There’s a debate in triathlon that will probably rage forever.
It’s the one question we all want the answer to. We know the answer is out there – or at least, we think we know. Once we know the answer, it will all make sense, we’ll all be fast and we’ll all start winning.
It’s the intensity debate. Lately, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this: training approach. Which is best? High intensity/low volume, low intensity/high volume?
The answer is not a clear one. In other words, it depends. It depends on who you ask. It depends on who you are. It depends on your goals. I don’t think there will ever be research, data or experience to support that one works better than the other because there are so many other factors that go into success.
So which is the best? It’s the one that works best for you. How do you know which approach will work best for you? Consider your age, your experience, your background, your goals and your ability to recover. Most importantly, look back at your history. Look at that approaches you’ve followed. To determine which was the most successful, consider a few things:
1 – Performance. It’s stating the obvious but under which approach did you perform at your best? Be careful to avoid race placement as a criteria – look at raw performance – numbers, data – and compare what counts.
2 – Repeatability of performance. Was half your season a bang and the other a flop? Were there more hits than misses? What you’re looking for is repeatability, the ability to turn out consistently strong performances.
3 – Health. The most important factor upon which nothing else exists unless you have it. Were you healthy? No colds, sinus infections, no injuries, no missed days/weeks because of illness/injury/aches/mental burnout. Look at the whole picture of health – physical, psychological.
This brings us back to the debate: which then is better? The high intensity/low volume program of the low intensity/high volume program?
The program that works best is the one that allows you to do the most work consistently over time. One thing we cannot deny in sport: work = work. More is more. Therefore: more work is better. Yet the problem is that most athletes apply this concept incorrectly. More does not mean going out and hammering 3 workouts a day while living on bagels and 5 hours of sleep. If you’re doing more work, you’ve got to give that much more attention to the peripherals that allow you to integrate that work: sleep, nutrition, etc. In other words: RECOVERY. For every 1 more hour of work you do, you’ve got to give your body 1 more hour of recovery.
Yet most of us cannot do that. We have jobs, kids, spouses, commutes and other obligations. We can’t take a nap after a workout because we’ve got to get right back to whatever it is we do when we’re not training. Which is typically what pays the bills. And so enter the high intensity/low volume approach. More bang for your buck. Less is more. Sounds like the answer, right? I don’t disagree with this approach but I do feel you need to be careful with it. I often call this the “give ‘em what they want” approach. We all want to hear that we can do more on less. Why?
1 – Our brain. The brain is always trying to find shortcuts to complete future work faster and with less effort. We are looking for the most efficient, least energy costly way to accomplish something. If less is more, we want to know – our brain wants to know. Not only that but it’s the attractiveness of getting what we want on as little as possible. Our society is obsessed with this notion. Ever seen Six Minute Abs?
2 – The ego need. There is something quite ego-satsifying about going hard. A hard workout makes us feel like we did something and that feeling gives us confidence that we are prepared and ready for something “hard” like a race. It’s fun to win the workout or go to the group workout to smash it. But be careful of the ego need – falling into this trap can often lead to leaving our best races in training. Carefully use your mental and physical energy at the right place and right time – in key workouts and races – not in day to day sessions.
3 – Cultural Work Ethic. There is a value attached to hard work that is deeply ingrained in the history of our society. In most areas of life, the harder we work, the farther we go. We put in extra hours at work, we get a bigger bonus. We study harder, we get better grades. As such, we believe the harder we work at sports, the faster we will be. Though in sport working too hard can lead to the opposite result which you are seeking.
So is less more? Is more less?
Work is work. You can’t deny it. Whether you do a lot of it or a little of it you’ve got to do it to get faster. So, my answer to less or more: do work. Do it consistently. Recover well from it, wake up tomorrow and do it again. Repeat that process over and over again. Whether during that process you do fast work, long work, slow work, short work – whatever allows you to wake up day after day motivated and healthy enough to get the work done is what works for you. After all, what we are seeking in this sport is repeatability – repeatability of pace, repeatability of strong performance, repeatability of the ability to train day after day.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Aren’t there magical workouts? A certain number of hours to train each week? Often times the best approach is the most simple. Simple is easy on our body and mind. Sometimes we create more stress worrying about our training approach than the training approach itself creates on our body. We all know these athletes; classic overthinkers. They get so lost in overthinking the details of the plan that they lose sight of common sense. You get faster by doing work, recovering and then adding more stress. You don’t get faster by adding more stress, underrecovering and then adding more stress. What you get there is injured, sick or plateaued.
See how that goes? It’s not in the details, it’s in the big picture. Whatever allows you to do the most quality work over time is the best approach. It’s really rather simple. I’ve often said this about coaching: it’s not rocket science. No matter what a coach tells you, they do not have their PhD in triathlon. They don’t need it. It’s the art of applying science. The science is rather simple. It’s more about taking that science and fitting it into someone’s life, their mindset and their ability to recover.
And here's another secret: want the biggest bang for your fitness buck that has nothing to do with less or more training? Seek out ways to improve your recover-ability. Eat the right things at the right time. Sleep. Fuel/hydrate well before, during and after workouts. Train your brain. Stretch. Do your strength training. Learn to compartmentalize – when you’re doing the sport, focus on it. When you’re not, focus on something else! Pay attention to your body – then, listen to it. A little more recovery goes a long way.
So which approach is right for you? Some athletes need more intensity, some need more volume, some need those long rides/runs/etc every week. Some need shorter workouts with more frequency. Some athletes can handle multiple intense sessions a week. Some can only go easy. Whatever approach is applied to them, it has to be one that allows them to work consistently. Which works for you? Look back at your history and honestly assess what works for you. And know that often what we want to do and what we need to do – are two different things. What we want to do is often driven by our insecurities, our fear, our obsessive tendencies. What we need to do is driven by our goals, our body, our experience, our recover-ability. It might be wise to ask for help in figuring out what’s right for you.
More or less? There are still some athletes who will not let this question go. Even when an athlete has bought into a particular approach, it’s not uncommon for them to still have questions, to wonder if there is a better way. Is it insecurity? Hard to say. More likely that it’s our inability to ever be satisfied. It’s the paradox of choice. We have so many choices that we are rarely content with the one we’ve chosen. What if there’s something out there that’s better?
Bottom line: consistency is all that counts. Whatever you choose to do, do it consistently. Make sure it works for you and your life. Then - give it time to work. Along the way, enjoy yourself, maintain good health and reap the benefits of improved performance. Can you check of each of those three things off with your current training plan? If so, you’ve found your answer. You’ve chosen the right plan.