The virtue of variation in endurance sports training is often hyped. But here’s why your program may benefit from a little less variation and a little more repetition.
Much is made of the virtue of variation in endurance sports training. Heck, I’ve made much of it myself. Some coaches and experts go so far as to say that one should never do the same workout twice in a training cycle. But lately I’ve come to believe that too much is made of the virtue of variation in endurance sports training, and not enough of the complementary virtue of repetition.
There are a lot of great athletes out there who don’t buy into the whole variation thing. Among them is Beijing Olympic Women’s Marathon gold medalist Constantina Dita-Tomescu, about whose training the following was written in a Running Times article:
Constantina Dita-Tomescu’s marathon training is based on a one-week block of workouts that has remained constant for years, with only slight variations for the season and distance from a goal race. Not only are the distances and intensity of each day consistent, but also the location, even the course…
There can be such a thing as too much repetition, of course. But everyone knows this. During an eight-year meathead phase of my early adult life, when I lifted weights five or six hours a week with no goal other than getting girls, I did the same workouts over and over with no variation and, predictably enough, after an initial adaptation period my body stopped making any progress. The same thing would happen in an endurance training program with no variation. But I believe that many endurance athletes could benefit from including more repetition in their training.
The benefit of repeating certain key workouts throughout the training process is that it allows for apples-to-apples comparisons of performance and thus encourages the athlete to compete against himself, trying to best his previous benchmark each time he repeats a given session. You don’t necessarily have to become fitter and fitter for this process to work. You just have to try harder and harder. Indeed, as some of the recent science on the brain’s regulation of exercise performance suggests, one of the most important outcomes of an effecive training program is the ability to do more with the same resources. Engaging in a training program in which certain bread-and-butter key workouts are frequently repeated is a great way to enhance this underappreciated outcome of training.
Early in a training cycle, when you perform your first session of your bread-and-butter workouts, you shouldn’t kill yourself. Just go hard but controlled to establish a benchmark. The next time you perform the same session, don’t try to demolish that standard; just shave it down a tick or two by trying a little harder. Continue in this manner until, in the peak period of your training, you really have to turn yourself inside out to improve your key workout times.
It’s not all about trying harder, of course. Training should make you fitter too. But the very process I just described will itself make you fitter and give you the resources to progressively improve your key workout performances. Pushing hard but not too hard in your early key sessions will stimulate physiological adaptations that enable you to reach higher the next time.
You should also manipulate the context in which your go-to workouts occur to stimulate fitness gains that you can then exploit in these workouts. As the training cycle unfolds, there should be an overall gradual increase in your training load that is punctuated by short recovery periods. You will make the biggest improvements in your key workout performances when you perform them within recovery periods.
So what exactly are the bread-and-butter key workouts that you might want to consider doing repeatedly in your training? There is no single right answer to this question. However, generally speaking these workouts should collectively test and provide an opportunity to assess the various major components of your overall fitness: strength, speed, aerobic capacity, lactate threshold and endurance. Examples of workouts that might be used to test each of these components in running are as follow:
Strength: 10 x 2-minute hill intervals with 3-minute jog recoveries
Speed: 10 x 300m with 400m jog recoveries
Aerobic capacity: 5 x 1K with 400m jog recoveries
Lactate threshold: 10K relaxed time trial
Endurance: 20-30K relaxed time trial
Each of these sessions could be performed as often as once every other week. The variety would come from other key sessions sprinkled into the mix and from fluctuations in overall training volume.
It is rightly said that you can’t improve by doing the same workouts over and over. But when you try progressively harder in each iteration of a key workout and manipulate the context in which these sessions are performed, you’re really not doing the same workouts over and over.
A version of this article was originally published on TrainingPeaks.