TRAINING: Gauging Training Capacity

High mileage and hard training always yield dividends right? Yes, correct, the only issue is that what constitutes “high” and “hard” for one person at any given point in time is not a constant but a variable that moves up and down (mostly up) over time.

Run more and you’ll get better, but run too much too soon and you won’t get the rewards you deserve or you will get your rewards much delayed as your body struggles to catch up with punishments dealt out to it.

As a coach I recommend everyone goes in pursuit of high mileage but that they see it is a protracted journey along a long road. As you walk along this road you will see obscure road signs telling you what your training capacity is and reading these signs correctly is the key to optimal training at all times and for giving you the maximal return on the investment you put in.

Why is this so important? Because adding 10 miles/week could mean winning 1 minute, adding 15 miles/week could mean winning 1.5 minutes but adding 20 miles/week could mean losing 1 minute or not improving. A bit further down the road, this may no longer be true. Let me illustrate through metaphor how to think of your “training capacity” a term I simply use to describe “what volume of training you can absorb at any given time while still deriving benefits from it”.

The Glass, The Reservoir and the Water

Think of your training capacity as an empty glass and your training as the water you are pouring into the glass. Every week you try to fill this glass and at the end of the week you pour the water from the glass into a small reservoir called “performance level” (in reality, it takes the body 2-4 weeks to absorb most stimulus but let’s keep this example simple and not litter it with detail).

Consider next that your training has two primary objectives:

  1. increase your race performance(s)
  2. increase your training capacity to further increase your race performance

To increase your race performances to the optimal degree, you will need to pour as much water into your “glass” as it can hold but no more. If the content of the glass overflows the training is not absorbed, it simply seeps away over the edges, wasted.

As you train and cross-train, when done optimally, the size of your glass will increase. Let us say that the “measure” of your glass is fifty miles per week when you start and in week 4 it has increased to sixty miles. As the weeks progress you can pour more water into the glass. In week 5 you catch a cold or get injured and suddenly the glass can only hold thirty miles. Training optimally is the art of knowing when to stop pouring and being aware of the size of the glass changing and nowhere in the process is an astute coach more useful than in gauging this. This is a mischievous magic class and it can grow and shrink every day.

Let’s take our example to the next level and bring racing into the equation. Remember your small reservoir called “performance level”? Every time you race or train hard, you drink a bit of the water from this reservoir. Luckily, a lot of the time, you drink less water from the reservoir than you get to pour back in from your glass so there’s a net gain. But other times, especially in the case of key races or overly hard sessions, you have to drink much more from the reservoir than you get to pour into your glass and the level of your reservoir lowers. Do this a few times and you’ll need to refill it to perform at the same level again, do this too often and it runs dry.

In my next instalment on this subject, I’ll look into some real-life examples of misjudged and correctly judged training levels.