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The Art and Science of Endurance Training

What are the strengths and limitations to evidence-based practices in sport?

In a recent blog post, Co-founder of 80/20 Endurance, Matt Fitzgerald, expressed a bold and unabashed perspective on the state of endurance coaching today.

“[...]these science-dependent individuals are deeply bothered, sometimes outright threatened, by the fact that the most effective endurance coaches operate more like artists,” Matt writes. “A phrase came to me—tyranny of evidence based.”

I read this (rather entertaining) article and it got me thinking. As a self admitting evidence-based proponent, how much merit was there to what Matt was arguing. If coaches operate “more like artists”, then why?

Whether a self-coaching athlete or an endurance sports coach by profession, we all know there are multiple layers to the athlete that arrives at the starting line. It’s important to fully understand those layers in the weeks and months leading up to that starting line in order to get the most out of ourselves and our athletes.

VO2 max testing

At the core of a new physical accomplishment is a better version of a past athlete. You were capable of a 21-minute 5K before, and now you can run sub-20.There’s a lot of physical change that enables that, such as stronger muscles and improved fuel economy. We endure session after session for weeks on end of all varieties. Speed, tempo, and endurance workouts all are built on a foundation of stimulating physiological adaptation. These adaptations become undeniable over months or years of training, and the “new you” eclipses your former self. I still remember when I weighed 250lbs+ and quaked in fear at the thought of running a mile, yet somehow today I can run marathons. This story is not unique; it happens for many athletes who find the sport and transform their bodies in pursuit of it.

But physical change is human biology, and human biology is decidedly scientific. Matt’s argument begins here, because the science at work is lacking a crucial prerequisite to initiating adaptation: motivation.

Humans aren’t robots, and they don’t generally go out and seek suffering without some sort of motivation for doing so. Within every athlete is a mind that willed their body through countless challenging moments that have shaped their improved fitness. Hard workouts, pivoting dietary habits, and dedicating time to injury prevention are all required efforts that end in improved fitness but begin with a decision. For this reason, it isn’t physiology that’s the first obstacle to a faster future, it’s psychology.

Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” comes to mind. The art of endurance training isn’t just in the workouts that are prescribed, but in influencing the athlete’s motivation to keep on grinding. Endurance training in practice is more about understanding what makes an athlete tick and capitalizing on it than it is about a deep understanding or execution of evidence-based training. No amount of prescribed evidence-based workouts will make a person faster if they don’t feel energized to get out and do them.

Structured workout in TrainingPeaks

It’s also worth noting that this day in age there are hundreds of workouts to choose from, and we’ll often see tens of these in a single training buildup. This is somewhat of an intriguing development given that the science would tell us the body really only knows maybe 3-5 different types of effort (those being “easy”, “moderate”, and “high” intensity). The art is in how exactly we achieve the proper ratio week after week without boring of the process or feeling that we’ve stagnated as athletes.

And athlete’s don’t all follow the same formula. Some runners thrive off of complex, engaging workouts that are always new and different. Some athletes love to do the same workouts again and again so it’s easy to mark progress toward their goal, but most athletes prefer a mix of the two. Mental burnout is as big of a risk to the success of athletes as overtraining and injury, but it can be even harder to avoid since minds respond in unpredictable ways by comparison to bodies.

So there you have it. A data-driven sports science nerd acknowledging that while understanding some of the science is important, the best endurance training requires an element of artistic flair. Athletes aren’t lab rats, and evidence-based training isn’t necessarily as effective when you introduce all the other variables life has to offer.

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