How Should I Train?
I recently received the following question from Ross Weinzierl who gave me permission to print it here. I thought it was a good one, especially given this time of year when we reflect over the past season and think about what’s ahead. It’s also apropos because it gets at the issue of stress relative to specificity. Here’s what Ross asked…
Q: Developing my goals for 2009 has given me time to reflect on 2008 and what has gone right and what maybe didn't work so well for me. Not just for training, but, more importantly, my family life. I found that as I drove myself into training, I moved further from my family life. This year, one of my main goals is to increase my ratio of family time to training.
One such idea was to incorporate more high intensity training of short duration rather than put on more miles. I do not want to completely eliminate longer training sessions because I will never know what it really takes to go the distance. But I also want to maximize my output to give me the greatest feedback.
What has been your experience with a greater ratio of short, high intensity workouts to longer, less intense workouts? Can you completely substitute one for the other? What would be an adequate balance?
4th season triathlete
Married with 2 dogs
Highly motivated to succeed, but not at the price of family...again
A: You bring up many interesting issues here, Ross. It’s difficult to know where to start. I might point out first that what is one man’s “long” is another man’s “short.” So let’s try to nail that down first.
Every event demands some level of aerobic endurance just to complete it. You don’t have to train at the distance of the event, however, in all cases. For example, I never have an Ironman triathlete run 26.2 miles in training. There is simply very little to be gained by doing that and a lot to lose—mostly lost training time due to the long recovery from such a run and the potential for injury or other breakdowns that would also take away training time. But the shorter the race is the more likely one is to train at the race’s distance or even longer.
You race at the sprint (swim ~400m, bike ~13 miles, run ~5km) and Olympic (swim 1500m, bike 40km, run 10km) triathlon distances. So let’s discuss what is “long” when training for an Olympic triathlon. Typically the longest swim when I am coaching someone to race this distance is about 2500m. The common long ride is two hours. And the usual long run is 90 minutes. Could you train effectively with shorter “long” workouts? You most certainly could. It all comes down to what your performance goals are. Generally, the higher one’s performance goals (we’re talking about finishing times here), the longer the long sessions up to about the limits I described above. Many high-performance athletes go well beyond these suggestions in order to race at a level bordering on their physiological potentials. But with a lower goal of simply finishing the race you could train for shorter than the race distances and still be successful. You wouldn’t even need to increase the intensity of training.
Let me give you a personal example of that. Last year I did four, non-competitive cycling events ranging from 100 to 125 miles in the mountains of Colorado. My goal was simply to ride them with a friend and have a good time. Even though these events ranged from well over five to eight hours my longest training ride was just three hours. But I spent a lot of time preparing for the climbs as I knew this would be the real determiner of success for my goal. It worked.
This latter point is part of your question—does substituting higher intensity training for decreased low-intensity, endurance work prepare you as well for an event?
The answer to that question is “it depends.” The bigger your base of endurance fitness is, the less endurance training you need to do and the more you can concentrate on the intensity demands of the event. I’ve been riding a bike very consistently for 30 years. So I knew that if all I wanted to do was comfortably complete these long events the key would be the higher intensity climbs—not the duration. I trained accordingly.
If you have set high performance goals but you do not have a large reservoir of aerobic fitness from years of consistent training then you need to frequently do longer workouts approching the limits I listed above and also do high intensity training.
I share your concern for balancing my life with the many things I have to do while including what I want to do with my limited time on the planet. Family and training are also both important to me. While I love to workout I’ve seen what excessive time spent on the road can do to other important aspects of one’s life—family, career, finances, friendships and more.
I once went to a talk by a successful ultra-distance runner. He talked about how he trained, which was basically every spare minute was on the trails. He ran before work, during the lunch break, after work well into the night and for entire weekends. He won the Western States 100-Mile race that year as a result. During the Q&A at the end someone asked how all of that training impacted the rest of his life. He answered by saying that he lost his job, his wife divorced him and he had no friends. “But,” he said as he held up the belt buckle they award for winning, “it was all worth it!” I’m not sure I’d agree with that, but each to his own, I guess.
I don’t think I’ve completely answered your question here. There are simply too many things I don’t know about you. If I could just tell you what to do with your training without concern for the rest of your life it would be easy. I could make out a list of workouts for you to do over several weeks and could practically guarantee triathlon success in terms of performance. Just do these things—train both long and intensely—and you’ll achieve very high performance goals. Would it all be worth it? Only you could answer that question.