To train, on the other hand, is to exercise in a way that lifts you step by step towards a performance goal such as finishing a triathlon or running a personal best 10K time. Workouts are carefully formatted and sequenced to move you from point A -- your current fitness level -- to point B: peak fitness.
All too many runners, swimmers, cyclists and triathletes work out when they should be training. Even though they set and pursue performance goals, they continue to exercise in ways that are better suited to maintaining fitness than to improving performance.
To make the leap from working out to training, follow these three simple guidelines.
The need to move from working out to training arises the moment you sign up for a particular event on a certain date in the future. When you commit to participate in an event such as a mountain bike race or a marathon you automatically establish a goal of achieving the highest level of event-specific fitness you can reach between now and the date of that event. The art of training to achieve maximum fitness at just the right time is called peaking.
Always allow yourself at least 12 weeks and as many as 24 weeks to prepare for a fitness peak. Twelve weeks are adequate when you're preparing for shorter events (10K runs, sprint triathlons) and when you're beginning at a fairly high level of fitness. Allow more time if your current fitness level is fairly low or if your goal event is long (Ironman triathlon, century ride).
Vary your workouts
Different workouts build fitness in different ways. In order to achieve true peak fitness, you need to vary your workouts so you're able to develop all of the dimensions of fitness that will help you perform better on race day. There are five basic workout types that should be incorporated into your training program:
Foundation -- Foundation workouts are steady-pace sessions of moderate intensity and duration. Their main purpose is to build event-specific aerobic fitness.
Endurance -- Endurance workouts are also steady-pace workouts of moderate intensity, but their duration is longer. Their purpose is to build your endurance to ensure you can "go the distance" in your event.
Tempo -- Tempo workouts consist of 20 to 40 minutes of moderately high-intensity effort sandwiched between a thorough warm-up and cool-down. These workouts serve to increase the duration you can sustain a relatively high rate of speed.
Intervals -- Intervals are short segments of very high-intensity effort separated by very low-intensity active recoveries. These workouts increase intensive endurance, or the ability to resist factors that cause fatigue during very high-intensity exercise.
For example, a runner might run 8 x 400 meters at the fastest pace he or she can sustain through the end of the last of these intervals, with three minutes of jogging between intervals and a thorough warm-up and cool-down.
Recovery -- Recovery workouts are short, easy workouts whose purpose is to provide a small training stimulus the day after a hard workout, when your body is not yet ready for another big effort. Never do two hard workouts back to back; always separate them with a recovery workout.
Technique -- It's also important to include some technique drills in your training, whether you're a runner, cyclist, triathlete or any other type of endurance athlete. Developing technique that's biomechanically sound and energy-efficient will help you avoid injuries and race faster.
Instead of mixing together all of these workout types from the beginning of the program to the end, you need to focus on different types of training at different times and sequence them in a way that best allows each new phase of training to build on the results of the preceding.
I recommend a simple, three-phase training process including a base phase, a build phase and a peak phase. In the base phase, focus on building a solid foundation of aerobic fitness and good technique by doing a gradually increasing volume of mainly foundation workouts, endurance workouts and technique drills.
In the build phase, push the limits of your aerobic fitness by emphasizing high-intensity interval workouts. In the peak phase, your goal is to maximize race-readiness through a combination of tempo workouts that simulate race intensity and endurance workouts that simulate race duration.
As your event approaches, the peak phase becomes a taper, a one- to three-week period of light training that ensures your body is rested and ready for maximum performance on race day.
Within each phase, start with manageable versions of the workouts you're emphasizing and make them gradually more challenging. For example, do 20 minutes of tempo in your first tempo workout, 24 minutes in the next, and so forth.
Plan ahead, vary your workouts, and train progressively -- do these things and you'll achieve your goal!
A regular contributor to Runner's World and Triathlete, Matt Fitzgerald is also the author of several books for triathletes and runners, including Triathlete Magazine's Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide, Runner's World Performance Nutrition for Runners and Runner's World The Cutting-Edge Runner.