Minimalist Training or Volume Appropriate Training?

Stress + Rest = Adaptation. The fundamental equation for the progression of any biological system.

Whether you’re self-coached, coached or mentored, can or can’t go under 10hrs for an ironman you can always benefit from a differing point of view. This article may not apply to everyone but it will hopefully spark up some talking points between you and your mentors, training partners or coaches.

Conventional endurance training theory recommends progressive increases in “load” starting with aerobic development, moving into aerobic threshold and strength, and finally a high intensity anaerobic block before tapering into the big race. This works great for the professional athletes for which it was originally developed and it should when training stress is one of the fundamental components of the fitness equation. However, the other component “rest” is equally if not more important and this is where the reader and the theory behind periodization diverge. For this article I’m assuming the reader base is mainly long-distance triathlon enthusiasts with full-time jobs.

So how then are athletes competing and performing off minimalist training programmes? I want give the readers an alternative insight into minimalist training that doesn’t delve into really sciency stuff. There are enough articles on the effects of short duration high intensity interval training and the resulting up regulation of certain metabolic and biosynthetic pathways. Nah, instead let’s look more at the word “minimal”.

Most “minimal” training consists of around 10-15hrs per week. The target demographic is the type-A personality with a high-performing, high stress job, and young family. Let’s look at a standard week’s training plan using conventional theory for this demographic;

Weekend long ride and run, three masters swim squad sessions, a general conditioning ride and run, and then an interval session for bike and run, or maybe even two if the race is near. This will accumulate to approximately 15-20hrs for the week; a load completely appropriate for performing well at long distance triathlon. However, let’s now look an “actual” week of training for the type-A hardworking amateur athlete. It will be one of on the two following:

#1. After a tiring weekend long ride and run Monday arrives bringing in the new week. Last week’s accumulated training stress doesn’t apply because our training plans, like us, follow a 7day schedule, sound about right? So you push through Monday’s sessions only to feel more fatigued. Tuesday to Friday then consist of at least one missed session (usually swimming), one sub-par interval session, and at least a couple other sessions that didn’t go to plan due to work and family commitments. The weekend rolls around and back into the long ride and run because it’s not going to get done during the week! Rinse and repeat until you’re forced to rest or you race fatigued and don’t go as well as you planned, well hoped anyway.

#2 Nail almost every session if not every session in the week. Now since you are feeling so great, as the next week arrives you decide it must be time to do something longer and/or faster. The result? Refer to back training week #1.

What’s happening here is a completely imbalanced training equation: stress – stress – fatigue. If this was early in the evolutionary period you’d be extinct because you tried to walk on land after figuring out you could breathe out of the water. I.e. too much stress to adapt to all at once. The human body does not differentiate work stress, training stress and family stress, it all results in the same chemical stimulus, and generates fatigue equally. For most of you the level of stress is equivalent to a 40hr training week! Combine that with a poor night’s sleep and you’ll never adapt to any training, you’ll only be able to maintain fitness, build fatigue and under preform. Sound familiar?

So let’s look at the alternative “minimal” training approach. A typical week would look something like this;

Weekend long ride (3hrs max) and run (2hrs max). During the week three swims of no more than 1hr. One turbo session or high intensity ride, and one moderate aerobic threshold type run, both around the 1hr mark. Maybe an additional run or ride or strength session depending on the individual. This week will total around 12hrs and include one full rest day that can act as a buffer for a missed session. A week like this won’t feel overly stressful and will be completed with a high level of motivation and enjoyment. So much so that it’ll feel like you’re not doing enough because you actually have energy and you’re not tired and/or hungry all the time. Believe it or not but this is how you should actually feel during training. This feeling of freshness occurs with the “minimal” approach because you’re bringing back two fundamental components of the fitness equation: “rest” and “adaptation”. Ever heard the statement “I’m surprised with how good I felt considering I’ve hardly been doing anything”. For most of us “hardly doing anything” is still at least 8-10hrs of training. Endurance sport from 5km – ironman is still at the least 95% aerobic and aerobic development rewards consistency and rest. With “minimalist” training you won’t need to plan when to increase the “stress” component of the fitness equation because you will be running, swimming and cycling faster at the same perceived effort. We can then generate a fitness equation more like the following;

Consistent Stress + Consistent Rest = Progressive Adaptation

This brings me back to the title of the article, “minimalist training or volume appropriate training”? It would appear that it’s not minimalist at all but for the majority of people out there it’s actually just an appropriate amount of training for non-professional athletes. To be honest most professional triathletes I’ve dealt with spend most of their time over-trained and could learn a lot from the “less-is-more” approach. My suggestion would be to pick an amount of training you think you could do consistently week in – week out, take one session off that and start a 5 week consistent training challenge, no missed sessions! Do a TT for each swim, bike and run (something 5-20min in duration) before and after. The key thing during the 5 weeks is to not add something in, or try to go faster or further because this will happen naturally all you need to do is replicate the same training for 5 weeks.

“What if I’m at the pointy end of the field? What if I’m trying to survive my first Ironman? Is this enough by itself”? Short answer, no, but when combined with mini Ironman specific training camps (Fri – Sun) it can be perfect. Remember specificity is crucial. First and foremost what you’re trying to achieve is aerobic fitness and lots of it. It’s not until after you can do this consistently that you should move onto the specific muscular conditioning required for the length of time you’re going to be out there; this is where the mini camps come in. Consistent training like what I’ve outline above will continue to build aerobic fitness while the camps will introduce the duration specific conditioning by potentially bumping up the training to 5-8hrs rides and runs of 3-4hrs. This is as much for the body as it is for the mind. Those of you at the pointy end of the field only differ in that you can afford to have more camps in your build up (every 5-6 weeks).

When it comes to training always compare yourself to yourself, chances are you can go faster off far less training than the person you’re comparing yourself to. Let’s be honest most of your training buddies are probably lying about how much (or how little) their actually doing.

Will O’Connor                                                 
Sport Scientist
School of Sport and Exercise
Massey University
Palmerston Nth. 4474
New Zealand
Email: w.j.oconnor@massey.ac.nz

 

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One comment

  1. Rebecca Ramsay

    Excellent post! I do the minimalist approach and up there with top age groupers…8-10 hrs a week…but it not about volume – it’s about progressive intensity built around adequate recovery and being highly specific to your racing – remembering that you unleash full fitness during races! Consistency is critical…as is good nutrition and good sleep. The rest is hot air. Always remember this: Less IS More – less is actually competitive…and yes, most triathletes + 14hrs are likely walking about exhausted…go get it..!

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