Part 1: You’re training too hard
In the investing world, there’s an approach known as the Barbell Strategy that minimizes your exposure to risk while still giving you a chance to hit it big. The idea is that you put the majority of your assets in low-risk/low-return areas and then put the rest in the risky stuff that has the possibility to hit it big (or lose it all), thus skipping all of the medium risk/medium yield options. If you plot where your money is, you’d have two peaks, one at either end of the spectrum and nothing in the middle. It looks like a barbell with weights on it, which is where the name comes from. It’s exactly the opposite of moderation — and it works really well.
Your approach to endurance training should be the same: Don’t spend much time — or really any time — working at a moderate pace.
Now that it’s fall, your race schedule should be winding down, and you’ll be taking some time off to recover — both mentally and physically. This is the time to start making your training plan for the next year, and I want you to think about using the Barbell Strategy when you’re training for the next season. Put most of your time and miles in slow (very slow), easy (very easy) base-building work. Then occasionally have some short periods where you sprint or lift weights and push the intensity.
Why does the Barbell Strategy work? In both investing and training we tend to underestimate the moderate risk and overestimate the moderate pay-off. That “fat-burning zone” or “aerobic training zone” that you read about is precisely the moderate zone that is not really hard enough to make you stronger and faster but is too hard to really recover from — and that’s why you’re so tired at the end of the season. As you keep piling on the miles without sufficient recovery, you become more and more susceptible to injury and illness. I’m sure you’ve had more nagging aches and pains as the season wears on, or perhaps a weird late-season summer cold? If you don’t hit the fall feeling better than you did in the spring, you’re not recovering from your training.
Step 1: Get comfortable going slow
You’ll want to spend your time building your base by going really, really slow. How slow? Slower than you think you should. The most famous research on this comes from Dr. Phil Maffetone. His team has found that most of your training needs to be at a heart rate lower than 180 minus your age. Take a second and calculate that, and you’ll be surprised how low that is. If you’re 37, for example, your training heart rate should not exceed 143 bpm.
If you’re reading this blog, we know you’re out there putting in the miles and you may even love the suffering of a good training run. So the hardest part of trying this new training approach is convincing yourself that you need to slow down and then actually doing it. Calculate your new maximum training rate or use the chart we use for our clients.
Next time you go out for your favorite run, keep your heart rate lower than your AeroMAX, and be strict! Set an alarm on your monitor and slow down every time it beeps. You’ll probably be walking a lot the first time. Keep it up, keep putting in the slow miles, and you’ll see that they’re not so slow after a while.
Step 2: Get strong
Strength is the most important aspect of fitness and is often overlooked by endurance athletes. Being strong isn’t about winning a powerlifting meet. Being strong is:
- Holding your body in a good posture during a long race, like the Portland Marathon. Keeping good posture makes you efficient, and being efficient means you go faster with less effort.
- Staying healthy and injury free, which means you have more good training days.
- Recovering from a trip and not falling and breaking a bone.
I want everyone to be stronger than they are now!
How do you get strong? You lift weights, and you progress by lifting more weight every time you’re in the gym. “But won’t that make me bulky? And heavy?” you say. No! It’s the low-weight, high-rep training that makes you gain size and mass. We prescribe high-weight (high for you, not for a powerlifter) work of no more than 15 (total!) reps in a day. All you need is a punctuated stimulus to tell your body to start getting stronger. Bodyweight work won’t work here — you need something that pushes you outside of your comfort zone. Don’t worry if you have to start light; you’ll make quick progress.
Simply do barbell squats, deadlifts, presses, even cleans or snatches once every week or 10 days for 15 reps and your body will respond. Our clients spend no more than 15 minutes on their strength work, so it’s not hard to fit into your day (and it takes the place of a long run, so think of all the free time you get). If you’re new to these movements, be sure to find a competent strength coach or personal trainer to help you get started.
Step 3: Sprint to get fast
Last, but not least, you need to teach your body to get fast. The way to do that is to sprint. Properly done, sprinting takes a lot out of you, so you should only do this a few times (like two or three) a month and only do it on a day when you’re feeling great. If you’re not feeling up to it, or if you have any nagging aches or pains, postpone sprint day. It’s never worth risking an injury to stick to a schedule.
Head down to your local track, or find a good straight section of road (uphill is even better). Do 6-10 attempts of a 10-15-second all-out effort. That’s it. Warm up, sprint for a total of about a minute of work (with lots of rest), and go home. I love sprints: they make you fast and efficient, and they don’t take much time. Just be sure to reserve time to recover — don’t mix a sprint day and a slow day.
Slow-Strong-Sprint. I know this plan might seem weird, and it’s not what you’re used to hearing. But try it out this season and see if you don’t get faster and feel better in the next year.
Up next: Why you need to change your race preparation: Part II – You’re fueling wrong.
Mike Deskevich is an owner and strength and conditioning coach at Barbell Strategy in Boulder, CO. He has a Ph.D. in chemical physics from the University of Colorado and more than 16 years of strength training under his belt. In addition to spending more than 10 years in the CrossFit and weightlifting communities, he has experience both coaching and competing in CrossFit and indoor rowing. His goal is to take his experiences and combine them with the decades of research and knowledge in the strength and conditioning community to develop smart programming that makes people strong, fit, and healthy. Mike is a passionate advocate of using strength and smart nutrition to build health and fitness for life.