On Builds to Races, Recovery, and Endurance Training

Image by Marc Buehler from Flickr

One of my clients is working towards a challenging marathon swim. I thought I’d republish part of an email here that captured some thoughts I’ve had over the years about building to a race and recovering properly:

As mentioned, building towards races can take many forms. It can be a linear build to a peak and then taper to the race.  It can be something like you’re doing, which is a more gentle build and then a few weeks before, you dramatically increase volume to peak and then taper. Many athletes also use periodization, which is a zig zag type build up to a peak. Periodization often involves a 3 week build, and then 1 week of back off, and this continues until peak.


The best way to build is to individualize. Following a paper schedule can be dangerous as you may be encouraged to follow a plan simply because it’s on the paper and not know if your body can sustain the required intensities, or recover fast enough. Anything can be individualized. For example, classic periodization involves 3 week build/1 week back off. However, I found for me, a 2 week build/1 week back off worked better. Go figure.


An engaged and experienced coach will help you build properly. Watch out for coaches who push too hard and insist on you completing workouts as prescribed! Ultimately it is up to you to know what is happening in your body and see if the next workout is one you can complete or if you should just take a day off, or do something else.
So kudos to you for developing a keen sense of your body/mind/spirit to know when it’s time to go strong or to back off. 


Unfortunately, sometimes we are still fooled by our bodies and minds, and that’s when the body throws water in our face by getting sick, collapsing during a workout, etc. etc. Not to worry! It’s all a learning process and remember also that as we train, we become different than what we were so we will have to unlearn and relearn what we are capable of.


Builds can be all over the place. I once talked to Dean Karnazes aka the Ultramarathon Man. I asked him what he thought of a Crossfit based endurance program which basically had zero long runs at all. He told me out of all the ultra guys he met, their training volume was all over the map. For a 100 mile race, he knows guys who only need to barely train marathon length distances and still will race well. Others need to train to near 100 mile distance. Still others need to train over 100 miles at peak. Some like to train high volume all the time. Some like to peak just before.

I have also seen builds be dependent on skill level. When I trained my first ironman, my coach had me train to near the distance on all legs. It was so that mentally I could experience the distances and know what it was like to get through each. I raced 2.4 mile swims and a marathon before that Ironman (didn’t do a bike race because I felt good about that leg). So I was fully confident by the time I raced Ironman New Zealand. 


After that, I tried all sorts of builds. I tried minimizing training with a sharp peak but that was too much on my body. I didn’t race well. Overdistance was too much and wrecked me. Ultimately I determined I was the kind of guy who needed to do about 75-80% of each leg’s distance to race well.  So a bit of trial and error to figure out what worked best for me. 


If you continue to attempt crossings or marathon swims, I am sure you will discover what works best for you.


For endurance, generally it’s the long distance workouts that you want to successfully complete. If anything, you may want to give up workouts during the week to recover enough to go out on the weekend and complete your 6+ hour swims. I believe you mentioned this during our call so good that you came up with this already on your own!

For a long time when I trained for Ironman, I would do a long run on Friday (up to 3 hours, 20-23 miles), and then swim/bike/run on Saturdays (4000m swim, 6 hour bike, 15-30 min run). This combo would wipe me out so much that all I could do until Wed morning was recovery workouts, light enough to stimulate the nervous system but not aggressive enough to bring the heart rate and effort too high. It wasn’t until much later that I figured out that i wasn’t eating enough protein and taking in a protein drink after my long Saturday workout recovered me one whole day earlier!


Now having said the above – if you need to miss a long training day, then so be it! Never force a workout if the body/mind/spirit is simply not there. Over time you will know when this is true and when it is just slacking.

So recovery is key and most athletes don’t place enough importance on it. In fact, how you spend time outside training is just as important if not more important than the training itself!


It’s also better to arrive at a race a bit under trained, then overtrained and exhausted.

Hope it helps all you endurance athletes building to upcoming races!