Less is often More
Updated: Feb 12
by Chris Palmquist
For new athletes and many new coaches, it seems like the goal is always more, more, more. More miles, more speedwork, more data, more perfection, more races, more accomplishments. But this is the deceptive nature of endurance sports. In reality, “less” is much more likely to be “more” for my athletes. Let me explain.
Control Cumulative Stress
One of my primary responsibilities as a coach is to give my athletes the proper training load. This means training that fits into their lives, their priorities and their available emotional and physical energy stores. An athlete’s training is just one source of life stress. When job or family or other sources of stress escalate, it is important to reduce the training load to help an athlete remain healthy, happy and productive in all areas of their lives.
When you plan out your racing season, remember the shorter races. Even if a long course race is your goal, racing some sprint triathlons, 5kms and other shorter races can help you develop speed, practice your sport and give you some key test sessions made fun by the race setting. Remember also, that placing a race in your training season probably means that you will sacrifice some fitness-building training. Race, but not too often to build your peak fitness.
In the last week or two before your biggest race of the season, it is important to taper properly. While every athlete tapers differently, in general, one must reduce training volume significantly to release some fatigue and raise the potential to feel strong and fast on race day. Yet many athletes fall prey to the temptation to “test” out their fitness with a few extra miles, intervals or extra training sessions when they should be doing just enough to remain sharp for the starting line.
The most beneficial interval sessions are manageably challenging and no more. This means that an athlete will benefit from the session by adapting physiologically but at the same time, will be able to recover from the session for more quality work within a day or two. A properly designed interval workout will feel challenging and doable (with good form!). And the athlete will finish the workout feeling like they could have completed another couple of intervals if they had to. Perform just the minimum number and length of intervals required to achieve the desired adaptation, no more.
As we age, we require more time to recover from training. Masters athletes should incorporate more frequent rest days and rest weeks into their training plan. As a coach, I frequently see athletes who are attempting to fit in “X” training sessions per week because that is what they believe is required for their sport. Most of them would be faster athletes if they trained “X-1 or X-2” (or fewer) times per week. As a coach or athlete, our goal is to be strong enough to train effectively. This means recovering adequately from previous training to be able to hold form and speed during subsequent sessions.
Train the Minimum Required to Achieve your Maximum Potential
My job as a coach is to help you reach your absolute best potential as an endurance athlete. The path to your best should be accompanied by fabulous health, life balance, loving relationships, enjoyable careers and loads of joy. For these other important reasons, I want to give you the most efficient training load possible. This means giving you the minimum amount of training needed for you to achieve your best. No more.
Endurance sports can be the perfect medicine for a long, healthy life. But like any medicine, there is a beneficial dose and a level which becomes an overdose. Mounting evidence suggests that too many years and hours of training without adequate and frequent opportunities for recovery can lead to detrimental health issues including heart rhythm abnormalities, inflammation and others. The key is to keep your training in balance with all the other aspects of life to lead to happiness and health.
The best athletes know that they need to push their limits and take risks. Risk taking can often lead to failure followed by lessons learned – both things that are absolutely required to be at the top of the podium. The best athletes strive for less perfection and successfully ride the ups and downs of a training and racing season, knowing that all of this is a part of the journey to become the best athlete that they can be.
I love training data and analyze it for every athlete on almost every day. However, data is often not very revealing or important and an over-obsession with data can bring athletes down during a training session or race. In the end, an athlete’s comments regarding how she/he “felt” during the session, are so much more important than anything else. Don’t obsess over data. Don’t be afraid to train and race “by feel” regularly and match up that feeling with the resulting data. Data is great but not greater than all the other measures of success.
As you gather many years of experience as an athlete or coach, I think you will also find that “less” can often be a much better strategy than “more.” Enjoy the resulting success!