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Start with Simple

My columns are often focused on some way that you can optimize your training, often in terms of fitting it in, balancing the workload or analyzing your data. While those things are helpful for athletes with some training history, if you’re at the newer end of the spectrum, you may still be overwhelmed by the whole process, let alone the terminology. Chances are you got into endurance sports because there was some appeal, whether fitness, fun or something else altogether. You might find yourself frustrated trying to understand or figure out the best path forward. My advice: start with what’s simple.

There are certain undeniable necessities to endurance sports: a bike and helmet for instance, running shoes, access to some body of water (indoors or out), appropriate clothing for the given activity, etc. Beyond that, there are many other gizmos and accessories that can be added to the top of the pile--and they may well improve the experience--but aren’t absolute necessities. Cycling shoes are a good example. They are certainly nice to have and accessible enough that they probably aren’t worth forgoing, but it is technically possible to ride a bike without them.

Now that you have secured the essentials, how should you start? First, just figure out what you can do. Can you ride your bike ten miles? Do that. Can you run three miles? Go ahead. Next ask how much time it takes you to recover. Maybe it’s a couple of days. Maybe the first ride/run/swim didn’t push you to your limit and you recovered quickly and you’re excited to go again the next day. Jump right in. Start with what you know you can do, and then, over time, do it more often, then make it longer, then make it harder.

The first bike ride I did when I “became” a cyclist was 37 minutes. (I had to dig through a few boxes to find that first record.) It felt pretty hard--hills were brutal and I was tired at the end. A few days later, I tried it again, going a little farther, maybe 45 minutes? Eventually that first summer, I worked up to a twenty-mile ride, enough to inspire respect from my non-cycling friends who couldn’t comprehend what that distance actually meant when it was covered under your own power. From there, I wanted to ride twenty miles in an hour, so I started riding (not yet training) harder. Fast-forward a year or two, I’m on the bike four to six days a week, regularly riding six to ten hours a week and following a more thoughtful training plan with periods of purposeful hard riding (i.e., training) and scheduled lighter days, longer workouts, rest weeks, etc. But it all started from that simple progression and challenging myself a little more each time I went out, all while doing something I enjoyed: riding my bike.

When you get to the point that you are “training,” there can still be a big element of simple. You need some reference points. This could be how fast you can cover a given distance, ideally a course that’s nearby and convenient to return to often. Are you covering that distance faster over time? It’s likely that you are if you’re still adding frequency, time and intensity so fitness is still building. If you’re not getting faster, think critically about your workouts. What parts of them are the most challenging for you? Do you struggle when it gets longer or when it gets harder? Mixing a bit more focus on your weakness into your future workouts may help you to make some progress on your reference course again.

A question I’ve been asked by almost every friend, family member and passerby who knows I’m an endurance coach is “what can I do to get better?” Running and swimming do a good job of staying simple. The environment remains more constant, so a clock is really all you need. For the bike, my answer almost always is “get a power meter.” The sticker price is a shock to many, especially if they’ve just opened their wallet for a new bike, but one that’s worth the cost. What it does for you is provide reference points constantly. It’s great for a defined reference point, just like your course or a twenty-minute time trial, but you also get instantaneous feedback about every part of your ride. Whether it’s a meter on your bike or part of a smart trainer set-up (or access to a facility with a smart trainer set-up), seeing power data regularly will give you tons of feedback. Pick a few common points, like Functional Threshold Power (FTP), average power, cadence and focus on those until you start to understand what’s happening, then worry about all the other acronyms.

You’ll hear a lot of talk about threshold tests, metabolic tests, body composition tests, sweat tests and others. These analyses are all great and they add to your quiver. You could start here if you wish, but my point is that you don’t have to start here. Now that I’ve opened that can of worms, what do these tests offer you that you can’t get from the “simple approach?” For more experienced athletes who have picked the low-hanging fruit, they offer precision. If you’ve steadily built up your training time, started integrating intensity and collecting data points, you can make gradual progress for six months and up to two years in some cases. But within that time, training will typically stagnate a bit and progress may become more random. You might do a lot of work for no net gain if it’s not the right type of work. Formal testing can help identify areas for improvement and leave you with new targets for your training moving forward. When it comes to race performance, these results can also help you optimize your strategy around that goal.

The other reason you might want to look into some of these procedures earlier in your progression is for expedience. If you’re having fun with the process, thinking you might do some races at some point, but you’re not in any hurry to get there, taking the slower route is perfectly fine. But that’s not often the attitude we encounter with athletes at Vision Quest. We find people who have reached a point in their training to have big goals, they are highly motivated and want to do as well as they can as soon as possible. In these cases, gaining some additional information can help jumpstart that process by giving more tangible reference points earlier along the route and steering you in the direction that will be the most beneficial for your body type and physiology. Even armed with that information, you’ll want to integrate the information you’ve gathered into the simple approach, starting with something that is manageable at your current state and adding gradually as your body adapts.

Endurance sports used to be simple, with relatively low equipment requirements and a low barrier for entry. Technological developments and new training knowledge, along with access to this knowledge have muddied the waters a bit, but the process can still be simple if you want it to be. If you find yourself paralyzed by not being sure where to start, remember that it’s better to do something than to do nothing!