This is the final installment of my three-part series on the aging athlete. In the first post, I talked about how the aging athlete should adjust the training week from 7 to 10 days.  This change is necessary to accommodate our aging body’s need for more time to adapt to a given training stress before increasing or significantly modifying our training regimen.

The aging athlete can show similar improvement as that of our younger counterparts. It simply takes a bit more time to get there! As we age, we should not use the same 7-day training plan we used in our teens, 20s and 30s and expect our bodies to respond the same way.  Not only will the 10 day training week be more effective for improving performance, you will also significantly reduce the likelihood of illness or injury.

The second article was about the importance of strength training – more specifically, the importance of heavy lifting to improve performance.  That blog post was slightly more complicated because it was a huge departure from what runners or cyclists typically think about when it comes to training, especially strength training.  That said, one of the best things about heavy lifting is how quickly your performance improves as your absolute strength increases. It really works!

In this series finale, I’m going to take on a topic that pulls a little from both of the last two articles.  It is the idea or belief that “intensity causes injury.” The truth: intensity is rarely the cause of injury. It is the volume or quantity of training that is the real cause of most injuries.

“Every time I do speed work I get injured.” This is a common complaint. I spent years coaching athletes to ‘build a base,’ adding speed work only after the base was built.  But almost inevitably, shortly after the speed work began the athlete would get injured.  Conventional wisdom would say that either the intensity caused the injury, or that the athlete did not spend enough time building the base. Either way, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. We thought the base needed to be even larger before interval training began. But surprisingly, the larger the base, the more likely it was that injury occurred when speed training began. It becomes the perfect excuse not to do speed work.

Many athletes love an excuse for avoiding their potential.  And the excuse above has got to be high on the list.  But data shows it is the quantity of training, not the change in quality, that leads to injury.  If we graph the training volume and time and point of injury with athletes, the intersection is always quantity – not quality.  It’s that cumulative fatigue that builds over time and miles.  We just think it is the intensity. Why? Because we often add the intense training when our volume of training is the highest.

Here is how I train my athletes: rather than building a base and then adding intensity, I mix in intensity from the very beginning of the training plan and adjust the volume and type of intensity in concert with the overall volume of training and the season or proximity to race day. But I never altogether abandon some form of intensity.  By training this way, the athlete will maximize performance while minimizing the amount of training.

I am very careful to balance speed, endurance and power so that whenever I have a change in one I reduce the training in the others to ensure the cumulative volume of training in all three areas progresses at a rate the athlete is able to adapt to.  Not only does the athlete avoid injury – they also gain fitness much faster and show a far larger improvement in performance in a shorter period of time.  As a result, volume of training over time is the most important data point to track in order to prevent injury, not the intensity of training.  This ensures proper adaptation to the training stress, while emphasizing the one training component that has the most potential to improve performance – which is intensity, not volume.

Remember… “You have to run fast or ride fast if you want to be fast!”