There is No Normal

Math is great. Most of us probably take for granted how important it is in our daily lives. Behind all of our fancy cars, computers and mobile devices are complex equations designed to make our lives simpler.

However, when it comes to training, that basic math doesn’t always tell the entire story. It’s convenient to reduce training and performance down to formulas and percentages. Train your endurance system at 65% of threshold. Keep your fueling up with 200-300 calories per hour. An aerodynamic helmet will take 3 minutes off your Ironman bike leg. Sleep 8 hours per night to be fully recovered. These simplistic generalizations are helpful, but don’t tell the entire story.

In truth, every individual is unique. Different physiologies impact the optimal way each person should train, what the fatigue profile looks like, how the athlete should eat and how much recovery is needed. The huge anatomical variations also play into this uniqueness. How large? How dense? What is the range of motion? Let’s go back to the math. With enough variables and a suitably complex algorithm, the training process and ultimate performance likely can be reduced to math. As we incorporate more and more metrics into the equation, we get closer and closer to the truth. And yet we never know what other elements we might be overlooking, which leaves us with the reality. As you approach your training, try to think of the “normal” prescriptions as guidelines rather than absolutes. Use them as starting points and observe the results. Can’t repeat 140% of threshold power for 10x1-minute intervals? Maybe this means you need to work on your VO2 power or maybe it just means your threshold is good. Use the information from this first workout when you repeat similar workouts and target something that is more sustainable, maybe 130% of threshold. Can’t train 15 hours a week without getting sick? Develop a more concise plan that focuses on key quality work and fewer hours of training with more downtime. Training is both a science and an art. Science largely tries to measure isolated variables to determine the effect of a specific manipulation. This provides very useful information to both athletes and coaches regarding the expected response to a given stimulus.

The art comes in when you or your coach evaluate these recommendations against the actual outcome and make the appropriate adjustments. Training is an experiment with n=1. Come to the table armed with the best information you have and give it an honest shot. Compare the expected and actual outcomes and make the necessary adjustments. The process can be a long one, filled with highs and lows, but with attention to the details, over time you should be able to dial in the formula that fits you best.