As a long time coach and endurance sport athlete, I’ve seen many training mistakes. However, I’ve witnessed the most common training mistake in most all athletes that I’ve coached… and in full disclosure, I’ve been guilty of it as well!
There are quite a few mistakes that endurance athletes make during the training process; however, none more are more prevalent than going too hard on easy days, and too easy on hard days. This inevitably leads to performing the bulk of one’s training in ‘no man’s land’ – or more specifically, at an intensity level where there is not a lot of physiological improvement
Why Do Athletes Make This Mistake?
This is completely my own opinion, but my take on it is this:
- Many endurance athletes do not understand the physiological benefits that come from low intensity training and therefore, they largely view it as a waste of time. Therefore, more intensity must be better! Additionally, many athletes do not understand the value of active (or complete) rest. Essentially, these athletes feel that if you’re not going at or near 100% percent effort all of the time, you’re not getting as much out your workout as you possibly could.
- Conversely, training at a high intensity level is hard! I mean, do most people really love to feel like their legs are going to fall off, their heart beating out of their chest and their lungs feeling like they are burning up? Probably not. Even though most of us know and understand that this type of training is beneficial, it really hurts! So therefore, my thesis on this is that most people reduce the intensity due to not wanting to be too deep in the pain cave.
Why Does It Matter?
Good question. It matters because the largest physiological gains occur at either end of the intensity spectrum (easy/hard). While there is a place and time for middle of the road training intensity, purely from the perspective of physiological development, there is not much benefit to this area of intensity.
Does This Affect All Athletes In The Same Way?
Yes and no. While training at either end of the intensity spectrum is likely beneficial for any athlete, for those that are deconditioned or getting into cardiovascular shape, there is not as much of an issue if they train at middle’ish intensities. But why? For these athletes, any type of cardiovascular intensity is going to raise their fitness level, including mid-range intensities. However, as an athlete gains cardiovascular fitness, the physiological adaptations to training at midrange intensities decrease. This necessitates the need to focus on training at low and high intensities. The more fit an athlete is, the more applicable this is.
Case Study (Me!)
As alluded to in the introduction, I’ve been guilty of this. Worse yet, unlike some athletes who don’t understand why you shouldn’t train in ‘no man’s land,’ I fully understand why and yet I still did it!
I was living in NYC and after having our son, between work and tending to a newborn, I didn’t have a lot of time. There is a 4-mile loop in Central Park which has some rolling hills which became my ‘go to’ run since it didn’t take much time, but was still challenging. Wanting to get in a “good” workout, but nothing too crazy, I ran the loop at the same intensity/pace all the time – a little below threshold. This made me feel like I got in a good intensity workout in a short amount of time but I didn’t kill myself to the point where I was exhausted for the rest of the day.
Here’s the case study aspect of it. Even though I was doing this 4-mile run several times per week, my pace/time for my set running intensity improved by… wait for it… ZERO! Even though I knew this type of training wasn’t ideal from a physiological standpoint, even I was a bit surprised by my utter lack of improvement. Now of course I could blame my newborn keeping me up at night, or sprinting around on my bike to get to personal training and coaching clients during the day as excuses – but the bottom line is that even though I felt like I was getting a pretty good workout, I was making no progress.
So I Can Never Do A Middle Intensity Workout?
Sure you can as you aren’t going to do any damage or lose fitness or anything like that. It only really becomes a problem when the majority of your workouts are performed at this middle intensity range.
Summary – Things To Do and Things To Keep In Mind
In short, don’t train like I did 🙂 Respect, and more importantly, adhere to easy days and easy intensity runs. Conversely, when a high-intensity day is on the books for your workout, try as best you can to swim/ride/run it at the prescribed intensity.
Keep to your program and ideally train with others only if their workouts align with yours. You don’t want to be that jerk who is doing intervals on a long steady endurance ride – unless you inform others in your training group of what you’re doing.
Most importantly, have fun in training and as noted above, if you want to do a training session at middle intensity, go for it and have fun, just don’t let that type of workout make up the majority of your program.
Lastly, if you’re training for a race or something important to you, keep your eye on the prize and make the most out of your training to put you in best possible condition come race day!
Rick Prince is the founder of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA), a science-based endurance sports education company. UESCA educates and certifies running, ultrarunning, cycling and triathlon coaches (nutrition coming soon!) worldwide on a 100% online platform.
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