Renown as one the ultimate endurance events, the Tour de France places huge demands on the competing athletes. Inching up mountains in the heat as they cycle 2,162 miles over a gruelling three-week period.
While most mere mortals won’t compete in the Tour de France, the popularity of endurance races – from marathons to ultra-marathons, assault courses to iron mans – has rocketed in recent years.
The London Marathon alone saw a record total of applicants in 2019, with 386,050 people entering the ballot to run – while one of the fastest growing endurance events is Swimrunning, which came to being in 2011 and now has more than 100 events in Europe alone.
But how can you best prepare for an endurance event, ensuring that both your training and nutrition are up to the mark?
Exercises For Endurance Training
The first tip is to gradually increase your distance and time. This will help you to improve steadily, building up physical and mental stamina.
Diego Novella started competing in Swimruns in 2014. The event alternates between swimming and running as participants cross wild landscapes, unable to stop and change kit during the race, which often means swimming in trainers and running in wetsuits.
Novella has twice completed the OtillO Swimrun World Championships in Sweden, involving 65 km of trail running and 10 km of open-water swimming.
“Little runs and small swims” is Novella’s advice to beginners. “Then look for those who organise Swimrun tests, and get closer to the discipline, which is easier if in a group. Get to an hour of activity and then go further, first an hour and a half, then two and so on, to get closer to the goal.”
While building up cardio endurance is key, increasing strength is also crucial, helping athletes to perform better and reduce injury risk. Think jump squats, lunges and chin ups, for example. Maintaining strength and muscle mass will keep joints healthy.
Weight lifting can also build stronger ligaments and tendons, allowing you to withstand more training stress. This can improve consistency and fuel faster race times.
But don’t just obsess over the miles – short, sharp sprints deliver too. Chiefly, the higher your top speed is – whether running, swimming or cycling – the more economical you will be, and the easier the race pace will feel.
Speed work can also improve technique. Moving faster means activating more muscle groups, enhancing how muscles communicate with the brain.
As Novella says, his swimrun training might start with a 10K slow running session with stretching, followed by a 80/100m fast run. “Provide training sessions with rhythm variance,” he advises.
A week or so before an event, training should taper off. “When the race is approaching I decrease the workload by 40/50%, so as not to tire myself, and recover all the forces I will need in the race,” says Novello.
Fuel Your Body
But while strength, endurance and speed are vital ingredients for endurance athletes, the right fuel is pivotal.
“The diet of those who practice endurance training must be balanced and made up of carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, as well as iron, magnesium and vitamins,” says Novella. “The share of carbohydrates and proteins accompanied by fruit and vegetables must be divided equally throughout the day, or between the three main meals.”
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy used during exercise. Increase carbohydrate intake before training, with carb rich foods such as bread, rice, cereals and baked potatoes.
Protein is also an essential part of an endurance athlete’s diet, being called into action when carb stores are depleted.
In fact, higher protein diets may give endurance athletes an added edge. Research by the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education in February 2019 shows that a higher protein intake allows more protein to be retained to support recovery from exercise, as well as enabling runners to be stronger and faster over a 5km time trial.
Up your protein intake as the intensity, frequency and duration of your exercise increases. Chicken, eggs and milk are top sources, as well as plant-based proteins such as soy and quinoa.
Don’t forget your fill of fibre too. It’s essential for a healthy gut. Moderate amounts of whole wheat bread, bran cereal, fruit and vegetables are all top choices.
Of course, hydration is also fundamental to performance, particularly over several hours when water and electrolytes are lost. Drink extra fluids in the run up to training sessions and events. Clear urine is the aim!
“During training, hydration is essential, using water, gel or isotonic drinks,” says Novella. “In fact, if this is missing, there is a drop in performance, an increase in fatigue, intolerance to heat, and a cracking headache.”
When competing, take small, regular sips of water. For events over 90 minutes, sports drinks and gels can replenish electrolytes to boost energy levels. Bananas and dried fruit are also your friends en route.
Aim to take on between 100 and 250 calories an hour after the first 60 minutes – it will help you to avoid hitting the dreaded wall.
Post-workout, stock up on carbs to replenish glycogen stores. Oatmeal and fruit juice do the job nicely.
Protein is also important for recovery after exercise, helping muscle tissue to repair. As Novella says, “After training you can eat recovery meals consisting of carbohydrates and proteins (cereals and milk, yogurt and fruit salad, bread and bresaola, for example) or bars.”
When the body is ready to race, the mind must also be strong – particularly if you hit the wall. “When it happened to me, I walked, I tried not to stop, especially in the water, with current, waves, cold water,” says Novella. “I kept repeating to myself, still two strokes and I arrive…five minutes running and I can do it.”
A strong body equals a strong mind.