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Junk Miles?

Perusing various training archives the other day, I came across an article written by Dan Empfield, a well-known and respected voice in the triathlon community.  He examined the idea of “junk miles,” what many would define as moderate-intensity, mid-distance miles with no clearly defined desired training effect.  His ultimate conclusion was that there is no such thing as junk miles, and that these miles are essential for an athlete to be truly successful.  I vehemently disagree – junk miles do exist.  Though I think a big part of the disagreement is in the actual definition of “junk miles.”  Below is my (extended) response to his article.  For full context – follow this link to the original piece.

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Though I agree with the general** message (of Dan’s article), I think there are some assumptions he makes that are dangerous.

On comparing the necessity of sheer volume in triathlon to a single-sport activity like running.

Comparing triathlon to single-sport activities can not be done on 1-to-1.  For a triathlete to train all three disciplines as much as an elite single-sport athlete trains their one discipline would be IMPOSSIBLE in the real world. Not to mention the general fatigue produced by training one single sport that much would most definitely have a negative impact on training 2 other sports simultaneously. For a triathlete trying to make big gains in a weak discipline, bumping up the training volume of that discipline AT TIMES to mimic the levels of a single sport athlete may be valuable – but this very difficult to carry on indefinitely, and for all 3 sports.

**Side Note. Just because NCAA running programs prescribe a certain type of training does not make it “right” in any way shape or form.

On the time-cost of training all three sports like a single sport

Dan seemingly assumes that recreational triathletes (I’ll make the assumption here that the majority of people who will read his article are amateurs) have the time luxury to train all three triathlon disciplines as much as would be IDEAL. Most (all?) recreational athletes must make economic decisions in their training – hopefully choosing the workouts that will get them to their target event in the best form possible. Many times this will mean foregoing less-specific workouts for higher intensity, highly targeted workouts. Of course there are many other boxes that must be ticked to make those higher-intensity workouts valuable.

Low Intensity vs High Intensity vs Junk

In Dan’s article, he makes it seems as though many triathletes associate any low intensity training with wasting time (some of the comments the article make it seem this way as well).  I really hope this is not the case.  There is plenty of time in a well-designed training program for low-intensity work.  This may be during a base period, where long, lower intensity training is essential to strengthen the pathways that carry oxygen to working muscles.  This may also be during a “recovery workout,” whose sole purpose is to decrease the amount of time it takes to recover from previous training by increasing blood flow and nutrient delivery to fatigued muscle.  There are plenty of other times for low-intensity, less specific workouts as well.

Reexamining the definition of Junk

Maybe a better definition of “junk miles” is, “the wrong intensity/duration, and at the wrong time.” I’ve seen plenty of triathletes (and cyclists, runners, etc) that get in the habit of training at about an 80% effort level nearly all the time, regardless of whether or not they are in base, a build stage, peaking for a race etc. In my mind, “junk miles” are misplaced in either effort or duration and could be better spent elsewhere because they may do any of the following: a) don’t allow you to recover properly, b) don’t allow you to hit the efforts needed in key workouts, c) potentially risk injury.  If built properly into a training program, the types or workouts that Dan refers to as “the glue that bind each of your purposeful workouts together” are not junk – I agree.  But this requires a solid program and a disciplined athlete.

A few quick examples

1.  A 5 hour “aerobic” ride in January with your target races in the spring.  Junk?  Hell no.

2.  A 60 minute “coffee ride” during a bike-focus week on a day that falls somewhere between two threshold workouts.  Junk? Hell no.

3.  The day after a V02 brick workout, going on an early morning weekday group ride consisting of 4 loops, where each contains a 6 minute above-threshold effort culminating in a sprint.  Junk?  Probably.

Something to think about.

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