The Training Formula
I’ve been at this endurance sports thing (1 hour or longer events) for a few years now and next year feels like it will be my senior year in the my endurance training education. Through those years I have definitely seen some grade A performances but there have been some F’s and everything in between. Reflecting back, I think I have finally come close to defining the training formula, that allows work/life balance along with injury prevention. The tips in this post come out of all of my collected mental notes from the past few years. This guide is not a one size fits all, but a blue print I have found that works and that you can tailor for yourself.
Learn The Sport
When I first got into running, I took the approach that most people did; get some shoes and just go out and run. Big mistake. Running, like cycling and swimming is a skill you need to develop. I wish now that I had spent the time to properly learn the ins and outs of breathing, form, heart rate control and recovery when I first got into distance running. Moreover, concepts such as correct shoe fit, style and stride correction are things that every athlete should learn the details of and apply before getting heavy into sport. In fact, no matter what your discipline, take time to really learn the nuances of your sport; from equipment, to training plans and lingo. If possible, join a team or group and get a coach. Others have already succeeded at whatever challenge you are attempting, learn to lean on and trust in the wisdom of those who know.
The body takes fuel, but what type and how much can vary from person to person. From Gu, to waffles, to energy drinks and more. The nutrition options available to athletes are more plentiful than at any time before. Different athletes swear by one thing or another but what I have found is that early on in your training you have to find what works best with your digestive system and allows you to keep going. There are, however, three areas of nutrition you do have to cover no matter what source you choose to go with.
- Before: whether it is solid foods, a gu shot, or a sports drink mix; make sure you are priming the body with complex carbs, calories, and sugars to perform at ideal conditions. No, you can’t work the ‘fuel’ you consumed the night before. Also, if you can, add a jolt of caffeine via Gu or a short 8 oz. coffee to give your body that little extra kick during a workout. My formula before training is a Stinger Waffle 45 minutes before the workout, 2 FRS blocks 30 minutes before, and finally a gu shot 15 minutes before. I have found that this combination has been reliable and the most digestive friendly pre-workout combo for me.
- During: staying hydrated is preached over and over; but just as important for endurance athletes is replacing the calories you are burning through on your long workouts. Salt and sugar replacement is also key. Muscles start to break down even quicker when they don’t have the nutrients they need to keep going. I have learned to treat 1+ workouts as situations where you have to bring your own buffet with you. For me, that means lots of extra Gu packets, salt tablets, and an energy bar usually composed of fruits and nuts.
- After: if you plan to train consistently and steadily improve, you better make sure what you put in your body after is a high priority. Long and grueling workouts help build your endurance but they also are very destructive to your muscles and joints. Protein and complex carb rich foods are essential within about 45 minutes post workout. For me, wheat grass combined with L-Glutamine, along with some form of protein and carbs makes up the perfect after training kick I need.
My biggest training mistake in the past has been what I didn’t do after training. That failure was not focusing on my recovery efforts. I relied on my athleticism and youth to help me be “ready” for the next day. All I was really doing was standing still in my progress. Hindsight is 20/20; knowing what I know now, smart recovery techniques paired with youthful exuberance would have made me a better athlete sooner. The thing about recovery, is that it is actually very simple.
There is even a simple acronym for remembering what to do after workouts, R.I.C.E. That stands for Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate. It goes without saying that after a hard workout, a solid rest period is required. You should generally allow 24 hours between your hardest workouts and your next session. Ice down any sore areas for 15 minutes after your session. Purchase and use compression gear like recovery socks or a NormaTec Recovery System if you can swing it. Lastly, elevate your legs and help reduce the swelling and pressure, preferably while icing and compressing. I also recommend that you take recovery supplements like L-Glutamine, buy and use a foam roller and get regular massages when possible.
Plan to Strengths
Training to your strengths is a complex idea. By that I mean you have to plan races and events that work as your A races whenever possible. That means, if you are slow on hilly courses, try to research flat courses until you get good at hills. If you’re better in colder weather, stack most of your races towards the tail end of the year. This approach is meant to help you with your confidence. The races and training are hard enough already, don’t further stack the odds against you by picking events where you won’t excel. I literally, decide races based elevation maps, time of year, the number of times the event has been running, travel, start time, past reviews, etc. This selection criteria is not a grasp at convenience, but identifying where I do well, and planning to it. If, I you are going to spend $100 plus for an endurance race, make sure that the only variable you deal with on race day is your own effort.
Plan Against Weakness
Additionally, your training plan should set aside a lot of time from areas/skills you are weak in. Leading up to my Half IronMan, I focused three days a week on my swim and wish I had spent even more time on it. Everyone has a weak aspect in their fitness and you should carve out at least 3 days a week to work on that area. If you are a slow runner, add a lot of speed work. If you are weak cyclist, spend lots of hours on the bike. At the same time, make sure you workouts for strong suits are designed to push your limits. Strong running triathletes should make sure there run workouts are as consistently close to their VO2 Max as possible and good swimmers should do a lot of technical sets. Also, invest a lot in supplemental training and tools in the areas where you most need help.
Plan for Intensity
I often tell my friends to make sure they do a lot of cross-training. Triathlon is naturally a multi-discipline event, so your training should match it. Make sure to include as many two a day training and brick workouts as possible. For just pure runners or cyclist/swimmers, etc., make sure to incorporate a lot of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) in areas you are not used to training in. HIIT cross training improves muscle balance and responsiveness, builds a strong core, and can help you get that little extra bit of endurance from shorter workouts.
Moreover, after you have built up your base training (usually the first 4 weeks), you should add two-a-day sessions, where in you get strength training in the morning and a cardio one completed later that day. Or, as I found in training for my last half marathon, break up your run workouts over the day. I ran recovery runs in the mornings and speed workouts in the evenings. During my triathlon training, I did a lot of quick 1-2 mile sprint runs after swimming or biking to get in a little extra training after a planned workout to help build endurance and transition skills.
This next point is touchy, because people usually respond to this tip as a big pressure point. I recommend trying to get faster at each distance of your sport before moving up to the next level. I did it the opposite way and I now know that was wrong. Here is why, if you are going faster at any discipline it means a couple of things. You are moving smoothly and efficiently. Being smooth and efficient at your event means you are using goo dorm which will cut the chance of injury and it means you are covering more ground with the same or possibly less effort. Front runner athletes do push their bodies very hard, but they also generally take fewer foot strikes, working a shorter amount of time, and recovering sooner than the back half of the crowd. Put the work in during training to get as fast as possible, I recommend finding the median average time for your distance and setting that as a goal to get to before moving jumping to the next distance.
Endurance races and triathlons are different than most sporting activities by way of their length and grueling effort required. To achieve optimal fitness and preparedness you have to allow a full 8-16 weeks to prepare for a long distance race. Distances races vary, so you don’t need to use the same amount of training for each distance. I have included a table at the bottom of this post that outlines how training can vary for different types of triathlons and how long your training will and focus areas will vary from race to race. The same approach goes for running races, duathlons, etc. I also recommend that you if you are doing a half marathon run or olympic distance triathlon or longer, use shorter distance races as tune up events as much as possible during your training. Since you have to do the training anyway, use live races to work out the kinks, jitters and logistics of your race goal race.
Most of all, it is important you KEEP PERSPECTIVE! You cannot go from couch to 5K to the NYC Marathon in a condensed amount of time. There are no short cuts to endurance success. Consistency and keeping an eye on the big picture is what will help you get to the top. Get good and fast at one distance before moving on to the next level. Take notes during the week and review your training data to find areas of improvement you can focus on while counting down the days and weeks until your key event date. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake I made of jumping from enjoying 5k’s/10ks to jumping to half & full marathons in a short amount of time. That over ambition set me back a year and really took the wind out of my sails when I realized I had bitten off more than I can chew. Trying to do too much, too soon, too fast is what get’s most athlete’s in trouble.
Knowledge + Planning + Patience = Success!
You cannot begin down the path of endurance sports without learning a thing or two. Consume every source you can get your hands on; training plans, coaches, pro athletes, accomplished friends. The more you know, the better. Next, plan, revise, and plan again. I cannot stress how much easier all of training gets when it is planned out in detail. After the first 30 days, everything starts to become second nature and automatic. Even with that, make sure you are analyzing the results regularly and revise the plan where necessary. Lastly, be patient, the training and build up is often harder than the actual event because you have to wait for it and do a lot of work to no fan fare or trophies. Though frustrating, you can really learn a lot about yourself and your resolve during this period. Use it, learn from it, grow from it.
Malcolm Gladwell mentioned in his book, Outliers, the “10,000-Hour Rule.” That rule asserts that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. While getting to 10,000 hours in running, biking, and swimming may mean a lifetime of work the principal holds true and I believe a lot in it. All 10,000 hours don’t have to come from time spent on the course. You can get to a lot of those hours through training, analyzing, discussing, planning, and breathing in whatever it is you’re are training for. It may be the case that the 10,000 hour rule is the reason most of the best endurance athletes are the older ones. It just takes a lot of time to learn and get better at the longer distances. When I look back on it all, I’ve done some sort of running since 2003 and worked my way up to long course triathlons. If I am anywhere close to 10,000 hours, that means I have come close to completing 1,000 hours a year of training, thinking, analyzing, reading, and discussing running, cycling, swimming, and more; or 19 hours a week, or 2 hours and 45 minutes a day. I think that is why I now feel like I’ve got the hang of endurance sports.
EXAMPLE TRAINING PLAN
Below is an example, specific to running, advanced training plan for experienced runners looking to run a sub 1:30 half marathon. You will notice a lot of short speed workouts, multi-sessions per day, and complex workouts. There are many plans out there for every race type and experience level. RunKeeper offers plans that integrate right into their app on your phone. Garmin Connect offers plans that you can sync up with your Garmin ForeRunner watch. For the most advanced plans, go to Training Peaks.
EXAMPLE TRAINING TIMELINES
Below is an example, specific to triathlons, of how much time you should allow to build up for each distance. Also, follow the 10% rule and increase your mileage at 10% per week no matter what race distance and training plan you select.
|Sprint||.5mi (750m) swim
12.4mi (20km) bike
3.1mi (5km) run
|4 weeks||Concentrate on doing lots of bricks since the distances are short.|
|Olympic||0.93mi (1.5km) swim
24.8mi (40km) bike
6.2mi (10km) run
|6-8 weeks||Concentrate on building volume steadily over the 12 weeks.|
|ITU Long||1.86mi (3km) swim
49.6mi (80km) bike
12.4mi (20km) run
|10-12 weeks||Lots of long swimming sessions and run work.|
|Half Ironman||1.2mi (1.9km) swim
56mi (90km) bike
13.1mi (21.09km) run
|12-14 weeks||Brick workouts galore and lots of shorter races and competive events leading up to the race.|
|Full Ironman||2.4mi (3.8km) swim
112mi (180km) bike
26.2mi (42.195km) run
|16 weeks||Ridiculous amounts of volume, plain and simple.|
|* The exact breakdown can vary slightly from race to race.|