Since I like to train and I read a lot about training, people usually come to me and ask me questions about how to get in good shape. That's a very ambiguous question and I'll do my best to answer some of the typical things that people ask me about.
When you want to start training to get fit, then you should ask yourself "what does getting fit mean?" Do you want to lose some weight? do you want to participate in a sporting event? do you want to be able to hike over the mountains? It is very important that you set yourself a goal, training without goals is very difficult and might lead you nowhere, despite the fact that you train a lot. It is important that you are realistic and set an achievable goal, setting yourself too high of a goal is only going to bring you frustration and might lead to injuries.
So, once you have set yourself a goal it is time to make a plan to achieve it. I am a believer in a system called periodization, which works really well if you have a goal that requires you to perform well during one or more defined events (such as a sports event, or that mountain trip that you and your friends are planning). Periodization works by dividing your training in cycles or periods (hence the name). In the most basic form you will have one periode of training and one period when you will "peak" and be in your top form. It is a good idea to make sure that the period when you "peak" is the same as the time of the event you are preparing for! I advice you to divide the training in three periods:
- Speed / Technique
- Peak / Topping
The idea behind this period is to build a base that will allow you to fulfill your goal(s). During this period you will be training endurance and your main focus should be to get your body adjusted to continued exercise. During this period you should focus on long and easy exercises, not on high intensity training. By long I mean usually longer than one hour. By easy I mean in the first two heart rate zones, reaching as far as the third zone. Unless you train on a specialized facilities as a gym, it would be impossible to only train in those zones, but you should keep an eye on your heart rate and if needed you need to lower your pace, for instance by walking that typical hill that you find when you go out for a run.
Speed / Technique period
During this period it is normal that you start focusing more on improving your speed, technique and/or efficiency. It is still important to continue with long and easy exercies but now you will incorporate exercises aimed to help you go faster. You should also spend time training and improving your technique. Even if you are a runner, everybody can learn more about how to run better, lighter and faster! Typical exercises for this period are intervals in both zone 3 and 4, and even zone 5 (to a lesser point). If you are a cross country skier, this is when you will benefit most of using your rollerskis. Take them out for a spin and improve your double poling technique, or even better leave the poles aside and spend time improving your leg technique!
Peak / Topping
This is the last period before the event and during this period you want your body to be in the best possible shape. Many people get afraid and train too much during this period. Training during this period is important, but it is also important to rest and be in top shape for that great event. Basically training on this period should focus on simulating the event you are going to participate and making sure your technique has become top notch. Typical exercises during this period are intervals in all zones and long and easy training sessions.
Building your personal plan
Now that you are familiar with periodization, it is time to start working on your personal plan. Unless you are a full time athlete (in which case you will probably have somebody that will write or help you write your training plan), you don't need to write a full day-by-day/hour-by-hour plan. It is enough to define when you are going to begin and finish your cycles and what kind of exercises you will be doing (i.e. creating an exercise bank).
How long does a typical period last? Well, that depends on the type of event you are preparing for. For instance, cross country ski is a winter activity, so the peak season is basically January, February and a little bit of March. That means you have the rest of the year to use for building and speed.
The typical question people ask me is, how much do I need to train? I know of several people that train like crazy and get frustrated because they do not get the results they want (I have been in that lot too!) It is hard to give a definite answer for that, it depends on your current fitness, your goal and how much time you can use for training. During 2010 I trained as crazy and during my main event in 2011 (Vasaloppet) I got my worst time ever. During 2011 I decided to train less, so I only trained 3 times a week. In the 2012 edition of Vasaloppet I improved my time by 40 minutes! So don't despair, more training does not necessarily mean better results. Given that I am in general good shape, I decided to increase my training from 3 to 5 times a week during 2012. Now, this increase does not mean that I am doing something wild. It is a very precise and calculated operation. I decided to use our typical sunday walk as training, so now I walk in the forest with poles (it is incredible how good training that is!) and I added a very relaxed running session.
My advice to you is to be realistic. If you are not used to have a training schedule, then do not think that you will make 5 training sessions per week. It is much better to start with few sessions and be able to follow your plan than try to start big and fail. If you haven't trained before, then I would recommend you to start slow (and of course, a visit to the doctor before starting the training is a very good idea!). Two to three sessions per week will be more than enough. Training does not need to be complicated, is it possible for you to bike to work? Then do it once a week. Is it possible to walk to work? Then start doing it! You don't need to run to be training. A good thirty minutes walk is a very good start for anybody wanting to be in shape.
If you are used to training, then you can start experimenting with increasing your load. I like to measure my training load by the number of hours I train per week. Last year I was averaging 5 hours per week, and this season I increased it to 8 (sometimes 9 depending on how long I walk on sundays).
A final word regarding the training load. Your body does not improve its fitness just because you train, you also need time to rest. There is a formula that says: fitness = rest - training If you train more than what you rest, then your fitness will not improve. And you might suffer injuries or even worst, become overtrained and lose valuable months because of that.
Another typical question people ask me is regarding equipment. Generally speaking, equipment is very important but you don't need the latest model to be able to train comfortably. If you are on a budget and want to prioritize things, I will say spend the money on a good pair of running shoes. Running is probably the most efficient way of improving your fitness. Good running shoes are essential if you are going to be running. Bad shoes will stress your knees and might lead to serious illness. Do not save money on shoes! If you are not that constrained, I would recommend you to also get a heart rate monitor. You find them in all prices and with all sorts of features. Use your common sense, you don't need to spend thousands in a heart rate monitor. There are several models designed to people that train once or twice a week. Personally I like Polar monitors, but I have heard good comments about Suunto too. I own a Polar RS800CX, which is the recommended model if you are serious about training (it comes with Polar Trainer a wonderful tool to help you plan and monitor your training and progress). Ask your local sports store, they will be able to point you to something that fits your needs and your wallet.
Just as commonly is the question of nutrition, how much should somebody eat and what kind of food? Here there are no universal answers, many swear by the low-carbo diet while some people swear by other methods. I personally have a balanced diet based on carbohydrates. That is based on carbohydrates means that the largest percentage of my food intake is carbohydrates (pasta, bread, rice). That is a balanced diet means that I eat something from all dietary groups on a regular basis. Seldomly I eat something coming from the sports industry, such as energy supplements or such. My only exception to the rule is energy bars when doing very long (over two hours) training, and energy drinks. I recommend you to follow a balanced diet and not spend the whole day eating the last "new" thing available on the market. When training you should always have enough liquid so you can drink and have a small energy bar or similar in case you get hungry. As said, you will only need to eat an energy bar or drink the energy gels (which are extremely high in carbohydrates) when you are exercising over a long period of time.
Finally and to close this post, training should be fun! If you are not having fun while training, then you might be overdoing it. Unless you get paid to train, you should use training as a relaxing session and not as a job.