As a New Year full of fresh challenges and big, juicy goals prepares to unfurl before us, you’ve got plans. Maybe you’ve just unwrapped some new fitness gear; maybe you’ve picked up some new ideas on how to push your limits to a new level. That’s awesome. But when it comes to freshening up your workout routine, subtraction can be as powerful as addition. Simplify, simplify—and you may find you end up with a clearer sense of what really matters.
Here are four ingredients to drop, at least occasionally, from your endurance workouts this year.
I started thinking about this topic during a recent interview with Carmichael Training Systems coach Adam Pulford. He asked me what advice I had for athletes on how to start figuring out their fueling for long runs and training sessions. The answer that immediately popped to my mind, somewhat to my surprise, was: nothing. As in, before you start worrying about gel choice and drink concentration and feeding frequency, figure out what it feels like to run or ride for a few hours with no fuel.
For the record (as I wrote earlier this year), I have zero doubt that in-race or in-workout fueling does enhance performance. But I also get the sense that a lot of athletes are pathologically dependent on their fuel belts. They stock up like preppers for every long workout not because they think it will allow them to go a bit faster, but because they sincerely don’t think they could complete the session without that fuel. (Yes, I realize that this fear is sometimes absolutely justified. I just think that the line is further off than many people assume.)
It’s true that fasted workouts have had a bit of a moment in recent years, purportedly teaching the body to burn fat more efficiently. That’s definitely an interesting idea, but it’s not the point I’m getting at here. Start minimal to get a visceral sense of what your body is capable of and what it feels like to run low on fuel. Then you’ll have a far better sense of what it feels like to improve on that baseline—or not—when you experiment with different ways of fueling.
This is kind of low-hanging fruit in the current tech-backlash moment. But I’ll say it anyway: now and then, you should do some workouts without external feedback, be it from a GPS watch, a power meter, a heart-rate monitor, a fitness app, or even mile markers and a Timex.
You can make a bunch of different arguments about why this is a good idea. Maybe it’s because various studies have found that subjective perceptions of effort are at least as accurate as tech-based measurements for determining your training load. Maybe it’s because the technology on your wrist functions as a Foucauldian panopticon, sapping your internal drive and making you a slave to the numbers on the screen. To me, it boils down to this: if you ever plan to race, there will come a moment—probably many moments—when you have to make a split-second decision about whether to speed up or slow down. If you haven’t spent a certain amount of time trying to discern exactly what the razor’s edge feels like, how will you decide?
Please, don’t @ me on this one. It’s true that the listening-to-music-while-you-run debate, which is at least as old as the Walkman, is sometimes applied as a sort of purity test—“real” runners, the curmudgeons argue, want to hear only the sound of their Onitsuka Tigers slapping the pavement. It’s equally true that, if you wander around the warm-up area at a major professional track meet or road race, you’ll find a significant fraction of the “real” elites jogging around with headphones in their ears.
Forget that debate. As far as I’m concerned, as long as you’re not running into traffic (or freaking out when someone passes you from behind), you can put whatever you want in your ears while you train. But every once in a while—maybe once a week? once a month?—let yourself be alone with your thoughts. Don’t multitask. Attend to the act of running or pedaling or rowing or whatever it is you’re trying to master. Pay heed to the thoughts that ricochet around in your head. Listen to the birds.
(But if you’re logging big miles on an indoor trainer this winter, ignore this advice, you crazy mind-numbed bastard.)
I actually do like other people, in suitable doses and at the appropriate time. In particular, I like them when I’m running. In college, we had practice every weekday at 5:15 p.m., and I got used to doing every step of my training with a group of friends. I loved it, and it’s one of the reasons that, a couple of decades later, I spend a lot of energy trying to sustain a weekly Saturday morning group tempo run. The power of the group is amazing.
But the truth is that I probably wouldn’t still be running, or at least not with much conviction, if I hadn’t also learned to enjoy solitary runs. Life gets busy, responsibilities accumulate, and the ideal scenario of making every workout a social event becomes harder to sustain. I suspect that’s a big reason why so many endurance athletes fall off the wagon as they transition from college into careers and start families. It’s not so much the lack of time as the lack of company.
So, even if you’re lucky enough to have a great training group that meets regularly, my suggestion is to make sure you also carve out time now and then to train on your own. Get accustomed to the feeling of tuning into your own wavelength. It’s good insurance in case your training group goes unexpectedly off the rails—and you may even find that you like it.
The common theme here isn’t about avoiding bad things—it’s more about avoiding overdependence on good things. That may reflect my own neuroses. I still have a vivid memory from when I was a very young kid, of a family camping trip in which my parents forgot the coffee. As bizarre as it sounds, seeing my dad suffering from a brutal caffeine withdrawal headache is probably at the root of why I still don’t drink coffee.
But I think there’s something more here. In my well-thumbed 1991 edition of Tim Noakes’s Lore of Running, his sixth law of training is: “At first try to achieve as much as possible on a minimum of training.” Some would argue that this is a terrible idea—that this less-is-more ethos is precisely why American and European distance running performances were so bad in the 1990s.
But to me, the point of this principle isn’t that you should avoid training hard. It’s that, in trying to optimize your performance, you shouldn’t flip all the switches and press all the buttons at once. Figure out what output corresponds to a given input. Then change one variable at a time and see if you get better or worse. If it works, up the dose. If it doesn’t, rethink your approach. I like fuel, watches, music and friends as much as the next guy. But I also like to know what I can do without them.
My recent book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, is now available. For more, join me on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for the Sweat Science email newsletter.