Philosophical Approaches – Peaking vs. Continuous Development
There are two basic approaches to putting together training cycles: designing the training plan starting from the targeted race date vs. starting where you are and working on the weakest link in the chain in a logical progression.
A lot of endurance athletes tend use the “A-race” season model, constantly training for the next race. We might put some little races in the training block, but the whole block is focused towards that “A” race at the end of the training block. We might take a couple of easy weeks afterwards, but then we put our nose back to the grindstone and focus on training for a similar race again. Fundamentally it is a season-based approach to training. This approach to training is based on a competitive season that is 2-4 months long, with the rest of the year being “off-season”. I can’t say I’ve met many endurance athletes that actually have this kind of breakdown in their annual cycle. Even high school and collegiate athletes compete for 4-9 months out of the year and use the summer as an “off-season” where the focus on getting in mileage, but are still fundamentally training the same systems they are stressing the rest of the year.
The “season” model is based on the concept of going from general fitness towards specific fitness while at the same time the overall workload (volume x intensity) is increasing as well, with the projected finish of the “season” to be on the date of race day. This approach to training is geared towards peaking, being in the optimal fitness for the chosen event on race day given our general fitness level. There is normally a little wiggle room planned into the larger scale training plan to account for getting sick or life getting in the way, but the end of the plan is pretty set in stone. This is the approach used for by most competitive athletes because their big events (conference, state, nationals, major marathons, etc.) are on specific dates anyway.
Unfortunately, many amateur athletes use the season model of developing their training plan without building in the off-season general fitness portion that is critical for long term success and injury prevention. A lot of us are hyper focused on a specific race distance that requires some really specific metabolic adaptations due to the duration of the events. And that means we lose some of the power and technique refinements that come from general fitness and training other systems in our bodies. It also predisposes us to the usual endurance athlete overuse injuries. And while this can mean that we’re super sharp on race day, our overall long term fitness trend is limited. We simply aren’t doing the work required to train all of our systems, to develop the speed and power that make us more skilled, more biomechanically efficient, and stronger athletes. Sure, we might throw some hill repeats into the mix if we’re training for a hilly race, but a lot of us are skimping on the gym work, the drills, and the neuromuscular (i.e. true speed) work.
The “weakest link” approach is really a long term approach to training. The goal isn’t necessarily to run your fastest time ever at a particular race, but rather to be a better athlete a year from now than you are today. This long term approach is more focused on the training process than results. The basic idea is training starts on with a focus on the weakest link in our overall fitness. It might be technique and biomechanics, it might be basic aerobic capacity, or it might be aerobic power. This isn’t to say we aren’t getting in all those easy miles and long runs in that form the backbone of any endurance training block, but the “quality” workouts will be focused on the chosen training stimulus. After 6-8 weeks of focusing on a particular training stimulus, we normally start seeing diminishing returns and it’s time to switch focuses. The next training block of 6-8 weeks should focus on the next weakest link in the chain that makes sense to switch to given the block that was just completed.
The downside of the “weakest link” approach is that you don’t necessarily peak at a specific time. You may reach a new performance breakthrough partway through a training cycle, but by the time you get to the end of it, the system you were stressing 2 cycles ago might be deconditioned enough that you can’t quite hit that theoretical maximum potential. Over the course of a year or more you will be getting more fit, but you probably won’t hit your theoretical all-time PR for any given distance or event. You will keep getting fitter over time, and you’ll set PR’s. But each PR probably won’t be the fastest you could do at that time if you had trained differently. It’s the approach that recognizes that there is always another race.
Fundamentally, these two approaches have 2 different goals. The “season” approach is designed to get you as fast as possible given your current upper limit. The “weakest link” approach is designed to push that upper limit higher. What approach you should currently be using should depend on your larger picture goals. If you’re looking to finally snag that qualifying time or nail that once-in-a-lifetime race, then you probably want to use a season based approach to actually reach that theoretical upper limit. But if you are looking down the road, wanting to get continuously better, you might want to think about taking a look at a more cyclical approach to training and push that theoretical upper limit higher. You’ll probably set a PR, but it will be one that you’ll be able to break again down the road.