John and I were pretty clueless when we first started in endurance sport. How do we train for a triathlon or marathon? What type of fueling works best, what gear do we need? And that list of questions went on and on and on.
We aren’t the type of people who like to revel in ignorance, so we asked questions of more experienced people.
A lot of them.
We bought books, subscribed to magazines, scoured the web, went to seminars, hired coaches, eventually became coaches ourselves – everything we could do to learn as much as we could to prepare ourselves for the demands of training and a successful race day.
We’ve learned a lot since we first started – and most importantly, we’ve learned that you cannot stop learning. The human body and mind is a complex and dynamic system.
Once you think you’ve got your needs dialed in, things change. And, then they change again. And then science produces new discoveries about the human body.
And, and, and – there’s always something new to know. That’s what makes endurance sport so interesting – and challenging.
Now as a coach, I continue to learn about the body from the complexities of the athletes that I work with. Each body and mind – while sharing some general characteristics – is unique. Science is useful – as it gives us upper and lower ranges of what is “normal”. But, the thing about “normal” is that it’s based on a statistical average – which is actually a very small sliver of the full population. (Side *geek* note: I have a colleague who teaches Health Communication, and she has a fascinating lecture on how medical and statistical norms serve as a way to discipline our bodies and actions.)
A good example of the limitations of statistical averages is heart rate formulas based on age. These guidelines don’t match most people I coach. I have athletes who are exactly the same age with lactate threshold heart rates that are as much as 15 beats apart. I have older athletes with max heart rates well above my younger athletes. And, yes, I have some athletes that fit within the “norm” – as you’d expect. So much for the generalizable usefulness of formulas and averages.
This doesn’t mean that the science is unimportant – but it does mean you need to apply the knowledge we have in a way that best suits your individual situation – body, mind and lifestyle. To some extent, we are all an N = 1.
We need to be students of our sport and our bodies.
Throughout the interwebs, you’ll see many discussions centering around questions related to the “what” of training and racing. These are questions that focus on what types of workouts or training schedules are good/bad for specific race types and distances. The answers to these questions are frequently based on general averages – not a specific understanding of your situation.
- What type of training volume do I need to complete to finish X race?
- What kinds of workouts should I be doing if I want to get stronger and faster?
- What should I eat during my workouts and racing?
- What type of periodization should I use: traditional or block?
- At what intensity should I swim/bike/run?
We’ve all asked these questions. To be clear: these “what” questions are an important starting point, but the answers to these questions could vary wildly depending upon who you ask.
For example, if we ask one person how much training volume is needed to complete an Ironman, that person might tell us that we need an average training volume of 20 hours a week, while another person may say 12 hours a week.
Both answers can be correct. To determine which might work for you, the “what” needs to be followed up with questions related to why. For example, why and under what sorts of conditions might a higher or lower volume be effective for certain types of athletes? To what extent do the specific training sessions differ in a low or high volume plan – and why?
Asking questions related to why we should train in certain ways helps you to be a critical consumer of the copious information that exists – both on the popular web, as well as more academic sources.
Even in the science, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to optimal training adaptations. If there were, we’d all just do that one thing. If you read enough studies, you’ll notice that as the sample type and size gets more and more diverse – so do the results. Some key examples here include the general differences between male and female athletes, older and younger athletes, or athletes trained for one type of sport versus those trained for another.