Originally published in Marathon & Beyond Magazine, July / August 2008. (An alternate, multi-sport version was also published in Endurance News, #58, April 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, and such. A few solid years of 10ks, half-marathons, training with a club, and exploring what the sport has to offer will serve you well in the long run. 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 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 beyond to 24-hour races and 135-mile events like the Badwater Ultramarathon.
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 over time in cycling, running, 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 up to 50-mile events). 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’s impossible to maintain maximum fitness year-round, year after year. That’s 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 at a time 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. Then 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: Chill, Would Ya’?
There’s no need to adopt Olympic Team training methods in order to have a fulfilling career as an endurance athlete. 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, 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. BORING! Where’s the adventure in that? How does that develop adaptability? Where’s the challenge, the taste for the unknown? The life of an endurance athlete 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 training necessary, it really doesn’t matter which workout you do on any given day, as long as you recover in time for the next workout or event. Finally, 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 to your training and it will bring you a wide panorama of experiences AND greater fitness.
Step Five: 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 you won’t get substantially faster.
Simply put, you only get faster by running faster! In practical terms, you need one or two days a week focused on high intensity speed training. Though hill repeats or intervals against the clock can be effective speed training, the best way to increase your speed is to run with those who are faster than you are. Ideally, 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. 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 Six: No More SLOW Distance
“LSD” doesn’t stand for “Long Slow Distance,” it stands for “Long Steady Distance.” LSD runs 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” and “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 slowly is learning how to run slowly. A decent to hefty amount of endurance running is necessary to train for endurance races, but while you’re putting in those miles, do so at a good, steady intensity with occasional bursts of power over hills or while “play-racing” your friends.
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, either, whether on the hills or flats. Use your heart rate monitor to see how low you can keep your heart rate while maintaining a challenging average speed. If quicker runners pass you, pick up the pace; running steadily for long miles doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push the pace sometimes, too. But along the way, allow yourself the “indulgence” of stopping to enjoy the view. 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!
Step Eight: Eat Like a Champion
Food and drink choices for road and trail also won’t reveal their effectiveness until you get way “out there.” Use your long training runs to see which fuel and hydration systems work for you. Whatever you eat and drink, it should be portable, go down well, provide consistent energy (no highs and lows), and keep you hydrated. 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 train on that, too. Then when you do the event you won’t need to carry all your own fuel for every section of the course. (But if the event is going to serve Danishes and hot dogs, as some do, you’ll want to carry your own fuel at all times.) By the way, the majority of top endurance athletes use a primarily, or exclusively, liquid-based (or liquid-, pill-, and gel-based) fueling system while training and racing. Of course, above and beyond your athletic fuel plan, even more important for the life-long athlete is a proper, mindful, healthy diet, 24-7-365.
Step Nine: Do Something Else
I harp on this all the time, but it’s always worth repeating: DON’T JUST RUN! If you get away from your chosen sport and into yoga, Pilates, and spinning classes, the weight room, the pool, and out on a bike, you will become a better runner and a fitter, happier human being.
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 runners are stuck on a plateau, no matter how many miles they train, or how many long events they finish. They need to incorporate more intensity into their training and they need some 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 running. Cross-training will not only increase your overall health, but also your running ability through increased muscular endurance, strength, and overall joint, muscle, and connective tissue health. If you want to be running 50-milers for the next 50 years, then create and follow a training regimen and lifestyle that will get you there.
Step Ten: Recover, Recover, Recover
Give it a rest! The complimentary ideas of “rest days” and “recovery workouts” are lost on far too many athletes. In training, you’re either improving by pushing yourself or recovering by resting or going easily so that you’re ready to push yourself again. Training at a mid-level intensity is only useful during LSD runs. The rest of the time, either push it or go very, very easy (or don’t run at all). Each week should include one true recovery workout and one day of complete inactivity except perhaps a walk after dinner (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!
Just as growing into adulthood takes years, maturing as an endurance runner also takes time. You’ll have more fun, and become a better athlete, if you don’t try to rush it and you take the time to master the path.