Hero Training – Why Max Intensity Workouts Fail

This week we need to highlight one of the biggest pitfalls of endurance training….the hero workout.

Don’t worry, if you read this and feel guilty. As soon as Coach Ben sent me this content, I was filled with pangs of embarrassment; I have been guilty of this more times than I care to remember. And every time I fell for the same trick, I ended up burnt-out or nursing an injury. Both are completely avoidable.

So, this is a rant, but one borne of equal frustration from a coach and an athlete’s perspective. Nothing great comes from hero workouts, yet they seem to be a go-to for a selection of athletes, coaches and training groups alike – at least that’s what the socials suggest (Pete: – I promise we won’t go there…).

Let’s dive in.

It has turned into a fickle badge of honour; posting track sets of 200m or 400m max intensity sets or anything relevantly dissimilar to the true requirements of 70.3 and Ironman (or Ultra, or anything else over 3 hours) preparation.

There really is no room for hero sessions in your schedule if you want to succeed at any level of ability as an amateur triathlete or endurance athlete.

The known specifics of endurance sport, require a successful (a subjective term) athlete to be very competent at maintaining race intensity, or just below, for extended periods of time. For anything longer than a few hours, this means below your known (important!) thresholds (could be anything from HR, power, or simply RPE).

Here are some anecdotal but very relevant risks of hero sessions (we know, we have been the subjects and administrators of these in the past).

Pitting a group of A type (or anyone with an ounce of drive) together in a heightened environment, always ends up with athletes either completely over-reaching (inflated ego), or being devastated from not keeping up (confidence destroying). Both are a very distant removal from the level of sustained intensity that an endurance athlete should be looking to hit. High octane training is best left for sports that don’t require multiple hours of various ability – it is incongruent with the dynamics of endurance sports.

Continually training at this level is a massive detriment to your endurance capacity. Yeah, it makes you really good at absorbing very short bursts of high intensity, but how does that translate to your racing aspirations? It doesn’t. The cost on the body;  the immune system and your ability to recover become a major impingement on your normal (appropriate) training.

Repeatedly smashing yourself into a pulp with above-threshold sessions is the fastest way to injury, illness and quitting the sport.

What is equally as bad is the fact that these masochistic, ego-fulled sessions leave you with a false sense of confidence. It’s much easier to bash out an hours work of short & sharp. It’s much harder to deal with the fact that you are completely unprepared for a multi-hour event. It is soul-destroying.

We say this every week, and will continue to do so: endurance sport requires the ability to move for multiple hours, and for the sport of triathlon it is swim-bike-run.

Not: swim as quickly as you can for 500m and then fade, crawl to transition, ride as hard as you can for 90 minutes then pedal squares to T2, from which you run really well for 5km and then run-walk to finish.

There is a better, more appropriate way of doing things. The swim sets up the bike, which sets up the run.

It’s not quantum rocket surgery. These are the basic parameters of endurance development and racing, backed by science and experience.

You need to spend time – a lot of it – in, and (just) above/below your sustainable thresholds. It’s about holding that form under pressure, for extended periods. It’s not about flash-in-the-pan, short term heroics.

The training you do should reflect how you intend to race.

Coach Ben