For new readers

To get an idea of what I'm trying to do and why I think it's possible, check out the following entries, they'll help get you up to speed.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Underpinnings

I Have started putting together the idea of 'training for anything' in 3 hours. The real idea is that from a fitness base that is developed and maintained by a 3 hour/week* training schedule, new skills can be learned and any type/length of event can be successfully trained for and completed (in good style) without upping training hours. In a sense, i'm making the argument that a dedicated 3 hours/week* focused specifically on fitness can get you (me) fit enough to 'do anything'. more specifically i think that outside of learning any new skill/technique that might be involved, i can be ready for any particular event with only 3 months (39 hours - less than a work week!) of targeted training. [*averaged over two week intervals]
Ever since I discovered weight lifting during my sophomore year of high school, fitness (training) has been an integral component of my life. The way it manifested itself has changed dramatically, however - i've gone from trying to emulate the physique of pro bodybuilders by putting in 12 hour weeks pumping iron to training for and running ultra-marathons and iron distance triathlons. I've gone from the end result of my efforts being entirely focused on pushing my rock climbing abilities to not climbing at all and concentrating on developing proficiency in new skills, such as road biking or endurance kayaking. I've trained at various times throughout my life for races, adventures, competition, to placate my ego, to maintain general fitness, but always on some level for peace of mind.

These days i find that the landscape of my life presents more challenges than ever before. I've slowly taken on more and more responsibility - a marriage, two children (aged one and three), a mortgage, and graduate school. While success and happiness in these aspects of my life provides tremendous fulfillment, my athletic ambitions have (unfortunately) not diminished along with the amount of time i have to pursue them. I still want to be able to do anything.

It is this goal towards which my present training aims. I believe that based on a three hour per week fitness regimen I can maintain a high enough level of fitness to be able to do whatever i want, regardless of the difficulty. This sounds crazy, but the idea is based on, at least loosely, some evidence. For the past two years i have trained (and thoroughly documented) with roughly this number of hours. Each of the two years I ended up putting together a major adventure (see links here and here) with partners that should have been, at least based on training hours, much fitter than i. I either matched or exceeded their performances in both cases. Maybe this is due to the fact that i wanted it more (the adventure) because i get it so much less. Whatever the reason, it made me start to develop and research my ideas/theories and now consider how to better test them.

Since i'm already confident that the fitness garnered from three hours a week of dedicated training plus whatever mental acumen i've developed through past experiences is enough to get me through whatever mega adventure (or adventure race for that matter) that i might want to do, the next step is to see whether it can be applied to higher intensity events, like racing. Towards this end, I propose to train for, and run, an Ironman distance triathlon, based on only three hours* a week of training.

There is a law of diminishing return at play here, that might be best described with a figure, were one available. There is something here that provides a similar idea - which i will now articulate. For elite athletes, training volume plays a much more important role than for a weekend warrior. The elite athlete is almost entirely focused on improving athletic performance - this priority sits above any others they may have (at least during periods where they are competing and actually performing as an elite athlete). Emulating the hours of such an athlete but not the lifestyle is counterproductive. As seen in the graph where runners are divided up into groups based on finishing times, the 'slow runner group' - into which i'd nearly fall (my 10 mile race time would likely be around 1:10) actually increases mileage beyond 40K/week to their detriment.
The above discussion makes no mention of intensity, which also plays a crucial role. The web-group Endurance Nation has many good (and free) resources on high intensity training and suggests that the volume of typical IM training programs is higher than necessary if the intensity is ratcheted up. I share many of their core ideas, but think that they can be pushed even further. High intensity work (or even medium intensity work) demands recovery. This makes it well suited for someone with limited training time available. This approach also has a growing number of proponents in fields outside of endurance training - Mike Mentzer's Heavy Duty training and CrossFit for example.

High intensity and low volume routines complement each other and lead to a training regimen that is maximally efficient. High intensity work produces the greatest need for adaptation (ie growth) possible in the shortest amount of time. The low training volume allows for for the growth to happen between workouts and for the body to recover so it is able to do high intensity work again.

In reality, it is impossible to work at 100% effort all the time. It takes tremendous mental discipline to even approach this mark and there is some thought that doing so might even have associated dangers (especially if regularly repeated). Most people don't even possess the mental discipline, however, to approach maximum intensity in a physical endeavor. For most of us, feeling like we're at 100% means we might be approaching 85-90. The ability to get that extra 10% is inaccessible - unless a situation is so dire that all our rationalizations and default excuses are overridden by environmental factors than cannot be ignored (Mike Mentzer used to write that you'd only done a truly intense set if, were someone to walk up and place a gun to your head, ordering you to do one more rep, you'd end up dead). As physical machines most of us are far more capable than we're aware.

Maximal intensity isn't necessary (it isn't practical). High intensity - pushing far beyond the realms of what is considered comfortable (and therefore redefining the boundaries of these regions) - is. As far as endurance training goes - i've found a weekly periodization works well towards overcoming the difficulties of 'ponying up' mentally, so to speak. This is something that I first discovered after reading about a running program by the Furhman institute of running and scientific training (FIRST). I adapted their half marathon program to my training (I was running and biking) and ended up doing about 3-3.5 hours of cardio a week as a result. My running times improved dramatically - my min/mile pace for a long run (10-15 miles) dropped by nearly a minute (about 10%) within six months and i was averaging only about 13 miles of running a week. More impressively, i found my middle distance pace - something that had only ever been mildy lower than my long distance pace - drop as well. I went from feeling really good about a 7:20 pace over a 10K distance to having training days (hard ones mind you - but not quite race pace) where i ran 6:20.

1) Some 'activities' that i may want to do might require learning a new skill. In this case, performance at a competitive amateur level as an 'age grouper' would obviously require a greater number of weeks prior to any event be dedicated towards the skill. The 'three months' would begin after a good working knowledge of the skill existed and at least a moderate level of muscle memory had developed. Luckily, for someone who is athletically inclined and confident, reaching this level of development takes far less time than might be anticipated.
2) My interests like mainly with endurance sports and/or adventure activities. It is to these activities that the statements herein apply. I feel that such activities tend to be good measuring sticks of ability in a way that some other sports might not be. Muscle memory alone can allow one to shred a few waves, even after years of inactivity. I've seen men a hundred pounds overweight dominate racquet ball tournaments on more than one occasion. A daring half-pipe artist is undoubtedly a gymnast of sorts, even though he may be wheezing for breath after running one lap around the local skate park. It is hard, in such instances, to label these individuals as 'fit' based on these accomplishments alone. However, when you meet someone whom has just completed an ironman triathlon in 12 hours, you don't face this difficulty.
3) Training time will not always add up to three hours a week, but it will always add up to 6 hours for every two weeks. This is done to allow for longer training sessions to occasionally be included in the workouts. For example, week 1 might include two 30 minute sessions on tuesday and thursday followed by a 4 hour workout on sunday. Week two would then have only two 30 minute sessions, perhaps on wednesday and saturday. The following week workouts might resume on tuesday. This is an extreme example, but illustrates how, given the minimal hours per week, longer workouts would still be possible.
4) There are limits to what can realistically be expected in terms of competitive results. These limits may or may not be dependent on the length of event you're training for. Of course you will be able to perform at nearer your absolute potential in a short event (say a 5K run) based on 3 hours a week than you will on a longer event (50K run). This may not, however have an effect on your 'relative' performance - based on other competitors. Taking myself as an example - if i entered a well attended 5K race i would do only ok (my time would be around 18:30, possibly 18:00 with dedicated training), as there are heaps of even high school athletes that would come in at well under 18 minutes. my placing among recreational age groupers, however, would probably be quite high. Now consider a 50K - my time would probably be somewhere in the vicinity of 4.5 to 5 hours. I'd get beat by some dedicated ultrarunners, but would also probably place high among the 'recreational' athletes. Of course this is just an untested theory at present.
5) The mental dedication required for this type of training to really pay maximum dividends is not easy to come by, which is why it wouldn't be suitable for everyone. Although the number of hours is a fraction of what other programs recommend, the fact that there are no 'gimmie' days makes it a challenge. Of course one 'not so great' workout every once in a while will not be an issue, but an athlete that made a habit of slacking on even one workout a week would likely lose much of the benefit associated with this type of training.
6) The mental dedication that is required to allow this type of training to adequately prepare someone for a much longer distance event (longer than 4 hours say) is not readily available as part of the program itself, and as a result would need to already be in place, or would need to be cultivated. The latter would be hard to do without some additional 'ultra' type experiences in which the aspiring athlete was able to experience and work through the unique novel challenges (mental and physical) associated with continuous exertion over long periods of time.

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