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Time on Feet, Time on Pedals; Volume is the Key Driver in Building Elite Endurance Performance.

There is no shortcut. There is no secret formula. You can't fast track time. You can't speed up adaptation. You can't outwork biology.

When trying to find a strategy that works, we often naturally gravitate to what has worked well for someone else, or look towards a specific demographic who are successful. A saying that is often thrown around is “success leaves clues” but it can be problematic.

Firstly, individuals might attribute their success to something arbitrary and meaningless.

They themselves might not actually give importance to the things that matter. Secondly, you are not them. It doesn’t consider the set of unique environmental factors that are so important for the individual. Thirdly, it doesn't always help us to assign value to the things which are more appropriate vs. less appropriate as guiding principles. Very successful performers in sport live in the extreme, and they are able to somewhat tolerate those conditions; elite sport isn't necessarily healthy. Survivorship bias is strong in sport, it's easy to forget the millions left on the scrap yard trying to emulate the pro's.

This is why I would argue, success is situational. So the "clues" need to be scalable, they need to be applicable. It needs to be actionable. At the end of the day, you are your own N=1 experiment. When searching for clues to what the best amongst us do, we ultimately, need to be careful. We have to be able to distinguish general & stable consistencies as a whole amongst a successful population, to meet you where you're currently at. Rather than be fixated on the irregularities & peculiarities that may exist in some elite individuals and groups, which likely are unstable and unsustainable. This is not easy.

This is compounded when combined with our eagerness to attain the extra %, to experience instant gratification / thirst for results; we have a perfect storm. We are essentially left vulnerable to bullshit. We crave the next performance hack, from ice baths, to nasal breathing, to fasted cardio, to keto, to performance gadgets, to specific forms of 'next-best-thing' training. With all of this, you can easily end up focusing on the minutia. You could end up looking at the irregularities & peculiarities which people get away with. Successful 'in-spite of'', rather than 'because of'. Multiple weight world champion boxer Juan Manuel Marquez confessed to drinking his own urine during fight camps, and attributed it to help improve his performance; "... this is something I have been doing for the past six or seven fights, and it has given me good results". I'm surprised that hasn't caught on... This is a reminder, most of us are not sitting in a room with Sir David Brailsford, wearing a team sky jersey talking about gaining the extra 1 % - whatever we believe that may be.

I see a lot of this play out with those who want to get better at endurance sports. Those who want to compete and perform better in triathlons, marathons and so on.

If you're wanting to get better at endurance sports, there is one thing which is entirely consistent across the board for those who are successful. If we put aside the genetic components (see here.. and also lets perhaps dismiss the big PED elephant in the room for a moment - cynical, I know) what you will find consistent amongst every single performer, is..... time on feet and time on pedals, or time on *insert* whatever other modality you wish. Obviously, right? But apparently not. Or certainly not when it comes to application for the inspired individual wanting to get better.

I always find it quite interesting that this answer is often looked at as perhaps too basic. Insufficient if you like. Sometimes when people ask "how do I get better?", and I say, "spend more time on it". This blank stare follows as if to say "no... but really, what else can I do, how can I speed it up? What's the secret?". Like, surely, there must be something more to it than that, right? Then for example they might completely ignore my response, and get lost in searching for the holy grail. Usually one of the irregularities & peculiarities purported by some ex-Tour de France pro to be 'a game changer'.

The nuances, the devil in the detail, in actuality, comes down to how something like this simple truth becomes applicable and usable for you. I think in general, coaches & exercise physiologists are brilliant with explaining the specific mechanisms and metrics behind gold standard endurance performance, but sometimes absolutely terrible at putting this into practice for an individual. I'm not too sure we fully understand the importance of time accumulated doing in endurance sports, instead we believe it some super special training zone or specific workout that brings about special adaptations.

To be more specific...

Bob (our made up endurance enthusiast) doesn't have the time of said successful endurance professionals, but wants to get better. However, they are constrained by environmental factors like having a full time job. They have been trying to compensate and make up for lost time. Most typically what we see is every session becomes a slog, every session Bob hammers the intensity, because well, "i'll make up for lack of time if I go hard". Chain gangs, chasing KOM's/QOM's on strava, smashing out crit races or park runs. Life exists at threshold for Bob. They want to maximise every second of their time, because their time is limited. They want to get better. But the answer is as above. Bob might even search for more complex answers, like undertaking physiological testing as if somehow it is going to tell them anything different. Bob might try veganism, or a moderately long zone 2 1x a week. Now, whilst Bob will improve his fitness with this approach and this is ok, Bob wants to be great. So Bob needs more time doing the activity. Typically their physiological profile will show a pretty average economy and efficiency at lower intensities, they will also probably have an 'early' crossover between carbohydrate and fat.

As mentioned, this isn't such a bad approach if Bob can only fit in say 3hrs a week of training. At the end of the day, if you don't have the luxury of time, trying to do the traditional popularised 80/20 split is pretty pointless... you're just undercooking everything. But Bob will have to succumb to never being a great endurance athlete, because Bob, simply doesn't have the time.

Now lets say Bob finds more time. They quit their job, or go part time because they want to 'make it'. Continuing this type of training would be a terrible idea over 20hrs a week for Bob. Why? Because spending time at and above threshold for every session means every session is pretty short lived, and it naturally limits overall session time because one would accumulate more fatigue. For example, Eliud Kipchoge WR marathoner runs the marathon @ 2.52 minute km pace. 80% of his training week is @ 5.00+ minute km pace. Very slow for him. Why? Because he runs 200km+ a week... you have to keep the low days low, to enable you to perform the high days high WHEN you run this sort of volume.

This 80/20 approach has blown up over the last few years because of the benefits in performance & aerobic adaptations, but in my opinion, it is simply logical / only manageable for those who undertake such volumes. This approach has led a lot of physiologists and coaches to try to understand what specific adaptations to high volumes of 'zone 2/steady state/endurance pace' training occur. This is great, but you can't copy and paste it in every context and expect the same return of investment.

I am a big proponent of zone 2 training because again, for people with high volumes it is logical from a load management perspective. However, this maybe a 'hot take' but I actually am beginning to think that the fascination & praise we give to the benefits of zone 2 training (and these polarised approaches) has more to do with just allowing an individual to spend more time training, rather than anything in particular special about the physiological environment zone 2 intensity gives you. My point being, we get so tied up with zone prescription but just by training below threshold (typically the point where we get an exponential rise is in lactate readings = inability to clear H+ ions / inorganic phosphate) we are able to accumulate more time doing, rather than anything inherently special to that zone, and that type of training from an adaptation perspective.

For clarification, the end of zone 2 is specifically the point at which we begin to use more carbohydrate than fat to fuel activity. In zone 3 we may use a bit more carbohydrate, but we are still below threshold... so what? It is simply not true that these adaptations only occur in this zone 2 parameter. That is quite a partitioned understanding of physiology and how the body responds to exercise. Signalling for increased mitochondrial content in the skeletal muscle, increased ventricular cavity size through exercising cardiac tissue, and improved capilarisation at local tissues all happen; they all don't just switch off when you cross 5 Watts into say zone 4. In real world terms, your session isn't ruined if you climb a hill. However, if you are simply hammering away with everything at threshold then it only means less time doing, as fatigue will kick in. Meaning, you spend less time signalling for these adaptations which equals reduced chance for endurance improvements.

Ultimately, time accumulated doing the activity is the most important metric for elite endurance performance, physiology, training, or otherwise. Time accumulated is largely driven by a) people having the time and b) not then killing yourself at and above threshold every session which only would hinder total time across the week. If however, you do not have the time, then you probably need to work with something more in line with a 60/40, but regardless, you're endurance performance will probably suffer... because... you guessed it, you're not spending enough time on it.


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