Interesting vs. Effective
Too often athletes and coaches try to make workouts interesting at the expense of effectiveness. Roughly 80% of training should be sustained low to moderate intensity, so these workouts don’t need to be dressed up with all sorts of variation in intensity. For the other 20%, your key sessions, structure is important with scientific principles in mind, not overly complex descriptions.
The goal of a key workout session should be to deliver the optimal stimulus required to make a change in a specific component of fitness. By looking at previous training and race files, we can get a pretty good idea of what you can handle in a training session, but the goal of a session is not to just max out your fatigue with a kitchen sink prescription of every intensity zone. Although that type of workout makes you feel accomplished, there is too much overall fatigue but not enough targeted in any one specific area to get an adaptation. It might be enough to maintain, but not improve.
Limit training targets
Part of the solution is to limit the number of training targets within one week and within a single training session to maximize adaptation. It means the opposite of the random training methods that are so appealing to the masses. It means structure. On paper, the workouts have a simple pattern and repetition. If there is an ideal interval length for a specific adaptation, then work that interval length for the entire session.
Ask yourself, what is the goal of the training session? Challenge a specific parameter of fitness and stick to it. With some exceptions, a high intensity interval should be 2-5 minutes if you are trying to improve VO2 max. If your goal is to dial in threshold intensity on the bike, then those bouts should be stretched out 6-12 minutes. For bike and run workouts, if you cannot memorize your workout and have to pull out your phone or write a long list down your top tube, then the workout is probably too complex.
The number of repetitions or total volume at that intensity is individual and depends on many things. Occasionally it might be appropriate to test your limits, but most of the time, leave a hard workout feeling like you could complete one more repetition and maintain quality. Workouts should be very challenging, but attainable. If a threshold workout seems too daunting, maybe you need to back off your goal intensity a bit, or you are carrying too much cumulative fatigue.
Polarize your training
If your steady endurance training is too close to your higher intensity zones, then it can make your key sessions hard to complete. We call it quality junk training. Use your GPS devices and power meters to hold back when appropriate and adjust for things like hills and weather. A recovery running pace for example should be at least 2 minutes per mile slower than your 5k race pace, and that is only if you are running flat. If you are running trails, wearing winter layers, running a hilly route, headwinds, soft surfaces, etc. then it might be better to go strictly by heart rate or perceived exertion. Willingness to train is one good indicator of cumulative fatigue. The other is performance. If you have no motivation to complete a key session and/or your performance is lacking, then you need to figure out why you have so much cumulative fatigue.
Don’t set yourself up for failure
Make workouts realistic and attainable. This starts with a firm grasp of your current threshold intensities in each discipline. Be honest with yourself and don’t be tempted to use your peak training paces, power, or heart rate zones. If you overshoot your ability you will see a gradual slowdown throughout each work period and from beginning to end. Instead, shoot to dial in your intensity so you are able to hold pace throughout each bout and from your first to your last. If you aren’t sure of your current ability, then start conservative and attempt to negative split. When you do it right, you should see a ramp in heart rate and perceived exertion while your pace or power stays about the same. In some cases, you may need to perform workouts with shorter than ideal interval lengths as a bridge to more effective workouts.
1. With sports that require a higher degree of skill/motor learning (ie swimming), skills and drills become more important especially for developing athletes. Still include some “meat and potatoes” main sets to prepare for the demands of racing.
2. With inherently monotonous activities, pool swimming, indoor cycling, treadmill, it can be hard for some to stay focused and more variety might be necessary to hold your attention. However, as your focus and degree of comfort with discomfort improves, indoor training can be an incredibly efficient way to get some quality work done.
3. Athletes new to endurance training might not need the same type of stimulus as experienced athletes, so nearly any type of sustained exercise will result in improvement. Still loosely follow the 80/20 rule with a majority of training at low to moderate intensities.
4. If performance is not a goal, then by all means do whatever is required to make training more fun. If at any time performance becomes a priority, then a little bit of structure can go a long way.