Why do we train? We train to get better, everybody knows that if you want to run further and faster, that running more often will help you achieve this, but have you ever stopped to think why this is?
Training for endurance (which is what I’ll be focusing on here) is based on the principle of progressive overload, the idea that the further you push your body, the further or faster it will go next time. This is because as you overload the body, pushing it out of its comfort zone, it starts to break down the muscles as you push the body beyond its limits. After exercise your muscles are actually damaged and your body sets about repairing them, but rebuild them to be bigger and stronger than they were before due to the increased load.
Training will increase more than your visible muscle mass, it improves your cardiovascular system by strengthening your heart to pump more blood to the areas it is needed, as well as increasing the size and volume of the heart used to pump blood around the body faster and more effectively. This allows us to get oxygen to the muscles where it is needed faster and in greater quantities, which combined with an increase in lung capacity gives our muscles the fuel they need to push harder and for longer.
By repeatedly overloading our body in a progressive fashion we improve our body’s ability to deal with the stresses of our chosen sport, making us stronger, faster and able to sustain an effort for longer. As Tour de France winner Greg LeMond famously said “It never gets easier, you just go faster”. You could put my good self and Chris Froome side by side on a turbo trainer and ask us to ride as hard as we can for 20 minutes, it’s going to hurt both of us just as much but Chris Froome will put out more power for longer because of his years of world class training, which of course translates into faster times over a distance.
Training for endurance sports also improves our speed skills, the ability to fly over cobbles or take a corner as quickly as we can on a bike, dropping down a mountain as fast as we dare, timing our braking to perfection. We learn where to place our feet on a treacherous cross country course, how to effectively swim around a buoy in open water and how to quickly switch from one sport to another in triathlon. This is often a result of trial and error and thousands of hours practice, an extremely fit and strong athlete cannot simply switch sports and start competing at a high level without years of refining his technique and ability.
It also helps us simply toughen up. Chrissie Wellington once said “Racing hurts, and if it doesn’t, you’re not trying hard enough”. As well as increasing our physical ability, training helps us develop mental toughness, to dig deeper when we feel we have nothing left to give, to saddle up when it’s pouring with rain and pushing ourselves to finish our swim with our arms screaming at us. If we toughen up and refuse to slow down or give in, we can outperform better trained athletes using superior equipment, simply by putting ourselves through adversity in training.
We use our training as a way to test everything from new equipment to nutrition strategies, as well as our limits. Athletes spend thousands of hours training for a major event and can’t afford to leave anything to chance, introducing unfamiliar food can cause gastrointestinal issues, introducing a new piece of clothing can be uncomfortable or result in chafing, and a new gadget you picked up at the expo may actually slow you down. Trial and error in training helps us work out what works for us, what doesn’t, and how to pace ourselves on the day.
Although these are all very valid reasons to get up at 5AM to fit a run in, we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t enjoy it. We enjoy the endorphin rush, the camaraderie with our training partners and the sense of satisfaction when you spend the rest of the day on the sofa watching Netflix completely guilt free. Many people train with no intentions to compete, they simply want to improve their quality of life and extended their lifespan. And what better reason could you ask for than that?