Seven tips to work smarter, not just harder, towards your endurance goals
Many aspiring endurance athletes are frustrated by a lack of progress and the inevitable plateaus in fitness. Many are in a PR drought despite record mileage and working as hard as ever in their workouts.
Well here’s the thing: unlocking your true potential as an endurance athlete requires thinking beyond just high intensity & mileage and the physical side of training. It’s not all about the flashy workouts posted to social media. It’s about the work you put in when no one’s watching. It’s the “boring” stuff you do behind the scenes that will take your training to the next level.
In this post, we’ll talk about seven points of emphasis for endurance training that are, for the most part, easier physically but can be harder mentally. They often require focus, discipline, and patience. They’re probably not going to impress your followers on Strava. But it’s these things that are going to separate yourself from the competition at your next race.
1) Revamp Your Diet & Fueling
This one’s arguably most important but the toughest to dial in on. We all know that the food you consume is your fuel for training. So if your training is stuck in a rut, take a look at your diet. Log your food for a few days and see how it shakes out. Changing your diet takes a ton of will power, so focus on making small, incremental improvements. Talk to a registered dietitian if you need more help.
Carefully consider what you’re eating before, during, and after workouts and races. This is especially important if you’re training for longer races and triathlons. You need electrolytes & calories (mainly carbs) for longer efforts, and the specific amounts vary a lot from athlete to athlete, requiring some trial and error. Training is when you need to do this experimentation to iron out your race day game plan.
2) Emphasize Recovery
Training = Work + Recovery!
Why do we tend to focus so much on the hard stuff (the work) and neglect the easy stuff (the recovery) in training? It’s easy to feel like we aren’t making progress when we are resting, but recovery is the part of training when we get stronger! Plus in a sport like running with such a high injury rate (nearly half of us annually!), recovery is our best defense from being sidelined.
A few tips: get more sleep (strive for 8 hours!), revamp your post-run recovery routine, incorporate weekly rest and/or active recovery days to your training schedule, include foam rolling, stretching, and yoga with your weekly exercise, and keep an eye out for symptoms of overtraining where you may need to reduce your intensity/mileage.
3) Don’t Skip Your Warmup & Cooldown
I’ve written about the importance of warming up and shared tips to prepping your body for movement and training. Cooling down is just as important and goes a long way towards jump starting the recovery process so you’re recharged for your next workout.
I know we are all pressed for time and warmup and cooldown are often on the chopping block when we’re in a hurry. A pro tip is to start officially scheduling them in your daily workouts; ideally aiming for 10 minutes for each. Log them on your watch & fitness accounts to “get credit” for them, making it more rewarding. Your performance will benefit because of it.
4) Slow Down!
I know, I know – running slower is the epitome of boring stuff. But I’m willing to bet that this is the one that most people need to hear, especially if they don’t already have a coach to preach it to them. So…
You should be spending a large majority of your training at low intensities!
The common rule of thumb is that you should adopt an 80% / 20% split between low and high intensities. While it seems counterintuitive to train slow in order to race fast, low-intensity efforts are key to boost your aerobic system and power you through all race distances from 5K and beyond. Check out this book if you need more convincing.
How slow is slow enough? Stick to paces that are conversational for your low intensity workouts – you should be able to comfortably speak in sentences. Or better yet, guide your intensity using heart rate.
5) Improve Form & Technique
A key way to work smarter in training is to use your workouts to become more efficient in addition to more fit. This means taking time to focus on form.
The best time to make changes to form and technique is in the offseason when you’re in between training cycles. Otherwise, you’re more likely to fall back into your same habits if you feel rushed and pressured to build speed and endurance for an upcoming race.
So what are a few key things to focus on? Most importantly, learn rhythmic breathing if you haven’t already done so. Beyond that, you can focus on increasing your cadence and improving running posture. Triathletes can work on bike skills, including increasing cadence and improving pedal strokes, and swimming drills. Improving technique is not easy to do on your own, so consider reaching out to a coach for help.
6) Incorporate Cross Training
The best way to get better at running is, well, to do more running. For most runners though, it’s crucial to set aside a couple days per week for low impact, cross training workouts as a break from the wear & tear and pounding from running. And all runners and endurance athletes can benefit greatly from strength training. While triathlons force you to balance your training, runners need to have the foresight and discipline to do this.
In addition to non-running cardio exercise like rowing and biking, I’m a huge proponent of adding strength training and yoga into the weekly routine. Strength training, targeting lower body and core in particular, is important both for injury prevention during training and staying strong & maintaining form deep into races. Yoga can improve your balance, mobility, and breathing. See the video above for a quick healthy hips strength routine; or this video for some fun balance exercises.
7) Work Out with a Purpose (Follow a Program)
Having a specific purpose for each workout is what separates training from just working out. Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with recreational exercise to get in shape and stay healthy. But if your ultimate goal is to perform at a high level in a race, then you should have specific daily goals that guide every workout.
So: what was the purpose of your run today?
Was it to build aerobic endurance? To increase your V02max? To hone in on a race pace? To facilitate recovery?
The best way to always know the answer to this question throughout training is to follow a solid program. And the best way to create a program that works for you is to find a qualified coach. A coach can educate you about the purpose of your weekly runs and provide a plan that is tailored to your experience and goals.
To be honest – I trained a lot harder physically when I was younger and in my “prime” years. I had a no-pain / no-gain mindset in my workouts and put relatively little thought into recovery, diet, form, etc. I put up some decent race performances but often paid for it with injuries.
These days, I focus much more on the working smarter and embracing a more holistic approach to endurance training with the pointers above. While I continue to get farther from those “prime” years, I also continue to avoid injuries and PR different race distances. I’m performing better than ever. The difference: the boring stuff. I hope reading about them helps you take your training to the next level too!