“Believe in your system, and then sell it to your players.”
I love the above quote from basketball coach Billy Donovan. Like Donovan, I believe that athletes perform better when they understand and believe in their system of preparation. The very same system will yield very different results depending on whether it is understood and believed in by the athletes following it or blindly followed without a sense that its various elements form a coherent whole that is different from, and superior to, the systems followed by their competitors.
In my one-on-one coaching I make a consistent effort to help my athletes understand why they’re training as they are. Among the tools I use in this effort is the veal cutlet metaphor. It’s laughably simple, but that’s the point. The simpler you can make the conceptualization of your training system, the likelier it it the athlete absorbing that description will understand and accept it.
Now, personally, I don’t eat veal for ethical reasons. But this is a metaphor, not a menu. If I did eat veal, I might try this delicious-looking recipe that I found on Bon Appétit:
24 ounces veal scallops, pounded to 1/8-inch thickness
2 cups panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup low-salt chicken broth
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¼ cup fresh thyme leaves
¼ cup chopped shallots
18 tablespoons (about) chilled butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces, divided
2 tablespoons whipping cream
2 teaspoons chopped fresh chives
That’s a lot of ingredients, but really the recipe comprises three basic elements: meat, sauce, and seasoning. In this respect, it resembles thousands of other recipes. The meat-sauce-seasoning combo is a classic formula in a variety of cuisines, French traditional especially. It just works, like a black-and-gold color combo on a sports uniform and a drums-bass-guitar combo in rock ‘n roll.
Endurance training—when done right—features exercise equivalents of meat, sauce, and seasoning. Get ready to see a metaphor tortured to within an inch of its life.
In cooking, meat does the heavy lifting, providing the bulk of the calories, micronutrients, and satiety in a recipe. A dish made up of sauce and seasoning only might taste okay, but it wouldn’t be very nourishing or satisfying.
In endurance training, low intensity is the meat—the foundation of the process. At the elite level, athletes perform between two in three and three in four their workouts entirely at low intensity, and research has shown that recreational athletes who break out of the moderate-intensity rut and emulate this practice attain higher levels of fitness and performance.
Because low intensity is so gentle, it is the gift that keeps on giving. The more low-intensity work you do, the fitter you get. When in doubt about how to level up as an endurance athlete, add low intensity to your routine.
In the recipe offered above, the sauce is the star of the show—the thing that dazzles the palate and makes you want to eat it again sometime. If you could only have one or the other—the meat or the sauce—you’d be better of healthwise choosing the meat—but thank goodness you don’t have to choose!
You’ve probably already guessed that moderate and high intensity are the sauce of endurance training. The process would be so boring without moderate-intensity tempo workouts, high-intensity speed workouts, and the like. Combined in the right proportion with meat (that’s right: 80/20), these harder workouts produce fitness gains that are impossible to achieve any other way. But as with sauce, too much ruins everything. We all love butter, but you don’t want your veal cutlet drowning in it, nor do you want to focus more than one out of every three to four workouts on moderate or high intensity. If ever you’re tempted to do so, remind yourself: sauce.
Some people don’t like well-seasoned food. They are perfectly content with bland fare. I don’t understand them, but their existence proves that seasoning is not strictly essential to a pleasant dining experience. All great chefs, however, love seasoning, and this consensus proves that bland eaters are missing out. Backwoods Billy Joe might not notice if the thyme was missing from the veal recipe I gave you, but the person who came up with it sure would!
Similarly, strength and mobility training, which function as the seasoning of endurance training, are not strictly essential to maximizing endurance fitness. Hardcore advocates of these methods may argue otherwise, but their argument is undercut by the plethora of world-class endurance athletes (including a number of notable East African runners) who largely eschew these methods. But a method can be both inessential and valuable, and strength and mobility training are extremely valuable. The latest evidence comes from a 2023 study by Swedish researchers showing that runners who adhered faithfully to a weightlifting and foam rolling program for 18 weeks were 85 percent less likely to get injured than runners who adhered to the same program less faithfully or did not follow it at all.
So there you have it: Low intensity is the meat of endurance training, moderate and high intensity are the sauce, and strength and mobility training are the seasoning. All three elements make important contributions to a cohesive whole, but it’s important to get the proportions right. Keep this metaphor in the back of your mind over the coming season and see if it doesn’t help you “believe in your system” and get better results from it.