If you’ve ever wondered how an Olympic gold medalist or world champion trains, you’re in luck. A recent study in PLOS ONE followed a collection of world-class elite endurance athletes to find out what their training year looked like. The researchers also wanted to see if the athletes followed the standard recommendations for preparing for competition.
Eleven elite cross-country skiers and biathletes, seven female and four male, were chosen for this study. The amazing part about this particular collection of athletes is that every single one of them had won either an Olympic or a World Championship senior gold medal. One of the complaints people have of some studies is that the participants aren’t seasoned athletes. Well, that was not a problem here. In total, these eleven athletes had won 66 world or Olympic titles.
For years, each of these athletes maintained detailed records of the training that took them from the junior to the senior level and right up to their world or Olympic title. In this study, the researchers examined the training year leading up to the biggest title.
Each of the athlete’s activities were categorized by intensity:
- Low intensity was divided into zones one and two. The average heart rate for zone one was 54-73% of max. For zone two, average was 74-83% of max.
- High intensity included zones three through five, which covered everything higher than 83% of max heart rate.
Further, each phase of their training plans was delineated. The plans were separated into three categories: general preparation, specific preparation, and competition preparation. Within the competition preparation category, the researchers also looked at the final training taper right before the big performance.
In line with their type of preparation phase, the activities themselves were divided by type. Specific activities were either skiing itself or roller skiing. Non-specific training included running, cycling, and weight lifting.
As it turned out, the athletes did not follow standard peaking practices prior to their best competition performances. In fact, their training in the final weeks leading up to competition didn’t change much at all. The competition phase of training did have lower volume from the rest of training, but the athletes kept working out just as often once they were in the final weeks.
Despite the common trend in sports toward higher intensity training, the majority of training in these athletes was in the low intensity zone. The athletes performed higher intensity training as well, of course, but the vast majority was low intensity. Only nine percent of annual endurance training was above a heart rate of 83% of their max, which amounted to about five hours of training per month.
Frequency and Volume
The athletes trained an average of eight to ten sessions every week for the full year, totaling around 500 training sessions. As amazing as that frequency is to maintain year-round, the volume is even more shocking. They trained about 800 hours in their most successful year, or over 1.5 hours per training session. They trained multiple times per day, and 500 hours of training was sport specific.
It’s clear that to become a champion endurance athlete, or any type of athlete, you need to put in the work.
1. Espen Tønnessen, et. al., “The Road to Gold: Training and Peaking Characteristics in the Year Prior to a Gold Medal Endurance Performance,” PLOS ONE 2014, 9:7.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.