Coach Tip Tuesday: The Three Best Things Endurance Athletes Can Do for Training and Performance

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Tuesday, June 4, 2024
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Google any question you have about endurance sports training and there will be a seemingly infinite number of answers out there.  Some people will be saying you should be doing one thing, and others will be saying you should be doing something else.

Here’s the hard truth: The reason why there is a seemingly infinite number of answers out there is because there are.  There are literally hundreds - if not thousands - of things you could be doing that would help elevate your training and performance.  Potentially the hardest truth is that you cannot do All of The Things.  So how do you decipher - let another decide - what things you should be doing?  

Answering this question can be a very daunting proposition.  As a coach, my job is to effectively do some of that choosing for the athletes I work with.  While I do sometimes make these choices independently based on my education and experience, a lot of this decision-making process is actually the end result of teamwork between me and the athlete.  I work alongside each athlete, help educate them, and together, we decide what things they are going to do (and not do!) as they train for their goals.

Criteria for Determining Which Things To Do

Knowing that there is so much that athletes can do to improve their health, strength, and performance, when I consider what an individual athlete should be doing, I defer to habits and practices that meet the following criteria:

  1. Things that the athlete enjoys doing.  If they hate something, they will not do it.  Or if they do do it, it will be done halfheartedly at best.
  2. Things that are practical.  The easier something fits into the athlete’s life, the better and more sustainable it is.  I’ve seen time and time again that athletes should not try to fit their lives into their training and related activities; we should start where they are in their lives and work from there.
  3. Things that are economical and efficient.  I am always seeking to get the biggest bang for our buck (both literally if something involves the athlete spending money and then figuratively in terms of getting a larger impact in less time).

This being said, there are three things that I have found to be essential to endurance sports training.  Without all three of these things, progress and gains are either slowed or halted entirely.  Much to the chagrin of humans and athletes everywhere, these three things cannot be substituted or made up for.

  1. Sleep
  2. Hydration
  3. Consistency

Even if these three things don’t meet the aforementioned criteria (particularly Criteria #1 - Something that the athlete enjoys doing), I encourage athletes to prioritize and find a way to do them; they are that important.  Sleep, hydration, and consistency all definitely meet Criteria #3 (they are economical and efficient in terms of the impact that they have on training, adaptation, recovery, and performance), though some athletes may argue that they are not necessarily practical in their lives.

Without these three things, an athlete will never reach their full potential.  Because sleep, hydration, and consistency cannot be substituted or replaced, no amount of increase in fitness or strength can override the impact that a lack of sleep, hydration, or consistency has on an athlete; their gains will always be limited. 


Sleep is critically important for all animals on the planet, and that includes humans.  There isn’t a single animal species on this planet that doesn’t sleep.  Yet, humans are the only species that will deliberately deprive themselves of sleep without gaining anything legitimate or worthwhile.  Two thirds (a full 66%!) of adults in all developed nations in the world do not consistently get a sufficient amount of sleep.

The old adage “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is actually probably a fast lane to being dead.  Studies have shown that insufficient sleep is as impactful as alcohol consumption on the human body.  Being awake for 17 hours is similar to having a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of 0.05%.  Though many people try to pretend like it isn’t this important, sleep is arguably the most significant and important thing we can prioritize for both our short-term and long-term health - both as humans and as athletes.

Sleep improves a diversity of functions in the body - far too many to name all of them here.  But here are some highlights: Sleep enriches our ability to learn, memorize, make logical decisions and choices.  It also replenishes our immune system, balances insulin, circulates glucose (critically important for brain function), and regulates our appetite.  Perhaps most interestingly and significantly to endurance athletes, sleep is a key player in the health of our cardiovascular systems and is necessary to rebuild muscle fibers (which is what makes us physically stronger over time).  Scientists and doctors have now learned that the mental and physical impairments caused by one night of bad sleep greatly exceed those caused by an equivalent lack of exercise or good nutrition habits.  These doctors and scientists have even taken this one step further and discovered that there isn’t a single biological function that does not benefit from sleep.


50% of humans worldwide are not sufficiently hydrated.  Insufficient hydration status is linked to a 50% higher risk of being biologically older than one’s chronological age and a 21% higher risk of dying early.  Much like sleep, there isn’t a single biological function that is not improved by sufficient hydration status.  

For athletes, adequate hydration helps with so many things.  Dehydration reduces blood plasma volume; if an athlete is dehydrated, their blood becomes like pudding in their veins.  This makes the cardiovascular system have to work harder to circulate blood in the body.  (Imagine trying to drink pudding through a regular-sized straw; it’s much harder than drinking water through that same straw!)  It also causes soft tissues to become tight (while stretching helps, it can’t override or make up for dehydration) and joints to become “creaky” due to a decrease in joint fluid.  All of this can cause athletes to feel poorly (at best) and to increase their injury risk (at worst).

Hydration is important on a daily basis; females should seek to consume 72 ounces of fluid per day; males should seek to consume 100 ounces per day.  (At the absolute bare minimum, people should be seeking to consume half of their body weight (measured in pounds) in ounces of fluid.)  Hydration is also important during workouts themselves.  Those targets (72 ounces and 100 ounces or 50% of your body weight) are baseline daily targets without workouts in play; athletes completing workouts need to consume more fluid than this since workouts will deplete fluids in the body and therefore increase the body’s need for fluid consumption.

For athletes, adverse impacts on performance start occurring with a dehydration status of just 2%.  If that number jumps to a 5% dehydration status, an athlete’s capacity for work can decrease by 30%.  If athletes get dehydrated mid-workout, this is a situation that cannot be remedied within a single workout or even within a single day.  Basically, if you blow it, you blow it, and there’s no redo until a new day and a different workout.


As I have reiterated countless times over the years, consistency is a foundational element of endurance sports gains.  Without consistency, no other habits, skills, or techniques will be as impactful as they could be.

Consistently exercising for 3-4 days per week reduces mortality from everything by over 60%.  In addition, consistent exercise helps stave off the inevitable decline in strength and fitness that occurs as we age.  Studies show that this process starts around age 35 and that we lose 1% of our strength and fitness every year beyond age 35.  Consistent exercise can slow this rate of decline to 0.1%.  Breaks in consistency (aka taking multiple weeks, months, or years off from consistent movement or exercise) beyond age 35 are particularly harmful; a break like that will cause a loss in strength and fitness that cannot be recuperated.  Consistent exercise is the magic elixir that humans have been seeking for literally thousands of years…and literally billions of humans have let it slip through their fingers.

However, consistency stretches beyond just a movement practice or workout completion.  Consistency is a key factor in the aforementioned two things (sleep and hydration); humans - including athletes! - benefit most from sleep and hydration when they are consistently maintained.

Seek Out Your Low-Hanging Fruit

Every athlete has some low-hanging fruit that they can go after in their training, and determining what that low-hanging fruit is can guide athletes when they are deciding what things and habits they should incorporate into their training and movement practice.  The lowest-hanging fruit might even be related to one or more of the three core things I just outlined (sleep, hydration, and consistency).  If an athlete is lacking in one or more of these three core things, that is definitely the lowest hanging fruit they can go after and reap benefits from working on.  Again, nothing can make up for, replace, or compensate for a lack of sleep, hydration, or consistency.  So yes, you could choose to not focus on them and to do something else if you’re lacking in one of these areas, but nothing else you do will ever make up for what you’re losing by not having sufficient sleep, hydration, and consistency.

Once athletes have established good sleep, hydration, and consistency habits, there is always something else that is “next up” on the list of things that could be improved.  Perhaps they could benefit from giving their daily nutrition or in-workout fueling some attention.  Perhaps establishing a flexibility routine would be helpful.  They might see strong benefits from including strength training.  They may benefit from working on their technique and form in their sport of choice.  Maybe they would benefit from reconsidering their workout planning and sequencing of workouts.  Again, the possibilities are endless, but you get the idea.

But how do you actually determine what is next?  Here are some good questions you can ask yourself to help hone in on what your next lowest hanging fruit might be:

  • What is holding you back from reaching your goals?
  • Is there something specific you have been struggling with in training or in racing?
  • Is there something you are afraid of?
  • Have you sustained an overuse injury, either recently or in the past?
  • Is there something you have been actively avoiding addressing or changing?
  • Revisiting the original three criteria we discussed earlier:some text
    • What do you enjoy doing?
    • What is most practical in your life?
    • What will give you the highest return on your time and energy investment in your sport of choice?

The answers to these questions can guide you in the right direction.  While the aforementioned three things (sleep, hydration, and consistency) are universally applicable to all athletes, what comes next is going to be unique to each athlete in the sense that it is individualized based on where the athlete currently is in their endurance sports journey.

If you’re having trouble determining what would be most valuable for you to work on, a conversation with a coach might be useful.  This doesn’t mean you need to work with a coach all of the time (though you certainly could if you wanted to!).  But just having a conversation with a coach might be extremely helpful; a coach has the benefit of having worked with many athletes from a wide variety of backgrounds.  That level of experience gives coaches important insight into what works, what doesn’t, what benefits from an athlete’s attention, and what is superfluous or unnecessary.  While coaching and endurance sports training is about science, it’s honestly also equally an art.  Determining this - what things to focus on in training - is often part of the art of coaching and endurance sports training, and having a conversation with a coach can help athletes learn the art of endurance sports training.

Pick The Things You Will Not Be Doing

Yes, you need to pick which things you’re going to do.  But with life and time being a zero-based budget, that also means you’re effectively choosing what you will not be doing.  I’ve learned that it’s just as important to acknowledge and accept this as it is to decide what things an athlete is going to be spending their time and resources on.  Though there are an infinite number of things that you could be doing to help your endurance sports training and performance, it is impossible to do All of The Things.  So we must choose what we're doing…and what we’re not doing.

For every thing you do choose to do, there will be literally hundreds of things you are not doing.  But this doesn’t need to feel overwhelming or frustrating.  By intentionally choosing what you will be doing, you can focus on doing your chosen things with high quality.  The quality of, not the quantity of, endurance sports training habits and behaviors is always more important.  Choosing which things you do and focusing on doing them well will be what serves you best, both in the short- and long-term when it comes to your training, racing, and performance.

The Bottom Line

After 15 years in the endurance sports space, I’ve learned and seen time and time again that sleep, hydration, and consistency are the best three things endurance athletes can focus on in their training and racing.  Beyond that, athletes should determine what their personal lowest-hanging fruit is and focus on that to see improvements and gains in strength, speed, and performance.  As they gain proficiency with and move beyond that lowest-hanging fruit, they should seek out their next lowest-hanging fruit.  While athletes cannot do All of The Things, they can seek to do a sequence of things over time that will yield them continued progress and success toward any goals they set.


Walker, Matthew.  Why We Sleep. Scribner, 2017.

Williamson, A, et al. “Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication”. Occup Environ Med. 2000 Oct; 57(10): 649–655.


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.

She can be reached at

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