No athlete can get fitter year-round, and no athlete should try. But letting yourself go completely is not the only alternative to actively pursuing peak race fitness. It is possible to maintain a solid foundation of fitness with a training pattern that is infinitely sustainable, allowing you to transition smoothly back into progressive, race-focused training when you’re ready.
In maintenance training, the stakes are unquestionably lower than they are when you’re pursuing peak race fitness. If you’ve got an important event in front of you, you want your training to be as close to perfect as possible. In the off-season, though, your training need not be optimal; it need only be good enough. But even so, there are more and less effective ways to approach maintenance training, so why not do it right?
As I see it, there are three basic ways to screw up maintenance training. One is to train too hard. No matter how motivated an athlete you are, you need to make your maintenance training light enough that you could sustain it indefinitely without draining your physical or mental batteries. The second way to screw up maintenance training is to train too lightly. Athletes who lose motivation and train erratically or not at all in the off-season are well aware of the mistake they’re making. Those who make the mistake of doing 100 percent of their maintenance training at low intensity, however, might not realize they’re shortchanging themselves.
Which brings us to the third way to screw up maintenance training, which to fail to vary your workouts sufficiently. Many endurance athletes share a tacit assumption that any workout other than a basic, slow-and-steady aerobic swim, ride, or run has to be really hard. Says who? Spicing up your maintenance training with small doses of work at higher intensities allows you to preserve a well-rounded fitness base through this period without pushing outside the Goldilocks zone of overall training load.
The nice thing about high-intensity training is that a little goes a long way. In a recent blog post, I described a study by Norwegian researchers showing that professional cyclists who added a handful of 30-second sprints to just one ride per week were able to maintain their fitness in the off-season despite a 60 percent reduction in training volume. Equally important, they got this benefit without increasing their scores in a standard “Athlete Burnout Questionnaire.” These findings are in line with the results of past studies showing that athletes can hold on to their fitness for many weeks after a sharp reduction in training volume as long as they do a modicum of high-intensity training.
When I design maintenance training plans for my fellow endurance athletes, I generally try to include one high-intensity stimulus, one moderate-intensity stimulus, and one endurance stimulus per week. These stimuli can and should be quite modest because 1) again, it doesn’t take much of these things to preserve fitness that’s already been earned and 2) you’re not really trying to preserve 100 percent of peak fitness in maintenance training anyway; you’re trying to do just enough to set yourself up for a smooth transition back to race-focused training when the time comes. Here’s an example of a week of maintenance training for a runner:
45:00 with 8 x 1:00 @ VO2max pace sprinkled in
|Fast Finish Run|
40:00 easy + 5:00 @ critical velocity
1:30:00 easy, no calories before or during
I want to stress that this is just an example. Simply repeating this workout sequence every week for eight weeks (or whatever) would not quite qualify as optimal maintenance training. In addition to including some variety within the week, as this example does, you’ll want to vary your training somewhat from week to week. Swap out the fartlek run for hill repetitions; replace the fast finish at critical velocity with a slightly longer fast finish at lactate threshold pace; substitute the depletion run with a long (but not too long) trail run—you get the idea.
The one thing you don’t want to do in the effort to vary your maintenance training is train progressively as you would within a race-focused training cycle. Instead, keep the overall training load fairly consistent from week to week. If you’re coming off a break from training and you plan to get pretty serious pretty quickly after you transition from maintenance mode to race-prep mode, then it’s okay for your training load to trend gently upward during this period. Just don’t lose sight of the fact that the operative word in maintenance training is maintenance.