Consistency is probably one of the most important aspects of training and yet so often the most overlooked. For many, the idea of being able to call oneself an endurance athlete can seem very attractive, but most are not aware of the amount of work it takes day in and day out for an endurance athlete to become successful.
I meet and coach a lot of athletes who want to get ready for a race in a VERY short period of time. They are often not honest with where they currently are in terms of their fitness levels. Many expect to go from “zero to hero” within a matter of weeks. The problem with this approach is that it often requires too much work applied at too high of an intensity to get them ready for an event. And once that event is over they expect to take several months off before approaching their next race (at yet again, too short a period of time to make any substantial gains). This is okay if you are just looking to get through a race, but if you are hoping to get better with each consecutive race, this approach is just not going to cut it and can often lead to injury when too much work is applied to the body in too short a period of time.
If you are ready to make a commitment to your fitness and truly build that aerobic platform and endurance, then the most important element to that training is having patience with the process and being consistent.
Here are some tips to help you on your journey to becoming a successful endurance athlete:
1. COMMIT TO A PLAN THAT IS SUSTAINABLE:
For those athletes who are new to a sport, the amount of time that needs to be dedicated to training can be overwhelming, especially in the world of triathlon or other multi-sport events. For this reason, it is best to start with a smaller quantity of work, putting time into building a proper aerobic base before even considering adding in more quantity or intensity.
By starting small and starting with a schedule that is manageable, the athlete is much more likely to stick with it and actually get great satisfaction from their training.
Be HONEST and REALISTIC with the available amount of time you have to train. If you bog down your schedule with too much training that starts to cut into your work life, social life, and sleep, then you are definitely on the road to burnout.
The key is to make a schedule that is manageable and that will not cut into life’s other priorities. You will be more likely to follow it and stick to this plan if you are honest in the beginning with how much available time you have. If you look forward at each week and plan when you can honestly fit your training in, there’s a much greater chance you will actually get it done. Do NOT start cutting into sleep in order to get workouts done. This is a recipe for disaster. Remember that sleep takes priority over workouts as training does you no good if your body does not have time to repair and recover from the stress of training during quality sleep.
Don’t let your training schedule get so out of hand that it starts to feel like a second job. Keep it fun and something that remains a break or stress-reliever from your everyday life.
2. LEARN GOOD TIME MANAGEMENT SKILLS:
Being an endurance athlete or multi-sport athlete can be a huge stressor to an athlete’s life in the beginning, but if done properly I find most of my athletes become much more efficient time managers.
If an athlete has started with a plan that is manageable they are likely to find great enjoyment in it and eventually find ways to become much better time managers. As some grow more successful in the sport, they find themselves wanting to make their training a bigger priority and are able to weed out other things in their lives that were big time sucks and often things they weren’t getting much enjoyment from. As these athletes are forced to stick to a more regimented schedule they realize just how much available time they actually have when they plan ahead and stick to a schedule.
That being said, there needs to be a cap on just how much training an athlete is doing per week. Allowing your schedule to get too packed without any downtime for proper rest and recovery will never end well. This brings us to our next topic…
3. INCORPORATE PROPER REST AND RECOVERY INTO YOUR PLAN:
A plan that incorporates not just training days, but scheduled rest and recovery days is key to finding success. It is better to have planned rest days each week than to push yourself to the point where your body forces you to take a break as these forced breaks are generally due to injury, burnout, or illness. Recovery and rest days are an important part of the training approach as it gives your body the chance to actually soak up all of the hard work you have put in. Too many consecutive days of hard training does not allow for this and often leads you to burying yourself.
The point here is to focus on a few good days or “key” days of training each week (2-4 days). These days will build into weeks which will build into months and eventually years of work. It is this accumulation of work that will make the long-term difference in your performance and reaching those big goals.
4. DO YOUR OWN WORKOUTS!!
While training with a group or a friend can sometimes be helpful and can make training a lot more fun and social, there are times when your training should probably be executed alone. Training in big groups or with a friend with whom you are competitive can often lead to every workout turning into a race. Save the racing for race day. Everyone is an individual so even if you and your training partners are at fairly even training levels, your bodies are different. There will be days when your body needs a rest while theirs is ready to push and visa versa. If you are going to train with others then make an agreement ahead of time that while you may start together it is okay to not always end together. Do the workout YOU set out to do.
In a world filled with social media we are constantly being bombarded with everyone’s “tough, killer” workouts and it can leave us feeling like we aren’t working hard enough. As stated before, we are all individuals. You have no idea what that person’s life is really like. Maybe they sleep 11 hours a night. Maybe they don’t have anywhere near the work stress that you do. STOP comparing yourself to others and focus on what your body is capable of at that given time. Using others for motivation is great, but it should stop there. Use social media to motivate you, NOT to bring you down and make you feel like you aren’t doing enough.
Get over the idea that there are secret, magical workouts that will somehow turn you into a superhero overnight. While it can sometimes appear that some athletes just burst onto the scene as overnight successes, this is rarely the case. These athletes have often been working for years to become the powerhouses that you now see. You simply did not know who they were because they’ve been hard at work behind the scenes in order to eventually become that recognizable athlete you now know.
If you start by being honest with yourself and your fitness levels you will have no where to go but up. Start slow and as you continue to get stronger you will have a proper platform to build upon and eventually you will become the athlete you set out to be.
5. LEARN TO LISTEN TO YOUR BODY:
It is so important as an athlete to get in touch with his/her body so that they are able to recognize when their bodies are ready to push, are in need of a break, or something is just plain not right.
This can take a lot of time as so many of us are used to just going, going, going in our daily work and social lives. But as an athlete, not being able to read your body well can lead to improper training and recovery. This is why I recommend that most athletes with very little experience hire a coach who will schedule in proper rest and recovery time. This can be critical for those type-A athletes who struggle with knowing when to pull back. It can be difficult to be objective when we are training ourselves.
6. BE PATIENT WITH YOUR PROGRESS:
It is normal for new athletes to see massive gains with any kind of consistent training, but as time goes on and you continue to get better expect to start seeing diminishing returns with that training. Elite athletes spend hours every week just to carve a few seconds or minutes off of their performance. It is important to recognize this and to be patient with your progress. Pushing too hard too soon is not the answer to finding gains, but instead can set you on the quick path to injury or overtraining syndrome.
I find it very helpful to keep a log of your training, whether that be a written journal or an online forum such as Strava or Garmin so that you are able to look back and remind yourself of just how far you’ve come when you are finding yourself frustrated with minimal progress. On the contrary, it can also be a way to see if you have actually gone backwards with your training from constantly overdoing it.
7. DON'T GET INJURED!!
We have all been there, sidelined by injury, but as we continue to grow and learn in the sport, we should start to understand our bodies better (as mentioned above). Injuries can and will happen on occasion, but the key is to be sure you are incorporating all of the important little details into your training plan to hopefully avoid this from happening.
Don’t get so focused on your workouts that you are forgetting about properly warming up prior to your workouts and cooling down following your workouts. As I often say to my athletes, “Don’t ride it hard and put it away wet”. Be sure you are slowly bringing your body back to a resting level following workouts before going and sitting in a chair all day at work. Start workouts with some dynamic stretching, foam rolling and avoid always beginning workouts at an all-out pace, but instead slowly moving up to speed.
Equally, end your workouts by slowly bringing pace and/or heart rate back to resting and then rolling out and/or stretching as needed.
Weekly or monthly massages by a sports massage therapist can also help to alleviate tension and release knots or adhesions in the muscle or fascia. And working with a qualified personal trainer or physical therapist for a good functional strength or “pre-hab” routine can be very helpful as well.
8. FOCUS ON YOUR HEALTH: (NUTRITION, HYDRATION, SLEEP, and DECREASING STRESS...)
Most people set out to complete a race for health reasons, but often their health gets left in the dust.
Prioritize your sleep. I see many athletes who are constantly cutting into their sleep in order to fit training in. If this is you, then your training load is too much and it is time to cut back. Remember that when you are training you are actually tearing your muscles down. It is not until you give your body time to rest, recover and sleep that it is actually repairing and rebuilding the muscle and/or making the adaptations you worked so hard for in that workout. No sleep means no gains. What a waste!
In addition to this, many endurance athletes begin to eat very unhealthy as they feel all of their training is a license to eat whatever is in sight. Remember, you cannot out-exercise a bad diet. The quality of food that you are ingesting will directly affect how well your body recovers and performs. You get out of it what you put into it, so don’t feed it garbage. Focus on nutrient-dense whole foods to include quality protein, fats and carbs. And don’t forget to keep yourself properly hydrated everyday.
As mentioned before, athletes who are constantly training hard and never giving their bodies a break are under a lot of stress and have highly elevated cortisol levels (your stress hormone). Long-term elevated cortisol levels can lead to overtraining syndrome as well as adrenal dysfunction. Neither of which are easy things to resolve and can mean having to stop training altogether for a very long period of time. Because most athletes have several other stressors in their lives outside of training, it’s important to take the time to learn and employ some stress-reduction techniques. This can be as simple as giving yourself a 5-10 minute break in the middle of the day to step outside, close your eyes and meditate, or go for a quick walk to get some fresh air. Other stress-reduction techniques include meditation, taking a hot bath, or getting a massage. Find something that helps you to turn your mind off and find a little peace in your hectic lifestyle.
And lastly, make sure you have a good bedtime routine aiming to power down electronics at night at a set time (ideally at least 1 hour before sleep). If you are using electronics before bed then use blue-blocking glasses or an app for your phone or computer screen to avoid blue light disrupting your sleep.
To wrap up, consistency is king when it comes to making progress over the long haul. Be patient and smart with your training, prioritize your sleep and overall health, know when to push and when to pull back, and most importantly don’t forget to have FUN!! Best of luck to all of you in your training and racing.