What is Your Training Formula?

Thursday, September 24, 2009 | By Matt Fitzgerald
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Exercise scientists are just beginning to explore the idea that individual genetic profiles may one day be used to develop customized endurance training prescriptions. Already scientists have discovered a number of genes and gene clusters that affect endurance performance potential. But there is also evidence that individual athletes with more or less equal genetic potential for endurance performance may have genetic predispositions to respond differently to disparate types of training stimuli, such that each must take a separate path to fully realize his full genetic potential. For example, one athlete may respond better to a low-volume, high-intensity training program while another, who performs at a similar level, might respond better to a high-volume, low-intensity program.

It will be a long time before we have the capability to effectively individualize training prescriptions based on individual genomics, and it is likely that genetic analysis will never surpass real-world experience as means of determining what works and what does not work for an individual endurance athlete, as genes do not tell the whole story. Yet most endurance athletes fall far short of exploiting the full power of real-world experience to develop their personal optimal training formulas. I believe this is true in part because it takes a lot of mindfulness, creativity and self-trust to learn from one’s training experience and apply the lessons learned, and in part because the average endurance athlete does not understand just how differently individual athletes respond to the same training practices.

Indeed, I believe that even most seriously competitive endurance athletes fail to realize their full performance potential, and do so primarily because they fall short of developing their optimal training formula. The most successful endurance athletes are not always more gifted than those who finish a few steps behind them in races. Often their true advantage is that, whether by luck or by their own wherewithal, they have found their best way to train and thus get more out of their talent.

One of the best ways to appreciate just how disparate optimal training formulas can be is to consider the training methods of world beaters whose optimal training formula is especially unusual. The Ethiopian runner Tirunesh Dibaba, who holds the women’s world record for 5000 meters, is such an athlete. Dibaba trains far more lightly than almost every other world-class runner of her generation. Her longest runs are 80 minutes. She hits the track twice a week, but her interval sessions are almost shockingly mild—just a handful of short intervals (150 to 400 meters) at very high speeds with short recoveries. But it obviously works for her, because no woman in history has ever run faster than she does at her specialty distance.

So then, how do you go about creating your own optimal training formula? It is an ongoing process which requires that you pay close attention to your training and your body with a view toward connecting cause and effect so you can then discard training patterns that yield poor results and retain training patterns that yield good results. This is easier said than done, as there are myriad factors that affect how you feel and perform in training and races, but the three most important factors by far are overall volume, volume of high-intensity training and periodization system.

Let’s have a quick look at how to determine what works best for you in relation to each of these factors.

Overall Volume

There are two general philosophies of training volume, which we might call minimalism and maximalism. The minimalist philosophy is summed up in Joe Friel’s injunction, “Do the minimum amount of training necessary to achieve your goals.” The maximalist philosophy says, “Do as much volume as your body can handle,” or, “Keep increasing your volume until you stop improving.”

Both philosophies sound reasonable. But they are contradictory. So which one is better? It depends on the individual. Minimalism works best for some athletes and maximalism for others, while still others find an ideal spot somewhere between them. I recommend that you start the process of determining the approach to volume that works best for you by embracing the philosophy that is most appealing to you. If you like the efficiency and risk avoidance promised by minimalism, start there. If you like the promise of ongoing improvement and freedom from self-imposed limits that may come with the maximalist approach, start there.

From that point onward it’s all about experimentation. You must experiment to find out how little training suffices to take you to your goals. You must experiment to find out how much training your body can handle. It is very likely that the experimental process will move you toward minimalism from maximalism and vice versa. For example, suppose you achieve an initial goal using a minimalist approach. Will you not then set a more ambitious goal? And will you not have to at least consider increasing your training volume to achieve it? Likewise, many an experiment with high volume ends in injury and overtraining and encourages the wise athlete to be more conservative in the future.

Volume of High-Intensity Running

There is great individual variation in how runners respond to high-intensity training and in the amount of high-intensity running that runners absorb before burning out. There are four basic types of runners in this regard:

Type 1

Responds to high-intensity training quickly, but burns out quickly.

Type 2

Responds to high-intensity training quickly and can handle a lot.

Type 3

Responds to high-intensity training slowly, but burns out quickly.

Type 4

Responds to high-intensity training slowly and can handle a lot.

It doesn’t take a lot of experience to determine how quickly you respond to high-intensity training, but it may take some time to determine how much you can effectively absorb, partly because experience increases the amount of high-intensity running you can absorb.

All four types of runners can be successful. What’s important is developing a clear sense of your type so you can train appropriately. The thing you must avoid at all costs is feeling obligated to incorporate high-intensity work into your training in a certain way just because your favorite coach recommends it and without a thought as to whether this approach is right for you.

High-intensity training tends to be unpleasant, though, so avoid the trap of too quickly deciding that you cannot handle much of it. I think it’s important for every runner to test the limit of how much speed work he can handle at some point, even if it means finding that limit the hard way.

Periodization System

Periodization refers to the practice of sequencing one’s workouts with a view toward developing fitness from a starting level to a peak racing level. There are several variables that one can manipulate when engaging in this type of planning. The chief variables are the length of the training cycle, the rate at which the training workload increases, and the amount and types of high-intensity training that are performed in the various phases of the training cycle.

There is a literally infinite variety of training cycles one can design. It would take six or seven lifetimes to find the system that works best for you through blind trial and error. A more efficient way to proceed is to select one of the three most proven and widely practiced periodization systems, customize it to fit your needs, and see how it works for you. If it works pretty well, you can keep it and make further adjustments. If it fails you in a way that one of the other systems seems unlikely to fail you, switch to another system and try that one.

The best-known periodization system is the Lydiard system. It consists of long training cycles that are divided into distinct training phases. The initial base phase requires a steadily increasing volume of low- and moderate-intensity running with emphasis on the weekly long run. This is followed by a strength phase that emphasizes hill work and other strength-building workouts and then a speed phase packed with interval sessions and finally a racing phase.

In the nonlinear periodization system, the training cycle length is highly adjustable because the whole idea is to maintain a fairly high level of well-rounded fitness throughout the year. Base, strength, speed, and race-specific training are always included in the regimen, but the emphasis shifts as the next important race draws nearer.

The third periodization system is the Kenyan system, which is similar to what might be called the scholastic system that is commonly employed by high school and college cross-country runners. This system begins with a Lydiard-style base phase that is followed by an extremely challenging preparation phase in which the total volume and the volume of high-intensity training are very high. The last phase is a race season phase, in which runners race often and get their primary training stimulus from races and otherwise rest.

This system is probably not the best for most runners. In this regard it bears noting that few runners except for middle-distance track runners who race frequently practice this system after graduating from school, and established Kenyan runners who no longer need to prove themselves within the camp environment typically avoid it as much as possible.

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