ultrarunning

The strong athlete

Successful athletes are strong athletes, and strength comes from a focused, intentional, weighted strength program. Let’s break down what that means. As endurance athletes, we have three primary physical systems to improve:

  1. Aerobic: 80% of training is Zone 2 aerobic foundation work, while the other 20% is harder efforts. Endurance athletes love to move their bodies, so they check this box easily with a proper, periodized training plan.

  2. Metabolic: This goes together with Zone 2 aerobic training. Athletes improve their fat to carbohydrate burn ratio with a combination of focused training and healthy eating.

  3. Muscular: Sports science shows that a robust, weighted strength program is critical to improve endurance athletes’ athletic performance. Increased strength means more power, force, and speed. Elite athletes know this, too. So, why is there so much confusion and skepticism from citizen athletes about picking up something heavier than a craft beer? Let’s pull this apart!

First things first: The strength routine you enjoy and do consistently is a check in the “win” column. It may not be the most effective strength program, but if you are doing something, you’ve started down a positive path. That path might include exercises that use your body weight, resistance bands, yoga, pilates, TRX, and/or bosu balls. A routine like this can be helpful, because it helps maintain your fitness and activate your core. But if you are not getting appreciably stronger with this routine -- and if it feels “comfortable” -- there is lots of room for improvement. 

The “meat” of a weighted strength program

A weighted strength program moves beyond core activation exercises and incorporates weights, resistance, and machinery to help you build power. Ideally, the exact routine you follow should be determined by a professional and tailored to your weaknesses, imbalances, range of motion, and sport goals. With that said, you can count on your program to incorporate some of the following full-body compound exercises or variations thereof:

  • Squats, leg presses, deadlifts & lunges.   

  • Lat pulls, rows & pull ups.  

  • Bench and shoulder presses. 

  • Back extensions and bridges.

You should always warm up with some light aerobic activity followed by some body weight or lighter weighted exercises, focusing on executing your perfect lift technique. Start with reps of 10-15 with lighter loads and then progress the weight and decrease the reps to 5-8. Take plenty of rest (90 seconds to 2 minutes). The goal is to execute your best form at increasing loads, not to get another cardio workout. 

Use whatever equipment is readily available: barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and/or machines. If it’s heavy, it will work. There are a thousand things you can lift, and a thousand weighted strength exercises. Pick the ones that challenge large muscles and draw on your full body. When your routine feels easy, it means it’s time to change it up (usually every 6-8 weeks). 

Your goal is to move heavy things 2-3x per week for 30 to 60 minutes. This shouldn’t be an epic session; get in, lift heavy, get out. Recent studies have shown that one set of 5-8 reps per large body part 2-3x per week will increase strength.  

When should I lift?

Plan 9-10 months of the year to lift heavy and 2-3 months for a core/maintenance routine. It won’t be beneficial if you gain strength in November but your “A” race is in July. Schedule heavy strength in the off season and Base period, and taper it for the Build/Race season. This means you should keep that gym membership active year round -- or build yourself a fancier pain cave!

How do I incorporate lifting?

An effective strength program follows this general arc:

  • Find and hire a professional: a strength & conditioning coach, Physical Therapist (PT), or a personal trainer with competent weight training experience.

  • Work with your coach to assess your range of motion and identify body weaknesses and imbalances. This will prepare you to start a strength program. Your coach should teach you proper lifting technique with body or lighter weights at first.  

    • Plan B: If you don’t have access to a local professional (nearly every gym has an instructor available), competent strength coaches post tons of videos on YouTube. (We’re happy to help you sort out who is legit and who is not.) You’ll need to proceed carefully as you won’t have the benefit of in-person technique feedback. But armed with a full length mirror and knowledge, you can make progress. 

  • Start your program gradually, adding load and progression over time as you gain strength.  After a few introductory sessions, your workout should feel challenging to the point of “wow, that was a super hard 8 reps!”

  • Try to separate your aerobic sessions from your lift sessions. Aerobic activity can lessen the effects of strength training. But if you need to go back-to-back with an aerobic and strength session, don’t let the goal of perfection stand in the way of progress.

Benefits of going heavy

If a new drink mix enhanced your body with the below traits, you would gladly pay a hefty monthly fee to access it. The benefits of a proper weighted strength program are the following: 

  • Improve force production. If you increase your ground (run), pedal (bike), water (swim), or pole (ski) force, you increase your speed. You will have more lasting power throughout your workouts and races, allowing you to finish strong.

  • Increase lean muscle and shed body fat. Who doesn’t want to look good? That’s half the appeal of endurance sports!

  • Improve efficiency and economy. Go faster with less effort. 

  • Eliminate muscle and tendon niggles and prevent major injuries. This alone should send you sprinting to the gym! 

  • Like Zone 2 training that builds your aerobic engine, lifting provides the muscular foundation for all physical activity. Big aerobic fitness pays huge dividends in endurance racing, and the same is true for a robust, strong body. Stack the two foundations and you have an endurance castle.

  • Stepping back further, some of the most important benefits of being an athlete are long-term health and longevity. A strong body will serve you not only on course, but leaning into the car with grocery bags, shoveling the driveway, or moving furniture. We want you strong now, in the future, and in all aspects of your life.

Additional reasons to pump iron

If you hired a coach and completed their swim, bike, and/or run program but never got faster, you would fire them. The point of training is to improve. If your current strength routine does not result in a stronger, faster body, why would you continue with it? Don’t settle for status quo strength. Become the athlete you are meant to be.

On race day, you should be most afraid of the competitor who is less aerobically trained than you are but is much stronger. Strength, like big fitness, allows an athlete to do things on the race course that weaker athletes can’t. It allows you to animate and control the race.

Finally, if you were to describe the characteristics of your favorite athletes, strength would make the top five. Whether it’s triathlon, ultrarunning, swimming, cycling, soccer, dance, or wrestling, the best in sport are super fit, skilled, and strong. 

Who should do weighted strength?

Everyone should lift weights! But if you are a novice, Masters, or aspiring Front of the Pack (FOP) age grouper, lifting is all the more important. If you are in your mid 20s to early 30s with a significant athletic background, your biggest challenges tend to fall in the aerobic and metabolic efficiency buckets, so you can make aerobic efficiency your first priority -- but don’t forget to lift sometimes.

Will I get huge like Arnold?  

No. Period. End of story. You will, however, start to feel and look great. As a time crunched athlete, you will love the return on investment: the speed, the power and look. If you are a 40+ year old athlete, you will start to look and feel 10, 20, or 30 years younger. Convinced yet?

A progressive, weighted strength program will round you out as a complete athlete and healthy person. Lifting will give you an edge and forge a sword to take into race battle. Plus, who doesn’t like to hear, “You look great! You’ve been working out?!” So get strong and don’t forget to flex! - Jim

Reference Papers: 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29249083

https://journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/Fulltext/2012/07000/Resistance_Training_is_Medicine___Effects_of.13.aspx

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21854344

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-016-0486-0

Strong Athlete Blog Post.jpg

Tracking & Planning Your Life Stress Score (LSS)

TrainingPeaks allows athletes and coaches to track workouts and performance with a physiological stress metric known as Training Stress Score (TSS; a detailed explanation is here). In brief, TSS is a metric that takes into account the time and intensity of your workout relative to your threshold heart rate, power, or pace. For example, an easy 2K swim might yield 35 TSS. A 40K bike time trial or a 15K run at your race pace equates to about 100 TSS. A 20-mile all day hike with big elevation could be as high as 500 TSS. TSS is a useful data tool for short- and long-term planning, and the patterns it reveals can help both athletes and coaches make training and racing decisions.

But if TSS only cares about the duration of our workout and our threshold performance values, how do we account for the other stress in our lives when making decisions about how we train and race? The psychological strain that comes from a busy job, a hectic household, travel, or demands from school can all have huge impacts on our overall well-being. To account for mental stress in our overall training plans, I employ an original metric: Life Stress Score (LSS). The goal of LSS is to capture and anticipate stress that isn’t always physiological, but has an equally large impact on your physical training and race performance.

How does LSS work in practice? When an athlete is heading into a stressful work period, a major family event, or significant travel, we scale back the time and intensity of their workouts to free up mental and physical resources. For our student athletes preparing for final exams, we plan a recovery week with fewer sessions and less intensity, and delay longer workouts until after the tests are done. We keep physical activity at a maintenance level, or minimum effective dose, during this time, but we communicate with our athletes about which types of workouts will serve as academic performance enhancers (easy run with friends) and which will add to the stress (hill repeats at 6 am). This dialogue provides athletes with the physical and mental space they need to study and ace their engineering final. It’s a key part of our person first, athlete second approach at The Endurance Drive.

If you are training for a major endurance event (IRONMAN, IRONMAN 70.3, ultrarun, SwimRun, bike stage race), travel to the event can be another major LSS factor that drains athletes. Combine packing lists with coordinating time off with unfamiliar environments with inadequate sleep, and you run the risk of feeling much more frantic and stressed than usual. To feel both physically and mentally fresh on race day, you should plug in LSS, along with your TSS, into your race week plan. Scale back your workouts, don’t be overly ambitious about getting sessions in on days when you’re in transit, and do everything you can to stick to your routine. That, in combination with a close look at TrainingPeaks’ Training Score Balance, will help you arrive at the starting line at an appropriate level of mental and physical preparedness.

How much LSS you should assign to travel, work, school, or other stressful life events is more art than science. But by listening to your body during times of stress, you can begin to associate them with equivalent workouts. For example, after overnight air travel, I feel like I just ran a half marathon, which equates to around 150 (L)TSS. Figuring out what to pack and other logistics the day before a race might be 50 (L)TSS. Athletes tend to become attuned to their TSS scores for any given workout. You can use that same sense to think through your upcoming stressful events and input some LSS into your plan.

Stress is stress, whether physical or psychological. It all pulls from the same limited resources your body has. Your body hourglass has finite grains of sand each day, and every stressful event pulls sand at a greater rate through the funnel. When the top of the hourglass is empty, it’s empty. So sprinkle some LSS into your training plan for a 360-degree view of endurance event planning. We hope it helps you arrive at your big training weekends and race day physically and mentally prepared. -Jim

Hawaii_Pool_Life_Stress_Score_blog.jpg

You can / you should: Ten endurance miscues and calibrations

1. You can (easily) sign up for an Ironman or an ultra run; you should consider your experience and time commitment to train for that distance.

2. You can add another interval; you should stick to the workout plan, finishing with energy.

3. You can increase weekly training time; you should follow your overall training arc.

4. You can run (considerably) faster; you should focus on aerobic efficiency in zone 2.

5. You can race faster in the first half; you should pace wisely and aim for negative splits.

6. You can produce higher power than IRONMAN watts; you should train at IRONMAN watts (and distance) as you get closer to your race.

7. You can swim five minutes faster in an IRONMAN; you should swim with ease and comfort considering that it’s a long day.

8. You can perform a long workout with minimum food and hydration; you should have and execute a personalized and best practices nutrition plan that will carry you through race day.

9. You can add workouts to your recovery or taper week; you should recover and adapt.

10. You can eat a pan of brownies post workout; you should eat your macronutrients (and a brownie).

We have many opportunities to “can,” but disciplined athletes know how to “should.” “Can” is the easy path, while “should” trends uphill. Which road will you choose? -Jim

***

Bonus calibrations from Coach Katie:

You can do all of your mid-run speedwork on downhills so it feels easier; you should incorporate race pace into flat and uphill terrain to better prepare for hilly races.

You can ignore a niggle during your workout and tell yourself that you’ll deal with it when the workout is done; you should back off when your body is telling you something is wrong.

stop_trail_sign_10_endurance_calibrations_blog.jpg

You Belong in a Tribe

Humans are pack animals. We have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to work together in tribes as a matter of survival. In the modern era, it’s common to live a mostly isolated life. We no longer rely on the people around us to help hunt and gather food, provide group safety, and enforce societal norms. But that doesn’t mean we never feel anxious or alone. If you’re missing a sense of community -- or you’re missing something that you can’t even identify -- consider joining a tribe.

If you’re an endurance athlete, you’re lucky. There are tribes everywhere. In our younger years, school sports teams and clubs form our first athletic tribes. Those groups take many shapes and sizes in life after college. A local Masters swim group or a weekly group ride are a type of tribe. Tribes can be informal, too -- the “crew” you meet up with for an early morning run on Tuesdays, or the group you can call when you’re hankering for an outdoor adventure. The point is, you need one. Considerations for why you belong in an athletic tribe:

  • Tribes provide a sense of belonging and purpose. They serve a common goal, foster accountability, and offer learning opportunities. Would you do those hill repeats in the cold rain if you hadn’t planned to meet your friends there? Probably not. Collective action gives us the courage to tackle and embrace hard physical activity.

  • Tribes help us connect to our primal roots. We need and thrive on physical proximity to others to escape our evolutionarily unnatural modern lifestyle. Exercising alongside our peers makes us dig deeper and work harder than we ever would alone. We need this communal activity to maximize our performance and optimize our health.

  • Tribes afford an environment that invites action. Ease of action facilitates habits that help us move forward toward our goals. The less we need to think about logistics and schedules, the less friction we will encounter on this road. If we know the tribe is training, all we need to do is show up.

  • Tribes are a top three performance enhancer (after sleep and nutrition). When endurance sports light up our brain, the tribe throws gasoline on that fire. There is nothing quite like a hard group run or ride to send our brains and bodies into a brilliant, fully alive state.

  • Tribes favor a close, communal connection where we are judged not by our externals such as the family we were born into, our education, or our societal status but rather the hard work and respect we bring to our sport and into the group. The best tribes are egalitarian in a modern, media-driven world of stratification and division. We are genetically encoded to protect and be fair within our tribe.

Be judicious about which tribe you join. Listen to their narratives and learn what type of tribe they are. Choose people who will positively challenge and elevate you. And if a tribe doesn’t exist in your community, build one. It takes time and effort, but the reward for uniting people with common goals outweighs all those emails, logistics, and meetings. Besides, a good leader always gives more than they take. Your leadership will be contagious and you will soon attract people who will happily help build the community.

You are needed. You are valued. You belong in a tribe.  -Jim

Endurance Drive Triathlon Tribe Run.jpg

Cold spring weather could be killing your summer “A” race

Cold spring weather got you down? Except for the skiers out there, most of us in New England and Canada have reached our cold limit. It’s not really “spring,” it’s “less winter.” And this awkward “less winter” season could be killing your summer “A” race. Despite the clickbait-like headline, cold spring weather is a legitimate concern.

From base to build

Most long distance triathletes (and ultrarunners) are now getting out for supporting rides during the week and long rides on the weekends. Big “A” races like IRONMAN Lake Placid are 10 weeks away, with IRONMAN Mont-Tremblant not that far behind. Athletes are now moving from their base period to their build period. A build period training strategy involves dialing in to what we call “race specificity.” In other words, you start to train as you will race.

The build period includes long training rides with race intervals where you work on race-specific intensities to train your aerobic and muscular endurance. But what you are also trying to train is your environmental durability. Environment durability can be thought of like this: go out on your lawn with a handful of Gatorade bottles and gels, hang out there for the day, and see how well you feel after 8+ hours in the sun. Then try to run your best marathon. If you work inside, especially in an air-conditioned office, your environmental durability most likely needs improvement. The most common comment after an Ironman or Ironman 70.3 is, “It was so hot out there!” Guess what? It’s hot out there nearly every day. You’re just not used to spending the entire day outside.

Humans are well-oiled machines. We adapt well and quickly to our environments. But when spring temperatures are cold, we lack that warm, challenging environment that we need to train our bodies to withstand the heat, stay properly hydrated, and manage thermoregulation (i.e., staying cool at race pace). Cold weather means less opportunities to gain the adaptations that are required for summer “A” races.

How do cold springs affect race day?

We had another cold spring a few years ago in New England. A few of The Endurance Drive crew were racing IRONMAN Syracuse 70.3 in mid-June. The weather stayed cool through the spring except for one very hot and humid day in May. I had 4 x 20’ race watt intervals scheduled. I did one interval and quit the workout. It was simply too hot and humid, and I had a total of zero days to acclimate to the conditions. The temperatures dropped again after that day and didn’t rise until the race.

As luck would have it, race day brought temperatures in the upper 80s and low 90s, and the humidity and pollen were through the roof. What happened? Most of us cratered on the run.  During the first mile, one of my friends quit the race. He was an overall win contender but the heat was just too much. I tried to run my goal 7:45 race pace but looked down at my watch after the first mile to see a 9:45 pace and a very high heart rate --  and I was going downhill! I only stayed in the race because I was fascinated with what type of carnage the extreme hot and humid environment would bring upon the racers. The entire run played out in slow motion.

Lessons learned

We were all in the same boat that day. Without an impromptu trip to Florida during race week, it would have been tough for athletes from the New England, New York, or Canada areas to prepare for that early summer heat and humidity. The point is, environmental durability matters a lot, and it can’t be properly trained on 40-50F temperature rides. No matter how fit you get (and big fitness is the best hedge against everything that can happen during a race), training for the heat is a major success factor in your “A” race.  

So what practical steps can you take to train for the heat when Mother Nature treats us to another mid-May snow storm?

  • You can head back to your pain cave, crank up the heat and enjoy more Zwift.

  • If you have an early southern “A” race and are coming from a cold environment, it’s ideal to have 2-3 race plans based on the environmental conditions (and other race day factors). Your Plan A could hinge on moderate weather. Having a Plan B and Plan C that are ready for less-than-ideal racing conditions can help you adjust your goals based on the environment.

  • Or you can wait it out; it will get hot and humid soon - I promise! (And then try to resist the urge of a true New Englander to complain about that, too!)  Don’t quit during those first few hot workouts, stay hydrated, and aim to get heat-adapted to do well at your summer “A” race. -Jim

Cool Spring riding claudia katie bruno blog pic.jpg

Injured. Now What?

We try to prevent injuries, but getting hurt is often an unavoidable part of the fitness game. If you’ve pulled, sprained, broken, or overused a body part, now what? How will you react?

Your initial reaction might be to experience some or all of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. There will be plenty of denial and anger to kick start your time on the injured roster. You might bargain with yourself, thinking about what you could have done differently. Some degree of depression can follow, especially if you’ll be out for a long time. While injured it does feel like all your friends are out on a long ride, laughing it up and building a huge fitness gap between you and them. Watching your friends disappear for an adventure turns the stomach like a bad breakup. If you are like most Type A athletes, accepting that you are injured won’t be easy.

The important thing to remember is that most athletes will go through one (or several) major injuries throughout their athletic journey. I recently did too, and once I finally was able to accept being injured, I learned a lot of important lessons.

  1. Fitness does not define you as a person. It may seem that way as athletics and identity are often tightly wound. But no amount of mileage in TrainingPeaks determines who you are.

  2. Race results do not define your self worth. Sure, it’s super fun to do well at a race and gain recognition in front of your peer group. But that moment of glory passes quickly and then you are back to being you. Hopefully, that “you” has a purpose-filled personal and professional life. You’re better off, injured or not, when you remind your ego to stand down.

  3. An injury provides an opportunity to step back and evaluate your larger athletic and life goals. When athletes are deep in training, they rarely take the time, or have the head space, to zoom out and look at their sport and life arcs. When you’re injured, you do. Ask yourself: Are my race goals still in alignment with my life, or do I need to re-adjust my training when I’m healthy? Is the effort I’m putting into training commensurate with the enjoyment I’m getting out of the sport? Am I still keeping the “recreation” in “recreational athlete”? As Chris Hauth always says, we’ve all gone pro in something else besides athletics.

  4. Conversely, if you are not injured currently but have a training partner who is, regularly check in. Let them know they are, regardless of their athletic status, a valued member of your tribe. The bonds and love we build with our athletic tribe go well beyond the next training session or race.  

Here’s to an injury free season. If not, you’ll be OK. You might even come out the other side changed for the better.    -Jim

Endurance Drive friend, Steve Fried, reminds us to keep it chill.

Endurance Drive friend, Steve Fried, reminds us to keep it chill.

Race local (and often) to improve your race skills


Your first loaf of bread is never your best loaf of bread. As you try different combinations of ingredients, knead the dough in different ways, and perfect your baking technique, your loaves improve. Racing is the same; your first race is never your best race. You get better with every race until you are working on the smallest of improvements. You move from completing the race to tasting the most subtle flavors.

Most triathletes don’t race quite enough to improve their “race skill” level. They set a big goal, such as a half (70.3) or full distance IRONMAN, and then aim toward that goal for months or years with lots and lots of training but not much racing. They hit performance plateaus, and since they spend so much time swimming, biking, and running, they aren’t sure what’s missing. Sound like you? Then consider revising your long term “A” race plan to include a number of “C” local races along the way to perfect your racing skills.

A “C” race may be a local 5K, a weekly community trail running series, or even a very fast and challenging weekly group ride. Part of the goal is to automate your race day routines and stressors so when your big race day arrives, you can prepare and race with ease, knowledge, and practiced competence. Lining up at the start line for a local race and your out-of-town big “A” race should actually look pretty similar. They both require prepping the night before, managing race morning jitters, a pre-race breakfast, the nerves at race check in (and all the urgent trips to the port-a-potty). They demand a proper warm up, a race plan, and an execution of that plan along with head-to-head competition. Your local race provides a microcosm of your larger race.

The lessons you learn racing these events will build the foundation for your “A” race racing skills -- both consciously and unconsciously. For example, late in a local 10K run race, you might be tailing an equal or slightly faster runner and you see their shoulders drop just a bit. There’s your moment to make your move! Or you work on pacing and impulse control early in a group ride and finish strong instead of blowing up. Even if your race goes poorly, you will learn something that you can improve upon the next time you line up at the starting line. When you finally toe the line at your “A” race, you know what to do.

Should you race every weekend? No. But work in enough smaller, local races to build up your racing skills and resume. Plan out your local races to support your “A” race goals, to leave plenty of time to recover, and to not interrupt your main “A” race training. In the last 12 weeks before your “A” race, focus on training over racing, but there are still lots of weeks left over to race locally and build race skills -- especially during the off season (which is to say, run the Turkey Trot and the Jingle Bell Jog).

So get baking and racing! Those perfect loaves and races are developed on a deep foundation of practice, knowledge, and skill. -Jim


Brandt Slayton at Season Opener, Hopkinton, MA.

Brandt Slayton at Season Opener, Hopkinton, MA.

Power of 5x

Many of our triathletes practice the three individual sports three or four times per week. Given an athlete’s busy schedule, that can be a tall ask. 3x per week, practiced over weeks, months and years, will build a solid, successful Age Group triathlete. The triple frequency gives athletes confidence; it’s a nice balance between doing too little and excelling at the skill. It allows them to reach a certain level characterized as ‘good’. 3x per week athletes aren’t always winning races, but they are performing at a level that equals, and often exceeds, their peers around the water cooler.

4x per week might sound better, but it can be fool’s gold. It’s enough to be decent but not quite good enough to be great. Athletes who train 4x per week often feel like they are fully committed, but there’s always something missing. They might grow frustrated from tasting, but not quite reaching, their expected level of excellence.

When we want to reach the next level, address a sport weakness, or get a bump in fitness, we employ the 5x per week method. 5x per week sends athletes into territory that many people won’t travel to and therefore, will catapult them beyond their peers. When you do something 5x per week, you start to see and feel the nuances of your sport (or art). Your game elevates. You start to gain mastery, living inside your practice and executing to a high level. We recommend avoiding 4x per week and either staying at 3x competence or jumping to 5x excellence. 5x will start to feel like 3x squared.

How long will you need to 5x? That all depends. If you are looking for a small bump in fitness for a race this season, you can measure this in weeks. If you are looking to reach the top of your sport, you can measure this in months and years. (Triathletes - that’s 5x per sport!)

If you find yourself at a plateau, try 5x per week for chunk of time. You’ll be surprised what consistency and volume of practice can achieve.

- Jim

5_hands_bread_endurance_drive.jpg