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10 Reasons Why Endurance Athletes Don’t Reach Their Peak Potential

There are many reasons why an endurance athlete may not reach their peak potential. This article attempts to provide an overview of some of the more common reasons many individuals struggle to achieve their best. Each list item will include the reason, an explanation, and a link to more detailed information on the topic.

1.       Inadequate Recovery

This is number one on the list for a reason. Recovery is absolutely vital to human performance, and endurance athletes are systematically proven to adopt the worst recovery habits when compared to other athletes. I read somewhere that 90% of endurance athletes will experience an overuse injury at some stage in their athletic life, and up to 80% will experience one each year. This number is simply ludicrous. A human cannot improve and adapt without sufficient stimulus and time. Training stimulus is almost never the issue, but we have in our heads that more is better and the more fatigued we get, the better results we will see. This is simply not true. A certain amount of fatigue is good (termed “overreaching”), but too much will result is “overtraining”, which takes weeks, months or even years to recover from. Human adaptation is like growing a flower: it requires an appropriate stimulus (water, sunlight etc), but will not grow if not given the time to do so. If we over-water the flower however, it will inhibit its ability to grow and flourish. Likewise, if we continue to provide training stimulus without adequate recovery time, we are doing ourselves more harm than good. For more information on recovery practices, click here.

2.     We Train Too Hard in The Easy Sessions

I bet everyone’s heard this one before, and it is all too common. Easy-moderate endurance zone work and threshold zone work have very different physiological goals. Endurance zone work involves training in the absence of lactic acid, allows our mitochondrial enzymes (responsible for creating aerobic energy) to fire at 100%, and subsequently stimulate them to grow and adapt. The endurance zone’s goal is to improve our VO₂ max and overall aerobic engine. The threshold zone (which includes any ‘tempo’ work), on the other hand, is training in the presence of lactic acid with the goal of improving our body’s ability to tolerate and clear lactic acid. This zone’s goal is not to improve our aerobic engine, but to improve our functional capacity and adapt us to sustain a high workload for a period of time. The endurance zone builds the overall engine (eg from a 4 cylinder engine to a 6 cylinder engine), and the threshold zone improves the proportion of that engine that we can functionally use for an hour or more (eg adapting to use 5 of those 6 cylinders instead of 4.. unfortunately we can never work at 100% VO₂ max/6 cylinders for very long).

Completing your easy endurance zone work too hard will completely change the outcome of the session and result in sub-optimal adaptation. When you schedule and endurance zone session, stick to your endurance zone. Click here to find out how to build your VO₂ max and here to find out how to maximise your functional threshold.

3.     We Train Too Easy in The Hard Sessions

This is the same concept as above, so I won’t go into too much detail. A very important zone to train in moderation is your VO₂ max zone. This involves training at or above 95% of velocity at VO₂ max for intervals of 2-4 minutes. Such an intense session requires the athlete to be relatively fresh. If you don’t hit this zone each interval, you are again changing the focus of the session from a VO₂ max-building session back into a threshold focus. To find out more about training zones and how they can be calculated, read this article.

4.     We Don’t Understand How Work:Rest Ratios Influence The Goal of a Training Session

A work:rest ratio is exactly that: how much work/training is done compared to how much rest an athlete has. It is used in interval training to ensure the intensity and the quality of a session is maintained, and so we can hit those higher-end training zones consistently. An athlete who completes a 3 minute effort, for example, and has 1 minute of walking rest, has a work:rest ratio of 3:1.

Understanding work:rest ratios is one of the most important factors in hitting the desired training stimulus. Too much work with too little rest, vice versa, or any other combination in between will all alter the outcome of your session. The more intense VO₂ max or anaerobic-focused sessions require a work:rest ratio of 1:1 or greater (yes, that means for 2 minutes of effort you have 2 minutes of rest!), threshold sessions lean towards a 2:1 or 3:1 (eg 6 minutes effort with 2 or 3 minutes recovery), and endurance zone work is predominantly continuous with a 1:0 ratio. Work:rest ratios are a proven science and each have an adaptive purpose in physiology.. Get them wrong and you’re essentially exercising for calorie expenditure, not training for performance improvement. For more information on specific work:rest ratios, read this article.

5.     We Don’t Understand Program Periodisation: SPORTIF Principle

Train the same, remain the same. SPORTIF is a basic programming anagram that covers off the major influencing factors in developing a periodised training program.

Specificity: Train like you race. If you’re a cyclist, ride your as much as possible because it is more specific to your event than running, swimming, or javelin throwing. If you are racing criteriums only, then try to replicate the demands of a crit race during stages of your training program (short bursts of speed and acceleration etc).

Progressive Overload: 2-10% increase in load per week. Never more than a 10% increase (in fact, anything over 5% is pretty drastic in my opinion, especially if your training involves running). Load is calculated by training frequency (how many times you train per week), intensity (rating of perceived exertion between 0-10), and duration (minutes of training per session). 3x60 minutes training sessions @ 3/10 intensity is a weekly training load of 500 (3 sessions x 60 minutes x 3 average intensity = 500). Next week, we want to increase this number to 510-550 (2-10%) by altering any, or a combination of, frequency, intensity and duration. This provides the body with a gradual increase in stimulus (without going overboard) to provide it a challenge and to adapt with appropriate recovery. Read this article to find out more about program periodisation.

Reversibility: Use it or lose it. If you don’t train for a month, you will more-or-less revert back to an untrained state. It’s not quite so simple as that, but that’s the basic principle. Read this article to learn more detail on detraining and reversibility.

Time: Duration of a training sessions (part of the load equation).

Intensity: Scale of 0-10 (generally speaking, 2-3 is endurance zone, 4-6 is threshold, 7-9 is VO₂ max, 9-10 is anaerobic). This is part of the load equation.

Frequency: Number of sessions per week (part of the load equation).

6.     We Complete Too Much Volume and Ignore Intensity

Training long, slow distances makes an individual very good at racing long, slow distances. There’s a big difference between racing to finish and racing to compete. Those who ignore intense workouts are not only reducing their fitness and performance potential, but they’re simply training to finish. This is, of course, fine if that’s all you’re after, but why not include a bit of intensity to not only save time and spend less total time training (and therefore more time recovering!), but also see huge benefits in your racing times? A good (but perhaps slightly outdated) rule of thumb is to complete 80% of your volume at an easy (endurance/bottom end threshold) pace, and 20% at very high intensity (VO₂ max and anaerobic zones). I believe these values have some leeway (somewhere closer to 75/25 or 70/30), but 80/20 is a good starting point.

7.     We Have Poor Nutritional Habits

This is fairly self-explanatory: food is fuel. You get out what you put in. Common errors that athletes make are: not eating the right foods or at appropriate quantities, not eating during training and racing, and not eating immediately post an event or heavy training day. You have a 15-minute window post racing/competition to take advantage of high insulin sensitivity in the blood and speed up the time to recover your glycogen stores to 100%. After you’ve completed a long session, your muscles are literally searching for carbohydrates to absorb, but this subsides after 15 minutes. I’m not going to go into the carb vs fat diet for athletes, as everyone who has spoken to me knows I’m pro carb because the science is strong and I’m a numbers man. I’m sure if more athletes understood the metabolic processes a carb and fat needs to go through to create energy, fewer people would be so quick to jump on the high fat, low carb diet. Find what works for you, but always understand why you’re doing something, particularly with the amount of misinformation there is in the fitness industry. Read this article if you’re interested in a scientific perspective of the carb vs fat diet for endurance athlete performance.

DISCLAIMER: If you are seeing results from a high fat, low carb diet, then great, continue with what works for you. I have a very scientific mind and need things to make sense before I go off and recommend changes to athletes. The beauty and frustration of human physiology is that there is still so much to be learned. Maybe, one day, high fat diets will be the way to go, but until there is substantial evidence, or someone can actually explain the technical jargon of why high fat would benefit endurance athletes, I won’t be convinced. 

8.     We Lack Motivation

Endurance athletes are without doubt one of, if not the most, motivated group of athletes in the world. This can, and almost always does, cause them to go too hard for too long and burn out. A common reason endurance athletes overtrain and put their body through so much pain, in my opinion, is that they are afraid of detraining, or losing their fitness. They train all year ‘round with no more than a couple of days off here and there. Not only is this physiologically unhealthy, but your mental state becomes affected too. Short (3-4 weeks) breaks of no (or unstructured) training is as much a mental benefit than it is physiological. If you feel yourself lacking motivation, or simply training out of fear of losing your fitness gains rather than for the fun and enjoyment, read this article and take a break.

9.      We Overtrain

Read points 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 8. Overtraining syndrome is defined as an unhealthy breakdown of the immune system which may take months or years to recover from. Overtraining occurs (and is extremely common in endurance athletes), when an individual completes too much training load (frequency, intensity or duration), with inadequate recovery, for long periods of time. This often leads to chronic fatigue syndrome in which you lack energy and feel constantly lethargic. Some signs and symptoms of overtraining can be found in this article.

10.     We Focus Purely on Physiological Improvements and Ignore Biomechanical Improvements

Physiology isn’t everything (no really, it’s not!) Perhaps the quickest and most noticeable improvements are in one’s biomechanical alterations. Biomechanics is the study of how the body moves. A runner who has better economy than a competitor will expend less energy (and therefore oxygen) to travel at the same speed. The same is true for a swimmer, whose body position determines how much power is required to overcome resistance and drag, and propel their bodies through the water. Read this article to get some tips on becoming an efficient runner.

In closing, knowledge is power. ALL of the above points can be mastered with the right information. Whether it’s understanding how the human body grows and adapts, where your training zones are, how to structure a periodised training program, or what types of foods to eat, you have the power to take your training to the next level… Or hey, get a knowledgeable coach.

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Written by Luke McIlroy – Director of Sport Science at METS Performance Consulting

BEx&SpSci, ESSAM, AES