Consistency and Variability in Training Workload

by Mike Coughlin

This month EC is examining the workload requirements of the sharp end of the age group field. It should come as no surprise that doing well in an endurance sport takes a lot of work (or shall I say, “focused play”), over a long period of time. However when you look at the training habits of the best age group athletes, it is clear that both consistency and variability of training workload play a role in their success.

“But aren’t consistency and variability the opposite of one another?” you might ask. Allow me to explain.

First, let’s look at consistency. This is considered the hallmark of successful endurance athletes, but what does it really mean? Train every day? Replicate the same basic week 52 times per year? In my view, consistent training involves a wide range of timescales including:

  • A daily habit of training

  • A weekly schedule to support this habit

  • Monthly measurements of training workload to get a real picture of what you can sustain

  • A yearly increase in sustainable workload

Note the word “sustainable” here. Successful athletes build consistent training into their lifestyle in such a way that it does not take excess physical, mental or emotional energy to accomplish. Most athletes overestimate their sustainable training level, and planning for consistency requires an honest assessment of average energy available for training.

Highly motivated athletes will naturally have excess energy to devote towards their goals. This is where variability comes in, and provided there is a solid foundation of consistent training to work with, the careful variation of workload is a key factor that separates the “hardcore trainers” from the “breakthrough performers” in our sport.

How do fast age groupers take advantage of variability in training workload? Well, as my coach AC illustrates beautifully in his piece on Influence Curves, your “bang for the training buck” varies throughout the season, at least if you use goal race performance as your measuring stick (a key assumption here). Therefore it stands to reason that varying workload in relation to your goal event is essential for peak performance. For many age group athletes, it might be better to consider the corollary of this statement; for peak performance, schedule races such that timely workload variation is possible.

What I have described is certainly nothing new. So why are so few age groupers successful at applying this? I observe a number of reasons, some of which admittedly may be a conscious decision to prioritize enjoyment over performance:

  1. Unwillingness to create a consistent training foundation first (a personal weakness of mine which I have addressed by Killing my Consistency Killers)

  2. Unrealistic view of their average energy for training

  3. Lack of control or predictability of their schedule, typically due to choosing to lead a “busy” life

  4. Poor timing of overloads and/or key races for social or ego reasons

  5. Under-recovering between overloads

If peak performance in endurance athletics is an important goal, it is worth making the choices that enable the best application of consistency and variability in your training workload.

So, again from AC:

Train smart!

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