Endurance sports typically refers to running, cycling or swimming events lasting an hour or longer. Or all three combined as in triathlon events which has become very popular in the 40 plus age group. Rowing and Cross country skiing are other examples of endurance sports that require a high level of cardiovascular conditioning and aerobic endurance to be successful. It involves the aerobic energy system rather than anaerobic and it burns predominately fats as the primary fuel which require more oxygen to burn. It can be general endurance or specific endurance in relation to a particular sport. Endurance athletes typically have high VO2 max levels as they have conditioned their cardiovascular system to absorb and utilize oxygen at a higher rate than most and developed their aerobic metabolism to a high level which allows them to fuel their muscles for longer without stopping.
I recently interviewed a selection of endurance athletes from a local running club who were training for a variety of endurance events such as marathons, ultra marathons, triathlons and Ironman triathlons. One trail runner was training for the Rocky Raccoon 100 miler in Huntsville Texas held in February each year. The fastest times come in at over 12 hours. That’s a long time to be running non stop for! Others were training for the Vancouver marathon in May, Boston marathon in April and Ironman Florida in November and Ironman Texas in April.
My goal was to try to understand their struggles and pain points in relation to their sport, learn what level they were at as well as training load, what they were training for and discuss strategies to overcome poor performance, injury and overtraining.
Most of the athletes I interviewed had fast times for these events ranging from just over 3 hours for the marathon, 1 ½ hours for the half marathon, between 12 and 13 hours for the Ironman, between 5-6 hours for the half-ironman.
Many complained of being frustrated with their race performance. One athlete who is training for the Rocky Raccoon said “Yes. It’s frustrating when your training and preparation don’t lead to the results you expected, but I believe those are the best opportunities to learn and grow. In other words, use those experiences to your advantage.”
Common problems faced during races include overheating. This is especially true in the south as it has been known for endurance athletes to get heat stroke and die during races. I’m talking from first-hand experience from the last triathlon I competed in where a triathlete died of heat stroke in September after collapsing during the run portion of the race. It’s no joke and needs to be taken seriously which is why many of the race organizers have ice baths at the finish line and dotted throughout the course in case of emergencies.
Others faced problems and challenges with mentally pushing themselves as well as knowing what is pushing themselves vs. when to back off, especially during the marathon portion of Ironman. Poor race nutrition and lack of energy during the later miles in ultra distances was another common issue. Nutrition and dehydration during Ironmans was a major concern. Feeling nauseous due to GI issues was a common response as well as hitting the wall or bonking and being forced to slow down or walk due to cramps or low energy or feeling gassed during the race.
Many athletes complain of the physical pain of putting their body through the intense training for 6 months or longer in the run up to an endurance event. The sacrifices they have to make to wake up a couple of hours earlier before work to train. Some athletes train twice per day especially if training for an ironman. It’s common to swim in the morning and bike or run in the evening or vice-versa. Your body requires plenty of rest and recovery and lots of sleep if you want to improve and grow stronger and faster. When you’re sleeping is when all the physiological adaptations and improvements happen as your body repairs itself and heals. Without the proper recovery and nutrition your body will struggle to adapt to the stresses you put on it due to the intense training loads required when training for an event such as the Ironman or Rocky Raccoon 100 miler.
I know so many young athletes who suffered from overtraining and burnout in high school or college sports and had to drop out due to chronic fatigue or injury. It’s imperative for coaches to stress the importance of rest and recovery to the athletes they are working with. Young athletes also need to listen to their body and take a break or dial back their training if they are exhausted or feel an injury coming on. I’ve read of many cases where the athlete usually comes back stronger after listening to their body and giving it the much needed recovery. It’s all about finding the right balance between training stress and rest and recovery to allow the body time to adapt to the training stimulus.
I asked what type of training proved to be most effective for them. The responses I got most were consistency is key. No surprises there however others said increased weekly training volume at aerobic effort, increased base mileage combined with harder intensity workouts, cross training, running with faster training partners, practiced nutrition and good hydration.
I also asked what supplements if any they were taking and a few didn’t take anything however some were taking multivitamins, Flaxseed/fish oil complex-heart as well as other nutritional benefits, cod liver oil-for heart and other nutritional benefits. Other athletes only took supplements during racing season. Whey protein, Alt Red (beet extract pills) and Sport Legs.
Learning from your training partner was one method to improve performance along with visiting specific web sites related to their sport such as articles on irunfar.com, Marks daily apple by Mark Sisson and experts such as Dr. Phil Maffetone and Brad Kearns or listening to podcasts such as Undurance Planet, Rich Roll, That Triathlon Show, Endurance Hour, The Endurance Lab, Triathlete Training, IM Talk, Endurance Nation and the Smart Runner.
The majority of athletes had pretty busy training schedules depending on what distance they were training for. Most were running or biking several times per week. Runners were covering between 50 to 80 miles per week and Cyclists were covering up to 120 miles per week. A typical training routine for an Ironman triathlon might look like this,
Swim Mondays and Thursdays (2K-4K yards – intervals). Open water swims (2K-4K yards straight swim) usually on Fridays once a week a month before race. Bike Tuesdays and Thursdays 1/2 hr – 1 hour on cycle trainer – intervals. Run Monday, Wednesday – easy pace 3-8 miles). Saturday bike 2-5 hours followed by 1-3 mile run. Sunday run 2-3 hours easy pace.
A typical endurance runners training schedule would look something like this,
- Monday: Easy/Rest 5-8 miles
- Tuesday: track or long workout 7-11 miles
- Wed: easy 5-8 miles
- Thurs: tempo or easy 5-10 miles
- Sat: long run, with possible workout : 10- 22 miles
- Sun: easy 4-8 miles
Running 6 days a week with weekly mileage around 50-80 miles per week. One long run per week (15-22 miles), two “hard” runs a week (8-10 miles with targeted track & speed work), and the remaining runs at an easy pace (6-8 miles per run). Higher intensity workouts (tempo, interval, hills) two or three times a week.
A few athletes were looking for help with their form, running gait and muscle activation. The athletes training for an Ironman triathlon needed help with dialing in their sports nutrition and hydration. There are running stores such as Fleet Feet that will analyze your running gait to ensure you purchase the correct running shoe based on how you run or Ground Up Athletics in Houston that do custom insoles if you suffer from ankle issues, shin splints, plantar fasciitis or any common running injuries. If you suffer from any of these issues then it’s worth changing your running shoe or getting a custom insole fitted especially if you’re running longer distances.
Endurance athletes are notorious for overtraining and suffering from overuse injuries and burnout which is why it’s worth getting performance testing done such as VO2 max, lactate testing, maximal lactate steady state, functional threshold power for cyclists, power to weight ratio, cycling and running economy, calories burned per hour running or cycling and heart rate zones. This type of testing can target weakpoints in training and identify overtraining through physiological profiling.
VO2 max testing is a good indicator of endurance performance and was once considered the gold standard however lactate testing is one of the best indicators of endurance performance and can determine an athletes aerobic and anaerobic zones to help them dial in their training more accurately to improve endurance or speed. This involves taking a small blood sample from the fingertip or earlobe before, during and after exercise to measure blood lactate concentration in the muscle.Vo2 max testing involves breathing through a mask connected to a specialized metabolic measurement machine which measures the level of oxygen and carbon dioxide in each breath and calculates the amount of calories per breath. VO2 is typically expressed relative to body weight so a VO2 above 50ml/kg/min is considered well conditioned. Below 40ml/kg/min is deconditioned. Elite athletes typically demonstrate values above 60ml/kg/min depending on their sport. The highest VO2 values recorded in humans come from elite cross country skiers at 96ml/kg/min for male and 77ml/kg/min for female. However having the highest VO2 max doesn’t guarantee that an athlete will win the race.
There are many others factors at play such as exercise economy which is the energy used at a specific workload. The most successful athletes use less energy to perform the same workload as other athletes meaning that they have a greater ability to conserve energy during a race by maximizing each energy system to it’s full potential and training the biomechanics of the skill to use less energy. For example if you look at many of the marathon winners from the past few years. If you watch them run it looks as if they are shuffling or gliding with minimal movements. You won’t see any wasted energy or big movements while running. This is their way of conserving energy and being as efficient as possible.
The same applies to cyclists. Cycling performance is affected by the athlete’s power to weight ratio, pedaling efficiency, cycling specific skills such as cadence, handing the bike, drafting, and aerodynamics. Optimal cadence for cycling in terms of economy is anywhere between 80-100rpm which is where most of the pro cyclists tend to stay around. Pedaling efficiency is another important skill that affects your cycling economy. Many novice cyclists lose power on the upstroke of pedaling or neglect it completely by focusing only on the down stroke. Proper bike fit is crucial to ensure correct hip/knee/ankle alignment. Correct saddle height is another factor that can hurt your knees if set too low or limit your power due to not being able to drive your heel effectively on the down stroke if set too high. Gross cycling efficiency is something that can be measured along with power to weight ratio as long as you have a power meter on your bike.
If you are training for any endurance event then it’s worth getting some baseline measures done at the start of training season and again 3 months later to ensure your training the correct energy systems and not overtraining. When training you should know what energy system you’re trying to train. Think of your energy systems on a sliding scale where you might use one more than the other depending on the length of the event or the intensity of effort from an all-out sprint to a run then jog then finally a walk. For example if your trying to improve your speed and explosive power then you’re training your ATP-PC energy system which is for short performances lasting 10-180 seconds. This would be the predominant energy system used by 100m sprinters and power lifters for example. Anaerobic glycolysis would be the next energy system for short term-performances from three to twenty minutes such as the 800 or 1500 meter run. For events longer than 20 minutes Aerobic metabolism is the primary energy system used. This is where most endurance athletes spend their time training however if they want to get faster then it makes sense to spend some time training their anaerobic metabolism as well.
Fartlek training is good for this as it targets all energy systems and it adds variety to your training schedule. This type of training involves mixing up the speed and intensity of your workouts for example walk, jog, run and sprint. You can change the order of the exercise as well as the work to rest ratio starting with a 1:4 work/rest ratio and progressing to a 1:1 work/rest ratio as it becomes easier with training. You can apply this to running, cycling or swimming.
High intensity Interval training is great for improving your speed. This is where you sprint at max capacity for anywhere between a few seconds up to a minute or so and recover and repeat. This is also a good method of training to increase your metabolism and get the afterburn effect where your metabolism is in overdrive for 24 to 48 hours after the exercise. This is why it became popular with people trying to lose weight however the intensity required to get results tends to put most people off.
Building a good foundation is key for endurance athletes to strengthen their joints, ligaments and muscles to endure the stress of such long distances. Gradually building mileage over a long period of time is crucial to allow the body time to adapt and recover. Many recreational athletes skip this part and show up to a marathon or triathlon race with little or no training and end up injuring themselves or worse. The body needs time to adapt and get stronger to endure the stresses placed on it. It’s important to start the training season with many long slow mileage builder training sessions to prepare the body for the higher intensity stresses to come when training for any endurance event. As you get closer to the event you can incorporate higher intensity speed work, hill reps etc. By that point your body should be able to handle it as long as you’ve built the foundation.