Coach Tip Tuesday: What is the Right Amount of Training?
It is one of the questions I get asked most frequently; it may even hold the number one spot:
“Coach Coach Laura Henry, how much do I need to train?”
There are blog posts, books, Facebook groups, and plenty of people with opinions who will all say something different on this topic. Who do we listen to? It can be very confusing to try and sort through all of that information and all of those opinions.
I’m here this week with my opinion on the matter. In my humble opinion, the answer to this question is simple:
The right amount of training is the amount of training you can adapt and recover from.
Now, just like so many posts I’ve written over the years, the fact that this idea is simple does not mean that it is easy. The thing that is specifically challenging with this idea is that the right amount of training is very likely not what an athlete wants it to be.
This can go either way; the right amount of training for a given athlete might be more or less than they want it to be. A couple of common examples:
An athlete is very excited about their goal and has the ability to work hard and likes doing hard workouts. The athlete has been consistently active for 1-2 years. The right amount of training might be less than what this athlete wants it to be.
An athlete is very excited about their goal, but finds training to be hard to stick to. They are inconsistent when it comes to training. The right amount of training might very well be more than this athlete wants it to be (or, at the very least, more training than they’ve done in their recent past).
At its core, good training accomplishes this: It provides a stimulus to the body (and mind) that then facilitates an adaptation. An adaptation is “a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment.” In the world of endurance sports, an adaptation is when an athlete makes progress in their training and/or gets stronger (physically and/or mentally).
Adaptation comes in many forms, but the easiest way to determine if it’s taking place is this: Are you able to complete workouts as planned? If you are, then are you able to handle a progressed version of that workout or the “next” workout that builds from what workout you were doing? At the end of a training block, you can determine if adaptation has taken place when goal day/race day comes: Are you able to complete the goal you set out to achieve?
Adaptation is ultimately what we’re really seeking; it allows for different (progressed) training down the road, all of which ultimately keeps an athlete chugging along en route to the goal(s) that they have set for themselves.
A key component of adaptation is recovery. Stress + Rest = Growth. If you are not recovering properly, then adaptation will slow or cease, which means that training has effectively slowed or ceased. It’s as simple and as hard as that. Ensuring that you have time for recovery is a key element to consider when thinking about how to best lay out a training plan to help you reach your goals. Adaptation can slow or cease because of too little training, or, paradoxically, because of too much training. Finding the effective dose is critical here to keep adaptations coming.
If you cannot adapt to the training, then it’s not the right training. There may be any number of reasons why you are not able to adapt to training, but at the end of the day, if the adaptation isn’t taking place and/or you are unable to sufficiently recover from training, then it’s not the right amount of training for you. Again, it’s as simple and as hard as that.
Another important piece of this conversation is this: For many goals, there is a baseline (minimum) amount of training that is necessary to successfully achieve the goal. Therefore, there is a “right” amount of training that is necessary to reach certain goals. Each athlete needs to honestly and accurately assess for themselves whether that minimum amount of training is also the right amount of training for them. If it isn’t, then this means that the goal is not the right goal for them to set.
I know, I know. In a world where we like to tell ourselves that we can do anything, this is hard to hear. And while I do firmly believe that so many goals can be achieved if we do set our minds to them, these things do not happen magically. They are the result of an intentional, deliberate process and a heck of a lot of hard work. It takes what it takes. You can do it, or you can not do it. But that doesn’t change what it takes.
The right amount of training for an athlete can (and usually does!) change. Sometimes it changes as quickly as month-to-month, and sometimes it changes over the course of a season or even several years. Some seasons of our lives may be better suited to certain kinds of work than others, which means that there may be times where the right amount of training for a particular athlete doesn’t line up with what they want goal-wise. It’s a hard thing, but ultimately, if athletes can understand and embrace what the right amount of training is in a given season of their lives, they will be able to set realistic goals that they have a higher probability of achieving successfully.
As you embark on Maintenance Phase and Dreaming Season, be honest with yourselves. What goals do you have for yourself - in sport and in life? Where are you in your life? Assess how much time actually (not ideally) spend on the following things each week/month:
Socialization with friends
Other recreational activities
Once you’ve taken stock of how you’re spending your time, you can determine if you have room in your “time budget” for the goals you’ve set for yourselves. You may need to cut back on some things to make time for the goals you’ve set. Or, you may determine that you cannot or will not cut back on the amount of time you’re spending on certain things. If this is the case, you may want to reevaluate your goals. After all, we all want the highest probability of success, don’t we?
Embracing the idea that the right amount of training is what you can adapt to and recover from can really unlock so much joy in your training in addition to leading you to higher probabilities of success. Honestly assess what you can adapt to and recover from, and get yourself on that path to success.
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.