The life of an endurance athlete who is training six or seven days a week is hectic to say the least. It is a delicate balance between training, recovery and having some semblance of a life outside the sport. This is true regardless of the pace at which you race. To succeed in the endurance world, consistency and commitment is king. I get asked frequently about whether a runner or triathlete should include something into their training regimen. This is normally in regards to lifting, a specific type/philosophy of exercise, stretching or some type of treatment.
The large time commitment required for training means that we have to be efficient about the time we have to dedicate to the sport. If something is not actually providing you benefits in performance, or potentially mitigate the chance of an injury, we must be critical about whether we should dedicate time for it during our week. What are the absolute necessities when we are training?
My wife and I recently bought a new home. When we began moving from one house to the next, I quickly realized how much stuff we had accumulated that we did not need or use. I’m sure it sounded great when we got married to have seven different serving dishes, but when I have to pack that up it, and move it from one place to the next, it became very easy to box it up and donate it. It forced me to analyze what I actually needed. When we look at training, lets think about the idea of a house. What do you really need?
I’m going to use a 3-tier system to classify how I advise my athletes and patients to assess whether they need to include something or not.
TIER ONE: RENT AND FOOD
Pretty simple. My family needs a place to live and food on the table.
Consistent training is the bread and butter of getting better. You could give a novice runner the most generic plan in the world that increased their volume and they would get better. If you are a runner you need to be running. If you are a triathlete, you need to run, bike and swim. Consistently putting in the work is what makes people better at endurance sports. As much as I find lifting weights and cross-training helpful supplements to training, you have to be performing your sport on a consistent basis to get better. You can’t row, clean, or yoga yourself to a fast marathon.
When I talk about recovery, I am really discussing sleep, active rest and adequate nutrition. When you get done with a hard workout, you are not instantly faster. It takes time for your body to recover and adapt from that training stimulus for you to see improvement. If you are constantly red-lining, at some point you will peak and risk burning yourself out. My knowledge base resides in really three areas: injury management, coaching and strength training. I have a very surface level knowledge of nutrition, stress management and sleep.
If you want to learn more about nutrition, I would highly recommend you visiting my friend Cara Herbstreet’s website http://www.street-smartnutrition.com/category/life/running/. She is a great resource on nutrition, and is a runner herself, with lots of practical knowledge.
TIER TWO: UTILITIES AND BILLS (POSSIBLY COFFEE)
While not ABSOLUTELY necessary, if I did not pay my electric or water bill, my home would not be a great place to live in. If I never made a car payment, it might be tough get to my work that is 15 miles away. Coffee is also included in this section because no one would want to be around me if I was not properly caffienated in the morning.
Runners and triathletes need to lift weights. It needs to be challenging and progressive while being balanced with their current training load. This is a non-negotiable for the people I work with. If you are not squatting, lunging, pushing and pulling, you are missing out on faster races and decreasing your chance of getting hurt.
The term cross-training can mean a lot of things. For me, this just means do something other than running one day a week. Yoga, volleyball, rock climbing, whatever. Do something that requires your body to deal with a different stress than running once a week and make sure it does not interfere with your ability to perform your next training bout. This makes you become more well rounded as an athlete, and should help you be ready for your next day of training.
TIER THREE: FURNITURE AND DECORATIONS
Activities in this category are not necessities. They are nice to have. Maybe you have a vase or picture that reminds you of a great event or memory. You do not have to have it to live, but it makes you feel better to have it around. The items in tier three have not been proven to provide great improvements in someone's performance, or decrease their chances of getting hurt, but many athletes FEEL like they help. You have to ask yourself, "Do you actually find benefit from them?" Do you feel better, more relaxed or in a better environment after doing them? If so, great! Keep it up. But, if these elements put extra stress on you to get them done, or they interfere with Tier 1 or Tier 2, then leave them out.
*One small caveat. I reserve my right to reclassify items in tier three if we get more information saying they are more valuable.
I've written on this topic before HERE. I do not feel endurance athletes, particularly runners, need to be stretching. Again, if you like stretching then have at it, but do not feel like you are putting yourself at risk by not stretching.
Soft Tissue Mobilization
There are a MILLION products available now to help with soft tissue mobilization. Foam rollers, massage sticks, mobility balls can be found at any local sporting goods store. Many make very generous claims with being able to manage "tissue health" by consistently smashing tissue around. Nonsense. If you feel better after rolling around for a bit, and you find it beneficial for getting ready to train or lift, this is fine to include. You should not budget large amounts of time for the activities. Just don't give these types of activities more credit than they deserve for your overall health and performance.
I'll be the first one to say that hands on treatments can feel good and in the case of an actual injury can help athletes be better able to return to training. Lots of athletes have providers they enjoy going to, and find benefit from treatment. With that being said, this is not a necessity. You do not HAVE TO have continued treatment to deal with training. There are lots of athletes that stay healthy, and perform well, without setting foot in a medical office.
This goes back to the strength training paragraph. Common exercises prescribed when dealing with an injury are not something you must continue doing indefinitely. They should serve as a regression that eventually progresses back to a comprehensive strength training regimen. If you are doing the same exercise for two years, you are likely not to see any improvements because you body has adapted.
Nathan Carlson DPT, USATF