Ten Steps on the Endurance Path:
A Prescription for a Long Life on the Long Road

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in Endurance News, #58, April 2008. Download that publication here (64 pages; 2.4MB). View this article on the Hammer Nutrition website: Click.

An alternate, running-specific version was also published in Marathon & Beyond, July / August 2008.

The sequel to this article, "The Endurace Path Revisited: Dumb Things Cyclists & Other Ultra Athletes Think and Do," was published in Endurance News, #59, July 2008.

For twenty-five years, I have seen people get into endurance sports, quickly make the jump into ultra-distance events and training, then pile on the miles and the finish lines, only to wind up back on the couch, never to be seen again within a few short years. That’s a long sentence describing a short career as an endurance athlete. Don’t let this be you!  Whether you are fresh out of college (or high school) or an empty-nester looking for a new challenge, developing as an endurance athlete takes several years to learn the path and a lifetime to master it.

Step One: Don’t Be A Burnout

There’s no better way to get sick of something than to do it too much, too hard, and too often, to the exclusion of other pursuits and activities. Yes, endurance sports require time and commitment, but they do NOT require that one take on the monastic or ascetic life. Regardless of the age at which you start in the sport, take your time and don’t hurry things. There’s no need to do several marathons in your first year of running, or even in the second or third year. Likewise for competing in ultras, adventure races, triathlons, endurance cycling events, and such. A few solid years of 10ks, half-marathons, training with a club, and exploring what the sport of running has to offer will serve you well in the long run.  The same goes for other endurance sports. Building layer upon layer of quality training, quality rest, quality information-seeking, and quality experience is an integral part of a healthy, fulfilling, balanced lifestyle. With that approach, you’ll be rolling and running across finish lines for many decades to come!

Step Two: Progress, Intelligently Planned

One of the beauties of endurance sports is that the various events are measured in specific and consistent distance or time increments. This creates a simple, logical, and smart path for progressing through a season and through a career. Thus 5Ks lead to 10Ks and half-marathons lead to marathons. Beyond that, 50ks lead to 50-milers, 100Ks to 100-milers, and out there in terra incognito are the 24-hour races and 135-mile events like the Badwater Ultramarathon. In cycling, 50-milers lead to centuries, which lead to double centuries, which lead into 24-hour and 500+ mile races. Similar distance progression exists in triathlon, adventure racing, swimming, and other endurance sports.

When I first got into long-distance cycling in the early 80s, my theory was that one can always race twice as far as one has gone before – and this proved true for me over time in cycling as well as in running, snowshoeing, and triathlon. But while it can be reasonable to jump from half- to full-marathon, or from 50 miles to 100 miles with many sound weeks or months of training in between, running requires adaptation to the pounding of the pavement. This requires, for most, training runs at 80% or more of the intended race distance (at least for up to 50-mile events). Cycling is generally less injurious than running, and requires less time to recover, so doubling one’s distance is a bit safer than in running. Use the doubling rule of thumb cautiously, over time, and you’ll find ever further horizons still within your reach.

Step Three: Think and Live Seasonally

It is impossible to maintain maximum fitness year-round, year after year. That’s the fallacy of the “full-time fitness professional.” That’s also why top endurance athletes build their seasons (years) around one or a few key events and vary their training in cycles of weeks or months to reach their peak fitness when those events happen, a system called periodization. There are many reasons such an approach is beneficial and productive: Each cycle brings new challenges, and rewards, to you. Then the next cycle builds upon the one before to make you better, faster, stronger, and hopefully happier. Importantly, at season’s end, you can take a break physically, emotionally, and otherwise to recharge your batteries. (Just don’t get fat in winter.)

Step Four: Don’t Skip the Speedwork

One common endurance training mistake is just “putting in the miles.” The mentality is that if you put enough miles in the bank in your training, you can withdraw them later as endurance, maybe even as miraculously fast endurance. But this approach is boring, a waste of time, and won’t make you substantially faster.

Simply put, you only get faster by training faster!  In practical terms, for cycling running, swimming, and other endurance path sports, you need one or two days a week focused on high intensity speed training. Though solo hill repeats or intervals against the clock can be effective speed training, the best way to increase your speed is to swim, bike, or run with those who are faster than you are. For running, join a coached track workout at least once a week. (If none are available, find some fast runners to meet weekly.) The coaching you’ll get on your form, posture, and other subtleties is another great bonus of group workouts. Ditto for joining a master’s swim workout program. For cycling, join a true “racing club” on at least one smoking fast training session per week. (If you’re really lucky, you live near a velodrome and can join a program there.) Be forewarned, though: it can be humbling for a while, if not for a long while. But you’ll get faster, and stronger, for the long haul.

Step Five: Chill, Would Ya’?

There’s no need to adopt Olympic Team training methods in order to have a fulfilling life on the endurance path. Time and again, I see athletes taking things WAY too seriously, downloading every workout into their computer for scrutiny, stepping on the scale every day, keeping mammoth training logs, undergoing extremely detailed – and extremely expensive – fitness tests, and never missing a workout under any circumstances. Most egregiously, most athletes do the same workout, or route, on the same day of the week, week after week, year-round. I say, “BORING!! Where’s the adventure in that? How does that develop adaptability? Where’s the challenge, the taste for the unknown? Life on the endurance path should be fun, first and foremost, and should open up the world in a literally awe-inspiring way. As long as you get in the variety and intensity of necessary training, it really doesn’t matter which workout you do on any given day. Remember, though: don’t skip training days during the week with the intention of making up for it on the weekends. On a consistent, regular basis, use your sport for exploring the inner and outer universes, as a tool for self-discovery, for exploring all the geography of your life. Bring diversity - and a relaxed sense of fun - to the endurance path and it will bring you a wide panorama of experiences AND greater fitness.

Step Six: No More SLOW Distance

In my humble opinion, “LSD” does not stand for “Long Slow Distance,” it stands for “Long Steady Distance.” There is a difference. LSD runs, rides, and swims will allow you to slowly, but surely, rebuild your body from the inside out. You’ll increase the efficiency of your cardiovascular system and get in touch with your heartrate and breathing patterns. This is particularly important in the early season, when you’re laying the foundation for the year.  Most importantly, don’t confuse “steady” for “slow” and just put in the long miles at an easy intensity. This is a waste of time because the only thing accomplished physiologically by running, cycling, or swimming slowly is learning how to run, bike, or swim slowly. In reality, only a moderate amount of long-distance training is necessary to train for endurance races (mainly to test nutritional programs and to see how your body and mind respond to long hours or big miles.) But while you’re putting in those long miles, do so at a good, steady intensity with occasional bursts of power over hills or while “play-racing” your friends. Use your heart rate monitor to see how low you can keep your heart rate while maintaining a challenging average speed. Just don’t waste your time going slowly!

Step Seven: Don’t Dilly-Dally, but Do Smell the Roses

Life is short, so “Keep it steady and keep it moving” should be the mantra while training or racing.  Don’t dilly-dally while refueling, tending to blisters, or reading a map. Don’t bog down your pace, cadence, or foot turnover, whether on the hills or flats. (“Lively legs” is the reminder I use.) But, most importantly, do allow yourself the “indulgence” of stopping to enjoy the view along the way. I mean that literally: when you reach that awesome viewpoint, stop! Check it out! Breathe it in! Stretch out your body for a minute! Enjoy the moment! If you’re only going to stare at the trail or road right in front of you, you might as well just run on a treadmill, ride on a trainer, or swim all alone! One of the true joys of life on the endurance path is to appreciate where it leads you, after all, and what that view provides.

Step Eight: Eat Like a Champion

Food and drink choices for the endurance path won’t reveal their effectiveness until you get way “out there.” Use your long training efforts to see which fuel and hydration systems work for you, rather than finding out the hard way on race day. Whatever you eat and drink, it should be portable, go down well, provide consistent energy (no highs and lows), and keep you hydrated. It should be a system that you have carefully honed and tested in training. Even if drop bag delivery is provided at your intended race, it won’t usually be for all the checkpoints; find out what the event promoters will serve and plan accordingly. I once rolled into a checkpoint at a double century and they were serving hot dogs and Danishes - that’s it! Most likely you will need to bring and carry most or all of your own powders, gels, and pills. Don’t see that as a hassle, though: it’s your secret weapon! Of course, above and beyond your athletic fuel plan, even more important for a long life on the endurance path is a proper, mindful, healthy diet, 24/7/365.

Step Nine: Recover, Recover, Recover

Give it a rest! The complimentary ideas of “rest days” and “recovery workouts” are lost on far too many athletes of every kind. In training, you’re either improving by pushing yourself or you’re recovering so that you’re ready to push yourself again. Training at a mid-level intensity is only useful during LSD sessions. Each week should include one true recovery workout and one day of light activity. (On a related note, a walk after dinner is a good habit every day.) If you’re not recovered, your resting heart rate will be elevated and/or you’ll feel listless during your workout. If that’s you, rest another day: training on tired legs is a waste of time. Make your training time count, but also make your recovery time count. The point is to keep building, ever higher!

Step Ten: Do Something Else

I harp on this all the time, but it’s always worth repeating: DON’T JUST DO YOUR MAIN SPORT! Spending 90% of your time doing the sport you know and love is called training your strengths and that’s no way to become a better endurance athlete. Let’s say your main sport is road running: your endurance path could - should, I’d say - also include yoga, Pilates, and spinning classes, the weight room, the pool, cycling, and running trails.

Frankly, I’m amazed at the number of overweight endurance athletes I see.  Either the extra weight is a result of poor dietary habits (fast food for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner?) or these athletes are stuck on a plateau: no matter how many miles they train, or how many long events they finish, they never really get into shape, or better shape. They need to incorporate more intensity into their training and they need some serious cross-training to shock their bodies into pushing itself to a higher level. (So do the rest of us!)

Think of cross-training as filling in the blanks that are left by the huge volume of sports-specific training done while doing your main sport.  Cross-training will not only increase your overall health, but also your sports-specific athletic ability through increased muscular endurance and strength and elevated joint, muscle, and connective tissue health.

If you want to be running 50-milers for the next 50 years, or riding centuries until you’re 100, then create and follow the endurance path that will get you there. See you along the way!


Chris Kostman has lived on the endurance path since 1982. Besides competing in races as diverse as the Race Across America, the Triple Ironman, and the 100-mile Iditasport Snowshoe Race, he also organizes endurance events such as the Badwater Ultramarathon and Furnace Creek 508. This is his third article for Endurance News. More info at www.adventurecorps.com.