Over the years, I’ve heard many, many opinions regarding the “best” way to train. I’ve discussed in the past how the “best” training plan is the one each athlete can stick to. Many people have different ideas about what they need and/or what they would like to do in training. One of the best ways I’ve found to test if the underlying principle of what you’re doing is sound is to ask the following question:
“Does it scale?”
When asking this question, the word “scale” is shorthand for “scale up”, meaning “to increase the size, amount, or extent of something” and/or “to grow or expand in a proportional way.” In endurance sports, this question and thinking about scale in this way is particularly useful when considering volume of training as well as training scheduling.
Scaling Training Volume
Over the years, I’ve heard athletes say that they need to complete anywhere up to 1.5-2 times the distance of the race they are preparing for in training volume in order to be sufficiently prepared to complete the race in question. For instance, I’ve heard athletes say that they need to be able to run six miles as their longest training run in order to be sufficiently prepared to run a 5-kilometer race (almost twice the distance of the race). I’ve also heard multisport athletes say that they feel that they need to swim, bike, and run 1.5 times their race distance in their longest training workouts in order to be prepared to take on the full duration of their goal event.
Does this advice scale? Consider a sprint distance triathlon, which typically consists of an 800-meter swim, a 20-kilometer bike ride, and a 5-kilometer run. Applying the “X times the race distance” principle and using 1.5 for ‘X’, the athlete would need to complete 1200 meters of swimming, 30-kilometers of cycling, and 4.5-miles of running to be prepared for their race following this “rule”. Then, consider a Half Distance Triathlon (70.3 miles), which consists of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run. Following this guidance, an athlete would need to swim 1.8 miles, cycle 84 miles, and run 20 miles in their longest training workouts in order to be sufficiently prepared for this event. (Double that for an IRONMAN.)
When you build out the math like that, I think it becomes pretty clear that this advice does not scale. (Seriously…do you know anyone who has ever biked 166 miles and run 40 miles to train for an IRONMAN?) While deploying this strategy may end up working out okay for races that are shorter, it absolutely does not work for longer events. The appropriate training volumes to prepare for a race are not dependent on a single, simple equation like this; they are based on many factors to include athletic history, mindset, current fitness, and more. In addition, athletes successfully prepare for races of these distances on different (and lower!) volumes than those that are stipulated by the “X times their race distance” rule. Thus, the thought that this is what is necessary to sufficiently and successfully prepare for a race is not only a fallacy, it is a dangerous one.
Scaling Workout Scheduling
Workout scheduling is probably the element of training plan design that age group athletes (self-coached or not, but especially self-coached age group athletes) misunderstand the most. There is, in fact, a method to the madness when a competent and experienced coach writes a training schedule. However, my experience has taught me that if left to their own devices, most athletes schedule and plan workouts based on two main things:
What they want to be doing.
What the weather is.
Even when following a training schedule, such as one written for them as a Performance Coaching client or as a Custom-Built Training Plan client, athletes will often move their workouts around and/or modify the planned workout around these two considerations. Sometimes there are good and valid reasons to alter the original training schedule. Other times, the changes that the athlete wants to make have a ripple effect, which necessitates the altering of other workouts in a given training week or training block.
When moving workouts around, it’s a good idea to ask oneself “Does this change scale?” One of the most common scheduling changes that does not scale is when athletes want to move their key and/or long workouts in a given training week. Endurance athletes are go-getters who like to have their workouts be completed; most of them do not like skipping workouts, especially if they are important workouts. However, moving key and/or long workouts has a massive impact on an athlete’s training schedule.
One way to determine if a workout shift/move scales is this:
Would you move a long (5+ hour) workout to be adjacent to or in the middle of other long (5+ hour) workouts?
Would you move one workout from this Thursday to a Saturday three weeks from now?
When considering a scheduling change using this thought process, it becomes clear how moving one workout impacts other workouts and/or doesn’t make a lot of sense. However, athletes often think nothing of moving shorter workouts around within a week of each other or of altering the content (and therefore the intended purpose) of workouts. Because the workouts are shorter and/or they’re doing what they want to, they don’t see how the alteration snowballs. But snowball it does; it can lead to increased injury risk, decreased fitness and strength, decreased readiness, lack of overall skills proficiency, and even unmet/unrealized goals.
Asking the question “Does it scale?” can be a really useful method of checks and balances for athletes when considering elements like overall training volumes and workout scheduling. There are so, so many things that go into designing an effective training plan. Athletes often lose sight of how complex this process actually is, and often think of and/or see training-related things through one lens (or a very limited number of lenses). One of my goals as a coach is to help athletes develop accurate self-awareness, and this tool of asking this question provides one vehicle to do so. The next time you’re considering a piece of advice or making a change to your own training, ask yourself: “Does it scale?”
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.