Train to Maintain (an Ode to the Plateau)

Ongoing...now, and for the next sixty odd years...

Ongoing…now, and for the next sixty odd years…

I’m getting older. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve still got many decades of adventuring and races left in me–thousands of kilometers yet to run, bike, paddle, swim and climb. But the full ‘weight’ of my life and all it’s glory is on my shoulders–a family including two boys, several jobs (grassroots entrepreneurship ain’t easy), and cumulative injuries. All of this makes trying to achieve greater fitness in all of the disciplines my myriad ambitions demand little more than wishful thinking.

Thankfully, this last year I’ve worked hard on letting go of the idea of ‘getting better’ at things, which is a good thing because in truth I just can’t figure out how to make it happen. Sure, I could certainly get faster in something–running or biking for example–but the only way to do this, as far as I can tell, is to sacrifice the level of general proficiency I’ve developed in something else. I’ve long said (here and elsewhere) that my ultimate goal is to be able to ‘do it all’ at as high a level as possible, even if this means being less fit in a single discipline than I would be if I focused my efforts more.

And as I’ve taken this journey, I’ve realized that very little is written about the idea of maintenance in terms of fitness. Everyone (who’s writing at least) seems focused on how to improve–to run further, bike faster, lift more. This, I think, is terrible.

Because, as I see it, if we’re doing this right–if I’m doing this right–so little of our time should be spent seeking these aims. After all, I’m not a professional athlete. I just want to be fit enough to do what I want to do. How long (really?) should it take me to get to that stage?

Based on the overwhelming sense I get from the internet, it seems like it should take forever. The message boards and forums and blog posts appearing in my feed seem to be telling me that I can always get faster, go further, and be stronger–that I should always (and can always) be improving.

It’s a lie though.

To be honest, I’ve been there–here, at my ‘peak’–for years. Now I’m not saying that I couldn’t get faster if I wanted to, or be stronger, but as I mentioned, I’ve realized that–more or less–my life is, and has been for some time, in relative balance. I’ve long since achieved a level of fitness that I’m happy with–more or less–and one that enables me to do pretty much whatever little ambitious thing I desire. It’s a great place to be.

balanceBut the growth culture is pervasive. So do we somehow feed off these ideas of improvement, feeling like we’re better people when we’re actually getting better at things? Maybe that is the catch. Nobody is writing about maintaining fitness because we are creatures who are programmed by culture to want more, no matter how much we actually have. We become satisfied by achieving our fitness goals, but that satisfaction disappears quickly, and either we slide back to a state of lesser fitness so that the same goal can be achieved (and satisfy) again, or we aim to achieve more, at greater and greater personal sacrifice, until we finally can take no more and resort back to the first option. This is fitness’s version of the Hedonic treadmill. Perhaps. I’ll admit that it was hard to let go of constant attempts to improve myself. It was hard to be o.k. with the idea that I’m not going to get 11 of those slow chins* anytime soon. Ok, maybe ever. My weekly set is just going to stay right between almost getting 10 and deciding that I wouldn’t get the 11th one even if I wanted too. And to be fair–that is a pretty good effort. I’ve similarly come to terms with my mile time trial hovering between 5:35 and 5:50. My swim times are unlikely to come down much either.

It’s probable that I will train harder and more and improve my fitness in some respects leading up to events, but this sort of improvement seeking is more pointed–it has a specific goal.

The truth is that we can’t always improve. There comes a time where the amount of effort that we put towards something in a sustainable manner reaches an equilibrium with the outcome of that effort. This is the dreaded plateau that for years I struggled to get past–along with almost everyone else according to the magazines. And a problem with most mainstream training protocols is that they aim for improvement–to avoid or climb beyond the plateau. But it can’t be avoided. And once we reach it, the programs that will lead us off of it are never really sustainable and thus are doomed to fail eventually. Yes, you can get super fit following any number of high level training programs. Super strong too. But if they don’t actually fit into your ever changing life, then eventually you will give them up. I tried to overcome this fact, trust me. I mixed things up, added volume, added weight, added supplements. It only ever works temporarily.

Thankfully, those days are over.

These days I celebrate my plateau. After all, the view from up here isn’t too shabby and I’m not always struggling to climb up higher, unless I’ve actually got somewhere higher to go.

*Done with continuous tension in the muscles using an interval timer–5 seconds on the way up, 5 seconds on the way down–without releasing tension in the muscles at the bottom or locking off at the top. Try it!

Maintainable Base Fitness

For me, the answer is–NONE OF THEM!

I’ve decided to describe what I’m trying to achieve with the acronym MBF which stands for Maintainable Base Fitness.  MBF describes the maximum fitness an individual can achieve using a training schedule that is maintainable indefinitely.  No periodization.  No offseason.  No peaks and valleys.  Any MBF is bound to be pretty low volume – most people keeping track of their training over a period of years would find that even something considered very low volume (in the ultra endurance world) such as 6 hours a week is not sustainable in the long term.  Traditional IM training?  Forget about it.

The idea of what MBF  means is of course open to variation and interpretation.  Different people might look at developing an MBF  for a  period of a single year, several years, or be aiming at a decades long approach, which I am the most interested in exploring.  My journey started some years ago with three hours of weekly training.  But over time I found that even three hours produced psychological stress in my life that I don’t want to sustain indefinitely.  When I reduced the load to two hours it still led to some minor mental and motivational issues.  So now I’ve settled in to one hour a week and so far so good.

Of course I have big ambitions, and part of what it means for something to be maintainable for me is that it must enable me to challenge those ambitions occasionally.  In other words, it’s still gotta get me through that Ironman, that four day adventure race, and allow me to feel age group competitive (which for me is finishing roughly in the top third) in pretty much any event.

I know many people read this and think that I’m crazy and should settle for less, or perhaps more correctly, that reality will force me to do so.  But i don’t want to, and apparently, at least based upon what I’ve been able to accomplish on 3 or 2 hours a week, reality must be sleeping on the job.

But the question remains as to whether my MBF on only one hour a week will actually be sufficient given my ambitions.  I’m pretty confident though, and not without reason – I feel as fit, or nearly so, as when I was putting in three times as much time, and succeeding at really big things.