Frequently I wonder whether my competitors are lying about their training or if they really do swim 30,000 meters, bike 300 miles and run 70 each week. My training is so far from that I cannot even compare it. Actually, looking back at my training for the last month, that is near exactly the distance I swam, biked, and ran for an entire month.
So how is it that I continue to improve at such high rates along with guys who log almost four times as many miles as me? In all honesty, I can’t even imagine training that much. It would kill me. My first reaction to hearing that guys train that much is that maybe my body would adapt. Maybe my body would learn to recover faster. But even still, I imagine that I know how to recover. I focus a lot of my time on recovery. In fact I spend almost exactly the amount of time that I spend training working to recover for the next bout.
But what is it? Are they lying? Or do they actually train that much. I conclude that there is no physically possible way I could continue to train with the intensity that I do and do it for four times as many hours and do it consistently. I don’t think anyone could. I imagine that what the difference between many of my competitors’ training and my training is the amount of hours we spend in zone 1. Looking back at my last week I can see exactly how much time I spent in zone 1, or the recovery intensity. Zone 1 is essentially an easy hour ride at 18 m.p.h. or a five mile run at 7:30 pace or a technique swim. You can talk in complete sentences and there is no pain. The purpose of training in this zone is to build aerobic base or to activate muscle fibers to stimulate them to accept substrates for their growth or recovery and rid themselves of waste.
About a month ago I retracted my training log from the interwebs in order to retain some privacy. However, I reflect on that decision and realize I have nothing to hide. None of my training is that striking on the surface. “Oh, he thresholds at 270 watts.” That’s pretty pathetic on the surface. No one would be intimidated by that. “He only trained thirteen hours last week. Must have been a recovery week.” But if they dug deeper they’d see I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. So if you imagine that it only took me 230 watts to have the fifteenth fastest bike split at Age Group Nationals two years ago and now I can do 270 for that same distance, the stats show a little more.
My training log is looking a little less pathetic. So of those thirteen hours I enjoyed exerting myself for the sport of triathlon last week, how many were in zone 1? Three hours and fifty six minutes. That means I spent about nine hours doing some intensity from mildly uncomfortable to intensely excruciating, about to puke training. Those are what count. I can recover while walking my dog around the neighborhood. I don’t need to lace up my shoes or take a trip to the pool to get blood flowing. Why do so many triathlon coaches think that their athletes need to train so many hours each day? Honestly, I have absolutely no idea. I think my coach, Michael Harlow, with Endorphin Fitness, has me and his many other athletes who have excelled as perfect examples of the lack of necessity of spending so many hours in zone 1.
In the last three big Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Triathlon Conference races, Michael has had two athletes finish in the top three. Additionally, Michael and I took second and first last year in the Virginia Triathlon Series. Testament to low mileage, high intensity? I would think so. With Ryan Peterson accepted to the Elite Triathlon Academy and Julie Rechel taking second at Collegiate Nationals last year to name a couple of Endorphin Fitness’s accomplished athletes, the proficiency of his coaching method has proven itself worthy for the best.
Just yesterday I reflected on a race I competed in as a junior. I had to dig deep to find the results of the 2007 Pittsburgh Junior Elite Cup. In a race of 28, I finished 21. All the competitors were 16-19 and it was a draft legal race. My performance was pathetic. I loved it though. I loved the experience of racing the best and the desire to beat all of them was instilled in me that year. I was Michael’s first junior and his most promising athlete at the time. But he coached me gently with sensitivity to my goals as well as his. I became burned out, sure, but only because of changing times and changing situations. I was tempted by the lazy lifestyle of a college freshman but I snapped back quickly. Five years later, I am still improving and Michael is still coaching me. I had no amazing breakthrough season. I have just always been there, finishing fifth, then fourth, then breaking onto the podium, then taking the top spot.
To me it initially appears as an unfinished mathematical calculation. But while it could be that simple with a robot, in reality Michael is coaching a human being who experiences sadness and pain, joy and desire, anger and love. With a robot, Michael would be able to type in his calculation to avoid injury and maximize aerobic adaptation and the robot would move his way up to the Olympics. But with me, he has to deal with skipped training sessions to instead go backpacking or on a date. Or maybe I just didn’t feel like burying myself that day and chose instead to take a nap. Typically I’ll get into a terrible routine of nearly no biking or running for weeks straight in the winter simply because I didn’t want to be cold or sit on a trainer in my basement. But when it hits me that the season is fast approaching, the commitment comes full force and within a couple weeks I’m stronger than I was the year before. Maybe if I didn’t skip those weeks I’d be faster, but maybe I would hate my life and quit the sport.
I have seen so many of my friends and competitors come and go from the sport. There always seems to be some new and exciting athlete entering the scene. Sometimes he makes it to a much higher level, much faster than me, sure. When that happens, we are all extremely excited to have witnessed such talent. But typically these guys come and log huge hours and train hard through the winter and bury themselves until they are either injured or hate triathlon, only to never be seen again. The biggest fear I have from my friends is to see a statement of such commitment. I, on the other hand, have found success in knowing that my life is better when I am training, but just like in meditation, accept the distractions, embrace them, and gently send them on their way. I have found not only happiness but also success in that lifestyle.
However, I have been training so long with that attitude that I wonder whether it is the cause or the effect. Did Michael’s coaching style lead me to this consistent love for the sport. Or have I always been someone to not force training? Did my mind and body adapt to his coaching, did Michael recognize this within me early on, or did everything line up so well that there was never any forcing of square pegs into round holes? I guess there may be no answer. What is known is that I have been doing this for seven years, over a third of my life, and I love it more than I did in that first year. Not only that, but I have improved every single year.
Does the high volume training work for other people? Maybe for a time but I can’t imagine it builds love or happiness. I can only see injury or burnout, or worse, a life with nothing other than triathlon. Whatever the case, I am able to succeed in triathlon, take care of my dog, take care of my responsibilities as co-Vice President on the triathlon team, enjoy my friends, and prepare for medical school. I can’t imagine abandoning all of this responsibility to train. I would think such a high volume life would be unsustainable or much worse, sustainably mundane.
Sometimes I doubt Michael’s method. I wonder if I were training more, than maybe I would have made it big already. But I realize, even with the minimal quantity, I still skip workouts. Why would I ask for more workouts only to simply end up skipping them? I also realize that other people have had this attitude in the past. They are impatient people. They want power and immediate success but they attain these at an unsustainable rate and inevitably fail. There is no need to lie to myself. I have asked for more volume in the past or simply done it without him telling me to. It has always ended badly. At this point, my faith in my low volume, high intensity training, commitment to the plan, and good recovery practices will help me get where I want to be. As long as I am consistently improving and enjoying triathlon, I see no need to adopt a lifestyle that will inevitably bring an early retirement from triathlon.
Of the 28 juniors who competed in the triathlon in Pittsburgh in 2007, only three of us still compete in triathlons. Andrew Yoder is working his way up as one of the top pros in draft illegal style racing and Brian Duffy earned second at Age Group Nationals last year. I don’t know anything about either of their training plans but I can imagine that much of what they would attribute to their success to is love of the sport and recognizing that love does not mean spending every waking minute with it. Tomorrow is my day away from triathlon, and like a missed love, I’ll return with excitement on Tuesday.