This year’s anniversary post continues that theme and builds on last week’s Coach Tip Tuesday, where we had a conversation about how the body only knows time and effort. This week, I’m advocating (strongly) for duration-based training.
Brendan suddenly died in 2017 two days before Fleet Feet Syracuse’s Triathlon Program was set to start for the season. I was the only certified triathlon coach on Fleet Feet Syracuse’s staff, and so I ended up taking over as Head Coach of the program last-minute. It was a scramble, and to help myself get my bearings, I leaned heavily on the program’s Assistant Coaches. One of the things they did was send me what Brendan had planned and programmed for past years. As I was reading through everything, I noticed something interesting.
Brendan and I had had many conversations about duration-based training and how we felt it was a very advantageous way to train for almost all athletes. So, I wasn’t surprised when I saw that he had, in fact, written duration-based training for a lot of Fleet Feet Syracuse Triathlon. What was interesting were the durations of the workouts themselves. I saw things like:
“33 minutes of jogging”
“28 minutes running two minutes and walking for one”
“49 minutes at an easy pace”
…and on it went.
I asked some of the Assistant Coaches if they knew why things were written in “odd” numbers. They said that they didn’t really know, but they did know that he had always done it this way, and they just figured that he was planning the durations that he felt were specifically sufficient for each ability level of the program.
After knowing Brendan and talking to him so much about coaching-related things, I had (still have) my own hypotheses about why Brendan may have written things that way. Knowing him and his sense of humor, my number one hypothesis is that he wanted to see which athletes were actually thoroughly reading their training plans, versus doing their own thing and claiming to be following the plan.
From a more practical standpoint: As you can see above, these aren’t “even” durations, meaning they don’t end on any times of the hour that end in “0” or “5”. Most people are very familiar with (and therefore extremely comfortable with) times that end in “0” or “5” because most of the world works on zeros and fives. Appointments are set for times like “2:30 p.m.” and “11:15 a.m.”, not “2:13 p.m.” or “10:37 a.m.” Because of this, training to “uneven” durations presents a mental challenge for athletes. (Remember, one of the other things Brendan taught me is that aiming to get to a “good” distance on your Garmin is silly, but many, many athletes do it because it feels better mentally to them.) Thus, planning these uneven durations likely was a way that Brendan introduced adversity into athletes’ training so that they could get used to doing something that was uncomfortable.
At the core of all this: Brendan was planning duration-based training. He knew that the body only knows time and effort, and therefore that duration-based training is a very appropriate way to train. The body doesn’t know (or, honestly) care if you run 12.00 miles. It just knows that you were running for however long it took you to cover those 12.00 miles.
Additionally, duration-based training is such a great way for age-group athletes (who have approximately 33 ½ other responsibilities and things going on in their lives other than sport) to plan for training. It is much easier and less stressful to plan for a certain amount of time (such as 60 minutes) than it is to try and calculate exactly how long a specific distance might take you on a specific course on a given day. As we’ve talked about many times over the years, there are so many variables that can come into play that impact pace/speed. (Look no further than Des Linden’s performances at the 2011 and 2018 Boston Marathons for proof of this.)
Duration-based training also allows coaches and athletes alike to more appropriately manage training load, intensity, and volume week-by-week and over time. This is for the same reason that it’s easier for athletes to plan for durations versus distances when they are mapping out where in their day their workout fits in; planning for a certain number of hours of training in a week makes it much easier to reduce the chance of overloading and overtraining. Since pace/speed can vary so much from day to day, planning for a certain number of miles may actually throw off total volume/load calculations. This can rapidly increase the risk of injury and overtraining.
While duration-based training is incredibly appropriate for all athletes (as an example, I’ve been training exclusively on durations for over seven years now after 13+ years as an endurance athlete), it’s especially appropriate for new athletes and/or for slower athletes. For example, imagine that two different athletes have “run for 12 miles” on their training plans. Athlete A can average an 8-minute pace for 12 miles. Athlete B can average a 12-minute pace for 12 miles. Athlete A will cover those 12 miles in 96 minutes, while Athlete B will cover those same 12 miles in 144 minutes. This is a 33% difference in training volume between these two athletes, which is a lot. Athlete B likely has a higher injury risk here than Athlete A because of this.
When people are new to endurance sports, they have not built up their training capacity yet. (Foreshadowing: Load vs. Capacity is the topic of next week’s Coach Tip Tuesday. :) ) This means that they haven’t established the durability to be able to safely handle higher training volumes. Athletes need to safely and progressively build up this capacity over time, and duration-based training provides the safest way to do that. Remember, consistency is everything. Interruptions caused by injury or overtraining disrupts consistency, which delays (and in some cases, ceases) progress toward both fitness and goals.
I know that it is sometimes hard to hear and/or to talk about being a slower athlete, but it’s such an important thing to be honest about and to speak openly about. When athletes are slower, there are certain important considerations that must be accounted for in order to reduce their overall training and injury risk. There are so many things that need to be taken into consideration, but I’ll give just a couple of quick examples here:
In running, slower athletes have increased ground contact time, which means that there is more force going through their bones and tissues. If they spend more time running than is prudent, then their risk of stress fractures and soft tissue injuries increases.
In swimming, slower athletes will have more prolonged strain on their shoulders (which could be for many reasons - poor form, inefficiencies in their stroke, etc.), thereby increasing the risk of shoulder injury.
I personally plan for duration-based training in almost all of the training plans of the athletes who I coach. When it’s appropriate, I do sometimes build in distance-based training, but if I’m being honest, a majority of the training I write is based on duration. As they say, the proof is in the pudding: the athletes who I coach who have been open to and willing to follow along with this and who have maintained consistency in their training have not sustained any training-related injuries. Unfortunately, I have observed injuries in athletes who insist on training by distance and/or pace as a regular component of their training. Can I prove that training by distance vs. duration is why? No, because correlation is not causation. However, the trend is definitely one that I’ve observed, and it’s hard to ignore that.
Duration-based training really is such a wonderful tool. As you plan out your coming season, I encourage you to consider it as the basis of your training. And if you’re feeling really ambitious, maybe you can plan a 58-minute workout in there in honor of Coach Brendan. :)
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.