Training for endurance events is a very grueling process. There are many different endurance competitions that come in a variety of styles, but they all have some very apparent similarities. They all require the athlete to endure long periods of performing work.
Endurance is the result of being able to prolong fatigue from repeating a technique or skill over a long span of time. Be it running, swimming, biking, hiking, climbing, or any number of activities, when you have to repeat the activity consistently over a long span of time, your body and energy systems require a level of endurance to perform at the best level they can. When you place repeated stress on the body through motion, impact, or resistance, you also make the body more prone to adaptations that can create imbalances likely injuries.
The Trap of Over-Training
It’s easy to understand that the more often you use a machine or a tool, the quicker it is likely to break, and if you don’t take care of the tool or provide any maintenance, the tool will surely deteriorate quicker. Endurance events are unique in this aspect because the time required to train and compete often exceeds the time taken for a number of team sports and other high intensity style competitions. This creates a very important need to understand balance, priorities, and time management to ensure that the body is performing at its optimal levels.
Because of these time constraints, many endurance athletes get stuck into the “mileage trap” often described by runners. This idea is that the more miles you run, the better runner you become. The more you do something, the more efficient you become, in other words. To an extent, this may be true, but eventually, there comes a point where the increases in performance become minimal. There is something to be said that the more you do something, the more your body adapts to that movement and it becomes very efficient, but efficiency is only one single piece of the endurance athlete puzzle. When approaching the idea of improving performance for an endurance athlete, training and development have to go beyond efficiency, all the top athletes are extremely efficient in their technique. What many of them lack, however, comes down to not effectively applying three critical pillars of training to improving their performance during endurance events.
Often, many athletes are spending too much time in one of these pillars and, generally, that over-trained pillar is mileage. An endurance athlete needs to appropriately develop endurance, strength, and speed in order to make critical gains in their performance. Distributing the time spent with each pillar effectively is key, but when accomplished, it can build upon the efficiency that is so highly sought after and can take the athlete to a whole new level of performance.
Train for Aerobic Capacity
First things first, training for endurance performance requires principally increasing the capacity of the athlete to prolong fatigue at the highest intensity possible. This requires improving the body’s aerobic capacity, or its ability to use oxygen, as the agent to replenish muscle energy stores. When continuous training (CT) sessions are performed, the body focuses on staying in an aerobic state utilizing oxygen and fatty acids as its primary fuel source. These particular fuels in are nearly unlimited making CT an important component to enduring a lengthy competition and not hitting the wall.
During CT sessions, the limiting factor becomes the body’s efficiency in using these fuel sources since oxygen and fatty acids take more energy and steps to break down and in the end, yield more calories for the muscles to use. The most important adaptation that happens during CT is that the body becomes more efficient at using these long lasting and high yield fuels. This also allows the body to increase the speed of training while maintaining a high aerobic intensity range.
Long, slow distance training sessions are irreplaceable for this reason, making more sustainable energy systems function at higher intensities. In endurance events that are going to last longer than 2 or 3 minutes, some degree of aerobic fitness must be developed because that is how the body will resist fatigue and push through to the end of an event. As events grow further in distance or longer in duration, training sessions that mimic these durations and distances become more important to teach the body how to handle the repetitive stresses for the event. Continuous training serves more than just physiological purposes, but also trains sport specific characteristics that the athlete needs in order to compete at the highest level.
Train for Strength
The problem with CT sessions alone is that they do two things; first, de-train the body’s ability to accelerate beyond the trained pace and the production of power is significantly impeded. Second, ligaments, connective tissue, and muscles are used so rhythmically that the body actually changes its structure to over-facilitate the ability to reproduce the motion and this increases the risk of injury, especially when performing actions not related to the event.
This is why strength training needs to also have an important place in the training program for an endurance athlete. Strength training brings a plethora of benefits to the athlete, fortifying the joints and the connective tissue, increasing the capacity to generate power, and eliciting balance and equilibrium of the body’s muscle structure. The most efficient way to get the most out of strength sessions is to lift heavy. Compound movements, squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press (done at 80% of 1 repetition max in sessions of high sets and low reps with plenty of rest in between) will help the body stay healthy and injury free in spite of the sustained repetitive impact felt during training.
Apart from the big four classic compound lifts, other assistance lifts should also be done. Incorporating weighted carries, single leg, single arm, and other movements requiring movement across all planes of motion (front to back, side to side, and twisting) will only benefit the athlete when it comes time to perform. When the body is able to effectively reproduce technique at an optimum level through cadence, stride, or stroke rate, the athlete that is able to maintain that optimal technique with greater production of power per rep and will have the advantage. In addition, the athlete that can train more because of fewer injuries is also going to gain an advantage over their competition. This is what well done resistance training brings to the endurance athlete’s table.
Train Using Intervals
The last important piece to effective endurance training involves higher intensity, shorter intervals, otherwise known as interval training, high intensity interval training, etc. Each endurance competition course brings a different set of challenges, whether they be in the form of hills, descents, curves, loops, small roads, uneven surfaces, climate conditions—the list goes on and on.
Endurance events vary tremendously from venue to venue and, because of this, athletes don’t entirely know what to expect. If all you have trained is going at a very consistent pace for a long period of time, yet at the race you are confronted with a number heavy duty climbs, odds are you’re not going to perform to your regular standards.
Aerobic pace training focuses a great deal on the activation and development of slow-twitch muscle fibers that effectively utilize oxygen and fatty acids as their primary fuel source. However, in order to blast up those hills or make that charge at the finish line, the ability to engage the fast-twitch fibers that create greater force becomes very necessary.
Interval training can teach the body how to accelerate when fatigued by being able to activate those stronger fibers and make a short burst of higher speeds, be it to climb a hill, pass an opponent, kick at the finish line, or distance oneself from the pack. Interval training accomplishes the goal of getting the body to work at high intensities that will allow it to compete in a range of intensities and use those varying intensities dependent of the course and competition. Interval training can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but incorporate intensities at or below race pace for a short burst, followed by little rest and repeated various times.
Put These Pillars to Practice
These are the three essential pillars to effectively make gains in your endurance event performances. Endurance, interval, and strength training are three tools that will create effective performance efficiency, ability to engage different intensities, and also stay injury-free. The key to incorporating these tools is to do so in an appropriate proportion that will provide the greatest benefits to performance.
The majority of training for endurance events should be done at the aerobic pace of the athlete. Since the intensities of these sessions are relatively low, it is important to spend enough time to elicit adaptations that will increase the pace of the athlete at the aerobic level—80% of time training should be done at the aerobic level. Interval training, as important as it is to be included, should be trained in limited quantities. When elite athletes reach above 20% of time spent doing high intensity work, many report diminishing returns on performance and an increase in symptoms of overtraining because their bodies don’t recover fully.
Weight training for the endurance athlete should be done independently from the hours spent training for the sport specific activities. This does not mean that it is less important than the other two pillars, it just means that the goal of weight training holds a completely different purpose than that of sport specific practice. Weight training is the athlete’s tool to bullet-proof the body, increase muscle power output, and prevent avoidable injuries. Lifting twice a week is plenty to accomplish this task while making sure that there is plenty of time to recover between sessions in the gym. When these three pillars of training are used effectively, the potential benefits to performance increase greatly.
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