Excerpt from: “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing, Chapter 9” by Dr. Phil Maffetone.
While most professional athletes get paid to train and compete, the vast majority of endurance athletes are age-groupers who follow very similar training and are just as dedicated to their sport. As such, they must fit training and competition into a year filled with career, family, and other obligations.
If you’re a serious recreational or amateur athlete, or even a professional without the luxury of a big sponsorship contract, you still need to carefully piece together the best possible training schedule that will help you achieve optimal performance in endurance events. The most important aspect of training, the one most neglected, and the real “secret” in endurance sports, is to individualize your workout and recovery schedules. And by individualize I mean make it personalized.
The main goal of training is to develop the ability to compete successfully and without injury or ill health. Then, your day-to-day schedule becomes a secondary feature—exactly how many minutes per day you train is no longer the main focus.
Each of us has important stories to tell. And if you keep a training diary, part of your story is written in it. Like any story, you often have a good idea what may happen next. Is it time to add anaerobic training? Are you ready for competition? Are you getting stale? Your diary should include everything from total time and heart rates of each workout to which course you trained on that day and how far you went. It may mention the weather, how you felt, along with your fears and dreams. Most importantly, your diary should include a chart of all your MAF Tests. Neatly plot them out so a quick glance will give you the last few months of progress. Looking back over the past few months in your diary, you can more objectively assess your progress. Check for consistency and gradual increases in total time of each workout, indicating increased fitness.
Write down your goals
Traditionally, most athletes record the distance and pace of the workout. For example, five miles at an 8:20 average pace or a thirty-mile ride averaging 22 mph. However, it’s better to emphasize total time and heart rate, for two reasons:
- When measuring only distance, total training volume will diminish over time as aerobic speed improves. This results in the completion of the same course in less time.
- When measuring only distance, some athletes feel pressured to complete a certain weekly mileage. This is a way to compare themselves to other athletes, training partners, or younger versions of themselves, or even compare to some article written in a sports magazine that “recommends” a certain mileage. Heart rate is a more useful parameter than distance because it relates to the quality, rather than the quantity, of the activity.
Perhaps a better title for this chapter is “Less Is More.” Meaning that for the average athlete with other responsibilities, less training usually produces better athletic performance than trying to accumulate many miles and hours of training.
While I have worked with many professional athletes in virtually all sports during my career, the majority of the athletes I’ve helped are not professionals. I’ve learned that if you work a full-time job and have a family, a house, and other responsibilities, you can still train and perform at very high levels. But don’t expect to be able to put in the same amount of time and milage as professional athletes. Nor do you need to for success. In fact, many of these pros put in much less time training than you’d think.
Most of the time, I find that less rather than more total training hours per week allows for better recovery and less stress. This helps the aerobic system build itself much more efficiently. When your competitive season comes, you’re more refreshed and ready to race.
I had one patient by the name of Carla who was a middle-of-the-pack triathlete in her late thirties with hopes of improving her times. But after her fourth year of diminishing returns, she searched for a better approach. After reading one of my earlier books, she strictly followed the program, except for one thing: her training schedule averaged eighteen hours per week. Unfortunately, Carla really didn’t have the time for that amount of training, but she tried to squeeze in the workouts. She worked part-time and had a family with two young children. As a result, she woke earlier in the morning and stayed up later in the evening to catch up on other work. For Carla, this meant less sleep and inadequate recovery. After some improvements in her MAF during the first few months, she became very fatigued and began feeling physical discomfort in her lower back and knees.
In late fall, Carla came to my clinic for help. My first recommendation was that she reduce her schedule to about twelve hours per week—it was the only training schedule change necessary. Carla was doing everything else right. By next summer’s racing season, eight out of nine races were personal bests for Carla, and she placed in the top five of her age-group in four of those events.
The importance of planning your training and competition, including racing goals, cannot be overemphasized. This means considering the twelve-month year as a cycle, with one or two base periods, and one or two competitive “seasons.” In North America, for example, the weather dictates much of this pattern as competitive events occur mostly from spring to fall. For example, winter is generally a time to build an aerobic base, leading up to spring races. Summer is a stressful time with hot temperatures, making it a good period for recovery from competition and easier training again—and a time to build a bit more aerobic function. This leads to more competition in the fall, ending the season in December when your long aerobic base period starts again.
The training cycle can always be modified as various factors present themselves. For example, if an unexpected busy work schedule suddenly affects your training, or if an unfortunate bike crash slows your aerobic base building period, modifications are easily made. Or, if your MAF Tests are exceptionally good, or not progressing as well due to poor diet, adjustments can easily be made.
An important part of your diary can be made in the early winter, when you plan your training cycle for the next twelve months. You can also highlight specific races.
Less Means Success
For many years, researchers have known that there is a limit to how much an athlete can train before it adversely affects performance. Many studies have shown that, compared to athletes who train with much more volume, lower-volume trained athletes can perform as well, if not better. The majority of your physical benefits received from training may occur in the first ten weeks or so of the training cycle. For example, if your competitive season ends in November, then go on to build an aerobic base from December through mid April, since the training benefits obtained in those early months, including those in the brain, muscles, and metabolism, can be maintained very easily. Afterward, you can then reduce your total workout time to make room in your schedule for anaerobic training as well as racing. By early July, you can slowly raise your aerobic training during the remaining summer months again—without the stress of anaerobic workouts or racing—before cutting back again in mid September for more anaerobic training and competition.
All this, of course, should be based on one’s individual needs and conditioning. Some athletes won’t use anaerobic training but instead add a couple of short races at the end of their base building, then begin a racing season. Others will not increase outdoor training time in the summer months if the weather is too hot.
Despite the evidence that less training offers more benefits, overtraining due to high volume is still common. If you are training for a single sport, your schedule is usually easier than if you are a multisport athlete. Single-sport athletes will usually have one workout a day. The best time to do this is based more on your daily non-training schedule rather than on the latest ever-changing research. When do you work? What other obligations exist? Many runners, for example, find a morning workout most suitable. Athletes in other sports may have limits; swimmers usually have pool hours to consider, cyclists and skiers the weather. I frequently recommend single-sport athletes perform some other activity one to three times per week. As previously noted throughout this book, cross-training has a positive benefit, especially for the brain and nervous system, as long as it is aerobic and fits into your schedule.
If you are a multisport athlete, you may have a busier schedule. But this does not mean you have to perform each sport every day. However, many endurance athletes still attempt this, and often to their detriment. Let me use the example of Jay. He loved triathlon but was stuck in an overtraining cycle for three years. He would train in each of his three events as many days as possible. He would run at 5 a.m., swim at noon, and ride late in the day. The problem: Jay had his own business and worked from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. He also had a family. Maintaining that schedule for five days, with Tuesday and Thursday reserved for his long bike ride and run respectively, was quite a chore. Jay was often exhausted, and about every couple of months, he’d have to take about a week off completely due to illness. As he started feeling better, he would pick up his “normal” schedule again. But as this vicious cycle would not end, Jay consulted me for help. I gave Jay my version of a program tailored to his needs, explaining how he would race better and get healthier. However, he could not understand how one could improve without the very high-volume weeks, noting that the pro triathletes all trained that way. I assured him this was not the case. Unfortunately, Jay was not compatible with my approach, and I never saw him again in my office. But occasionally we would meet at a race, where year after year he showed no improvement and often had an injury.
If you’re a multisport athlete with at least three days a week of each activity, your schedule can be very effective, although even this much volume is not always necessary. If possible, spread these workouts through the week so they are not on consecutive days. For example:
Swim—Monday, Wednesday, Saturday
Bike—Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday
Run—Monday, Thursday, Sunday
Question: On one wet, Sunday afternoon, I was plodding along in the heavy rain, all by myself, pleased with myself for going outside in the soup and running for forty-five minutes, when common sense might have said, “Stay indoors.” Then, another runner appeared out of the mist and blazed right past. My initial instinct was to pick up the pace and not let him get ahead. Then I realized, “What’s the point?” So I remained at my current (slow, aerobic) pace and watched him run off. Which leads me to the following questions: Is there a competitive gene in the brain? And why are some people so much more competitive than others? Can one be taught or trained to think or feel this way as an endurance athlete? Or is it something innate that we carry from birth? In fact, I have a training buddy who will not let anyone—strangers or friends—pass him on a bike training ride; he will practically kill himself to ensure that he always finishes first.
Answer: I think there are two forms of competition. One is healthy competition, which is based on a logical approach; first there’s a great training routine, where we don’t compete with anyone but ourselves in getting most fit. Next is the race, where we also compete with ourselves but can feed off others in a positive way. Healthy competition relies on the brain to balance the physical, chemical, and mental efforts used during training and racing.
Unhealthy competition is much more common. This is based on a “no pain, no gain” approach, where emotions can overshadow logic and common sense. With unhealthy competition, we can’t face the fact that someone out there is more fit than we are, and, as if we can just turn on a switch to go faster than anyone else, we work ourselves into a rage to beat that person. It’s more than a game, it’s an obsession. It’s like the bully we all knew in grade school, always looking for a fight. As mature adults, we should know better. Likewise, as intelligent endurance athletes, we want the best out of our bodies, and a well-planned strategy helps provide that, with a brain that also balances emotions.
Humans are naturally not only competitive, but very successful competitors. It’s how we evolved so successfully as a species. So in a sense, we all have that built-in competitiveness. Those most successful can control it. In training and racing, like all other aspects of life, harnessing that attribute can make us better athletes.
Notice the above schedule has nothing planned for Friday. It may be the end of a workweek, and the beginning of a busy training weekend, making Friday a perfect “off” day. If you feel better calling this a rest or recovery day, that’s perfectly okay. Sometimes the word “off” refers to not doing anything. But these days provide a most important part of the training formula that I like to keep repeating in this book due to its overpowering significance:
Training = Work + Rest
For most athletes, the weekend can be a time for longer workouts, including one on the bike on Saturday and a long run Sunday. Or, you can combine two events and make one longer workout such as a two-hour bike followed by a forty-five-minute run. A favorite cold weather workout is a swim immediately followed by an hour of indoor biking on rollers or a trainer. These combined sessions provide not only a longer workout but also help mimic race transitions, where your body has to adjust to the stress of changing from one event to another.
I often recommend at least one rest day per week to help with recovery. During the racing season, you will more easily maintain your fitness level with less training but require more recovery; in fact, two rest days are even better since anaerobic stimulation (from training or racing) will be added. Off days are best taken going into a weekend, if that is your busiest training time or if there is a race. Another appropriate time is Monday, which is a day when a lot of your energy is needed for recovery. Or make Monday an easy day if Friday is an off day and the weekend includes a lot of training.
When planning rest days (and easy ones), consider job stress too. If Mondays are always busy at work, don’t train that day.
Seasonal stress may also be a factor. If you own a retail business and your busiest time is the fall holiday season, end racing before that time.
Another important time to take it easy is at the end of your training and competitive season. For some athletes, this may be November or December. At this time, I recommend taking up to two or three weeks off, or more if you need it. While periods of rest are helpful for the body, a mental break is just as important. During this time just let your body do what it wants: easy running, hiking, or walking. Some athletes seem to benefit from doing nothing for a week or so. Or, train short and easy every other day instead of doing it daily.