Spring means more daylight hours, which could mean more training time. But if you are like a lot of people that doesn’t always translate into being able to actually put more time into working out. If you are a time-crunched athlete, one of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to make the most of what time you do have to devote to your sport. Popular at the moment is a style of training where you dramatically reduce your overall volume but increase your intensity in the workouts that you can do. Is this a good solution? Here are my thoughts.
Short and Fast: Great Idea or Recipe for Disaster
Compressing your sessions into a few fast workouts does have some short-term ways of making you a faster and stronger athlete. Anaerobic (high intensity) workouts initially do a lot of things that everyone wants to have happen through training. It stimulates your body to release Human Growth Hormone and Testosterone, which are two key ingredients necessary to build more muscle. It raises your VO2max, which is a fancy way of saying that you get better at sucking in more oxygen and getting it to the working muscles, which means you go faster. Both of these things will initially give your fitness a few huge ticks in the upward direction. And this is what the advocates who say a time-crunched athlete can compete at a high level even on a small amount of training hang their hats on.
And in the short haul they are right! Instead of getting up at 4:00am to get in a three-hour ride on your stationary bike before heading off to work, get up at 6:00am and hammer some hard intervals for 45-minutes. Both will give you fitness gains. The second approach will give you the big bang for your buck in a much shorter amount of time. But what no one talks about is the price for this gain, and there is a price!
Paying The Price
Anaerobic training activates your adrenal system. This is your fight or flight physiology that in ancient times revved up your system when a saber tooth tiger started chasing you because you looked like you’d make a good lunch. It’s high physiological stress. It’s a high demand on your body. It takes a lot longer to recover from this type of stress than aerobic (low to moderate intensity) training does. A hard anaerobic session causes damage to the muscles that can take a few days to recover from. But most essential to understand the price is the demand it puts on your adrenal system.
The adrenal system is what allows us to respond to stress. But it only allows us to respond to a certain level of stress before it actually stops working right. A bit of stress, like a hard workout, can release all the things that make us stronger, faster and more fine tuned. But if we demand this response all the time, it starts to dull things and become unresponsive. Eventually if you go hard too often you will get a reduced level of Human Growth Hormone and Testosterone. You will get a dangerously high level of Cortisol (a stress hormone) that never lowers. This will cause disrupted sleep, low energy levels, slowed recovery time from workouts, muscle wasting, dramatic mood swings, exhaustion, illness and injury. None of those are what we want at athletes.
So is short and sweet a viable long-term way to approach training for a time-crunched athlete? Absolutely not! But there is a solution. It requires blending aerobic swim, bike and run workouts with strength training. It only takes 20-minutes of aerobic training to stimulate your aerobic system and keep it stay active. This is the physiology that you need as an endurance athlete. Stimulating it is low stress in workouts under three-hours. That will help you in your races by having the ability to metabolize fats for fuel, which is critical to be able to do in long races like an Ironman. Then if you add in strength training you will get all the benefits of anaerobic work but from a workout that is actually low stress on your body. Strength training, even though technically it is anaerobic, does not stress your body out like doing a track session running. However, it gives you all those great benefits that anaerobic workouts does like increasing the release of Human Growth Hormone and Testosterone, but without releasing all the stress hormones like Cortisol that eventually can end up eroding your fitness. This is the clear heads and shoulders above solution I use in my coaching at MarkAllenCoaching.
So if you are a time-crunched athlete who still wants to have a great experience in triathlons, stick with your low to moderate workouts. Cut the time and frequency of them down. But make sure to be religious on the strength work. And then of course at some point do add in handful of faster session. Just avoid the temptation to make those the staple of your workout diet!