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The Secret to Successful Endurance Racing

By Christopher Breen | Sept. 19, 2017, 2:13 p.m. (ET)

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Consistent progression + consistent restoration + consistent fueling = successful endurance racing. This is the endurance equation.

So how does this equation work? Each variable and the sub-variables have an imaginary score. Imagine assigning each variable a score of 100. When each variable is working at the highest level and is flawless, the total score would equal 300. However, when one variable is executing poorly, it will have a lesser score and will also likely negatively impact one of the other variables, thereby lessening that score as well as ultimately the final sum. It is not rocket science although there is science involved. It also requires a fair amount of creativity to figure out. This is known as the art of coaching. Within each part are numerous variables that are individual to each athlete. Minimizing one disrupts the sum of the equation and will not allow you to reach your maximum potential. Let’s break it down.

1. Consistent Progression

Consistent progression consists of individualized, purposeful training. There are many different ways to do this and they require individualized adaptation. Depending on one’s athletic goals, this progression may take anywhere from a few months to a few years. An athlete who has performed in three sprints over the past year may only require a two- to three-month progression to an Olympic-distance race. However, that same athlete may require a two- to three-year progression to an ultra-distance race.

Consistent progression also refers to incorporating the right amount of work at the right times (e.g. strength training, aerobic rides, VO2 max intervals, etc.). By doing this, we minimize injury risk. We can obtain a proper fitness peak for our races while also limiting burnout and stale training. Remaining consistent also allows athletes to be progressive and to increase durability over a reasonable timeframe. If an athlete is constantly starting from scratch for any reason it will take much longer to progress. That is not to say you should never lose fitness. There is a difference from de-training to not training at all. Planned time away from peak fitness is quite different from being sidelined because of an injury.

2. Consistent Restoration

Consistent restoration is exactly how it reads: Whether you are fatigued and run down or you are feeling like you are invincible, if you do not incorporate adequate restoration you will surely find yourself overtrained and sidelined with fatigue or an injury. Either of which will have a negative impact on remaining consistent in your progression.

Restoration in its simplest form can be broken down into super-easy training days, complete days off and recovery weeks. It doesn’t stop there though. Every day you should incorporate restorative techniques such as nutrient timing, hydration, proper nutrition, adequate sleep and minimizing stress. These can have a huge impact on how we recover between workouts and throughout our prescribed block of training. Failing to incorporate these and to take them seriously throughout your progression minimizes the final sum of the endurance equation. It has a negative impact on restoration’s score which in turn has a negative impact on progression’s score. A simple example would be not incorporating low-intensity recovery sessions during an athlete’s build into their race. This in turn leads to the athlete suffering an overuse knee injury, which then leads to the athlete taking one full week off from training during a crucial block of training. You see this has a negative impact on restoration and interrupts the athlete’s consistent progression.

3. Consistent Fueling

Consistent fueling requires one to remain constantly aware of their nutrition and be willing to change and adapt their diet as needed throughout the year, a season, a day, and even a race. If an athlete is in their offseason and their workouts are unstructured exercise, such as going out on the stand up paddleboard for 45 minutes, it would not be wise or needed to fuel the same way you would for a 3-hour bike ride. On the contrary, riding for 3 hours while building to a long-distance race, one would need to fuel with gels and a bar to minimize a significant caloric deficit and keep the liver and muscles’ glycogen stores stocked. Within a season, an athlete may tweak their diet leading up to the competition to obtain their proper race weight. Also within a day, an athlete who normally doesn’t eat carbohydrates at dinner might find themselves fatigued and in a deficit one night, requiring them to load up and replace their glycogen stores in order to have an effective session the next morning. Consistent fueling also requires the athlete to adhere and practice their hydration and fueling day in and day out for every training session in order to ensure race day fueling success.

As you can see in the successful equation there is one recurring theme, and that is consistency. Without consistency in all three variables, successful endurance racing over the long haul simply cannot be achieved. Every now and then you can get by with a deficit in one of the variables, but mark my words that deficit will hurt the equation in the long run if not addressed and remedied. Long-term success in endurance sports requires an attention to the details and the sum of all its parts that make up the endurance equation.

Christopher Breen, PA-C, ACSM EP-C is a Certified Physician Assistant specializing in sports medicine and orthopaedics, a Certified Exercise Physiologist by The American College of Sports Medicine and a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach. He is the founder and head coach of ARIA Endurance Coaching LLC and also works at Winthrop Orthopaedic Assoc., PC in Long Island, New York. He can be reached at ariaendurance.com and ariaendurance@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.