There’s a funny phenomenon in endurance sports that I like to call “becoming a one-speed athlete.” It happens to runners, cyclists and triathletes whose training becomes so focused on sustained efforts at race intensity that their ability to work at higher intensity levels disapears! Their low end capabilities also become nullified because of the idea that the athlete needs to perform at “race” speed, or work hard. The one-speed athlete phenomenon presents itself most notably when endurance athletes do shorter races and feel annoyed by proving unable to go any faster over the shorter distance than they intend to go over the longer. A great, gaping hole in their fitness is revealed for all to see.
A recent example involves Ryan Hall, the brilliant young American distance runner who set a new American debut marathon record of 2:08:24 in London. That’s 4:53 per mile. A few months later, while in the thick of training for the U.S. Olympic team trials marathon, Hall ran the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships 10,000 meters, finishing seventh with a time of 28:51. That’s 4:38 per mile, or just marginally faster than the pace he was capable of sustaining for another 20 miles. That’s the one-speed athlete phenomenon for you.
The problem with becoming a one-speed athlete is that it hinders performance in long-distance races as well as in shorter ones. Here’s how: Recent research has shown that rating of perceived exertion (RPE)—not heart rate or blood-lactate level or any other physiological factor—is the best predictor of fatigue during exercise. In maximal efforts over any distance, the athlete’s RPE increases linearly throughout the event, consistently reaching a level 6/7, or “hard”, rating after 20 percent of the distance has been covered and peaking at a level 10, or “maximal”, rating when the finish line is within sight. (The only exceptions to this pattern are beginners who are inexperienced in how the body feels and as a result lose the effect that makes RPE such a reliable fatigue predictor in experienced athletes).
Athletes improve by training in ways that make a pace that once felt hard at the 20-percent mark of a given race distance seem slightly easier in the next race—thus enabling the athlete to sustain a faster pace while working at the same RPE. This change occurs as a natural result of everything you do in a sensible training program. For example, simply increasing the amount of basic aerobic training you do will increase your aerobic capacity and efficiency, enabling you to race faster with equal perceived effort. But there are also specific things you can do to exploit the relationship between RPE and fatigue to your benefit. One of these things is performing hard workouts at pace levels exceeding your race pace so your race pace feels easier. When you cut back on such training too much in the pursuit of peak performance at long distances, your brain will hit the panic button when you try to race faster at shorter distances, causing your RPE to spike and therefore limiting your pace perhaps more than necessary. Hence the one-speed phenomenon. But your performance at longer distances also will be negatively affected by too much training specialization at your race pace. Exposing your body to fatigue in prolonged efforts at faster paces will result in nervous system changes that push back the wall of fatigue in your long-distance peak race.
Long, slow rides and race-pace rides of course have their place in the bike training of long-distance athletes, but these workouts need to be supplemented with others that expose your body to fatigue at slightly higher intensities.
Don’t become a one-speed cyclist. Incorporate faster/harder workouts into your training for long-distance races and reap the benefits on race day.
Long, slow rides/runs and race-pace rides certainly have their place in the training of long-distance athletes, but these workouts need to be supplemented with others that expose your body to fatigue at slightly higher intensities.
I incorrectly assumed that the trend of working out with the goal of achieving a high state of fatigue EVERY session was finally beginning to die out. But, apparently, it’s still growing. People think that if they don’t finish a workout on the brink of vomiting or completely exhausted that they didn’t work hard enough. Even worse, they think the workout was just a waste of time.
About a month ago an athlete emailed me about this topic. Her coach gives her sessions that are continually pushing her to and beyond limits, and she was starting to feel broken down.
She contacted me because she’s feeling discouraged.
She doesn’t look forward to, let alone enjoy, her workouts. She wants to improve her power, strength and speed in the process, but part of her wants to give up because she feels sick every workout, gets incredibly sore, and just doesn’t feel great after completing her sessions.
If you can’t perform to the required intensity, change your focus, change the session
“I’ve read on your website that you say people should finish their training feeling better than when they started. I want to believe you, but isn’t it necessary to work incredibly hard and finish each session tired?”
No, you do not have to finish every session tired. And, yes, I do think that the majority of the time you should complete your training efforts with more energy and feeling better than when you started the session.
Let’s explore this a bit more.
The Elite Effect
I think some particular endurance athletes have greatly contributed to this idea that every training session is practically a torture chamber with the only goal of getting you to work as hard for as long as you can humanly tolerate.
When things get tough, you push even harder. When you want to quit because your muscles burn and you’re on the verge of collapsing from fatigue, you dig deep and muster up a bit more courage to keep going.
You don’t have to be empty at the end of your sessions
Sure, this makes for entertaining reading, but it’s also sending the wrong message to normal people who want to improve their health, get faster and stronger, or simply begin a fitness routine for the first time. Exhaustion is not the answer to achieving those results.
Why, exactly, is working out with the goal of achieving regular/daily high levels of fatigue unnecessary and, arguably, the wrong way to go about building a healthier body and getting stronger, faster and fitter?
1) It doesn’t produce long-term motivation. Sure, at first some people may be able to handle this gut-busting intensity for a couple of weeks, but more often than not, most people can’t stay motivated to keep performing these grueling workouts. Maintaining that effort every workout, multiple times per week, becomes too much to handle (and rightly so). As a result, many people abandon the routine all together because they’ve been taught that if they don’t go all-out every workout, then they might as well not do anything.
Furthermore, this “go ’till you drop” mindset is a horrible component of the performance mindset.
2) It can be dangerous. These rigorous workouts can cause athletes to injure themselves because they push beyond the point of fatigue, their form and technique deteriorates and they risk getting hurt. There can be other, perhaps even worse, health consequences, too.
And that brings us to the third point, which we’ll discuss separately.
It’s Not about Getting Tired
It’s about Getting Better
Your workouts and strength training sessions should not revolve around achieving a high level of fatigue.
Getting tired does not mean you’re getting better and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re going to achieve the results you want.
Getting better (i.e. stronger or otherwise improving your performance) is what produces the results you want and can maintain long-term whether you just want to compete better or improve your overall health.
That’s why your workouts should be solely about improving your performance whenever possible. After all, this is one of the cornerstones and simple rules to get the results you want that you can maintain.
There are numerous ways you can accomplish this simple goal, but here are some of the most common:
Add more resistance. This is the most obvious, but when you add more weight to an exercise, you’re improving your performance. If you go in the gym, that might take the form of weight on the bar. If you are swimming, that might be wearing drag shorts. On teh bike wearing heavier kit, taking an extra drink bottle or pushing a bigger gear.
For example, if you squatted 60kilos for 4×8 (4 sets, 8 reps) last week and squatted 65kilos for 4×8 this week, you got stronger.
Perform more reps with the same weight. Sticking with the previous squat example, if you squatted 60x4x8 last week and you squatted 65x4x9 this week, you got stronger. By the same token, doing the same hill climb, or same bike commute in one gear heavier and you will feel that extra resistance – you might go slower initially, but it will become easier (and faster) the more regularly you do it.
3) Perform the same amount of work in less time. Once again using the squat example, if you squatted 60x4x8 and rested 90 seconds between sets last week, and this week you only rested 80 seconds between sets, you improved your workout density (same amount of work in less time), thus improving your performance.
4) Use a more challenging variation. This one applies primary to bodyweight exercises. Bodyweight exercises are great for developing stability and strength that will allow your normal endurance muscles to perform better. If you’ve been performing sets of 10 reps of regular push-ups, you could switch to close grip, feet elevated, or use a suspension trainer to improve your performance.
Now you can certainly improve your performance in other ways (e.g. increase the range of motion such as standing on a step for a reverse lunge), but those four are my favorites.
Rest and recovery are important – it aids quality
As long as you’re using great exercises and you improve your performance gradually and consistently as shown in the four ways above, you will get results.
Furthermore, by improving your performance, you can accurately track and measure your progress. Fatigue is a fickle and unreliable component to measure, so you never know if you’re truly improving. Stick with the four ways to improve your performance above – you’ll know when and how you improve, so there’s no guessing. Remember, conditions out on the road, or in the lake can vary just as much as your physical state, so just watching your GPS isn’t always a reliable reminder! Learn to understand and feel your body.
And finally, but perhaps most importantly, focusing on your performance is a tremendous way to enjoy the journey instead of obsessing over the destination.
I doubt most people love super exhausting workouts, but most trainees love the long-term motivation the acquire from focusing on getting stronger.
Now we should answer an important question:
Should You Never Push Yourself to a Point Where You Reach a High State of Fatigue?
While I recommend people finish their workouts feeling better and more energized than when they began the workout, at least the majority of the time (because, let’s face it, some days are tougher than others), there’s always a place for tough challenges that leave you gasping for air.
Personally, I like to strategically use challenges to test my physical and mental limits. It can be fun (in a sick way) and let you see what you’re made of and definitely allow you to become more awesome.
Take for example a few of my favorite tough challenges: hill sprints near an all out effort (bike or run) and T30 swims (or 3k TT swim) or a 2k rowing erg.
If you push those challenges to the limits, you’re going to be incredibly worn out afterward.
But these challenges are done on occasion, and not every session. Furthermore, the main goal of these challenges is not to simply “get tired”. I always keep track of my performance and try to beat it over time – but not every single session!
For example, if I performed a 3k TT swim at the start of the season, I’ll write it down along with my training times at that time. Then when I come to repeat the test 3 months on and heading in to race season, I know what number I need to beat.
Even though these challenges are exhausting, the goal is still to get a little better. Fatigue may be an inevitable side-effect, but it’s certainly not the goal.
Quality VS Quantity Mindset
How do you feel, the majority of the time, when you finish your workouts? Are you exhausted, or more energized?
If you’re always worn out after a session, there’s a chance you’re focusing too much on quantity instead of quality.
Every session you do should have a target, make sure you know what you are working toward. That should be fairly evident from the session in front of you, but if you’re unsure ask your coach. The more you know what you’re working toward, the better the quality of the session.
Ask yourself this question before your next session: what is the aim of this workout?
Hopefully your answer is something to the affect of, “To do better than last time”.
Then I encourage you to answer that question specifically so you know exactly what you need to accomplish.
Remember what really matters:
Using great exercises
Gradually, but consistently, improve your performance
Adopt the quality-matters-most mindset
Have some fun!
It’s not about getting tired — it’s about doing a little better whenever possible.
Watch the great swimmers’ hands, and you’ll see how soft they are when they swim. They’re always searching to find that constant connection with the water. The way to improve this is using a technique or drill called sculling. Sculling provides the building blocks to all four swim strokes, and teaches us to feel pressure against the water on our hands and forearms. If you have this connection or pressure on the water, you will go forward – the more pressure you exert, the quicker you will go. However if you don’t “feel” the water, you won’t go anywhere! Sculling helps us build in this “feel”.
Why Do It:
Sculling in all directions helps you develop a better feel for the water. Strapless sculling, or using paddles that have limited connection to the hands, helps you feel the press of the scull, while still focusing on having the palms turned in the correct direction.
How to Do It:
1. Start with you feet behind you, on your back.
2. Start to scull with your fingertips facing UP. If you do this right, you should move backward.
3. Now simply turn the fingertips DOWN. If you do this right, you should move forward, toward the feet.
4. Remember: This isn’t pulling. Don’t sweep your hands around like this swimmer is doing.
5. Sweep back and forth with the hands while keeping the shoulders and elbows as still as possible.
How to Do It Really Well (the Fine Points):
Remain completely still with everything except the lower arm. Keep the body steady, the arms, the head… remain like a rock except for the lower arms and hands. If you have to kick to keep the feet up, sometimes a pull buoy can help further isolate what you’re focusing on.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can go for more stroke specific points – entry point (out in front, full extension, some people refer to this as catch point), mid point (with your elbows forward and wide, forearms pointing down) and exit point (similar to the drill above but lying on your front, working on finishing your stroke).
Entry point scull, midpoint scull, exit point scull
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch; either by email, facebook or leave a comment on here!
Some runners avoid hills because they can cause injury and they’re, well, difficult. It’s time to reconsider.
Running uphill can become easier and more fun!
In the course of a race or season, you are most likely to encounter a hill or two. Although some courses are completely flat, running hills in your training program will give you strength and boost power for better running performance on a flat or hilly course. It also gives you a perfect chance to work on your technique and ensure that you are as efficient, smooth and less injury prone.
Firstly think about your run cadence – the speed your legs turn over at.
We’ve most likely all felt it – as significant fatigue kicks in during a run, one of the first elements of form to slip is cadence (stride frequency, leg speed). If you’re running at 8min/mile for example, as your cadence decreases, you naturally increase your stride length to maintain the same 8min/mile pace, otherwise you slow down. Inevitably this leads to a runner over striding (stretching
their legs out in front).
Find somewhere steep enough that you can do plenty of short repeats on
Given that many runners over stride when ‘fresh’ this first break-down in running form that comes with fatigue is only going to exacerbate the problem.
Cycling uphill in a high gear with a low cadence is much harder work (and less sustainable) than using a low gear at a high cadence… Try it! You will understand the importance of maintaining leg motion.
When you run you can “shift gears” just like cycling, by shortening or lengthening your stride.
Also, use your arms! Keep them parallel to the plane of motion instead of swinging them across the body. i.e. make sure that they drive backward and forward rather than rotating the body. Remember we want to keep the body’s momentum going in one direction.
If the hill is steep, lean into it. Remember, hills are our friends! Keep your head up and core strong. Your glutes will be really key here, they won’t work if your backside is sticking out.
The key to downhill running is to lean slightly into the downhill and allow gravity to assist you. Keep your head up. Keep your stride close to the ground. You don’t need to stride out in front, so think of flicking your heels up behind you to increase your cadence but without putting extra shock through your knees. The key is control! Try to stay as relaxed as possible, this will help with balance.
A very important element of efficiently running uphill and downhill is the concept of even effort.
Your goal when faced with a hill should be to expend only slightly more effort when running uphill than you would when running on a flat surface. Equally, you shouldn’t be expending very much less energy when running downhill.
For most runners, this means learning to relax and take it easy when running uphill (rather than attacking). When running downhill, again go against the normal tendencies to hold back, and just let your self go.
This approach allows you to reach the top of the hill feeling good, without excessive exertion. Then you can let the hill (gravity) work for you on the way downhill. This results in an even effort.
See what’s up next week for our #RunFormFriday tip! For more in depth understanding on how to put this into practise, get in touch and we’ll see how we can help!
In the context of sports, tapering is the practice of reducing exercise in the days just before an important competition. Tapering is common in many sports and for many athletes, a significant period of tapering is essential for optimal performance. The tapering period frequently lasts as much as a week or more.
In simplest terms, what you are trying to do when you taper is recover from all of your hard training, so that you are well rested and ready to put the training to the test. When you have trained and “peaked” properly, you should experience increased power, reduced lactic acid buildup and fatigue, increased blood volume, enhanced work capacity, increased fuel storage, and renewed interest in participating in your event (if at any point you were verging on overtraining). You should feel like you have plenty of “pop” or “spring” in your muscles, and you should also feel a bit antsy, as though you cannot wait to get going again. The most common mistake people make leading up to their event is to think that “more is better” and to train hard right up until the day before the day of the race or climb. As difficult as it is to remember, fitness actually improves with rest, and you want to be well rested to perform optimally. Equally, for fitness gains to take place, the body adapts over 3-6 weeks, so hard sessions 2 weeks before will have no performance benefits! My old swim coach used the analogy of training (and your body) being like money being put in the bank. By the time you come to your event – and your taper – it’s time to take out the interest.
How It Can Feel! Be Strong!
Although there is now considerable agreement on the value of a taper, there is not a tremendous amount of information on what is actually happening to the body during this time. Investigations have focused on two broad categories, physiological and psychological. It is understandable that many initial scientific studies focused on physiological variables. After all it is inherently easier to measure glycogen in a muscle biopsy than it is to understand the inner workings of the human brain. Recently, more investigations into psychological processes have been done with interesting results and the promise of more for the future. In any event it is important to keep in mind that both physiological and psychological adaptations are important since neither alone can fully account for what is observed when athletes race. As explanations continue to develop, one need not wait to reap the benefits of a good taper. Enjoy!
Although a complete discussion is beyond the scope of this article, here are a few interesting highlights of scientific investigations into adaptations that occur during a taper. Although some changes are small the summation can have a strong effect on performance.
1) VO2 max, the best measure of aerobic performance, can increase during a taper. Some studies reported up to 5 – 6 % improvement.
2) Muscle glycogen has been shown to increase during a taper – provided the athlete is consuming a carbohydrate rich diet (~75% of caloric intake)
3) Improved economy of movement (the oxygen cost of exercise at a given submaximal exercise intensity) can also improve during a taper.
4) Improved mood and better sleep quality have been documented during a taper.
5) Rating of perceived exertion may decline during a taper. In other words athletes’ self-rated perception of effort indicated they felt less effort at a given workload (note: this is always a nice feeling).
How do I taper for an event?
For endurance athletes, “tapering” refers to a decrease in training volume (amount) leading up to competitions. In the past, most coaches had athletes reduce both the volume and intensity (effort) of training prior to competition, but all that changed when a group of researchers at McMaster University in Canada conducted a ground-breaking study on the affects of various tapering strategies. The results of this work, and more that followed, showed dramatic endurance benefits in runners who drastically cut their training volume but added high intensity interval training sessions in the week prior to competition.
Tapering can lead to odd thoughts about your fitness or potential niggles.
Most tapering strategies today use this research as a foundation, but there are a variety of methods and schedules available for every athlete and every competition.
The length of your taper depends upon your current level of fitness and experience, but a good rule of thumb is the one-hour rule. This means that if your event will last an hour or less, use a one-week taper. If you event is going to last more than an hour, your taper may extend to a full two weeks prior to the event.
It’s important to pay attention to your body during the week before a competition. If you are fatigued, or feel any aches or twinges of pain, it’s best to stop your training and recover. It’s always better to stop your workouts for a week than to push through pain and suffer on race-day.
It seems that no matter which tapering strategy the coach and athlete decide on, there will almost certainly come a time close to the race when the athlete doubts the strategy. This is perfectly normal. The weird physical sensations that accompany the change in training that the taper brings, coupled with the stress of the situation make for some fertile ground for doubts to spring up. Without a smart strategy and a firm resolve, these doubts often breed silly decisions.
So, what constitutes a smart taper?
A smart taper is optimally timed to coincide with that very brief sweet spot where the athlete has the the best combination of the freshness that comes from “freshening” while still not losing too much of the fitness that comes from training. Timing this peak is a very delicate dance made even more fragile by the fact that the optimal combination will be different for every athlete.
The elements that combine to create the perfect taper recipe for a given athlete are:
Fitness – The greater the aerobic base of the athlete, the shorter the taper generally needs to be
Race type – Paradoxically, the shorter the event, the longer the taper
Gender/Body type – The bigger and more muscular the athlete, the longer the taper
Surprisingly, perhaps, the most common silly decision that I see in super-fit, highly competitive triathletes is ignoring the first rule above and tapering too often – there is no point in tapering for every event that you do throughout the season – assuming that you will race upwards of 4 events in a year. If you taper for every single event that you plan to race, then you never end up building on your fitness throughout the season. Pick your 2/3 A races for the year and taper properly for them. Your B races may have a slight drop off, but not the same as your A races. C category races are training events. Go and race them, but don’t expect PB’s or fantastic times, look for something more internal – technical, emotional or strategy based.
On the flipside of the coin, under-tapering occurs when athletes fail to taper long enough to exploit the full performance benefit of freshening. This is especially common in new athletes who are nervous about dropping fitness leading into the event. This attitude is especially damaging during late race week when it becomes important to drop training load below the athlete’s chronic training load to allow supercompensation of glycogen stores to occur. Put more simply, in the last 72 hours pre-race, you want to be making deposits into your body’s glycogen account, not withdrawals.
As you peak, decrease your overall volume. If you have been doing 3 hr rides and 4x 400 meters running on the track do 90 minutes in the saddle, and 2 or 3x300m intervals. You want to stay fresh and sharp but not worn down. Workouts should be short and sweet. They might burn but you should recover fast. By maintaining or even increasing your intensity, your body thinks that training is still on full blast and your body will continue to adapt full blast. But… you have decreased the volume and by the time it realizes that you have actually done less your body has over compensated and your flying. Further hone this adaptation with race specific workouts in a race specific environment and you will be more ready on race day than you ever imagined.
While this decreased training time will be nice you should still treat yourself well. Treat yourself like your still training hard. Get that recovery drink even if you feel you don’t need it. Get plenty of sleep and keep up on stretching, etc…
The other item you will need to keep busy is your brain. Don’t think too much. Go over the race plan, make sure the tires on the bike are in good shape and just go. You have done this in training so you can do it in the race. Remember there is not much you can do to get faster in the week or three before the big race but you can do everything to blow it. So stay the course. Take care. Eat the extra pasta. Skip the morning swim if your feeling tired. And don’t be afraid to light it up a few times. Show your stuff, whether in a race or a short hard work out with the training partners. You have been looking at your heart rate and power meter all season staying in “your zone”. Time to see how far you can push yourself!
Peaking for an event optimally remains an art form, trying out the suggestions above might afford you a significant leg up on your competition. It’s not always the fittest athlete who wins.