Minimalist Training or Volume Appropriate Training?

Updated: Oct 7, 2021

"I’m surprised with how good I felt considering I’ve hardly been doing anything."

Stress + Rest = Adaptation. The fundamental equation for the progression of any biological system. Whether you’re self-coached, coached or mentored, can or can’t go compete at the elite level you can always benefit from a differing point of view. This article may not apply to everyone but it will hopefully spark up some talking points between you and your mentors, training partners or coaches. Conventional endurance training theory recommends progressive increases in “load” starting with aerobic development, moving into aerobic threshold and strength, and finally a high-intensity anaerobic block before tapering into the big race. This works great for the professional athletes for whom it was originally developed and it should work for them when training stress is one of the fundamental components of the fitness equation. However, the other component “rest” is equally if not more important and this is where the reader and the theory behind periodization diverge. For this article, I’m assuming the reader base is mainly long-distance triathlon enthusiasts with full-time jobs.

So how then are athletes competing and performing off minimalist training programmes? I want give the readers an alternative insight into minimalist training that doesn’t delve into really sciency stuff. There are enough articles on the effects of short duration high intensity interval training and the resulting up regulation of certain metabolic and biosynthetic pathways. Nah, instead let’s look more at the word “minimal”.

Most “minimal” training consists of around 10-15hrs per week. The target demographic is the type-A personality with a high-performing, high stress job, and young family. Let’s look at a standard week’s training plan using conventional theory for this demographic;

Weekend long ride and run, three masters swim squad sessions, a general conditioning ride and run, and then an interval session for bike and run, or maybe even two if the race is near. This will accumulate to approximately 15-20hrs for the week; a load completely appropriate for performing well at long distance triathlon. However, let’s now look at an “actual” week of training for the type-A hardworking amateur athlete. It will be one of the two following:

#1. After a tiring weekend long ride and run, Monday arrives bringing in the new week. Last week’s accumulated training stress doesn’t apply because our training plans, like us, follow a 7day schedule, sound about right? So you push through Monday’s sessions only to feel more fatigued. Tuesday to Friday then consist of at least one missed session (usually swimming), one sub-par interval session, and at least a couple other sessions that didn’t go to plan due to work and family commitments. The weekend rolls around and back into the long ride and run because it’s not going to get done during the week! Rinse and repeat until you’re forced to rest or you race fatigued and don’t go as well as you planned, well hoped anyway.

#2 Nail almost every session if not every session in the week. Now since you are feeling so great, as the next week arrives you decide it must be time to do something longer and/or faster. The result? Refer to back training week #1.

What’s happening here is a completely imbalanced training equation: stress – stress – fatigue. If this was early in the evolutionary period you’d be extinct because you tried to walk on land after figuring out you could breathe out of the water. I.e. too much stress to adapt to all at once. The human body does not differentiate work stress, training stress and family stress, it all results in the same chemical stimulus, and generates fatigue equally. For most of you, the level of stress is equivalent to a 40hr training week! Combine that with a poor night’s sleep and you’ll never adapt to any training, you’ll only be able to maintain fitness, build fatigue and under preform. Sound familiar?

So let’s look at the alternative “minimal” training approach. A typical week would look something like this;

Weekend long ride (3hrs max) and run (2hrs max).