If you want to be a better endurance athlete on less time, you’ve got to focus—and make your workouts hurt.

It’s not an empty promise, but it’s also not easy to do. Because if you want to be a better endurance athlete on less time, you’ve got to focus—and make your workouts hurt.  

When Eric Wheeler set out to train for and race an Ironman a couple years back, he was initially hesitant about the volume of training that came along with it. “I’d watched how much my friends trained, and knowing my family’s schedule, I just didn’t think it was a realistic possibility,” the dad of two from Falmouth, Mass., recalls. That was until he came across a blog written by elite age-grouper and sub-9-hour Ironman finisher Sami Inkinen that touted quality over quantity workouts—and entailed training less than 12 hours per week.

“I didn’t think I could ever go long due to time constraints and family obligations,” says Wheeler. “That approach was a game changer for me.”

In a time when likes and comments on social media give us instant validation of a workout well done, it’s easy to become wrapped up in the mindset that when it comes to training volume, bigger is better. After all, if your buddy is racking up the kudos for his weekly 20-mile runs and 75-mile rides while your Tuesday night three-miler goes unloved, it’s only natural to want to ramp up the mileage. But with heavy training comes the obvious risk of injury or burnout. And, often, those extra miles are just not worth it—or necessary.

“Not too long ago, the focus for training for long-distance events, especially, was all volume. And it seemed to work. But we were also seeing an increase of staleness, with athletes not being able to get more out of their body and risking injury,” says Marni Sumbal, the South Carolina-based owner of TriMarni Coaching and Nutrition. “Today, we see a lot of high-level athletes perform successfully on a foundation rooted in quality workouts—not high mileage.”

The importance of a trimmed-down training schedule is something Sumbal relies on when coaching her 50-plus endurance triathletes as well as in her own efforts as an 11-time Ironman finisher herself.

“Triathletes tend to train with their egos. They always want to do more. But then we all struggle when we can’t squeeze it all in,” says Sumbal. “It really should be about making the most of the time you do have. You may be training less, but you’re making every session count.”

Sumbal stresses that making quality workouts a priority doesn’t necessarily mean every swim, bike and run has to be race-level efforts. “When you train long and intensely with no specificity, you won’t see a payout for your investment,” she says. In other words, cut out the junk and you may see a boost in performance and be able to have a life, too.

As for Wheeler, he posted a 10:09:56 finish at 2015’s Beach to Battleship (now Ironman North Carolina) on less than 10 hours a week of training—and he has since stuck to low-volume sessions. It’s an approach that’s not only successful for him, but sustainable from season to season.

“Instead of digging myself into a huge hole by overtraining, I’ve been able to keep my workouts consistent and make year-over-year improvements,” he says. “Training is never overwhelming to the rest of my life.”

Go Low

Marni Sumbal’s favorite low-volume, high-intensity swim, bike and run workouts

Swim

Instead of: A long, straight set

Try: A mixed bag of shorter, harder efforts at varying paces

Why: “Triathletes tend to have two speeds in the pool: fast and slow. A variety of efforts helps you avoid exhausting yourself when you are improving swimming endurance. Plus, using pool toys helps you work on good swim posture, alignment and propulsion through the water,” says Sumbal.

Warm-up
10 min easy

Pre-set
– 200–400 with snorkel, band and buoy, 75 percent effort, rest 30 sec
– 2×150 with snorkel and buoy, 75 percent effort, rest 20 sec
– 2×100 with snorkel and paddles, 80 percent effort, rest 20 sec
– 2×50 with paddles, 85 percent effort, rest 15 sec
– 4×25 swim (odd build to fast, even fast to easy)

Main set
– 3×100 at 65 percent effort with 10 sec rest
– 2×100 at 75 percent effort with 15 sec rest
– 1×100 at 80 percent effort with 20 sec rest
– 4×50 at 90 percent effort with 10 sec rest
Rest 1 min, then repeat 2–3 times.

Cool-down
5 min easy

Bike

Instead of: A long trainer ride with little pace variation

Try: Variable cadence work on the trainer

Why: “Changing up the cadence, while working from a low intensity to higher intensity, builds muscular strength, which may help you manage efforts on different terrains on race day.”

Warm-up
20 min as 10 min easy, 5 min medium effort, 5 min slightly harder

Pre-set
3 rounds of 5 min with no break, as: (1 minute Zone 2 at 65–75 RPM, 1 min Zone 2 at 55–65 RPM, 1 min Zone 2/3 choice cadence, 1 min Zone 1 at 90+ RPM)

Main set
4×12 min broken down as:
– 3 min Zone 2 at 45–55 RPM, 1 min Zone 3 at 90+ RPM
– 3 min Zone 2 at 45–55 RPM, 1 min Zone 4 at 90+ RPM
– 3 min Zone 2 choice cadence, 1 min Zone 4 at 45–55 RPM
– 3 min easy spin, choice cadence
Repeat set 4 times.

Cool-down
5–10 min easy

Run

Instead of: A one-hour run at the same clip

Try: Hill repeats

Why: “Hill work forces you to focus on good form and posture, plus it builds resilience, which is a key component to running strong off the bike.”

Warm-up
10 min easy

Pre-set
3×30 sec build to fast with 1 min walk or jog between

Main set
5×7 min running uphill (4 to 5 percent grade), starting easy and finishing strong, with 2 min rest in between.

Cool-down
5 min jog or walk