“To race fast, you have to train hard.”
It’s a message we see in our Strava feed, countless books, social media posts, blog posts and videos of coaches and fellow athletes, yelling at us to push harder to achieve our goals.
It’s absolutely limiting us.
I confess that I used to believe in it, but the worship of “hard” is one of the most dangerous mistakes that endurance athletes can succumb to – especially if you’re balancing training with work, family and social commitments.
You Are Not Limited By Your Speed
While it sounds logical that to race fast, you must train hard, it’s not exactly as it seems.
Few athletes I have ever met, are limited by ‘pure speed’. Rather, you’re limited by your ability to maintain a high percentage of your maximum speed for the length of the race you’re training for.
This is less a function of training your speed and more a function of training your aerobic function, ability to generate energy from fat, lactate clearance, strength and power.
Because when you race long distance events, the majority of your energy is coming from your aerobic system – the system you train at low intensity.
As you train easier (avoiding the grey zone) and spend higher amounts of time in zone 1 and 2 (especially zone 2), you begin to properly train the physiology above that allows you to maintain a high output (pace, speed, power) for a long time.
While low intensity (zone 1 and 2) is relatively easy from an effort point of view (it’s a conversational pace) it is important to understand that it is not necessarily slow.
As your aerobic system develops, you’ll be able to produce more at the same heart rate and your pace, speed or power in these zones will improve, often significantly.
This increase in output at the same or lower heart rate is known as aerobic speed and it’s what you should be aiming to achieve as an endurance athlete.
Does This Mean You Should Never Train Hard?
There is no denying the benefit of harder, faster training.
High-intensity training improves your maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max) among other things and isn’t just necessary, it’s beneficial.
The problem lies in the timing and frequency of these sessions, but that’s a subject for another day.
Train Easy, Race Faster
As you have learned, your aerobic system is the primary driver of endurance performance.
It makes sense to slow down during the majority of your sessions and train at the intensities that develop this important system, even if it means your ego takes a hit.
When your aerobic system is strong, you’ll not only be able to go faster at low intensity, you’ll benefit more from the harder, high-intensity sessions that you do closer to race day. As a bonus, you’ll also recover from them more quickly afterwards.
The result will be an overall improvement in performance that limits the likelihood of you falling sick or suffering an injury.