Deliberate Undertraining


If you have been an endurance athlete longer than 10 minutes, you have probably heard the axiom, “It’s better to be 10 percent undertrained than 5 percent overtrained.”  I think we can agree that this rule is true in spirit, but not literally true. It conveys the idea that fatigue hurts performance more than fitness helps it, and I think that’s true.

But when do you know that you are 5 percent overtrained or 10 percent undertrained? If it were possible to know such things, would it not then be quite easy to ensure that you are 100 percent optimally trained for every race, which is better than being 10 percent undertrained? What I’m getting at is this: the idea that it is better to be 10 percent undertrained than 5 percent overtrained is also a way of expressing the idea that 100 percent optimal training is a fundamentally unknowable platonic ideal, and that, because fatigue hurts more than fitness helps, it is therefore wise to be conservative in training and train at a level that you are sure is below the 100 percent optimal level.

In other words, according to this principle, you should use more or less the same strategy in planning your training as that which contestants on “The Price Is Right” use in trying to win the final Showcase Showdown. If you are not familiar with that show, the Showcase Showdown is a game in which two contestants try to guess the total value of a collection of products. Whoever gives the closest estimate wins, but if you guess too high, you are automatically eliminated from contention for the grand prize – which is the very collection of products whose value you’re guessing. So the winning strategy is to guess conservatively, but not too conservatively. You don’t want to miss by much, but if you do miss, you want to guess low.

Is this in fact also a good strategy to use in planning endurance training? I think it depends on the athlete. Certainly there are lots of athletes who aim for 100 percent optimal training and would say that they are consistently able to attain it or something close to it without overtraining. But there are probably at least as many athletes who run into trouble.

Take me, for example. It has been a long time since I completed a training cycle that yielded a satisfactory peak race result. Most have been ruined by injuries, one by overtraining. My approach has been to train as hard as necessary to achieve my goal, and my goal is always to perform better than I ever have before (e.g. set a marathon PR). The methods I have used to avoid overtraining and injury have been to increase my training load gradually and to listen to my body and rest and recover whenever necessary. But these methods have proven themselves to be inadequate.

After my latest disappointment—a rash of overuse injuries that forced me to scratch from an Ironman qualifier—I decided it was time to try something different. Specifically, I have decided to train much more conservatively for my next big race (a half Ironman next spring). But I am not simply going to train less than I normally would. Instead I am going to shorten my ramp-up. In other words, I am going to ramp up my training as I normally do, but I will start the process closer to my “A” race than I normally would, and will consequently peak at a lower maximum training load.

Have you noticed that endurance athletes commonly perform better in tune-up races than they do in A races? This phenomenon is especially common in distance running. I think it happens because athletes often compete in tune-up races when they are just fit enough to make racing worthwhile, yet still relatively fresh. But they simply train too long for their A races and burn out before they happen—or get injured.

Looking back, I can identify some point within each of my training cycles that ended in injury or in a disappointing A race when I felt awesome. The training always works, and works well enough long enough to produce good results in tune-up races. The injuries and burnouts occur not because I train too hard but instead because I prolong the ramp-up process excessively. So my new strategy is to do my next A race when I would normally do my first tune-up race. If my normal ramp-up for a half Ironman is, say, 16 weeks, my next one may be 10 weeks. Those 10 weeks will be more or less identical to the first 10 weeks of my normal 16-week ramp-up.

This is not something I would have ever done unless I felt I had to. But I am pretty confident that it will work out. Endurance athletes get at least 95 percent of their maximum performance potential from the first 80 percent of their maximum possible training load. But the risk of injury and overtraining at 80 percent of maximum training is significantly lower than it is at 100 percent. And since I have never in my life achieved 100 percent fitness, because of all the injuries I have suffered, I’m really not sacrificing anything in taking this more conservative approach.

You have been often frustrated by injuries or overtraining, you might want to consider trying deliberate undertraining too.

About the Author

Matt Fitzgerald

Matt Fitzgerald is a journalist, author, coach and runner specializing in the topics of health, fitness, nutrition, and endurance sports training (read more about Matt on his blog). Matt uses TrainingPeaks to train, coach and deliver pre-built training plans for runners including training plans built specifically to be used with a Garmin Forerunner. View Matt's plans here.

View Profile   |    View more posts by Matt Fitzgerald