By Master Coach Sam Naney
Many people who reach out to Uphill Athlete for coaching are already active. But that doesn’t mean they’ve been approaching their training in a sustainable way. The jigsaw puzzle that is work and life keeps a lot of folks tethered to a haphazard schedule of shorter, high-intensity workouts during the week—think spinning, Boot Camp, CrossFit—bookended by longer mountain days on the weekends. Seems efficient, right? Not quite. You’ll crush those WODs, but if your training goal is Denali or a first ultra, you’re not primed for summit- or race-day success. Read on for six key components of any long-term endurance training practice, courtesy of Coach Naney.
- Be consistent. You have to have consistency in your training in order to see returns. A sporadic workload—for example, an hour and a half total during the week with two 4-hour hikes on the weekend—isn’t going to produce the same long-term aerobic gains as an hour of work each day, every day. On top of that, the work you do should be geared toward your specific activity.
- Shoot for mostly low intensity. Consistency isn’t just about being consistently active: you have to be consistent in terms of frequency, duration, and proper intensity. No matter who you are—an elite alpinist or someone out to finish a first marathon—your training has to be predominately low in intensity. Coaches have long been familiar with this concept, but it has gained prominence in recent years thanks to physiologist Stephen Seiler, who did a study of top-level endurance athletes across several countries and found that they spend at least 80 percent of their volume at or under their aerobic thresholds. This mostly low-heart-rate approach is beneficial for many reasons, but a crucial one is that it helps develop your fat-burning aerobic capacity, which is essential for any endurance objective.
- Prioritize rest. Work in the absence of recovery is only breaking you down. Training in and of itself isn’t making you stronger; doing work, then recovering from the work, is what gets your body stronger. This seems intuitive, but so often when I start working with people their impression is that they’re going to see this schedule full of hard training, and if they just pile on and pile on and pile on, they’ll feel stronger each time. That’s only partially true. The biggest challenge for people transitioning from being active to being athletes, basically going from general to deliberate, is acknowledging that they need rest days and easy weeks. You can’t take big bites out of things, especially when you’re building and hoping to see gains. It can’t be emphasized enough: training has to be balanced with rest and recovery.
- Polarize your training. The nature of your rest and recovery can evolve as you become a more durable athlete. Where someone just beginning to build their endurance base may have to “polarize” their workload by taking one day fully off each week, a more seasoned endurance athlete can incorporate an “active recovery” session—for example, a very easy 30-minute jog, hike, or bike spin, done totally in zone 1 you’re still getting the recovery, but you’re also reaping the benefit of some degree movement without much strain on the metabolic system. This is an especially useful way for ultra-runners and mountaineers, who are facing long-distance, high-impact objectives, to add sustainable volume. When it comes to “very easy,” do as the Kenyan marathoners do: slow it way down, then slow it down some more. They glide through their normal aerobic runs at a 6-minutes-per-mile clip, but trot out their recovery runs at a relatively sloth-like 10 minutes per mile. Easy needs to be easy so hard can be hard.
- Build functional stability and a strong core. Before you jump into training, make sure the structure is sound. This means focusing on supportive strength—on dialing in the functional stability and mechanics integral to your specific work. When it comes to gym-based strength training, instead of going straight to big, powerful movements that strengthen quads, hamstrings, glutes, think about building your training from the ground up. What are the things that are most fundamental to your being able to sustain a higher workload? For example, when it comes to running, your body needs to be able to withstand the load of over twice its weight coming down on each foot each time you land. Hip stability, lower limb stability, deep abdominal core strength—with all those pieces in place, you can proceed to really train.
- Eat well and eat a lot, but time it properly. If athletes ask about nutrition, the first thing I tell them is to think about the idea of nutrient timing. It’s a concept I first heard from Matt Fitzgerald in his book Racing Weight. The idea is that you time your big meals for periods where your metabolic rate is at its highest—ideally after. In that way, the food you take in goes almost immediately toward refueling your muscles and promoting recovery from the work you just did. And in order to boost fat metabolism, consider doing your lower-intensity workouts on a smaller amount of food, preferably ditching that carbohydrate-heavy breakfast that will contribute to spike in blood sugar. So instead of taking in three square meals a day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—eat based on when you’re training, optimizing for getting the best nutrition in following your workouts.