Best Practices in Endurance Sport

Over a century of training and racing, coaches and athletes have continually experimented with the balance of volume and intensity. Today’s best practices look to maximize both a high volume of training and a small but potent dose of high-intensity work.

A coach looks at their stopwatch while their athlete does a ladder exercise in the background
Photo: Shutterstock.com

Before Arthur Lydiard came along, training for running was more an art than a science. The same could be said of Eddie B in cycling. It’s remarkable how that has changed since the 1980s. Now endurance coaches are awash in the science of training, perhaps at the expense of other fields of study that also weigh heavily on athlete performance, such as sport psychology.

I might also point out that while looking back in time, it is easy to see historical trends. It’s always difficult to define a trend that is currently taking shape. Consequently, my views on this topic are certainly open to debate. There’s a lot going on in training right now, not all of which is apparent. I’ll point out a few current trends that stand out for me.

Perhaps the biggest shift in training methodology for both cycling and running has occurred in the last 20 years, shaking up popular thinking on duration and intensity. “Polarized” training, an approach popularized by the research of Dr. Stephen Seiler, gets its name from the duration of training time spent at each end of the intensity spectrum. While it remains a debatable topic in coaching, polarized training seems to be reflected in the intensity balance that is seen with endurance training. It’s intended to be based strictly on the number of workout sessions of each type: a high duration of training at low intensity (80%) and a lower duration of training at high intensity (20%). The balance is usually based on the intention of the workout, not actual time in zones.

Pyramidal training is another popular training method used by coaches today, and this methodology is based on time in zones. As the name suggests, with pyramidal training volume is distributed with the largest portion of the pyramid, its base, being long, slow distance training, and the top of the pyramid being very high intensity interval training. In between are the other zones (usually 2, 3, and 4), and in each case volume decreases as intensity increases.

The use of lactate testing to determine training zones according to the athlete’s lactate threshold 1 (LT1) of 2mmol/L of blood (AKA the aerobic threshold) and lactate threshold 2 (LT2) of 4mmol/L (AKA the anaerobic threshold) has become increasingly common in endurance sports. Periodic lactate testing allows coaches and athletes to more accurately target specific intensities in training and adjust the training prescription when adaptation occurs. In the past this was typically done with field tests that were less reliable. Lactate measuring devices were popular in the 1990s, but lost support soon thereafter. Now these products appear to be making a comeback.

Another recent shift in training methodology is to focus on “zone 2” training. Those who support this method have the athlete maximize their time in zone 2, defined as the heart rate range just below LT1. The intent of zone 2 training is to optimize the athlete’s time in zone 2 in order to increase their capacity for a high level of aerobic fitness. It’s a recurring trend in endurance sport, similar to Mihaly Igloi’s and Lydiard’s 100-mile run weeks and Eddy Merckx’s “train lots” philosophy.

RELATED: A Comparison of Polarized, Sweet Spot, and Pyramidal Training

The growth of the coaching profession among athletes at all levels of performance, from novice to elite, is sure to further change the best practices of coaching in the years ahead. Throughout much of the 20th century, coaches were predominantly employed by schools, clubs, or national Olympic teams. Today there are thousands of freelance coaches operating small businesses that serve a variety of goals beyond high-performance.

Endurance sports have come a long way in the past 100 years, but even as technology and data analytics become increasingly sophisticated, it’s the same variables of volume, intensity, and duration at work. The best mix of those variables is something we will continue to iterate on as our sports continue to evolve and borrow from the great athletes and coaches who came before us.

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You have reached the end of The Craft of Coaching Module 14 // The Future of Endurance Coaching. Return to the full Craft of Coaching Library to explore past modules or download our Craft of Coaching playbook for more information.