Endurance sports are really lifestyle sports – where success comes when athletic pursuits are integrated well with the rest of life. When sport and life are in balance, an athlete can train and prepare consistently without big highs and lows. That means finding the right number of hours of training that still allow time for adequate recovery. Without that recovery, an athlete will slowly become more and more fatigued and gains will begin to subside. On top of that, energy levels and effectiveness in other areas of life will be compromised. I've always found the best long-term improvements are found when an athlete's training volume integrates well with the rest of life.
We live in a society where downtime is deprioritized and often looked on as being 'lazy'. Athletes aren't immune to this and many find themselves feeling guilty for taking even a few minutes to put their feet up and do nothing - even though that's exactly what they might be needing to boost their recovery. With many of my athletes, I have found big gains in quality of training and life by holding them accountable to getting sufficient sleep. One of my athletes likes to joke that she pays me to tell her to take naps.
Many amateur athletes overestimate the amount of hours they should train every week. On top of that, many coaches put top priority on volume above all else when working with amateurs. When I say amateurs, I'm referring to athletes who have a full time job, school, family commitments, or a combination of responsibilities that means their time and energy is spoken for 30-60 hours a week, maybe more. I've talked with quite a few athletes who work 40-50 hours a week and have been burned out after trying to cram in 18-20 hours of training every week - and I’m not only talking about long-course triathletes. For the vast majority of athletes, this is not a recipe for long-term success - it's a recipe for feeling like burnt toast and seeing diminishing returns from all that training.
Where does all of this come from? I believe it's from coaches and athletes trying to model their training after professional athletes. Why not? It’s certainly a romantic notion to train like the pros. There are two big pieces to this puzzle that must be considered. One, much of the volume most pros are doing is at a relatively low intensity. Two, and this is the key one, pros are paid not only to train, but also to spend a considerable amount of time each day recovering from this high volume of training. This extra recovery time often doesn’t exist for the average working amateur, which means training must be more focused on the type of work that will make an athlete faster without accumulating deep and lingering fatigue. In essence, once an athlete has enough endurance to complete the distance of their goal events, we need to focus on training that will make them faster over that distance.
So if not twenty hours a week, what does an athlete need to do to see improvements? Single-sport athletes doing races less than three hours in duration can see significant improvements from training in the range of 6-10 hours a week. Six hours is on the short side, but with a heavy focus on quality high-intensity training, we can accomplish a lot in that time. For most single-sport athletes, 8-10 hours per week is ideal. Most athletes won't be able to recover from much more than ten hours training in a single sport with any significant amount of intensity. For multi-sport athletes, 8-14 hours seems to be about right, with long-course athletes on the upper end of that range. For sprint and Olympic-distance triathletes, we can get away with a little less, provided the training is very focused. In all cases, a weekly mix of 2-3 days of high-intensity and 2-3 days of low-intensity training makes for a good balance. In an upcoming article, I will go over how I like to mix in recovery, which is quite different than the old three-weeks-on / one-week-off model.
Hopefully, this has given you some food for thought towards your approach to training. I would love to hear from you if you have questions, ideas or feedback. Feel free to drop me a line here.