Building fitness one layer at a time
Note: This post assumes that you’ve been training. If you’re just starting out then it’s impossible to not increase your intensity and volume at the same time. This is why it’s extra important to be cautious when starting an exercise program. Listen to your body, know that the first couple of weeks are going to be a little rough, and don’t be afraid to pull the plug on a workout if you need to. Consistency is the most important part at this stage of the game. Tackling the fiddly bits of how much and how hard can be tricky, which is why I highly recommend hiring a trainer or a coach to help you get started. There’s nothing worse than getting hurt and not being able to train when you’ve made the plunge and are ready and willing to do it.
Don’t increase your mileage and your intensity at the same time. I’ve kind of touched on this topic in the past when talking about the approach I take with most folks when it comes to planning their training cycles. But it’s true for those athletes that try to get a mix of stimuli over a given week as well. It’s pretty common for folks to increase their total weekly volume (mileage, time, however you want to measure it), while also trying to go faster every week as well. While it is true that miles matter, and faster running means faster finish times, it’s not the best idea to increase both at the same time.
Increasing your total weekly volume is one of the best ways to get better as an endurance athlete. Fundamentally, the physiological adaptations required to compete well in endurance events require a high volume of training at a relatively lower intensity level. Consequently, if we’re trying to improve our finish times in the longer events (i.e. anything over 20 minutes in duration), we can often get more return on investment in increasing our overall training volume. More time spent training. The time is the important part, not the mileage. You’ll probably finish faster if you’re going faster (so you can get those extra miles in within the same time window), but it comes with a higher injury risk and you’ll probably not be stimulating your body to adapt in the best way possible for the goal at hand. But if we instead increase the number of “easy” miles, we’ll be stimulating the development of those capillary beds that deliver oxygen to the muscles, the construction of more mitochondria to turn that oxygen into fuel, and the endurance of our central nervous system to stay coordinated for longer durations of time. If we stay fairly conservative in the rate at which we jump our mileage, our bodies will have time to adapt to each new level of workload before we start demanding more out of it.
If you want to increase your training intensities (i.e. start adding in more speed work), make sure you don’t jump your overall mileage that first week. The total weekly “mileage” should stay the same, or maybe even drop a bit, the first week we add in some speed work. We only have so many miles to budget for our training on a given week, and if we use them up doing speed work, we can’t get in the extra easy miles. Once you’ve got a couple of weeks of doing the faster work and it’s starting to get comfortable, then add in more reps or increase the distance of your long run.
I also recommend using this same approach to adding in cross training. It’s probably not the best idea to add in a bunch of heavy gym work while you’re deep in a training cycle where you’re already jumping intensities or volume a decent amount. Use your foundational period between the core training cycles to build the pattern of going to the gym so that you aren’t adding multiple stressors at the same time. OR put the running/cycling/swimming workload (intensity AND volume) on hold until you give your body a couple of weeks to get used to the addition of the gym work.
This is why I try to get the majority of my clients to at least 80% of their peak mileage and the general weekly training cycle pattern before they start a serious training block. If we’re going to be trying to run harder as the weeks and months go on, we want to make sure that we’re not asking too much out of our bodies. This is why the majority of endurance athletes suffer some kind of injury over any given year. Think back to just about any canned training plan you’ve used in the past. Most of the ones available for purchase increase the weekly mileage over the duration, as well as the pace at which you’re running. The easiest way to prevent these overuse injuries is to take a smarter approach to training that minimizes that risk. It’s really hard to effectively train while recovering from an injury.
There is a caveat here. As we get more fit, the pace at which we can run at a certain effort level should improve. That is, as we get more fit, 75% of our maximal heart rate should be at a faster pace (in terms of minutes per mile) than it was at the start of the training block. Just be sure that the effort level is right and you aren’t being a slave to your watch.
The general rule of thumb is to increase your weekly training workload by no more than 10% per week. This sounds like a simple concept, but if we’re changing the intensity as well as the mileage, then all of a sudden it becomes really easy to overshoot that point. For some reason we always forget that the higher intensity work counts for more work (per mile) than the lower intensity work. So we start looking at the total weekly mileage and say “I’m not increasing the total mileage by more than 10%, so I’m good” when in reality we’ve really jumped the workload by 20% or more. And if we continue to do that for a couple of weeks in a row, it’s not hard to be asking way more from our bodies than we have to give. Especially if we neglect the all important recovery week. So let’s try to be patient in our training. Let’s not be greedy and risk an injury. If we’re increasing our weekly miles, let’s get them from easy miles. Once the mileage is up, let’s make some of those miles (just a handful) faster. Miles matter, but don’t forget to account for intensity too. Only change one variable at a time.