Make a Plan, Set a Routine, Avoid Fluff

Going along with the last article, this time of year is the perfect time to think about what works and what doesn’t, how to implement it, and how to streamline it. A little bit of thinking back and planning ahead can make a big difference in your long-term athletic goals.

Make a Plan

Try to identify why you train, what you’re training for, and how to get there. Are you training because you enjoy feeling healthy and fit? Do you get simple satisfaction from having a good workout? Do you get the most satisfaction from setting PRs in training? Or do you need to get out and compete against fellow athletes? It’s good to identify what it is that drives you as an athlete and as a person. Some people seem to not really care much about competition, per se, and really just enjoy getting the best out of themselves and their efforts as an athlete. They get as much pleasure out of a PR on a favorite climb or course as they derive from getting on the podium. Other people really don’t care how fast they are up a climb or their speed in a sprint. All they care about is that their effort is better than their fellow competitors or more expertly timed.

Once you know what drives you, do you know what will get you the most satisfaction out of your training? Do you enjoy the process, the peaks in fitness and PRs, or do you want to do your best to finish well? These all may result in different training plans and day-to-day habits. Either way, you should know what you’re trying to reach before you head off in the wrong direction, or before you start following someone else’s approach without questioning whether it’s in line with your goals.

Also, consider your past experience and what training or racing has been the most satisfying to you in the past and try to identify what allowed it to be so satisfying to you. What training has worked for you? What racing experiences went well for you? You may not need or want to repeat that, but you may want to use it as a template for future successes.

Whatever it is that you’re aiming for, remember that your body will adapt to the stresses applied to it. So, think about what training will stress your body in the right way for you to get better prepared to meet your goals.

Set a Routine

Once you know what your goals are, and have an idea of what training you have to do to get there, think about how you can arrange your schedule to include the workouts you want, and think about how the order of those workouts will affect the end results. Be sure to get in the recovery you need. Be sure to set goals that are reasonable. It’s easy to add to it when you have time, but that’s better for your motivation than setting the bar too high and not being able to follow through on lofty goals. If you have a day-to-day routine that you can follow every week, or close to it, that’s a huge advantage. If you know that you’re going to go to the gym on Tuesdays before work, that you have a Wednesday evening interval session, or a Saturday morning group endurance session, then it’s often much easier to get to your goals.

Set reasonable but effective goals, and focus on the process. Focus on what you’re doing today. Worry about the big picture when you’re making your broader training and racing plans for the season, but don’t worry about any of that stuff on a day to day basis. As long as your plan is reasonable, the results will take care of themselves in the long run if you just get today right.

I find that doing your workouts first thing in the day, if you can, often makes everything run smoother. You will have more focus on your workout and I find that I have less distraction afterwards when I get it done right away. Not everyone can do their workouts first thing in the day, so maybe look to your lunch break or right after work so that you’re doing it at a very defined point in time. For students or work-from-home people, sometimes it’s a challenge, because you might wake-up and get right into email or studying or work projects, but then you get caught up with work. By the time you get out to train, you may be distracted or even just mentally tired and lack focus for your workout.

Likewise, think about the order of your workouts. If you plan to do a few gym workouts each week, a couple of moderate workouts, and maybe a longer endurance session, then think about what your priorities are and how you want to order those workouts. If you know that you need to build strength and power, then make sure that you’re fresh enough to attack your gym or sprint workouts with intensity, and be sure to recover well from them. If power is your strength, but you need to build aerobic conditioning and endurance, then maybe try to focus on getting the miles in and maybe doubling up with a longer endurance session the day after a gym or sprint session. Or you could even just tag on a short gym session after your endurance session. You won’t get as good of a strength workout in, but if you’re naturally a pretty powerful athlete, then you probably only need some basic maintenance work there, but you could augment your endurance session by adding to it with 30 minutes at the gym afterwards.

For a lot of people with Monday-through-Friday jobs, I think an optimal schedule would be something like the following:

Monday – off
Tuesday – easy
Wednesday – workout
Thursday – workout
Friday – off
Saturday – longer and harder
Sunday – short to medium endurance

Avoid Fluff

As much as you need to train hard sometimes and long sometimes, it’s also important to recover adequately with rest days and adequate sleep daily. It’s also important to be efficient. However you’re planning your weekly schedule, you should look at each thing and ask yourself whether that session or that routine will help you achieve your goals. Will a given feature of your schedule make you a better athlete? Or will it take away from your ability to do your work or spend time with your family? Is it better for you to train 2 hours Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus some more on the weekend? Or is it better for you to get in 1 hour at lunch every or most days? It will probably depend on your athletic goals and your schedule outside of your sporting activities. But never lose sight of your goals and try to eliminate any wasted effort. More is not always better. More efficient is probably a better way to look at it.

Take it easy

For a lot of athletes, fall is the time of year that their competitive season winds to a close, the weather becomes less hospitable, and their activity level changes with the seasons. Whether you live in sunny California or somewhere in Norway with 3 hours of twilight during the winter, it’s not a bad idea to take it easy for at least a month or two between seasons. If you’ve had a busy season, then reducing the intensity and volume of your training and adding in some basic cross training activities will benefit you in the long run. The harder you’ve trained and raced, the more useful this recovery period will be. Even a total rest for a time can be good. Then again, if you mostly just train to stay fit and healthy, then you may not have to do so much to give yourself a therapeutic rest.

As much as I love training taking it easy is essential to maintaining overall health (mental and physical) and homeostasis for the systems in your body. This is true on a small scale of days and weeks, and a larger one of months and years. More and more people these days understand this basic truth of athletic training: It isn’t hard training, but good recovery that makes you perform as an athlete. Yes, you can get too much of a good thing. There is such a thing as too many good workouts, just like there is such a thing as too much recovery, but for the most part, endurance athletes have more of an issue with the former and not the latter. To that end, here are some basic points to remember for this time of year…

Lower your intensity. First and foremost,  lowering the intensity of your physical activity will allow your body to relax and reduce the stress it’s subject to, facilitating recovery in the process. Avoid most or all of your above threshold efforts for at least a couple of months. That’s not to say that you can’t go harder or faster than that intermittently, just don’t do any prolonged efforts or real workouts at higher intensities.

Lower your volume. Reduce your overall training volume per week and per month by at least 30-50% for at least 1-2 months. Your body won’t be exposed to a large calorie deficit every day or two while you’re training if you’re only doing half of the volume that you’re familiar with. So, your body will again be less stressed and be allowed to recover more fully than just a few days of easy training will do.

Get some therapy, both physical and mental. Be sure to include some stretching, yoga, massage, sleep, etc. in your routine. Take that training time and turn it into recovery time. Doing things to increase recovery physically, improve flexibility, or improve strength and balance will benefit you in the long run. Also, as much as training is fun, it can also be stressful. And, the time you spend on training can make you more pressed for time elsewhere in your life, so pay attention to stress reduction practices and look for places to streamline your life or carve out time for relaxation, meditation, or even just listening to mellow music that you like… all of those those things can help you out.

Get plenty of sleep. More people say that sleeping 7 hours a night is plenty for optimal health. That may be true for a mostly sedentary person when you’re talking about statistical averages and large populations, but that’s not addressing the reasons for the sleep and why certain individuals get 5, 7, or 9 hours a night. Our bodies evolved to sleep a lot more than we currently get, and as long as you don’t have a sleep disorder, there’s no way for you to sleep any amount that would be too much. Rather, most people learn to get by with less than enough, so do what you can, when you can to sleep more. Sleep is almost always the strongest driver of recovery.

Eat healthily. This is also a no-brainer that should always be a priority. But, especially if you’re taking a little less of your time to train, maybe you could use a little bit of that time to look at your diet and see if there are changes that you could or should make that you think would work better for you. Pay attention to what has worked for you in the past and what hasn’t. Try to identify bad habits that you have and strategies to eliminate them. For example, take your lunch to work instead of eating out, you’ll probably save money and improve your nutrition. And, when in doubt, eat more vegetables.

Look ahead to next year. If it’s October, then you definitely don’t need to worry about workouts for your spring and summer races next year, but you can pay attention to how you’re going to prepare for them when the time comes. Pick out your coach for the coming season, email your coach with some feedback about this last year and what you think would be good for next season, or work out the details of your own training plan. Whether you’re following someone else’s guidance for your training or you plan it out yourself, whether you have plans written out to the day or a general month to month guideline, do pay attention to how your knowledge and experience would guide your training choices. When you plan ahead, you can plan reasonably. If you don’t have a plan and make things up day by day and week by week, based on group rides and whatever races happen that weekend, then you’re unlikely to have nearly the same level of success as you would if you planned ahead. Identify the races that you care about, the ones you’ll use for training, and the ones you should skip. That way you can go into races with an appropriate level of focus and psychological investment, rather than getting caught up with every race as though it’s your last, and keep your sights on whatever goals you have. Then again, maybe you know that you don’t particularly care about any special races and just have to pick the races you can do based on your workload throughout the year. That’s fine too, but it’s good to know that and get your mental game straight either way.

Hopefully you can have a good time taking it easy and looking ahead to all of the new experiences you’ll have in the coming year. It’s the time of year to do it, so enjoy it and take advantage of the break from training and racing.