Words by Taylor Thomas at Thomas Endurance Coaching
Most athletes are no stranger to intervals or hard workouts. Working at a higher intensity for a given duration helps to push the body to become stronger and makes it more capable to take on higher doses of training stress. However, the concept of intensity is hard for many athletes to get right in their own training. Knowing what intensity means for each individual in relation to goals, limiters, and natural strengths is an important step towards making the most of this critical training component. When to integrate intensity, how to integrate it, and why it needs to be done at all can make these harder workouts complicated to manage in relation to all of the other facets of a training plan, but with some knowledge on the topic, it can quickly become a valuable tool.
First and foremost it’s important to figure out when to increase intensity. If it’s done too early the likelihood of burnout, overtraining or peaking too soon becomes higher. Although if too much time passes before it’s integrated then there’s the possibility that an athlete’s full potential isn’t met. One of the best and easiest benchmarks to use is upcoming events. When does race season begin, or when is the first event on the calendar? 12 weeks out from a key event is often a good starting place. This allows for enough time to responsibly layer in intensity without feeling the pressure to add too much too soon. It should go without saying that any increase in training load, no matter where it comes from, hinges on the foundation that’s been built in the months leading up to any transitional period. The body has to be properly prepared to handle any increase in intensity, volume, or frequency. The next thing to consider is the proximity to an A priority or very important event. While your first race of the season may be a few months away, your priority event(s) may be later in the year. This should dictate how and when you use intensity in your training. The goal should be to always be as prepared and fit as possible for your priority races, so not only should you adjust your expectations, but also your training approach for early season events if those events aren’t a top priority.
The intensity at which you train at any given time of year shouldn’t be random. It should be based on historical data, goal events, and individual strengths and weaknesses. Periodizing intensity is important for the health of both the athlete and the longevity of the training approach. One of the first places to start is to look to the past. What happened last year? What were the demands of the races you participated in? Where do you feel you were most prepared, and where were there shortcomings? Look for specifics within individual workouts and race performances to understand what type of intensity is important to focus on. The intensity at which you train from the perspective of both the duration of a particular interval, as well as the percentage of FTP of that interval, should be informed by race specificity. What are the demands of the discipline you’re focused on? More specifically what are going to be the demands of the specific event based on the race course, conditions, and the other competitors? These specifics should have a huge impact on how you use intensity in your training. The frequency of intervals in specific workouts, their duration, and the intensity should all be informed by things you’ll experience on race day. Once you’ve nailed down the specifics remember that any workout is only as good as the accuracy of the metrics they’re based on. Always maintain an accurate FTP, clean data, and schedule progressive workouts to ensure training time and potential are maximized. Lastly, it’s important that intensity is managed properly in relation to other training components. Often we see intensity and volume increase at similar times in a training cycle. Be sure that things don’t ramp up too quickly and you experience overload too early in the season. Intensity is good, but intensity at the right time and in the right dose is the goal.
While it may seem like a no-brainer for some to train using intensity, it’s worth mentioning why it’s important. Many athletes confuse the concept of individualized and periodized intensity with the idea that if some is good more is better. The “do a lot” approach is one that is based on the hope that race-specific fitness will be reached along the way and that surely some of the training sessions will check the right boxes if enough of those training sessions are completed. Athletes who want to maximize their training time and their potential should look towards a focused and individualized approach to utilizing intensity. The intensity that matches the demands of individual goals is key, and periodizing that intensity is even more important. Without that approach the likelihood of early burnout or early/late peak performance is high. Taking a more methodical approach also helps to understand an athlete’s unique physiology. How much is too much? What types of workouts are effective, and which ones yield results? These discoveries lead to not only a more productive training approach but often a much more enjoyable experience when race day finally comes.
Hard intervals are what many think about when they think of being in top form and preparing for race day. While there’s no doubt they’re important for peak performance, it’s critical that intensity is used properly. Knowing when to begin training with intensity, and what that should look like at any given time of year is the first step. Then take a close look at how you should arrive at workouts that are designed to prepare you for race day. Make sure that intervals and high-intensity training aren’t arbitrary, but well planned and periodized to ensure peak success as the season progresses.
Taylor Thomas is the founder and head coach of Thomas Endurance Coaching (TEC) and has more than a decade of experience in the endurance sports industry as an athlete, coach, race promoter, and team organizer. TEC provides expert level coaching to athletes of all ability levels and specializes in both a scientific and metrics-based approach to endurance sports. They guide athletes in all disciplines of both running and cycling. For more information on their personal coaching and training plan options visit http://www.