Last modified on September 13th, 2022 at 12:00 pm
Endurance sports come in many varieties and movement patterns, from swimming, running, cycling, paddling, and cross-country skiing. While these sports all have their individual differences, many of them have the same training fundamentals that apply across all disciplines.
From how you approach your planning and training sessions to how you prioritize rest and recovery, there’s a certain set of tools and mindsets that ultimately separate professional endurance athletes from everyday enthusiasts and age groupers.
As a professional cyclist who has lined up at races like Unbound Gravel 200, Thunderdown Gravel Stage Race, Moran 166, and other ultra-distance events, I have learned many tricks of the trade to help you excel in your endurance endeavors. Below I outline my go-to tips to help you train and thrive like a professional athlete.
1. Define Your “Why” as an Endurance Athlete
For some athletes, being a competitor at races and performing at the top of their game is the main priority. For others, just finishing and having fun is the name of the game. Knowing why you do what you do as an athlete can help you shape your expectations and training demands.
The amount of time and commitment you need to invest in your training to finish versus compete is vastly different. Even for long-distance events like 100 and 200-mile cycling events, an athlete can get away with only 5-10 hours of training per week to adequately finish and finish strong. However, to compete at a high level, the investment would require double, perhaps even triple, that amount of time put forth.
Defining your why as an endurance athlete can give you realistic expectations as to how much time to put into your training to achieve your desired outcome. Similar to goal setting, knowing your purpose in your sport will allow you to plan accordingly. Your why might also change throughout the year(s). In some cases, you might be training for a big race. In other situations, it might be all about the adventure.
2. Plan Around Your Priority Races
If you’re putting all this time into training, then it’s likely you may have a target event, or several events, that you plan to participate in throughout the year. If you’re planning to do more than one or two events, choose two or three of those events to be your A races or priority events.
In simple terms, you’ll want to plan your training around these priority events so that you show up on race day well recovered and in optimal shape to perform in peak condition.
You can view your training in blocks, such as a 12-week or 8-week block. The first stage of the block involves building endurance and later transitions into sessions that focus on building speed. Eventually, there is a taper period leading up to the race, oftentimes a week out from race day.
The general idea is to use a general block-like structure with your training and reverse schedule your training sessions from the date of your A race. For instance, if your A race is October 1st and you doing an 8+ hour endurance event, you may want to start your training block in mid-July assuming a 12-week build to race day.
3. Optimize Diet and Nutrition
In the same way that diets can widely vary from vegan to paleo, there are also many different approaches to maximizing nutrition in the world of endurance training. There’s the low-fat, high-carb camp that doesn’t hold back on fruit, sugar, and carbohydrates. And then there’s a tribe that advocates animal products, protein, and high-fat foods.
For example, one diet currently trending is the ketogenic diet. This is a low-to-no carb, very high-fat diet that helps encourage fat adaptation, which encourages fat utilization for energy over glycogen stores.
While scoffed at and heavily debated in the endurance community, is valid science supporting the training logic behind a ketogenic diet. The principles are rooted in attaining a mock fasted state that supports fat oxidation and longer-distance endurance capacity without using depletable glycogen energy stores.
Conversely, studies have also found that high-carb and high-protein intake is highly effective in maximizing recovery. This seemingly more logical and more easily adopted dietary approach encourages the consumption of more plant-based foods and natural sources of sugar.
At either end of the diet and nutrition spectrum, I highly recommend supplementing with a recovery blend to help aid your ability to repair quickly and sufficiently. I am a strong advocate for the effectiveness of certain plant-based protein products like Vega Sport, Garden of Life, and some of these protein powders that do not contain stevia.
4. Develop Consistent Recovery Habits
Recovery is a vital component for all types of endurance athletes. Stretching, nourishing, and taking care of the body is critical to maintaining optimal performance long-term in any type of sport.
Although diet and nutrition is often the first thing that comes to mind in the vast world of recovery, this element involves a wider range of practices, including bodywork and mobility. In fact, one of the most essential recovery habits that are often neglected is having a consistent bodywork and mobility practice.
This can involve massage, self-myofascial release, stretching, yoga, chiropractic, active release technique, and various other methods that can help improve flexibility, range of motion, and overall movement expression.
Older athletes will often stand by having consistent recovery habits. Professionals will also underscore the importance of having a dedicated morning and/or night routine to improve recovery and help prevent injury. The physical aspect of endurance recovery can vary by individual, but one area of recovery that’s rooted in performance in the ability to recover faster using mobility practices, as well as diet, nutrition, and sleep.
5. Cultivate Mental Resilience
Although the meaning of mental resilience can be somewhat arbitrary, it can be a simple way to describe a powerful component of thriving as a disciplined athlete. Like grit, mental resilience is the ability to perform at target levels consistently despite everyday adversity and psychological barriers.
A study of over 1,200 endurance athletes identified 8 specific elements that define mental resilience. These attributes included: self-belief, self-esteem, confidence, consistency, control, determination, visualization, and positive cognition.
This compelling research supports the idea that mindset can have profound effects on performance. Beyond having raw grit through one’s athletic pursuits, there are several practices that can help build mental toughness and fortitude.
- Cultivate mindfulness by focusing on techniques like self-monitoring and self-awareness training, journaling and reflection, and meditation.
- Reinforce an encouraging and motivational self-dialogue and take ownership of any negative mental chatter.
- Develop habits and routines outside of sport that challenges you to become a better person, like waking up early, taking ice baths, or choosing healthy meals.
- Embrace obstacles in everyday circumstances that might inhibit your flow. For instance, knowing how to fix a bike mechanical can be invaluable when in a race day bind.
- Remain rooted in self-belief, confidence, and visualization that you can overcome adverse situations
Everyone athlete has their own weaknesses and strengths. It’s important to take the time to self-reflect and determine the best course to access the optimum headspace.
6. Prioritize Strength Training
Most endurance sports involve very repetitive movements. For many athletes, the constant training and racing in a single discipline sport can lead to muscle imbalances and weaknesses over time.
The primary goal of strength training for endurance athletes should be two-fold: the first is having a positive transfer of power, movement efficiency, and muscular endurance in the movement or sport itself. The second is a bit more simple: injury prevention.
Because movement patterns of endurance sports are highly repetitive, it’s vital to pinpoint and address any issues, imbalances, or weaknesses early on with targeted strength training. This is particularly critical for under-active muscle groups and effectively prevents an injury that might manifest. In almost all cases, athletes can benefit from routine strength training and coordination exercises that are targeted in terms of both movement patterns and velocity.
7. Getting Ample Sleep
Making sure to get adequate sleep is a key component to recovery and performing your best as an endurance athlete. It’s not uncommon for high-caliber athletes to need at least 9 hours of sleep per day, whether that involves 7-8 hours at night and a short nap throughout the day.
While sleep is a highly individual thing when it comes to athletes’ lifestyles and training objectives, it’s one of the most important elements that should not go overlooked. Inadequate sleep can contribute to overtraining and injury. It can also lead to your training suffering and inhibited ability to adapt as an athlete.
If you need support tracking your sleep and sleep quality, try investing in tools like a Fitbit, Whoop strap, or Polar Multisport watch. These are powerful multisport watches that can measure sleep as well as other metrics like stress scores and various biomarkers.
Just like you as an athlete dedicate yourself to your training, committing to proper sleep, nutrition, and recovery habits are equally as important. Checking these boxes can help you become a balanced athlete with much fulfillment from your training, racing, and life.