Optimal versus maximal training

In today’s fast moving world, people are always chasing faster and faster results, bigger and bigger growth, and more and more improvements.

The same applies to runners and triathletes.

Unfortunately, for better or worse, our human body is essentially the same as it was thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years ago. While our thought processes and the technological world around us has changed at a rapid pace, and the world has become increasingly connected, our phyiscal bodies have not been able to catch up at the same pace.

Our bodies adapt at the same slow pace that it did hundreds of years ago, within the constraints set by our genes, give or take some variation across the human spectrum to account for difference in talent, which is just another way to say genetic variation.

Our heart and lungs grow stronger or weaker at a predictable rate if its given the right kind of stimulus via proper training.

Our muscles become stronger or weaker depending on how they are used or stressed.

Our bones, tendons and ligaments adapt or de-adapt in a predictable fashion.

Our fat burning ability, glycogen storing capacity, muscle capillarization, cell enzyme activity, etc all improve or degrade within fairly expected norms depending on how we train.

All these bodily systems are entirely ignorant of the latest social media craze, the latest must-do event or the latest fad in the athlete community.

Given this background, an athlete needs to ask himself or herself one important question: to train maximally or to train optimally?

What is the difference?

Maximal training is a period of high stress which, come race day, may or may not lead to high performance, but which certainly causes degradation, often permanent, of the human body. The focus is on the short term rather than sustainability. After the high performance is achieved (or not), there is often a period of burnout, both physical and mental, of over-training. Injuries are a common occurrence. Its often followed by the drastic drop in performance.

An athlete who has no yoga background, does 108 surya-namaskars on International Yoga Day.

A runner who has not even run a full marathon, starts training for an ultra marathon, which is just 2-3 months away.

A newbie or older runner who adds “speed work” to the weekly training regimen because that’s what he/she heard about over weekend coffee with fellow athletes.

A middle-aged athlete wanting to perform and improve at the same rate as a young athlete and blindly starts a high volume plan.

A runner starts doing plyometrics because that’s what causes “fast improvement” in performance, but instead gets injured.

A triathlete who doubled his weekly training hours and then suffered over-training syndrome or an injury.

Optimal training, on the other hand, is a gradual, structured ramp up, and often ramp down, of training, stress, intensity and volume in a cyclical fashion. The body is allowed sufficient time to rest and recover. Periods of high training are often followed by down periods of low training. Sleep, diet and nutrition are given their due importance. The focus is not on the short term, but on the long term improvement as an athlete.

Ask yourself this question: “Do you want to be an athlete for the next 2-3 years or the next 20-30 years?“. The answer will guide you whether you should train maximally or optimally.

Happy training!

-Coach Atul Godbole

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