The three major components of modern endurance training theory
Endurance athletes across the board are getting faster and stronger. In cycling, older generations of professional riders like Thomas de Gendt have talked about how the general level in the peloton has gone up. In running, distance and course records are being broken by athletes like Eliud Kipchoge, Kilian Jornet and Courtney Dauwalter. This is happening at a time when endurance sport at the top level is plausibly cleaner from performance enhancing drugs than it has been in the past couple of decades.
There are many possible explanations for why endurance performance at the top level has improved recently. One factor that likely plays a role is an increase in competitiveness and performance across all levels, from amateurs to various levels of professional. While it is difficult to measure such overarching improvements, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that performance in the amateur and semi-amateur ranks has gone up. One of my favourite sports to follow is trail running, where the athletes are largely amateurs, and where the course records of the biggest events are almost all from the past few years.
I believe that a major driving force behind the overall improvement in endurance performance is the widespread recognition of three training principles, which form the basis for a large part of modern endurance training theory:
- Intensity control
Measurement means the regular monitoring of the effects of training. For professionals, this could be in the form of lab tests focusing on blood lactate levels, VO2 max, and similar attributes. For amateurs, measurement most often happens in the form of “field tests” like the various functional threshold power (FTP) approximation methods in cycling. Additionally, the widespread logging of training makes it easy to monitor volume and intensity over time, compare current performance to previous years, and so on.
Intensity control is closely related to measurement. Once an athlete has a broad idea of his/her key parameters like FTP, it’s possible to design his/her training program in a way that provides enough stress to the athlete’s system – but not too much! Probably the most important principle to emerge from modern training theory is that an endurance athlete needs to have the discipline to keep the majority of their training relatively easy.
The reason why intensity control is so important is that it leads to consistency over time. In endurance training, progress happens in a matter of months, years and decades. This means that it is much more productive to stack up long blocks of relatively easy training than it is to do a few weeks of “hero workouts” and then succumb to an inevitable injury. Intensity control helps to avoid injury by ensuring a balance between intensity and recovery.
The above three principles are interesting from the point of view of endurance training, but I also believe they apply in other areas. For example, if your work involves projects that require consistent effort over long periods of time, it might be worthwhile to think if similar principles could be applied in that area.