Before you begin your training for the day you should ask yourself one question, "what will be the specific purpose of this workout and what do you want to accomplish?" If you do not know the answer, then it is likely the value of the workout will be equally dubious. In order for your fitness to improve you must place a new stressor on your body and then allow it to recover from the applied stress. If it is the same amount of physical stress, or less, or if recovery does not occur, then overload (progress) will not take place. Fatigue is not necessarily a good indicator of progress either. If you begin a workout fatigued, sore and generally tired and then go through the motions, you are only breaking your body down further and delaying your recovery. Being tired does not in any way mean that you are getting faster or that it was a successful workout.
When I examine an athletes training plan for the first time I usually find a lot of "junk miles." These are the miles that do not really have a specific purpose, but are there because the athlete feels they simply need to train that day. The work out is almost always general in nature (ride 3 hours). Often this time would be better spent recovering or performing a shorter, more specific or even intense workout that targets a particular limiter or goal. Do not confuse hours of training with quality training. Your long/slow workouts address a particular fitness substrate - endurance. Endurance is very important, even the most important fitness substrate for long events, but it is certainly not the only one. Take Ironman training, for instance. Ironman requires mostly aerobic endurance training when peaking. Most athletes understand this, but does that mean base training for Ironman should include more long runs and rides approaching race distance? During base I focus more on strength building, power, and efficiency for these athletes. We still put in enough aerobic miles to maintain a level of endurance but the more specific training is the training that makes them faster. Injury prevention is very important for Ironman, as the incidence of injury with these athletes is incredibly high (as much as 90%). During the base phase, strength training should be incorporated to promote stability, correct muscle imbalances, and increase force production. This is a great time to work on flexibility as well.
Less Can Be More
The athlete that trains the most does not win. The athlete that trains the most effectively does. Assume that your limiter is climbing on the bike. To address this limiter you could go ride several hours on a hilly course. The next week you may add a bit more and continue this process until you are up to a distance or duration that is no longer practical for your training time or event. But now what do you do? Your body is acclimated to this stress level and you can not keep increasing workout length, yet you want to continue to progress your climbing. Performing the same work out at the same intensity will not give you much bang for the buck. You have to challenge the body in a different way.
During the fall and winter we offer a base-focused stationary training class. The class is 90 minutes long and progressively harder as the resisted intervals gradually increase in length, intensity, and duration throughout the program. This relatively short, targeted, and specific workout, performed twice per week, creates a great cycling strength endurance and power foundation. Several hours of road cycling at an aerobic level would not be nearly as effective or progressive for addressing these substrates. For example, we work up to long climbs precisely at aerobic threshold - a workout that would be hard to duplicate on the road.
Define the Purpose
Before you choose your workouts you should first identify your fitness limiters to address and your goals for the season. Are you a weak climber? Does your economy and form need work? Do you lack power in the flats? What sport do you need to spend the most time addressing? Your workouts should be addressing these questions specifically. Now think about your goals and peak race(s). When is your race? What is the race course like? Where will your weakness be? The answers to these questions should largely determine how your training plan builds out. Now that you know what to target, you must choose the right workouts at the right time. If you are an under-powered cyclist, strength training during your base phase will help increase force production. In consideration, you will have to lower your weekly saddle hours as you spend more training time in the gym. If you are a very weak swimmer, spend time correcting your stroke. This may mean maintaining the run and bike on some weeks as you spend more time in the water or with a coach. Realize that a general plan will not address your needs specifically. In order to reach your true potential you may need a plan that is as unique as you are.
Training Requires Energy
We often have athletes come to us chronically injured, burned out, and/or over-trained. By reducing their training volume to a more manageable level we are able to make these athletes faster. In reviewing their training plans we get rid of the junk miles first. It is a mental adjustment for them when we step down volume. Only when they have more energy to train effectively, and become more balanced in their bodies and life style do they get on board. The athletes begin to get faster and they realize some of the shorter workouts are the hardest and most effective. Reducing their total hours does not mean they do not train hard. In fact they are able to train much harder then when they were chronically fatigued. They just don't train as often and are allowed more recovery time. You only have a finite amount of energy to put forth. Where you apply your energy determines the efficacy of your training plan.