Training hard is fun.
We all want to go into a workout, crush some stuff (weights, pace, hills, competitors) and come out a sweaty mess. That’s how we know we’ve won the workout. That’s what feels good to the ego.
Problem is, what’s good for your ego and what’s good for performance aren’t the same thing.
It’s a common enough thought – and it even makes sense – we see someone who we look up to doing a workout, and we want to emulate it. Or we have a goal, and we want to make constant progress towards that goal.
Ultra-runners may go out for an easy half-marathon once as week as a maintenance run. But that doesn’t mean that your maintenance run should be a half-marathon.
And an ultra-runner may run their maintenance work at a 7:30 pace. That doesn’t mean your maintenance pace should be 7:30.
The point is, your training needs to fit YOU. And side note: that’s the work of a coach; it’s not about telling you what to do, or yelling at you. Their duty is to help you build and execute a training plan that makes you better.
And when it comes to fitting you, if you’re in the market for more endurance – the ability to maintain a consistent pace over long duration (let’s call it anything longer than 30 minutes), an aerobic base is absolutely essential. And the way to build it?
Easy work. Boring work. Dumb work. Easy, but effective.
Let’s start with some definitions:
Aerobic: from the Latin, meaning with oxygen. Your cells have several ways of turning particles from your blood (primarily fat and sugar) into energy (cells make and burn ATP to power muscle contractions). Fat particles are cool in that there are a LOT of them, and when they’re used to make ATP they produce a LOT of it. So fat’s a great fuel, as you’ve probably heard. But for your cells to turn fat into ATP requires oxygen.
In short: when you’re doing pure aerobic work, your cells are using fat and oxygen to produce ATP. You’ve got a lot of fat on board (even if you’re really lean), so you can use that fuel for a long period of time, under one condition: you can’t exceed a certain threshold. We’ll call that the Aerobic Threshold (AT).
When you exceed that threshold, your cells start converting sugar to ATP, which doesn’t require oxygen. We’re now talking about a process that’s categorized as anaerobic, from the Latin, meaning without oxygen.
IMPORTANT POINT: You are never truly 100% working aerobic or 100% working anaerobically. In reality, there is always some of each happening. When you’re relaxing, you’re using primarily aerobic metabolism to power muscular processes. When you’re lifting a maximum weight (or a car) for a brief moment, you’re using primarily anaerobic metabolism, but even on these ends of the spectrum, there’s always a combination of the two at work.
The point on this spectrum that we’re most interested in is the aerobic threshold. If you found out that you had to run or walk constantly for the next 24 hours, how fast would you go? That’s what we’re talking about. It’s a rate of exertion that you could hold for a very long time. If you only do it for an hour or two, it often doesn’t even feel like a workout. But it’s essential.
The authors of Training for the Uphill Athlete have an easy guide to determining your aerobic threshold.
But that’s asking me to go slower and easier!
Yep, that’s probably true. Which brings us back to another key idea: the SAID principle. Specific Adaption to Imposed Demands.
You’ll get the response to the stimulus you’re giving your body. But that doesn’t exactly mean you’ll get better at what you do; in fact, in this case, it’s the opposite.
If you’ve got 30 minutes to get in a run, you’re likely to push the effort (because you want to get in a good workout). So you run at a level that’s a bit above your aerobic threshold. By doing so, you engage some anaerobic metabolism.
But if that’s all you do, you’ll never see the increase in endurance – the almost-entirely-aerobic side of the spectrum.
In other words, to go further and faster, you need to spend time going slow.
So here’s what you should do.
- Use the aerobic threshold formula to get your number.
- For two weeks, do 1-2 runs per week at or just below your aerobic threshold; set your runs by time, NOT distance. You’ll likely be slower than usual, so identify that the “win” for these runs will be in keeping your heart rate below your aerobic threshold.
- Test! Go run your favorite loop or distance, still keeping your heart rate at your aerobic threshold, and push the pace. Consider: how did that run feel? Easier? Better?
If you’re deep in the hold of aerobic deficiency syndrome, which is likely if most of your training has been hard-and-heavy (intervals, CrossFit, etc), it’s going to take some time to get your endurance base built. And there’s a measure of trust required here: there is improved performance at the end of the tunnel, but it’s going to require getting your ego out of the way for a bit.