Monday, January 27, 2014

Speed or Endurance?

Let me preface this by saying that I'm no expert in either speed or endurance. I'm not a scientist, I'm a runner who was slightly below average in high school: seven runners per varsity/JV team, I was third on JV or tenth of fourteen runners. I did okay at triathlon, won my division on one occasion at a sprint tri where the bike was cancelled and there were five guys in the division, and placed 22nd of 53 18-24 men at Ironman 70.3 Kansas.

Basically, I'm Joe Average, using my experiences to try to impart little tidbits of wisdom to my readers, most of whom I assume are a niche group of crack athletes who read this and think how did this kid do as well as he did using this training method/tool/shoe?

Regardless, there's a constant debate over endurance. I titled this post "Speed or Endurance?" but I think I really meant something more along the lines of "Why the Endurance?" See, we as a sporting community (not just triathlon, cycling and running are both guilty to some extent) have gotten obsessed with our mileage. Cycling and running are different because there are other things you can do with both, like race track vs road, etc. But triathlon is three sports in an unvarying format, so it has become easy to assume that more mileage in all three is better.

In fact, in nearly every race I attended last year, there were kids two or three years younger than me gathered around talking about that last set, what their monthly/weekly/yearly mileage looked like. It was frankly ridiculous to hear a sixteen year old talking about running north of eighty miles a week while swimming 10,000 yards a day. Not many pros reach that amount of mileage. 


Here's where elementary physiology comes into play. Humans don't fully mature until around 23 years old. However, our heart and lungs continue to get stronger well into our thirties. That's why you see many endurance athletes peak in their late twenty to mid thirties. This is why you see many cyclists move from the track to the road, and many triathletes move from ITU, draft legal races to 70.3 and Ironman as their careers progress.

So why the mega mileage? Certainly, there is a minimum needed to progress as an athlete. For years I've adhered to a simple formula: For a 5k, I try to do 10x that distance in weekly mileage. For a 10k, 8x the mileage. For an Olympic distance triathlon, about 4x for each discipline. And for 70.3, I try to triple the mileage. These are the distances I race most often, I would recommend experimenting and seeing what works for you. The other rule I have in regards to that formula is that there should be a weekly longer workout to make the body accustomed to the demands of racing that distance and building cardiovascular strength.

I believe the reason that so many younger athletes are putting themselves at risk not only for RSIs like metatarsal stress fractures but also cardiovascular damage caused by over training is because we've cultivated this idea that more mileage is better. It quantifies our performance on both ends, if we do well, it was because of those "extra credit" sessions at the end of practice, if we don't, it's because we over trained. 

However, there's no need to endlessly pile on the miles. In fact, to be a successful racer at the 70.3 distance, the best thing to do isn't to train, train, train. The best thing in my opinion would be to wait a few years and fill your time racing the shorter distances. The debate shouldn't be speed or endurance. Both have their rightful place in the triathlon world, the key is finding out when each will get its turn.

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