All endurance athletes—from the champion ultrarunner to the first-time triathlete—have specific goals. And these goals are met by training. For most of us, training simply consists of following numbers on a page—three miles today, an hour run tomorrow, rest the next day. So how do you know if you’re training enough? How can you really ensure that you’ll be dialed come race day?
Here are five general signs that it’s time to step up your workouts. While none of these alone is a definitive indicator of undertraining, if a few of them occur simultaneously, it may be time to spend more time on the trails.
There’s a Lack of Progress
The most obvious sign that you’re not training enough is a lack of improvement in fitness and performance. Identifying this problem requires that you consistently monitor relevant, objective measures of your fitness level. One way to do this is to periodically conduct some type of standard test workout. For example, if you’re a cyclist, you might do a 10K time trial once every four weeks. For a runner, this could be a 5K.
Alternatively, you can get a more approximate but still helpful measure of improvement by comparing similar workouts. If your marathon training is on track, you should finish this week’s 16-mile long run no more fatigued than you were after your 12-mile long run a few weeks ago.
Certain training devices offer features that enable athletes to sample their fitness with even greater frequency. Several Garmin models give users an estimate of their VO2max, or how much oxygen their body is able to take in and use at maximum exertion, after almost every workout. Just don’t expect your VO2max to increase every day.
Not all signs of undertraining are physical. There are also psychological indicators—like boredom. Your training plan is unlikely to keep you engaged unless it is challenging. If your workouts are too easy, they won’t stimulate your mind any more than they do your body. And if they don’t evolve in a way that makes you feel like you are improving—that you’re making progress—it’s only a matter of time before you lose interest in the whole process. Boredom with training isn’t just a drag—it’s also information that you can use.
You Stopped Having Bad Workouts
Every athlete who is challenging him or herself in training has the occasional bad workout, or one in which the performance level is significantly lower than normal. Although it’s unpleasant to go through, laying an egg in the occasional high-intensity interval run or long ride indicates that you are testing your limits, and it’s impossible to redefine your limits without pushing them to the point of failing once in a while. If you never fall flat in workouts, you simply aren’t training hard or often enough to trigger gains in fitness and performance.
You’re Not Working Out Every Day
What constitutes enough exercise depends on individual goals—ultrarunners, of course, have a different training load than 5K racers. But regardless of your objective, you should exercise almost every day, even if it’s just an easy 30 minutes. This is true even if you’re a nonathlete whose aim is simply to live a long and healthy life. As a coach, I hold a hard line on daily exercise (mixed with targeted, purposeful rest, of course). If you find time to work out on a busy Tuesday, you have time to work out on the other days of the week as well. Consistency is key.