This past week I completed my 45th trip around the sun. As usual, I ran my age in miles, which becomes more of an ordeal with each passing year. It also gives me a lot of time to think about what categorically has worked with athletes over 2-plus decades as a professional coach. Below are the top three things that absolutely work. More importantly, they are things you can incorporate into training today, tomorrow and every year of your ultrarunning journey.
Above all else, give yourself long periods of time to train
Much of the time our training focus gets overly fixated on three specific categories-
- specific training interventions (like strength training)
- workout structure (like polarized vs pyramidal training)
- nutritional paradigms (high carb or ketogenic diets)
These specific foci are nice, but let’s face it, the effects are relatively limited. Any of these aspects can improve your training by a few percent, which is nice, but is something that I think gets lost when looking at the entire body of training literature. Optimize the amount of time at intensity over an 8 or 16-week period, and you can get better by a few percent. Move to a high carbohydrate, low glycemic diet, and you get a couple of percent. Strength train correctly, and your running economy might improve by 1-2%. These improvements are all fine and dandy. However, there’s an easier and more effective way: just give yourself more time.
Time is your most valuable commodity in the ultramarathon game.
More specifically, the time frame you give yourself to train.
Every year we will see a large influx of athletes in February and March who are training for events in July and August. Given this timeframe, these athletes will improve, but not nearly as much as those who started training in December and January. In fact, the data from my athletes indicate that, on average, athletes will improve 1-2% per month of training for the first 12 months. And it’s nearly a linear relationship. No matter how much I optimize volume, intensity, frequency, and the specificity of training, NOTHING I can do will outperform a few extra months of training. And it’s easy, all you need is time!
This does not mean that you must be at 100% of your training load 100% of the time. Far from it. You don’t even have to increase the total amount of annual training you perform. What it means is that you apply some intelligent framework earlier in the process. It’s as simple as that. For those of you training for events in the summer of 2024, start designing and deploying your training now. You’ll thank me later next year.
Learn when are you the most fresh and the most fatigued
One of the most lauded concepts of training for any sport is progressive overload. Simply stated, as you become more fit you need a larger (or progressive) overload to seek further adaptations. For whatever reason in the endurance community, we tend to forget that the time course for fatigue is much, much faster than the time course for adaptation.
Whenever you do a workout, the fatiguing effect of that workout is felt immediately. You have less capacity as the workout progresses, and at the end of the workout you likely perform worse than at the beginning. The improvement reaped from that workout, however, is not gleaned until weeks, or even months after said workout. It takes time to build red blood cells, increase capillary density, and the whole host of positive physiological phenomena you are hoping to achieve.
Yet, when you look at many training schedules, they progressively overload weekly. Meaning, each week has more volume or total workload than the previous week, almost as if the designer of the plan neglected to recognize the blatant discrepancy in time course for fatigue and adaptation.
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The discrepancy between these endpoints has made me appreciate the following framework when designing training:
Determine when you are going to be the most fresh and put your hardest runs there. Avoid doing your hardest runs when you are the most fatigued.
Simply put, immediately following a recovery week is your best time to do your hardest workout, biggest block, longest long run or whatever key training you have in the queue.
I wrote more about this concept in this article.
You are more than a random collection of physiological numbers
In coaching, we tend to focus on how to improve physiological metrics like lactate threshold, VO2 max and durability. We also try to correlate the aforementioned metrics with performance, pushing more on the ones that are most impactful for performance. What gets lost in the physiological shuffle is how the athlete is interpreting the physiological improvements we are seeking.
When athletes think they are improving, they normally are. When they feel fatigued, they are. We can corroborate these feelings with performance and physiological assessments (like HRV or resting HR) but in most cases, all the arrows point in the same direction. This has reinforced my commitment to lean on the athlete’s subjective feedback to drive the training process just as much as, and in many cases more than, the data.
So, for the athletes out there that are evaluating their year-end Strava statistics as a means of finding out where to improve, take a look at your training notes first. Find the patterns of when you felt better and were more positive about your fitness. Chances are, you will glean more information about what worked from those patterns than from the vertical you bagged in the previous year.