Training is Simple: Are you Building, Maintaining, or Connecting?
That car you have sitting in your garage is a complicated piece of machinery. If you aren’t a “car guy” you couldn’t even imagine how to build one from the ground up. It’s a task reserved for those who have honed their skills and craft, having a deep understanding of the intricacies of how cars work. To build a car from scratch is difficult. It takes time, an accumulation of know-how, experience, and the parts required. And even if you are a car guy with a level of expertise beyond 99% of the people in the world, it is a daunting task.
On the other hand, once the car is built, for the majority of its life cycle, they are relatively easy to maintain. For the first few years, you may check the tire pressure periodically, replace the oil every couple thousand of miles, wash the exterior and vacuum the interior. As the car ages, things become a touch more difficult. You may not know how to check the brakes or to test the efficiency and working of the engine. You call in an expert. Or, if you didn’t do the simple things like change the oil on time, your likelihood of more complicated problems goes through the rough.
Put simply, it’s easier to maintain something than to build it. And that maintenance is a hell of a lot easier if you do it regularly, versus neglect maintenance and have to deal with the consequences later.
When it comes to athletes of any kind, the same truth applies; it’s easier to maintain
When it comes to building in training, we are fundamentally changing the person in front of us. We could be changing the size of the muscle, its capacity to handle acidosis, its heart’s ability to pump blood, grooving new motor programs deep inside the brain or any number of factors. Building implies change. We’re taking parts or components and assembling something new.
And whenever we change just about anything, it’s difficult. It requires more work.
To build a component, therefore means we need to spend more time doing it.
If my goal is to work on developing my pure speed and explosiveness, that might mean I’m doing some form of sprinting every week, sometimes even twice per week; even for a distance runner. It’s hard work building a capacity from almost scratch (or a detrained state).
When I need to build a capacity, the emphasis must be on that capacity. Or else it won’t develop.
That means pressing the bounds, ever so slightly, to a place where your brain or body hasn’t been before.
How far do you need to build a capacity? That depends on what the athlete needs. For each athlete and event, they need a different amount of speed, endurance, strength, etc. During each season, their limiting factors shift ever so slightly, so that maybe this year they need more endurance built or more speed. Your goal is to build the qualities that an athlete needs to improve their race performance.
We are familiar with this concept when it comes to building volume, but what we need to apply it to is the different individual capacities.
Maintaining, on the other hand, is simple. It takes less work. You don’t have to delve as deep into the well, because we aren’t trying to fundamentally change how your body functions. We are just trying to send a gentle reminder “Hey, don’t forget about me. You still need this capacity.”
As a rule of thumb, once I have built a capacity, I don’t have to revisit it as frequently or perform as high of a volume of work. My general rule is that instead of doing something every week or so, I can perform that type of workout every 2 weeks or so, and drop the volume from 100% to 60-70%.
As an example, if I spent my base or foundation period developing my threshold with a weekly 25-30min threshold or tempo run at 5:15 mile pace, then during the next phase of training, I might do 15-20min of tempo work at a similar pace every 2-3 weeks, depending on the athlete. I might combine it with another maintenance type workout by doing 16min tempo + 6x short hill sprints to maintain pure speed and my high-end aerobic abilities.
The final piece of the puzzle is connection. Let’s go back to our original car analogy. A car only functions well if everything is connected. Having the individual components built does little good unless they are assembled and put together in a way that they are all working in sync.
The same goes for performing. At the beginning of the year, we might focus on aerobic endurance and easy to moderate runs at one extreme while doing short sprints and strides at the other end. We develop these two capacities; the ability to run for a long time, keeping our breathing under control, and the ability to recruit a lot of muscle and put force into the ground. Yet, there’s a large disconnect between these two extremes. We need to make sure that we work towards connecting them.
Over the course of a season, we need to do the work to translate the capacity on the endurance and speed side to come together at our chosen race distance.
A simple example would be in the development of specific speed endurance. Take the development of specific strength endurance for a runner. Or in simpler terms, the ability to utilize my strength under fatigue in a race. To develop strength endurance, I need a baseline of strength or capacity to recruit and utilize muscle fibers. I might do this in the gym through lifting. Secondly, I need to endure this strength quality, that might mean changing the type of lifting to include more fatigue instead of just strength and power development. The next step I need to make this usable in running. So I might step outside of the gym and away from doing squats or lunges or whatever exercise and instead, perform them in a running circuit. The last step, I might take out the exercises and instead utilize a running circuit with hills in the middle. So maybe I do a tempo run followed by 6x30sec hills with jog down rest at the end, or even in the middle.
I’ve gone from strength and endurance to strength endurance to running specific strength endurance.
Connecting capacities along the way.
Build. Maintain. Connect.
That is all training is. As a coach, it’s your job to figure out when and how to build whatever capacity it is you are trying to develop. What helps me is I label each period in my training book, so I remind myself what I’m trying to build and what I’m trying to maintain.
Steve Magness is an author of two books, Peak Performance and The Science of Running. His writing has appeared in Wired, Sports Illustrated, Outside, and other publications. He can be found on twitter @stevemagness