The conventional approach to endurance training is neither healthy nor effective. Go to any 5K or marathon race and that majority of the people you will see are carrying around extra weight. When the majority of them have spent the same amount of time they spend at work running, you would think it would be nearly impossible to gain weight. That's not the case.
Here are 4 unconventional ways to start training for endurance. Will you see changes overnight? Absolutely not. In fact, you might get worse before you get better as your body transitions from burning glucose for energy rather than fat. But, how long have you been training the way you are? Is it working? Are you still improving? Do you feel well? Are you pain free? Chances are, you answered no to the majority of those questions.
My goal is to get you training in a way to maximize your performance, minimize your stress load, reduce your chance of serious illness and improve your body composition and function. You probably aren't being paid to run. You do it for fun. You still have to live the rest of your life. Running is one of the most stressful things you can do to your body. Add that to the stress of work, relationships, pollution, poor food choices, gravity and you're an injury waiting to happen.
1. Determine your aerobic heart rate zone. 180 minus your age is the highest I want your heart rate during your runs for the first 6 to 8 weeks. Not only does this build up your aerobic capacity, it ensures that you are burning fat rather than glucose for energy. This is going to feel slow and easy. Not only is this okay, but it is intentional. If you're one of those people that needs to feel exhausted to feel like you've accomplished something, you're simply going to have to trust me here. The more time we spend in this zone, the more you will build your capacity. The more time you spend here, the lower your risk of injury, fatigue and sugar cravings. Your recovery time and your fat burning ability will increase.
2. Get the junk out of your diet. Don't kid yourself. You don't need a protein shake, sugar packets or Gatorade. Those are all fake food and empty calories. Unless you are intentionally trying to gain weight and get less healthy, those are not for you. Is it going to be a few hours before you get food? That's okay! From an evolutionary standpoint, we have the ability to go days without food. The problem is, many of us burn sugar for energy rather than fat because the majority of the food we eat is sugar (bread, pasta, cereal, cake, cookies, smoothies, bars). Sugar is easier to burn that fat. But, if we can transition to burning fat for fuel, our brain will not only be sharper, we will function much better. Burning fat results in less damage to our cells. This means you will age slower and your risk of disease and injury will decrease. If you are currently a sugar burner, this transition will not be fun, but it will be worth it. In the first 4 to 8 weeks, it is imperative that you are training below your maximum hear rate zone (as calculated above) to feel less crappy. Otherwise you will be stressing your system from way too many directions.
Avoid all grains and sugar. Eat quality animal proteins, lots of vegetables, fruit, quality fats and nuts and seeds. Seek nutrients, not calories. Will this take effort and diligence? Yes, it absolutely will. You will be making most of your own food and being mindful of what you eat. But, I think your performance and health and worth it. If you need ideas for recipes, you can start here.
If you are trying to lose weight, aim for 100g of carbohydrates (from vegetables, wild rice, potatoes, berries, nuts and seeds) or less. If you are trying to maintain your weight, aim for 150g. If you are trying to gain weight, eat more than 150g per day and if you are hoping for metabolic disease, shoot for more than 300g per day.
There is one caveat to these numbers. If you have a decent amount of muscle mass, you can get away with more carbohydrates. Remember, this is all very individualized, so you are going to have to keep track of your numbers, stick to a plan for a minimum of 3 months and modify accordingly.
3. Make sleep and recovery a priority. If you are constantly training with a nearly empty sleep tank, your performance will suffer and your sugar cravings will increase. Sleep hygiene and proper recovery are often overlooked. I know it's hard to wrap your head around, but less is often more. Even when it comes to training. Junk miles are just that. Junk. If you are feeling under the weather, your knee is inflamed or your SI joint is acting up, rest. Remember, no one is paying you to train. You must be functional to do your job and have a family or social life. I've written extensively on getting a good night's sleep. You will die faster from lack of sleep than you will from lack of food.
4. Add strength and sprints. Once you have mastered the above to steps (for a minimum of 8 weeks and upwards of a year) and you are feeling pretty good, you can add in some strength work and speed work. Sprinting can, and should, vary from anything from a tempo run to intervals to all out 10-30 second sprints. Do this one to two times per week for four to eight weeks before your race. You can, and should, also add in strength training. This can include body weight work like squats, lunges, push ups, pull ups or weighted work like deadlifts, kettlebell swings, bench press or Olympic weight lifting. Gaining muscle and improving your anaerobic capacity (when you already have a great aerobic capacity) will all you to generate more power and resist fatigue. Both of these will come in very handy when you are trying to finish your race strong.
Obviously the training schedule will vary greatly depending on your training background, your fitness level and your endurance goal. Running a 5K is very different from competing in an Iron Man. For a more individualized plan, feel free to contact me or get yourself a copy of Primal Endurance by Mark Sisson. He's one of the best in the business.
Below, on the left is me when I was racing sprint duathlons. I did fairly well. My diet was okay and my training was lots of mileage and a little bit of plyometrics and strength training. I ran division II track and field in college so I was pretty comfortable in a weight room. My 5K time was right around 22 minutes.
On the right is me in 2015. Although I still enjoyed running, my focus was strength training, Olympic weight lifting and high intensity interval training. I would run 6-12 miles per week. My diet was much improved. I ran my first sub 20 minute 5K.