Training capacity: how to find it and what to do with it?
by on Thursday, August 7, 2014  (6 comments)

Have you found your training capacity? Are you sure? If you have, do you know what to do with that knowledge?

This is part 2 of a 3 part series on training capacity:

1) What is training capacity?
2) How to find your training capacity and what to do when you have found it?
3) Other training capacity considerations.

How to find your training capacity?

So we now understand that your training capacity is more complex than just how many miles a week you can run. It's a measure of the total training stimulus you can handle. It's taking into account both the volume and intensity of your running as well as the auxiliary training you're doing. It's a measure of the whole package.

With that more complex definition, how do you determine what your training capacity is? As the definition of the term gets more complex, finding what it is also gets more complex. Fortunately, there's a way to do it that, while requiring patience and hard work, is very possible for all of us to do.

What is that way? Increase a little at a time and paying attention to how your body responds.

Sounds easy, right? No? Well, let's dig a little deeper.

Start by holding a training load that you have successfully held recently. Now, build up some component a little. Maybe increase your weekly miles a little. Maybe add another workout or increase the intensity of a workout you're already doing. Whatever you do, though, remember what I said about patience? Don't do too much. How do you feel at the end of your next week? Still feeling good? Add a little more and reassess at the end of the next week. Beginning to feel a little strain from the training but still feel like things are sustainable? That means you found your training capacity. Feeling worn down or beat up? You just went too far. Back off immediately.

The key is that you want that delicate balance between feeling like the training is a piece of cake and feeling worn down by the training. You want to feel like you're working hard but also feel like you could keep going for a long time at that level. When you found that level, you found your training capacity, the "sweet spot" you want to spend a lot of time at.

What to do with your training capacity?

Once you've found your training capacity, you want to stick with it. What if you need to change your training balance, though? Let's say your racing season is nearing and you want to add more intensity. Then add more intensity but remove or cut back on something as you do so. Remove some volume, shorten your long run, cut back on the auxiliary training. Do something to keep things in balance. As you do this, again, pay close attention to how you're feeling to keep that balance.

The main thing to remember is, if you're getting close to that line between sustainable training and overtraining, you have to be careful to not cross over. That means, if your training focus is shifting, you have to take something away or cut back on something as you add or increase something else. It's true that your training capacity may gradually build over time (more on that next week) but it won't do so as quickly as we need to change our training focus as our season progresses. So don't be afraid to reduce one variable to build up another. It's a necessary part of finding the right training balance.

In the end, you want to ride that "sweet spot" as long as possible. Sure, you will venture a little too far at times and you will fall a little short at other times. When you do, don't get worked up about it, though. Just adjust to get back into that sweet spot.

Next week, we'll review some other training capacity considerations.

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This is probably next week's topic, but I have a feeling for a lot of people that "sweet spot" is out of reach or only sustainable for short periods of time because of other life obligations. If I could make running my top priority, I'm pretty sure I could pretty easily maintain a base of about 50 miles per week without feeling worn out. Who knows, maybe it would be more. I think over time your training capacity could increase if you could continue to increase your base. Obviously at some point you would reach the point of diminishing returns, but I don't really know what that point would be for me because for the most part I can't keep that base up due to work and other life obligations. I have to work with the time I have and the amount of energy I have left for running and training. But I always feel like I could do more. If I just had more time, especially to sleep and recover!

Since I started running I've been trying to find my ultimate training capacity. But maybe the ultimate training capacity is irrelevant, like trying to find perfection. You have to work with the time you have and the energy you have left to devote to training. Maybe "Training Capacity" should have an asterisk and a footnote: *results may vary based on other life obligations. :-)

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Hmm, it sounds like you could write next week's post. Among the things I have in my draft for next week:

Outside stresses

Your training capacity can and WILL change

The "sweet spot" is always adjusting, based primarily on the two things you mention, fitness level and your life outside of running. It's important to be ready to adjust as needed. Most of us know when something is going on and can adjust as these things happen, rather than waiting to make after the fact adjustments.

Diminishing returns, now there's a topic I'll have to write about some time. In fact, I just added it to my list of blog ideas. One thing I would say about that. Diminishing returns are always there, from nearly the first step we take. Most people accept diminishing returns. It's no returns or, worse, negative returns we're truly worried about.

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Great stuff. My questions is: If I ride that sweet spot for two to three months will I not be building a higher training capacity? Thereby making the "current" training capacity below my real capacity?

I see an ever increasing training capacity which of close has smaller and smaller gains as the training capacity arc curves.

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Ed, you absolutely will. You should be constantly reassessing where you are. However, I do believe you should err on the side of caution and ensure things are feeling easy before moving up. Typically, I like to not be constantly increasing the load. Ride it for a training cycle, then adjust up as necessary. Then, when it's time to move up, you need to decide how you're going to do that. More volume? Harder hard days? Some extra auxiliary training? An extra day of running if you're not running 7 days a week? It's usually best to pick one thing at a time to work on.

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I'll add one more thing to the training capacity assessment. No matter what your running history is, when you get older you need more time to recover. In my late 30s and 40s my training capacity seemed to work exactly like you describe. Increase volume, increase hard days, add days and if done consistently my fitness improved measurably. I refused to admit or acknowledge that my age had any impact on my ability to improve my training or racing. I think for the most part that was true. Since I didn't start running (for more than exercise) until I was 36 I don't know what my ability would have been when I was younger, my training and my race times were improving. But now that I'm 50, I have to acknowledge that I need to make adjustments to my training expectations.

I'm not saying I can't still improve my some of my race times or increase my training capacity, but it's definitely harder work when you're "older" than it was 10 or 15 years ago. The most significant difference I notice is recovery time. It takes a lot more training and fitness to bounce back from a 20 miler than it did 5 years ago. After my son was born in 2004, I ran a marathon on 35 miles a week, no speed work, maybe two 20 milers, in 3:46. Not fast for me, but I knew I could do it and it wouldn't be too hard, and I could qualify for Boston. And it wasn't hard. I'm pretty sure I could not do that again 10 years later.

I intend to continue defying the aging process, but I've come to realize you have to make adjustments to your training to allow your body to recover and adapt to the training. Training a 50 year old body is different from a 35 or 40 year old body. But it's definitely possible!

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Age definitely plays a role in training capacity. It's still possible, especially for "adult onset" runners, to increase training capacity even as we age. However, we do need to take the natural changes we have going on into account. A 50 year old won't bounce back from a hard workout the same way a 20 year old will.

I'm finalizing Thursday's post but I just gave myself a note to make sure age is at least mentioned. It does play an important role that I think is important for everyone to consider, especially those of us who were running in our high school and collegiate years as it's easy to remember what we could do then and think we should still be able to do those same things decades later.

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