Training for endurance sports is akin to climbing a mountain. At your peak, when you're enjoying breathtaking fitness, you’ll be eager to return. But, first, you have to navigate the valleys below, which are the rife with recovery, repair, and adaptation. Of course, you can follow ridgelines up towards the summit, but some of these will lead to false peaks or even training 'gullies'. However, over time the consistent summits, ridges, and valleys of recovery, training, and performance lead to Everest-like fitness. It’s well worth structuring all three for your greatest imaginable summit and to avoid the dreaded plateau.
The Peaks: Performance
Your fitness performance summits are displayed at race events, time trials, or Personal Bests. No matter the peak, you can’t stay for too long. After each summit, you must recover and adapt, but with each peak, you gain new knowledge, strength, and fitness. Practice these five guidelines in advance of any peak performance:
Ensure you’ve adequately recovered and primed yourself, which may require a 2-week to a-day taper.
Fully restore your glycogen stores to feel energized rather than stale. This can take up to 24 hours and 10 grams of carbohydrates per kg of body weight to replenish your stores (3).
Consume protein with each meal to increase recovery after workouts (3).
Practice fueling during workouts using the specific nutrition you will use on performance day. This will enhance your gut's ability to absorb nutrients and prevent digestive issues (4).
Mentally prepare for your performance through techniques of visualization, meditation, race strategizing, and practicing hard efforts.
To see your fitness peaks, head to Strava’s Fitness Graph by clicking on your Strava “Progress” or find out more information here.
The Valleys: Recovery
Post-performance, injury risk increases. For adaptation, utilize different recovery methodologies and return to training slowly. As stated by Braun et al., “Recovery is a multidimensional process involving physiological, psychological, emotional, social, and behavioral aspects” (1). Recovery can be active and passive but also physical, physiological, and psychological.
Active recovery stimulates blood flow to the muscles to speed up the healing of muscular tissue damage. This may entail low-intensity activities such as zone 1 to 2 aerobic training, yoga, walking, dynamic stretching, foam rolling, and massage. Keep the duration short, 90 minutes or less, to avoid glycogen depletion and reduce injury risk.
Passive recovery encompasses non-movement rest, such as sleep, nutrition, heat, cold, and horizontal relaxation. Aim for at least 8 hours of high-quality sleep for maximum benefits.
Physical recovery is repairing muscle damage from exercise. Use both active and passive techniques for best results.
Psychological recovery may be necessary when your mental state becomes bored, burned out, or fatigued. A mental workload is created to carry through daily training and workouts (2). To recover mentally, you may need time away from training to focus on other important aspects of your life.
Physiological recovery is needed to allow our body to return to homeostasis. Training stress can promote fight-or-flight hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Adding breathwork, meditation, or going for a light walk with screens off can bring us into a relaxed state.
After each summit, you must recover and adapt, but with each peak, you gain new knowledge, strength, and fitness.
Recovery needs to be a structured part of your training. Record your recovery activities in Strava to monitor how much time is allocated towards them. Check your biological status to determine when it is appropriate to begin training again.
The Ridges: Training
There are many ways to approach training. Fundamentally, there are two categories: general and specific. Typically, begin with the general adaptations you will need for your sport, like your aerobic base and foundational strength. Think of this as: What are the most basic elements needed to finish your goal performance? Once that's completed, move on to specifics like speed, agility, endurance (at higher efforts), and all the technical aspects.
Regardless of your level, a new stress stimulus must be applied to progress. One way to complete this is by periodizing your training. Most periodization methods will provide the benefits of performance enhancement, injury prevention, and increased psychological engagement. Training stress can be periodized by modifying the amount of:
Type of contractions (concentric, isometric, and eccentric)
Frequency of exercise (2)
Modifying the stress stimulus will fluctuate your overall training load, eliciting different adaptations. Too intense on recovery days and too slow during workouts can lead to stagnation.
There are also two tactics endurance athletes use when considering workout structure: optimization versus compounded fatigue. In optimization, you focus on recovery and priming yourself for maximal quality performance in workouts. In compounded fatigue, endurance is the focus, with lower-intensity workouts consecutively close together (2). The latter is more appropriate for elite athletes or athletes training for stage races. Either structure provides an overload stimulus to enable athletic progress.
The Time Scale
An athlete can view their training broken down into three periods where load fluctuates.
Macrocycles are on the scale of a year to multiple years. Over periods of years, the training stimulus, on average, is about the same. However, the training load may increase or decrease due to injury or certain competitions like the Olympics, which occur on a 4-year cycle.
Mesocycles are months, which typically fluctuate in training load and applied types of stress. Typically, periodization blocks included are general-base-preparatory, specific-competitive, performance, and recovery.
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Macrocycles are weeks, days, or hours. All three will have load fluctuations.
A Lifetime of Summits
Depending on your background, genetics, age, gender, and health status, the stress-recover-peak cycle will be individual to you. It takes time and experience to become attuned to the correct balance. Once you reach a fitness peak, you’ll be keen to return. But remember, with months and years of dedication, you will discover that your peak becomes grander each time you summit.
Braun T.R, et al. Recovery Strategies in Endurance Athletes. Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology. 2022; 7(1):22. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk7010022
Halson, S.L. Monitoring Training Load to Understand Fatigue in Athletes. Sports Med. 2014; 44 (Suppl 2), 139–147. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0253-z
Murray B, Rosenbloom C. Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes. Nutr Rev. 2018; 76(4):243-259. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuy001.
Jeukendrup, A.E. Training the Gut for Athletes. Sports Med. 2017; 47 (Suppl 1), 101–110. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0690-6