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Book Review: Scientific Training for Endurance Athletes

When I was a younger man I used to shake my head in pity when reading the writings of endurance sports experts of a certain age. They tended to repeat the same things over and over, evidently because they had nothing new to say. Because they hadn’t learned anything new about their field of expertise since they were young themselves. Because they hadn’t bothered to try to continue learning. At some point, it seemed, they had simply decided they knew their stuff and stopped seeking out new knowledge.

These aging authorities struck a sad figure in my eyes. As a young man aspiring to expertise in endurance sports, and who therefore payed close attention to new and recent developments in them, I recognized that certain members of the old guard were being left behind, and worst of all, that they failed to recognize their own waning relevance. With the boldness of youth, I vowed never to put myself in such a pathetic position.

Time flies, and now I am a man of a certain age. And, God help me, I feel myself slipping a bit knowledge-wise. Granted, age is not the only factor in my case but also illness. For many years I relied on my own training and racing to stimulate new learning. Long covid has stripped me of my ability to do these things, forcing me to look elsewhere for knowledge. But I can’t blame poor health entirely for my slippage. I can feel my brain slowly transforming from an absorbent sponge into an impenetrable fortress, a normal part of aging. I have less and less patience for technology, for example.

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Nevertheless, it remains the case that I don’t want to fall behind, so I pounced when Philip Skiba announced the release of his new book Scientific Training for Endurance Athletes, a review copy of which the author was kind enough to send me. I couldn’t have picked a better way to fill the emerging gaps in my knowledge of endurance training. Skiba is a heavyweight in the field, a technical savant who holds both a medical degree and a doctorate in exercise physiology, has coached a number of elite triathletes, and served as a consultant to Nike’s Breaking2 project.

True to his scientific leanings, Skiba takes a bottom-up approach to explicating how to train for endurance racing, going from physiology to intensities to workout types to periodization. Personally, I prefer a top-down approach that starts with real-world best practices, as I believe that context is everything and that, for this reason, it’s impossible to deduce best training practices from physiology. That being said, Skiba’s approach serves mainly as a pedagogical device, and it does an effective job of making sense of endurance fitness and training objectives. Indeed, Skiba has a special gift for making science understandable to the layperson, of which I am one. My favorite passage in the entire book is his house metaphor of endurance fitness, which goes like this:

The foundation is your basic strength and resilience. The floor is your endurance capacity, and the ceiling is the critical power/speed. The roofline is your VO2max. The top of the roof is your peak power output. Let’s imagine that your current marathon speed (usually very close to lactate threshold) is equal to your height. You walk into your house, and mark your height on the wall. With time, as you train, you grow taller. In the beginning, the whole house grows with you. However, what you will find is that with time you will begin to bump your head against the ceiling. You need to do some specific renovations on the house to raise the ceiling so that you can continue to grow. However, what you will quickly find is that you are squeezing the ceiling too close to the attic above. Eventually, you need to raise the attic as well.

Skiba's House Metaphor
Skiba’s House Metaphor

Overall, I found Skiba’s book reassuring. While I learned a lot from reading it, including how to calculate optimal interval numbers for individual athletes based on their current fitness, for the most part it confirmed what I already knew and left me feeling I haven’t yet fallen as far behind as I had begun to fear. The book also heightened my sense that, increasingly, the folks who really know what they’re talking about with respect to endurance training are speaking the same language. With his focus on the power-duration curve, which represents fitness in terms of how long an individual athlete can sustain a given power output or velocity across the spectrum of effort levels, Skiba approaches the problem of developing race-specific fitness through the same lens as the likes of Stryd, Alan Couzens, and yours truly.

Scientific Training for Endurance Athletes isn’t for everyone, but it has become the very first book I recommend to performance-minded athletes who want a thorough and up-to-date understanding of how endurance training works and how to make it work best. Already I’ve purchased a copy for Coaches of Color Initiative apprentice Jessica Schnier, added it to the Resources section of the forthcoming 80/20 Endurance coaching textbook, and convinced a couple of the athletes I coach to order it. And you can soon expect Dr. Skiba to be a guest on the 80/20 Endurance podcast, where we’ll dive much deeper into his impressive work (and I don’t just mean impressive for an old guy!).

 

 

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