wasn’t necessarily a triathlete, cyclist, runner, or rower. The only thing I can say for sure is that it was for an advanced athlete, not a novice or intermediate.