My Resolution: Deliberate Undertraining

But when do you know that you are 5 percent overtrained or 10 percent undertrained? If it were possible to know such things, would it not then be quite easy to ensure that you are 100 percent optimally trained for every race, which is better than being 10 percent undertrained? What I’m getting at is this: The idea that it is better to be 10 percent undertrained than 5 percent overtrained is also a way of expressing the idea that 100 percent optimal training is a fundamentally unknowable platonic ideal, and that, because fatigue hurts more than fitness helps, it is therefore wise to be conservative in training by maintaining a workload that you are sure is below the 100 percent optimal level.

In other words, according to this principle, you should use more or less the same strategy in planning your training as that which contestants on “The Price Is Right” use in trying to win the final Showcase Showdown. If you are not familiar with that show, the Showcase Showdown is a game in which two contestants try to guess the total value of a collection of products. Whoever gives the closest estimate wins, but if you guess too high, you are automatically eliminated from contention for the grand prize—which is the very collection of products whose value you’re guessing. So the winning strategy is to guess conservatively, but not too conservatively. You don’t want to miss by much, but if you do miss, you want to guess low. Transferred to running, this strategy is played out by trying to train almost but not quite as hard as you can without becoming over-fatigued or injured.

Is this in fact a good strategy to use in planning run training? I think it depends on the athlete. Certainly there are lots of runners who aim for 100 percent optimal training and would say that they are consistently able to attain it or something close to it without overtraining. Then there are those like Matt Tegenkamp, who practiced deliberate undertraining under coach Jerry Schumacher in his late college and early professional years to break free from a pattern of injury and underperformance and then switched successfully to what he calls a “red line” approach at age 26. But there are some runners who invariably get into trouble with the red line approach and are probably better off aiming low with their training workload.

Take me, for example. It has been a long time since I completed a training cycle that yielded a satisfactory peak race result. Most have been ruined by injuries, one by overtraining. My approach in the past has always been to train as hard as necessary to achieve my goal, and my goal is always to perform better than I ever have before (e.g. set a marathon PR). The methods I have used to avoid overtraining and injury have been to increase my training load gradually and to listen to my body and rest and recover whenever necessary. These methods have proven to be inadequate.

While I do not believe that excessive training has been the cause of a majority of my injuries, I have nevertheless decided that deliberate undertraining—practiced in a very particular way—might be my best shot at making it through my next training cycle injury free. I just have a hunch that reducing my training volume will reduce my risk of injury even despite the lack of evidence of a correlation between training volume and injury incidence in my past. I know that my chances of suffering swimming, cycling and running overuse injuries is zero if I cut my swimming, cycling and running volume to zero. But what I wish to find out is how little training I have to do to keep the risk near zero, or, looked at the other way, how much training I can do while keeping my injury risk near zero.

I am also curious to see how well I can perform on a training regimen whose volume is significantly reduced compared to what I have done in the past. Over the years I have always operated under the assumption that, to improve on this year’s performances next year, I must train more next year than I did this year. But once you have developed a training system that works for you, it is possible to improve consistently over a long period of time by simply repeating it again and again, with only small adjustments that may not include volume increases. One particular clue that the training volume increases that I have taken on in pursuit of better performance might not have been necessary is the excellent results I have seen in a few tune-up races that occurred fairly early in training cycles, when my training volume was significantly lower than it would be before the end of the cycle.

If I am able to achieve my race goals through deliberate undertraining, then of course I will continue to practice it. If I am unable to achieve my goals on less volume, then I will scrap the experiment and return to higher-volume training. And this I will do regardless of whether deliberate undertraining seems to keep me healthier. Despite all the misery injuries have caused me, I would rather give myself a chance of achieving my goals by training hard enough to achieve them, however small that chance might be because of injury risk, than give myself no chance at all by not training hard enough.

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