One Dirty Magazine

Training for Busy Athletes

You can chase your potential in a busy life. You just need to balance stress and get creative.

David Roche September 10th, 2019

Training for Busy Athletes

In chemistry, there is a concept called a limiting reagent in chemical reactions. Yeah, I bet you didn’t expect a line that sexy to kick off the article this week.

A limiting reagent is the element that is fully consumed at the end of a reaction. So if you have 5 grams of sodium (Na) and 6 grams of Chloride (Cl) forming table salt, then … I’m just kidding, I won’t make you relive chemistry stress dreams. The point is that the concept of limiting reagents can apply to how we think about our lives too.

For many athletes, I think that stress is the limiting reagent. If stress-limited athletes tried to train more or train harder right away, they’d probably break down or burn out, and they definitely wouldn’t adapt to the overstress. The hard part is that in the training chemical reaction, it’s easy to lose sight of all the life stress and think of running in a vacuum. 

 

The body doesn’t know miles; it knows stress.

Let’s take this out of high-school chemistry and think of some concrete examples. Kilian Jornet’s recent training log shows 11 of 16 weeks this summer with 17 or greater hours of training stress. He has worked his butt off for many years to make that possible. Plus, he was born with a fantastic butt to work, with the genetics to absorb those years of training. If most athletes duplicated that training log, they’d explode into a million little grains of persondust.

The big takeaway: just because you are time-crunched and stress-limited doesn’t mean you can’t pursue your physiological limits. You just need to get a bit creative.

Meanwhile, leading up to his third-place finish at UTMB, New Zealand’s Scotty Hawker was often under 10 hours of training. For Scotty, at this point in his development, he hit his stress limits at a lower total volume than some of his competitors.  

However, there is a silver lining. The body doesn’t know miles; it knows stress. So even if you are limited in how much you can do by the realities of your life or your background or your genetics, you can still progress and excel over time. 

It gets back to how the body actually adapts. Many different physiological systems form feedback loops that interact with the neuro-physical context of training. That means that not all runs are created equally, even those that look the same. Across athletes, that makes sense. For me, two hours might be a long run, while, to Kilian, that’s a warm-up. But here’s the super-cool part: not all runs are created equally within the same athlete at different times either.

An athlete with time constraints might adapt more to a 10-mile run than the same exact athlete who quits their job. Or it might work the other way—a workout at 7-minutes-per-mile pace might be efficient to the unstressed athlete, letting them adapt more readily. To the time-crunched athlete, that same pace may be too fast on the day after a work presentation, leading to regression or injury. 

In other words, you don’t have to be doing 100-mile weeks to optimize the stress levels in your training for maximal progress over time. Instead, you need to think about the amount of stress you can handle, then dial it back a couple notches to avoid pushing the brink of overtraining.

The big takeaway: just because you are time-crunched and stress-limited doesn’t mean you can’t pursue your physiological limits. You just need to get a bit creative.

 

Think frequency and consistency, rather than volume or total distance.

Training volume is a convenient shorthand to quantify stress. Miles per week or advanced metrics like Training Peaks’ TSS are ways to filter through the madness and get a general feel for what type of load the body is under. But the body doesn’t think in spreadsheets. Give the body an Excel Document of training volume without life context and it will tell you to go screw yourself.

What the body does know is reinforcement of adaptations through consistency. Let’s imagine two athletes doing 30 miles per week, one through two runs of 15 miles, and one through five runs of 6 miles. Which athlete will perform better over time? 

Almost certainly the athlete running five times per week because the inconsistent runner will not balance training enough to adapt sustainably. Maybe that’s musculoskeletal loading, maybe it’s epigenetics, maybe it’s neuromuscular. Whatever the cause, consistency leads to growth. Meanwhile, total volume might lead to growth too, but it’s a byproduct of consistent, strategic stress, rather than the goal of the stress in the first place.

Example: Scotty Hawker had a series of injuries in 2018 that prevented him from adapting to the training volume he wanted to do to compete at the top level. Focusing on consistency let his physiology adapt gradually and put him in a place to succeed despite not doing many massive training weeks.

In practice: Aim for at least four to five runs per week if you can. Even five or 10 minutes counts on a very busy day.

 

You don’t need to run every day.

Yes, the body adapts to consistency. No, you don’t need to run each day for your body to improve by leaps and bounds. In fact, I think that full rest days are the most important part of training.

Rest days are when the body adapts to past stress and prepares for future stress. They let you refill glycogen stores, rekindle your mental fire, and catch up on life. There may be some downsides. Possibly, blood volume goes down slightly and aerobic adaptations may be reduced a bit, along with minor reductions in other variables. But even that can be a good thing. 

If there is one thing you remember from this article, have it be this: if an athlete is at 90 percent of their instantaneous potential at any given moment in training, that gives them room to continually improve without running into a stress ceiling. Push 100 percent and often athletes stagnate.

If there is one thing you remember from this article, have it be this: if an athlete is at 90 percent of their instantaneous potential at any given moment in training, that gives them room to continually improve without running into a stress ceiling. Push 100 percent and often athletes stagnate. Or worse, it all comes crashing down through injury or burnout. 

Example: Kat Drew ran five days per week before winning the Chuckanut 50K and finishing eighth at the Western States 100. Scotty Hawker did the same most weeks before UTMB, with some weeks being fewer days depending on life stress and injury concerns.

In practice: Take at least one rest day a week unless you have a compelling reason not to. Cross training is great, but don’t force it unless you truly love it.

 

Concentrate stress on workout days.

Stress is not inherently a bad thing. The body is made to respond and adapt to stress, and without it, we’d be pools of gelatinous goo. So the goal isn’t to avoid stress, it’s to strategically use stress to your advantage. Slight stress overloads for a day or two (or up to a week in the cases of training camps or big blocks) lead to compensation that can cause major growth.

The prototypical example of stacking stress is the infamous Nike Oregon Project post-race workouts, when athletes will race on the track only to do a grueling workout after the meet. Galen Rupp once set the American Record in the 2-mile, only to do 5 x mile later that night. Gosh, typing that makes me hate running a little bit. Just this weekend, after running a 3:55 at the Fifth Avenue Mile, Sam Parsons did a 3-mile tempo run in Central Park. 

For most athletes, the principle of concentrating stress just means to give yourself days when it’s part of the goal to push your limits. On your workout day, do your strength work or do a second run. On your long-run day, do a tempo within the run and/or go for a hike after the run. On your rest day, watch another show on HBO (Succession is great). 

Consistency means that you spread out low-level aerobic and musculoskeletal stress with easy running. Stress concentration means that your big days can be BIG DAYS.

Example: Matt Daniels will often do second runs on his workout days, or back-to-back long runs that double-up stress on a weekend.

In practice: Most athletes can excel off one focused workout each week and one long run, supported by easy running and some strides on other days. The time to add more stress is on top of existing stress, rather than to an easy day or rest day.

 

Oscillating cycles of training can be helpful.

For athletes that really have time limitations, it may help to have some weeks far lighter than others. “Down weeks” are a common principle, and while the exact training benefit is uncertain and variable, there is definitely a life benefit where running can take a backseat to other important things, like catching up on Succession (I am still waiting for those sponsorship checks, HBO).

You can have down weeks on anywhere from 1:1 to 5:1 cycles. Or you don’t have to take down weeks at all if you are being cautious with stress most of the time. The down periods are just insurance policies against the uncertainty of the stress and rest equations.

Example: Clare Gallagher has a busy life, and she’ll often reduce training substantially during travel. That often means a down week every few weeks. 

In practice: If you are really time-crunched, you can consider doing one bigger week followed by one smaller week routinely. Still try to run consistently and keep the intensity, just back off total volume.

 

Life provides cross-training opportunities.

This is the big point of the article. The body doesn’t just adapt to running. It also adapts to the cortisol getting released before a work presentation, carrying moving boxes up two flights of stairs, waking up at 2 a.m. with a fussy baby. Mix that together with running, and that’s what leads to your specific training and adaptation profile. You are a human that runs, not a runner that humans.

Smile when your training plan gets ripped to shreds by a work crisis. Laugh when time with family takes precedence over time on the trails. And chuckle when the only intervals you’ll be doing are changing diapers to failure. It might not feel like training, but it is.

Embrace the full-life aspect of training. Sometimes, that can be direct and obvious. Run commute when you can, ride the bike, take the stairs. But the less direct considerations might be even more important. 

Smile when your training plan gets ripped to shreds by a work crisis. Laugh when time with family takes precedence over time on the trails. And chuckle when the only intervals you’ll be doing are changing diapers to failure. It might not feel like training, but it is.

 

—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.

 

 

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Denzil Jennings
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Denzil Jennings

“You are a human that runs, not a runner that humans.” Love it. When life starts throwing extra my way I just remind myself it’s all ultra training.

AnthonyB
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AnthonyB

Thank you for helping put perspective on training in the context of life. I really appreciate the way each section includes an example and a practice suggestion

Alex
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Alex

You consistently put out great content on this website, but I think this article is especially incredible even by your standards. Thank you David!

David Roche
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David Roche

I LOVE YOU SO MUCH

…I think I said too much of my internal monologue there. THANK YOU ALEX!

Erica
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Erica

It’s 2am and I am up with the baby. Thanks for this article!

erik hesselberg
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erik hesselberg

Another great article, David, this insight (of the total amount of stress) is sometimes just briefly mentioned – but strangely enough this is the first time I’ve read a thorough explanation on the issue. Love the use of practical examples.
David keeps writing great articles here, and I hope you never quit. There should be hundreds of thank you’s in the comment sections, please don’t stop writing just because there aren’t.

Shaun
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Shaun

Any comment on the _Train Less, Run Faster_ plans, which include mixing up the types of stress (moderate aerobic cross training, light weights, and stretching) along with only 3 runs (interval, tempo, and long)? The idea of balance is appealing, but I kind of just want to run!

 

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