Behind the Curve: Why it’s hard to catch up when you’re training from behind

A brutal winter and March floods have done all sorts of damage in Nebraska. The state’s ag industry alone stands to lose an estimated $1 billion. And our river towns, roads and bridges took a serious beating.

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The floods closed 2,000 miles of Nebraska roads, including this stretch near Fullerton. (Photo, Nebraska State Patrol)

The stakes are decidedly lower for Nebraska’s gravel racers. All we lost were some outdoor training miles. But even that has hurt. And with races looming, I’ve been hitting it hard, hoping to make up for lost time.

It’s not working.

To figure out why, I sat down with one of the best endurance sport coaches in the country.

Dr. Ted Bulling is head coach for Nebraska Wesleyan University’s nationally regarded men’s and women’s track & field and cross country teams. He has a mind-blowing 67 conference team championships as well as a half-dozen national coach of the year awards. His women’s 4×400 relay team has won six consecutive indoor and outdoor NCAA III national championships. He knows how to bring the best out of his athletes.

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Bulling’s 4×400 celebrates national championship #5. (Photo, Lincoln Journal Star)

He agreed to talk with me for a magazine article I’m writing for my day job about this phenomenal relay team. But he knows me well enough to guess I also wanted to talk ultra-endurance training. Specifically: Why am I spinning my wheels this spring? I’m putting in the work. Where are my damn fitness gains?

When you feel behind schedule, he told me, your instincts urge you to do two things: Increase your intensity and shorten your rest. (Check and check, sir.) And those two things just don’t go together.

“Each workout is a stimulus,” he said. “It’s a stress that decreases your physical state.” Your goal is not to destroy your physical state and then destroy it some more, he said. “Your goal is to spark an adaptation—an increase in your capacity to handle the next stimulus. And that doesn’t happen during workouts. It happens during recovery.”

He asked me about my training load over the last week or so. I described it to him and he smiled a smile that I fear he reserves for fools.

“Let me show you a chart.”

He turned to his computer and brought up a chart titled “Principle of Training: Adaptation.” It looked something like this.

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Yes, I borrowed my kids’ markers…

“I think I know where you are on this chart,” he said. We pointed to the same spot on the sorry slope of that red line.

“You want adaptation. And by going too hard and too often,” he said, “you probably just wiped away your body’s ability to do that for a while.” In other words, all my effort to make up for lost time had just cost me more time.

Coach Bulling’s chart is basically “Goldilocks and the Three Athletes.” One racer’s workout is too hard; another’s is too soft; and the third’s is just right.

In the context of a single workout, all three athletes eventually return to their norm. And no one gains a fitness advantage. But we’re not talking about one workout. We’re talking about where we can wisely place our next workout to stimulate another adaptation. And here, the differences couldn’t be starker.

For the athlete who absolutely buried himself in that first workout, there is exactly no point on this timeline where he can tack on another stimulus that won’t just plunge him deeper into fatigue. Basically, he’s screwed for the duration of the timeline.

For the athlete who worked out too lightly, her fatigue is shallow. She recovers quickly, but her adaptation is slight, and it quickly slides back to her norm. If she times her next workout perfectly, there’s a chance she may see a slight gain. But it’s pretty doubtful it’ll amount to much.

But for the athlete with the “just right” workout, her adaptation is larger, and her opportunity to build on it with another stimulus is far wider. This athlete is in great position to get even better during her next recovery. If she keeps “just right” intensity with “just right” frequency, her adaptations might chart like this.

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It’s like a wave and a staircase had a baby…

This stacking of adaptation on top of adaptation is what every training athlete wants. And the more we try to speed this stacking along on unnatural terms, the more we wind up just stalling out. Coach Bulling’s wisdom: There’s no shortcut to “just right.”

(Feature photo: athleticamps.com)

 


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