Training is like building a sandcastle.
You need sand, water, the sense not to overdo it, and both the expertise and creativity to build something great.
To answer the age old question of “how do I get better at X?” (the X is of course interchangeable to whatever your fitness goals are) we need you to get back to your days at the beach and imagine you are building a sandcastle. Let me explain.
****To build a sandcastle, you need the right amounts of sand, water, and expertise.
Basic endurance is your dry sand. It can’t be shaped, just piled higher. For every inch of height, it takes a greater volume of dry sand than the inch before.
Adding intensity is like adding water. You can increase the angle of the sand, steepening the cone, getting higher with the same volume.
Artists (great coaches) can get the saturation just right, creating amazing sculptures. But those sculptures will always be temporary.
The critical distinctions to understanding training are:
If we stick to the example above and think of endurance as dry sand, the long steady state crowd will use the go to “meters make champions” mindset and grind away until you cannot grind anymore.
Dry sand, remember, can’t be sculpted or shaped, only piled higher.
The height of the pile is a function of the angle and the volume of sand available. To increase the height of the pile, you need more and more sand.
Now imagine that pile of dry sand as a series of layers. Each layer is a hollow cone, 1 inch thick, nested one inside the other. Every 1-inch cone must be of greater volume to fit over the previous one. Every 1-inch increase in height demands a greater amount of sand than the prior inch required.
Thankfully, a second ingredient can boost performance: Intensity.
When building a fitness sandcastle, high-intensity intervals (HIIT) are the water. It’s exciting because it makes you work quicker and you get faster sooner.
Seductively, HIIT also hints at a more-for-less opportunity: You can make the sandpile taller with the same amount of sand. The angle of wet sand is steeper. By adding water to dry sand, you can steepen the cone and make the pile higher.
But just like trees don’t grow to the sky, HIIT can’t be done on its own or forever.
****Spoiler alert: You can’t build sandcastles with just water.
The HIIT crowd assumes that intensity is a shortcut around more training volume. They force a false choice between dry sand and water. They think that wet sand can be drawn from an outside source.
Although a pile of wet sand is steeper than a pile of dry sand, the wet sand can only be born from the dry sand. It’s not independent. So the ultimate height of the wet sand is still limited as a function of what it’s made from.
And if you only have water, and no dry sand, you can’t make anything.
Because the addition of intensity (i.e., “water”) has so much immediate benefit, it’s often assumed that more is better. But just like a pile of sand, adding water helps, but only to a point. It makes the pile steeper, but too much water will turn it into an oozing puddle.
Because the choice between dry sand and wet sand is false, the HIIT crowd is backed into a corner. If adding more and more intensity stops working—which it always does—what are they left with?
They can only add more water, or acknowledge that they were wrong. Sadly, most would rather add water to an already-crumbling castle.
When wet sand starts to lose its structural integrity, adding more water isn’t the solution. Drying it out is.
Likewise, when fitness starts to break down, it’s usually from too much intensity. Adding more intensity will make it worse, not better. The solution is to add more “dry sand,” more easy volume.
And that brings us full circle, to the artistry.
The best options are seeking out and developing your own knowledge of how endurance is developed or outsourcing that knowledge by utilizing a training or coach. Because the reality is that only an accomplished artist can get the sand-to-water ratio just right.
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