There is an interesting dynamic and debate going on in the sport of long distance running and I wanted to weigh in with my take on it. The debate is about 2 different approaches, one is intense training with regular scheduled breaks, and the second is long term sustainable training with little to no breaks. As usual there are people lined up and passionate on both sides of this debate, convinced they are right and the other side is flawed.
Before I weigh in on my view, let’s start with an over view of each side, its origins and the reasoning supporting each side.
Intense Season/Cycle with Regular Breaks
This is the classic sports model. You work hard and intensely in training and racing and follow that with an off season to recover from the intense demands of the season. Often the need for the break is both mental and physical because of the intensity of the training and/or racing. We see this especially in the scholastic side of the sport, where there are 3 seasons and each season is followed by several weeks of down time before the athlete begins to gear up for the next season. The reasoning is simple, if high intensity is maintained for too long then a physical and/or mental breakdown is likely to happen, so the regular breaks give the athlete the rest and down time they need to recover and be ready to undergo another intense season again.
In longer distance races (outside of a scholastic or seasonal setting), this usually equates to an intense period of training (usually 8-16 weeks) for a specific race followed by down time recovering before preparation for the next goal race commences. The intensity (mentally and physically) of the training will dictate the length that the cycle can be before a break is needed.
The down sides of such an approach is that a substantial portion of each training cycle (or season) is spent on a break or regaining past fitness, thereby making the athlete only ready to race at a high level for a fraction of the year. Additionally the coach and athlete must carefully gauge the intensity of training and racing so that a break is not mandated before the goal race occurs, making timing and tapering less predictable.
This is an approach that differs from the classic sports model, in that training and racing is engaged in a sustainable fashion so that it is able to be continued all year long (and year after year) with little to no sustained breaks. In order for this to work the integrity of the stress and recover cycle must be strictly maintained so that lingering, long term fatigue does not build-up (mentally or physically) to the point where a break from training is mandatory. The reasoning behind this approach is 2 fold, 1 it works well for a sport in which there is no definable season (such as road racing) in that the athlete can be ready to race at any point during the year, and it allows for a long-term gradual build-up of training capacity and fitness which is very beneficial in endurance sports.
In longer distance races (outside of a scholastic or seasonal setting), this usually means yearlong training with regular (but not too frequent) racing with small breaks only taken after major efforts (such as a goal marathon) and then the breaks are kept only to the length needed to physically fully recover from the race. (i.e. a completing of the stress and recover cycle – a super hard stress – the race - requires a somewhat extended recovery – short break).
The downside of this approach is that an athlete (and coach) must be careful to make sure the integrity of the stress and recover cycle is maintained and that lingering mental or physical fatigue is not built up. This is a learned skill and contrary to how many of us were introduced to the sport in a season/scholastic setting. As such the athlete’s life must be set-up for extended training with regular sustainable routines.
I center my coaching mainly on the longer distances (10k – Marathon) and on road racing primarily. As such I find the sustainability model the most appealing and to most closely match my training philosophy (the 4 tenets of training). As such I encourage many of my athletes to engage in this approach if possible for their life style.
There are several benefits for longer distance athletes I see to this sustainability model:
· You are able to race at a high level for much of the year – as opposed to the “regular break model” in which the major portion of year you are either in a break or training to regain past fitness, leaving on a fraction of the year where you can race at or near your best. In a sport like road racing, one without well-defined seasons, being able to race at a high level for most of the year is very advantageous for competitors.
· Progressions in fitness can continue on an on-going basis. By being able to stack stress and recover cycle upon stress and recover cycle on an on-going basis, you are never very far removed having worked on any component of fitness and as such you are better able to sequence training for long term gains and progressions. As such the capacity (volume and/or intensity) you can sustain on your stress days continue to build/increase over time. But this process of building is interrupted continually in a “regular break” model.
· I believe this method of training is best for the long term development of the runner because it fully adheres to the basic principle of all physical training: stress and recover. By the very nature of the “regular breaks” method you are always at some state of being over trained because the intensity or volume is not sustainable. This means you are not fully recovering from the stress and as such are not gaining the full benefits from it (cutting the super compensation short). Eventually this causes the needs for sustained breaks. But in the sustained method, your training and thus fitness level can continually progress.
· Tapering/resting for races in a sustainable training program becomes short and simple and predictable.
One of the arguments I usually hear against the sustainability model is that many coaches/athletes believe it does not allow for peaking. I do not believe this is necessarily true. I find that you can still go through a phased training cycle, as I described in my last blog, while training in a sustainable manner. What changes is not the intensity or sustainability of your workouts but rather the sequencing of what type of workouts you do within a sustainable setting. By increasing the frequency of certain workout types in my sustainable training model, I am able to increase my fitness and adaptations to and race more effectively (i.e. peak) for a certain race distance. While I caution against a lopsided program (in terms of workout types) for a prolonged basis, a carefully phased sequencing to produce optimal results in a key race in a sustainable program is very much possible. Then after the goal race, my recover break only needs to be as long as is physically necessary to recover from the stress of the goal race, as I don’t have the added need of recovering from over-training.
Requirements of Sustainable Training
In order to make the “sustainable model” work, the athlete and coach needs to set-up a regular routine that ensures all aspects of training and life are addressed on a regular basis.
· Establishing a repeatable base unit (one stress and recover cycle) that includes ample stress (workout), recovery (including recovery therapies), and ancillary work. For many longer distance runners I find the following 3 day base unit to work well for promoting sustainability:
o Day 1: Stress Workout(s) + core circuit
o Day 2: Recovery/Easy Run(s) + strength/drill circuit (that includes strides)
o Day 3: Recovery/Easy Run(s) + core circuit
Often the athlete will schedule a certain recovery therapy (ice bath, whirlpool, massage, chiro, ART, rolling, etc.) on one of these days on a regular basis, often after certain types of stress workouts.
· Also important to this is a making sure there is a balance in the athletes life so that training is mentally sustainable as well. If the athlete does not have other interests or activities in their life, they can often become mentally burn-out during sustained training. The key is finding a sustainable level of other activities that fit in a sustainable program.
· Guard against deficiencies – in a sustainable program each area needs to be looked at and addressed so that over time no deficiencies manifest themselves. Areas that need to be looked at include: vitamin/minerals intake, sleep, ancillary/strength work, workout types, recovery therapies, non-running activities.
As with all training, sometimes small adjustments will need to be made for unforeseen circumstances or to catch or adjust for deficiencies before they become a problem or grow to require a sustained break.