Having lived in northwest Washington state for several years I was fortunate to be able to train on the trails of Larabee State Park in the Chuckanuts, the rugged Mt. Baker Wilderness, and the world-class single track of Galbraith Mountain. While running and white-knuckling technical single track I often saw trees that had stood the test of time, withstanding winds, snow, rain, and many adverse weather, climate, and environmental conditions. Though leaning and weathered, some more than others, they stood tall, anchored firmly to the rock and soil beneath. Other trees would even jut out of solid rock, appearing to impossibly hang onto to the side of a cliff’s edge. The trail below was jaggedly crossed by roots emerging from the ground – their appearance rough but their purpose and function maintained. As I traversed the terrain it was apparent these trees had developed deep roots which anchored them and preserved their long-term viability.
Developing deep roots is also important for endurance athletes if they are to weather varying training stimuli, life stressors, and maintain consistent training. Over the years I have been fortunate to be able to work with many runners, triathletes, and endurance athletes throughout the United States and internationally both in a performance and rehabilitative capacity. Invariably, as I go through the onboarding process with new athletes I find that many of my conversations involve similar themes about expectations, philosophy of training and programming, communication styles, and measures of successful training. And while each athlete must decide for themselves what success will look like over the course of a training cycle, season, or year(s) several factors have emerged as strong contributors to successful training and racing. In short, when athletes take time to master the basics of training success they foster the development of deep roots which anchor them and preserve their long-term health, wellness, and ability to perform year after year.
When I first began competing in triathlon I heard success was an easy formula – 7 x 52 x 10. Seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for 10 years. While this may seem daunting, and less than easy, the take-a-way was consistency of training is crucial.
Athletes must make the daily tally. Training must be part of the daily routine.
And while consistency of training is necessary, the type, time, and purpose or goal of training may look different for every athlete. It may mean swim, bike, and run for a triathlete or aerobic, tempo, fartlek for a runner. It may also mean a fitness walk for active recovery, a strength training session, mental imagery training or even visualization. Training could also result in a reduction or increase in the volume, intensity, or duration in order to best match the goals and direction of a training season or cycle. So, while the training may look different or variable from one athlete to the next, the intentional effort of showing up day after day is the necessary prescription for long-term success.
MAKE THE INVESTMENT
If you have begun planning for retirement you have likely been counseled to make a regular and consistent contribution in order to benefit from compound interest. Trying to make up for weeks, months, and years of poor investing in an expedited fashion is a losing endeavor. Instead, the goal should be to start early and make deposits often. Endurance training is no different. In order to benefit from cardiovascular, metabolic, and neuromusculoskeletal adaptations you have to start early and make the investment, throughout consistent training, regularly. However, just like no two investment portfolios are the same, so too a ‘one size fits all’ approach to training lacks specificity and individual clarity. When workouts begin to lack purpose they quickly may become monotonous. And these are the workouts which are the easiest to skip or shorten, thereby compromising your investments.
The finish line, however, keeps us honest. There’s no cheating the distance. Missed or half-completed workouts often lead to race-day anxiety.
Anxiety breeds self-doubt. Panic breeds paranoia.
Making the investment in your daily training allows you to benefit from compounded performance adaptations, which leads to consistency of training and breakout performances.
When training becomes part of your daily routine it can be challenging to slow down or even apply the brakes when pain or discomfort begins to appear. It is all the more challenging to rest. The hardest words for any runner to hear are “don’t run”. However, as my friend and colleague Chris Johnson often says, “If you’re going to run, you’re going to get injured.”
It is not a question of “if” but rather “when”.
Being self-honest when pain does emerge may lead to a temporary reduction in intensity, volume, or even a shift from running to fitness walking or other forms of cross training. However, in wisely managing discomfort and applying a self-honest approach, often recovery is improved and a timely return to regular training is accomplished.
Running may be permissible, but that does not mean it is beneficial.
Self-honesty fosters discernment.
TRUST THE PROCESS
When athletes have developed inconsistent training habits, missing investment opportunities, it can become appealing to try to add extra miles, workouts, or training sessions to account for the missed sessions. Race day is looming and self-doubt in your preparation begins to take hold. Have I done enough? Was my volume adequate? My friends have done two 22-mile-long runs – why haven’t I? Why is my long-run only 18 miles? Is that enough?
Decisions made in haste and with clouded judgment lead to less than desirable results.
Instead, engage in open and honest communication early and often with your coach and training partners. Understanding the “why” behind your training allows for clarity in “how” to avoid missteps and self-doubt. Trusting the process builds confidence that your training will allow you to execute your race-day strategy successfully. It also prevents you from making ill-advised and impulsive training decisions.
Endurance training is not for the weak minded. There are countless distractions along the road to consistent fitness. The newest soft tissue mobilization ball, roller, or gun; the latest cryotherapy gadget or laser; the carbon fiber insoles or dynamic arch support orthotics; the next-gen compression tights or sequential compression boots; the comprehensive, laser-guided gait assessment tool. While the field(s) of sports medicine has advanced greatly over the past decades, contributing meaningful and significant performance enhancing aids (e.g. Nike 4%), many gadgets, gizmos, and treatments are more of a distraction to the athlete (and the clinician for that matter) than a help to the process. This is no truer than when dealing with an injury or setback in training.
Just because cortisone helps in mediating the inflammatory process does not mean it is an appropriate treatment approach for plantar fasciopathy. However, to the athlete who desperately wants to train and complete their upcoming race the allure of a ‘quick fix’ is all too enticing.
In contrast, the athlete who maintains their perspective recognizes that while their injury may describe their current readiness to train status it does not define their ability or potential as a _____ (insert runner, triathlete, athlete).
Do not fall for the easy or the over-hyped – there is no hack or quick-fix.
Maintain your perspective.
HAVE A SEASONAL APPROACH
The end of the triathlon racing season just happens to also be the start of fall marathon season. The temptation for many is to immediately transition from one to the other. It can also be tempting to go from race to race, maintaining a high degree of volume and intensity in training. However, we would be wise to consider that even our environments and climates follow a seasonal approach. The brilliant green leaves of spring and summer give way to the myriad of fall colors before finally transitioning to a resting state throughout winter.
Even with deep roots a seasonal approach which allows for physical, mental, and social rest is necessary.
However, this does not mean complete rest. Instead, it may mean easier efforts, lower volume, a transition from running to cycling, or an increase in strength training. It may also mean more time for family and friends, a renewed emphasis on sleep and active recovery, or enjoying other hobbies. Having a seasonal approach to training and racing brings you full circle, helping to maintain balance and foster consistent, daily training.
Joel Sattgast is a physical therapist, performance coach, assistant professor of physical therapy, a Dad, husband, and an athlete. All posts are related to evidence, opinions and thoughts regarding various performance and rehabilitation topics.