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Navigating the Nuances: 2 Traps to Avoid from 14 Years of Coaching Endurance Athletes

After 14 years of coaching, I've learned invaluable lessons. Early in my career, I was captivated by the science and apparent certainty of physiological programming. However, while science provides a solid framework, it can also be misleading. It's essential as a foundation but should guide training rather than dictate it.

We often forget that we are individuals motivated by and responding to different inputs. Training should be applied in the same way. The problem it creates is that it requires reflection, experimentation, and occasionally the 'u' word: uncertainty.

Historically, coaches (Mihaly Igloi, pioneer 'flux training') and trailblazer athletes (Marius Bakken, 13:06 5k, inspired the Norwegian Method) were ahead of the science. These individuals frequently experimented in extreme ways, using whatever resources were available to them, to prepare athletes for the rigors of their event.

One of the first examples I discovered demonstrating this gap was while in my fourth-year advanced training principles class. I was interested in the idea of developing an athletes 'lipidic power' (not the Keto craze). The only time I had come across it was from famed coach Renato Canova in his book: 'The Scientific Approach to the Marathon,' which I ordered from the IAAF in Switzerland (it's one of my prized possessions). In it, he provided a framework to promote lipidic power for the marathon. I tried to get more information and find literature to support the idea, but it simply didn't exist.

Endurance training is intricate, with no one-size-fits-all approach. Working extensively with middle-distance athletes (800m-1500m), I've learned to appreciate the subtleties of training that go beyond the road and track.

These athletes must develop numerous qualities, and some popular models fall short.

There are countless ways to achieve the desired adaptation. Equipped with a variety of tools, training becomes a fun, exploratory, and engaging experience for both coach and athlete.

Trap #1: Overdoing the Measurables:

VO2max, Lactate Threshold, and Critical Velocity are key markers in exercise physiology, guiding training intensity and performance goals. While they offer valuable insights, it's important to recognize their limitations. Zone-based methods, though measurable, often confuse intensity with effort and are subject to a high degree of variability.

These markers represent transitions in training zones, but the body's response to exercise is not as clear-cut as we once thought. Rather than strict boundaries, they should be seen as guides, allowing for flexibility and adaptation in training.

Training should be based on a combination of scientific principles and individual response.

By understanding the nuances of these markers, coaches and athletes can design effective training programs that optimize performance and adaptability.

Which would you rather? The measurable improve or did your performance improve?

Depending on the cake you're trying to bake (in the below example for the mile (1609m), it's very well possible your 'threshold' work or 'speed' work gets faster, but is your performance being optimized?

Knowing when, and how to use all the training tools at our disposal can help make our performance "just right".

Below is a real-world example of what I am saying:

Trap #2: The Volume Trap

"The idea of mileage is stupid without the combination of speed" - Renato Canova

Athletes often focus too much on mileage as a measure of training, but this simplistic view overlooks other important factors like intensity, frequency, and rest periods, which are crucial for effective training.

There are alternative ways to develop the aerobic system besides just increasing mileage, such as pre-fatigue, doubles, and strength sessions followed by endurance work, which can be more efficient and tailored to individual needs.

Training should be tailored to the athlete's needs and context, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Athletes' history, adaptability, and goals should be considered when designing a training plan, rather than solely focusing on increasing volume.

Traditionally, it has been thought that a marathoner must always run prodigiously high volumes—upwards of 20 miles a day for the top athletes. In contrast, James Kwambi and Duncan Kibet only ran 80-90 miles a week, often only running once per day. However, other elite marathoners like Martin Lel and Robert Cheruiyot maintained 135-150 miles per week.
Why is high mileage not necessary for Kibet and Kwambi to run 2:04 marathons? To answer this, we have to return to Canova’s thesis—all non-specific training exists only to support the body’s ability to do race-specific training.

Ultimately, your goal is to be healthy and adaptable. The most important runs in the week are the workouts and 'stuff' in the week. The easy running between is the glue that binds it all together.

Help me help you:

Training should be holistic, considering individual responses and goals. The goal is not just to improve measurables but to optimize performance and adaptability, recognizing the importance of the overall training plan, including workouts, easy runs, and recovery.

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