Enduring the pain: Take fitness to new level
This article serves a dual purpose. First, it is designed to motivate each of you to set a goal for 2017 that will take your fitness to a new level. If I’m successful with encouraging you to set an ambitious goal, then I should at least offer some tips on how to train properly to achieve them. Part II will offer some basic guidelines to get your training started and keep you healthy.
Each December, I spend a few weeks looking back on what I was able to achieve with my training and racing over the last year and what areas I fell short in. After this honest reflection, I look to the upcoming year and begin the steps of outlining a race schedule that will drive my training cycles for each main race or goal.
For many years, I haphazardly approached this crucial step. If my friends were racing a popular off island race somewhere exotic, then I would let that drive my goals. What I discovered is it is really hard to align my fitness and training to others’ goals throughout the year. As you might have guessed, my performance was sub par at many of these events - albeit I had a great time. It was only when I got serious about racing and racing well that I began to understand the importance of deliberate goal setting, training cycles and establishing a race schedule that balances both elements.
Use the motivation that comes with a new year to drive your focus in 2017. Follow these four steps to set a course and achieve more in endurance racing. After you chart your path for the year, please take a moment to understand the basic principles regarding endurance training. It is crucial you take a systematic approach to your training to reap the rewards of all those hard training efforts and to increase your chances of arriving at your “A” race injury free.
Part 1: Setting Goals
1. Proceed with caution
Running and all endurance sports are progressive in nature. Meaning that our bodies adapt to the stress we place on it over time. We can all run a marathon, but the idea is to progressively build to that goal. If you haven’t been running half marathons in 2016, then your goal should be to start with racing the local 5Ks while gradually increasing the amount of mileage you are running (see training advice later in this article).
2. Race something epic
Over the last few years, I was absorbed in racing the XTERRA off road triathlon series and other endurance events throughout Asia. This allowed me to race and train in Malaysia, Philippines, Japan, China, Saipan, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. The experiences from these events gave me a deeper understanding of each culture, principals of surviving on the road, and provided me endless array of memories. Recruit some friends with a common interest and go abroad to race something truly unique - you will take home more than a medal.
3. Diversity is key
As I mentioned, I have become a little more systematic with my race scheduling and this is defined by two very simple concepts. First, you must commit at least 14-16 weeks toward a singular goal. Typically much longer if you are just getting into the sport or if you are racing a multi-sport event, but four months is a good start. Cameron O’Neal, a 10-time Ironman competitor and Kona finisher, typically finds time for three major races a year. O’Neal offered insight on his approach: “I pick a long course event like an Ironman (at least for the past 10 years) as one of my “A” races and a marathon as my other one (Boston the last two years). However, it helps living on Guam and being spoiled with beautiful weather to train year-round.”
As an example, I will race the Boston marathon in April and my training cycle for this begins this week. I will dedicate 16 weeks of training to this race. Mind you I just finished a 14-week cycle dedicated to a 1/2 marathon (that I was able to PR at with a 1:12:47), so I’m not exactly starting from scratch working toward Boston. After Boston, I want to return to triathlon racing and just enjoying the outdoors and cycling. This is the second concept I want to stress. Our bodies require rest and recovery after each major training cycle and for me specifically that translates to mixing up my focus. Try something new, race a different distance, or take it off-road on the trails to enjoy a break. In the end, you are continuing to develop your aerobic capacity and helping to prevent overuse injuries.
4. Expect setbacks
A sad reality to running and endurance training is that injuries can often times derail your plans. I will speak later on how to lessen the chances of injury during your training, but I wanted to offer some advice on how I approach these setbacks. Last year, I did the research and found a really fast ½ marathon in Japan in late Feb. I trained with that goal in mind for 15 weeks until a mountain bike crash made it unrealistic. It became evident I was going to miss a few weeks of training while my neck and shoulder healed, so I began to look further down the road. Endurance events and triathlons specifically can be a very expensive endeavor. I was only out $65 for a race entry and was able to push my goal back to later in the year. Be careful of races that don’t offer you an opportunity to get at least a partial refund. The key is to avoid getting frustrated and always have another target in sight to keep the fire alive.
Part 2: Guidelines for endurance training
With a greater understanding of how to set realistic goals for the year, it becomes very important to train SMART as you set out to accomplish them. There is an endless supply of books and training blogs on how to train correctly for each discipline, but I wanted to take a moment to share some universal practices to get you out the door. These three elements are the basis of my training and I use them to guide a number of athletes I have helped over the years. This advice is simplistic by design and valuable at every level.
1. Understanding the value of training cycles & training phases
Training cycles can vary depending on your event and where you are at in terms of current fitness. Most of my training cycles range from 14-20 weeks. A second concept within each training cycle is small periods of time devoted to specific phases. The four most commonly used are; base, strength, speed, and peak/tapering.
One of the challenges as a coach has been getting athletes to understand that there are no short cuts as they progress through these phases. Often times, athletes want to jump straight to strength and speed training because they feel they can progress faster. Our bodies require a majority of the training to occur at or below the aerobic threshold- in essence easy conversational pace running or riding. During this base phase your body is adapting the cardiovascular system. This is the point when your body starts to become efficient in the delivery of oxygen to your muscles- a necessity for endurance athletes. It doesn’t happen overnight and you won’t attain your full potential without putting in the time in the base phase. Trust me- I’ve made the mistake of jumping phases too early and paid with marginal performance.
I found myself using this word quite often this past fall as I coached a high school cross country team. Many of the athletes would show up three times a week versus the 6 days of practice normally scheduled. When my team did show up they ran hard and put the work in, but the inconsistency of their training meant they wouldn’t realize too much improvement over the course of a short season.
I want to be very careful and not prescribe more is better here. My intent is defining consistency across a long continuum in your training- day by day and week after week. If you are running or training 5 days a week, then missing a few days one week and trying to catch-up the following week will only lead to injury or fatigue (or both).
If training volume is defined in terms of mileage or hours a week, then you want to see a gradual increase of training volume. For most of my athletes, they will increase their workload for three consecutive weeks, then the fourth week will be lower to allow their bodies to recover from the stress. Take a moment each week to calculate your training volume. Do not fall into the trap of always increasing your workload even if your body is adjusting well.
3. Adding volume and intensity into your training
As endurance athletes progress in terms of fitness and training, it is natural to add intensity and more volume into your training. Volume is a little easier to understand and can be adjusted according to your recent training history. For example, this past summer I finished a marathon training cycle (8 weeks) that averaged 45 miles for the entire period. (Note: I was already in good shape, so I got away with a condensed cycle). As you can see from the chart, I gradually increased the volume with a recovery week in the middle of the training cycle. I would have benefited from more time to get my mileage higher, but if I attempted to run 60-70 miles a week during this period- I can almost guarantee I would have experienced overuse injuries by adding too much volume too quickly. And for reference, I was able to run a 2:40 marathon off 45 miles a week that was supplemented by cycling a few times a week.
Intensity takes a little more thought to apply to your training. For the novice or beginner, it might take a few workouts to understand what is a realistic goal. Again, please note that athletes would want to have six weeks of general base training under their belts before moving into running high intensity efforts.
I’ll offer an example to better understand how to add high intensity workouts to your training. Using the half marathon as a goal, it becomes very important to set a specific time goal for the event. Let’s take a half marathoner with a previous best of 2 hours that is targeting a 1:50 or faster. The average pace for this effort is around 8:24 per mile or 5:10 per kilometer. In this example, early season workouts might include a moderate interval session: 6 x 800m @ 4:05-4:10 goal pace with 3 min recovery between each 800. Another common workout is tempo runs. For this athlete, it might look something like this: 2 miles easy, then 4 miles at 8:30 to 8:10 per mile, and finish with an easy mile warm down. A later season workout would include a lactic threshold run for one-hour. It would likely push the athlete to 8:00 per mile average or slightly faster for the entire period. (Note: see 12-week half marathon training plan to help start your training)
All the efforts are designed to push a runner outside of their current comfort zone. It is impossible to run faster if you don’t dedicate at least a small part of your workouts to running faster intervals. These types of workouts are anaerobic in nature and shouldn’t be run until a solid base or foundation has been properly established.
And, my last word of warning is to stress the underlining rule to avoid increasing both volume and intensity at the same time. In essence, we are applying stress at two separate points on our bodies and the likelihood of injury is significant.
Training and endurance racing have become a valuable part of my life. On most days, I meet friends after work or on the weekends that share this passion. Over the years, I was lucky to find or seek out those that pushed me to become a better athlete. If this sport didn’t provide me a high degree of self-satisfaction then I would have moved on a long time ago. I encourage you to be patient in your pursuit of fitness. It is not something achieved over a short time period and that’s really what makes it a worthwhile endeavor.
12-week half marathon training plan
• FARTLEK: Swedish for “speed play;” variable pace running; a mixture of slow running, running at a moderate pace and short, fast bursts.
• INTERVAL: Training in which short, fast “repeats” or “repetitions” often 200 to 800 meters alternated with slow “intervals” of jogging for recovery. Interval training builds speed and endurance. Hill repeats are typically 2-3 min in duration with equal recovery.
• TEMPO: A tempo run is a faster-paced workout also known as a lactate-threshold, LT, or threshold run. Tempo pace is often described as “comfortably hard.”
• GYM: Variety of functional strength or cross training exercises (stationary bike, elliptical, swimming, zumba, etc)
• REST: Often times the most overlooked element of training. Ensure proper rest and recovery between your high intensity workouts.
• WARM-UP & COOL DOWN: Warm-up 15 min before each workout and cool down 10 min.
About the Author: Charlie Epperson is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard and spent six years training and racing on Guam. Charlie earned an elite triathlon license in 2014 and was selected to the U.S.A. Triathlon National Team for off-road triathlon in 2016. This year, Charlie set marathon and ½ marathon PRs as he turned 40. Charlie spends his free time guiding athletes through his Endurance Lab project- www.raceonguam.com. He is currently stationed in Washington, D.C. Feel free to email him your training questions directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.