Did you 'hit your burn' today?

Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

Oct 27th, 2014

OK, I admit it, one of my favorite shows on TV has to be the Biggest Loser. There is something incredibly inspiring about seeing the transformation. Not so much the physical transformation but the inner transformation from someone who is leading the typical ‘office-worker’ life to, what essentially becomes, the life of a professional athlete.

Just like the life of a pro athlete, though, it doesn’t all make the highlight reel. While seeing 350lb folks race up sand dunes might make for good TV, the reality of their physical transformation goes a long way beyond this. So what is the reality? What is the process that leads to these almost unbelievable physical metamorphoses? Every so often, a coach will let the secret slip, usually in response to plateauing weight loss “Well, did you hit your burn?”

What they’re talking about is the increasingly maligned ‘calories in, calories out’. Despite the growing unpopularity of the concept for those involved in ‘real life’ it is still a core principle of the incredible success of the participants on the show.

There is an inherently unappealing mathematical reality behind losing 10+lbs per week – that is, that you will be spending most of your day devoted to the task of burning calories. This is the part of the show that only rarely makes the cameras – 6hrs+ of physical activity per day (only a small amount of which is represented by the high intensity ‘let’s tow Jillian around the gym’ antics that makes up the TV show).

Yes, every once and a while, a participant will let the true story slip – their target burn: 7000, even 8000kcal is not an uncommon number for some of the larger competitors. Even accounting for a healthy BMR, this represents A LOT of daily movement.

An equally harsh reality exists in the world of triathlon, especially age group triathlon. As, I alluded to in the following tweet…

While the magazines are running their “Get to Kona in 10hrs a week” or “Implement these drills to swim like Phelps” stories, they are as far removed from the task of reaching the top of your age-group as high intensity rope swings are from the task of losing 100lbs. The reality isn’t pretty but it’s still the reality.

Just what does it take to reach the very top of age group triathlon? I hinted at it in the tweet. 150. As in 150 TSS per day. In the same way that kcal is the currency of the weight loss crew, our currency is TSS/d (Training Stress Score points per day). You can read more about it here. As I mention in the article, reaching a chronic training load (CTL) of 150 points per day, will require a very long term average, something in the vicinity of 5 months with this average EVERY DAY ‘burn’. In practical terms, in the vicinity of 3hrs of aerobic work per day.


Yes. This is not a training load that you just jump into. You must, slowly, surely and progressively build to it. Additionally, to avoid staleness, you will want to vary the load – you will want to include days and weeks a little above this long term average and periodic days and weeks below it. This ‘cycling of the load’ is the essence of periodization.

Our simple ‘hit your burn’ philosophy just got a bit more complex. So how do I determine a good number for my current ‘target burn?’ that won't lead to over-training? While, specific to the individual and their life realities, I have a simple rule of thumb that I use as a starting point for setting an athlete’s target ‘daily burn’. It begins from the point of their current fitness or CTL as shown by the little blue line on Training Peaks PMC chart.

Once you’ve identified the current CTL, add 30 to it and do that for 3 weeks.

For example, an athlete’s current CTL is 100. Loading days for the next 3 weeks will be ~130TSS/d. At the end of that, we will take a recovery week and reassess. Follow this pattern for 5-11 mo then take a month off and begin again.

Sure, composition comes into play. If you're a triathlete, you don't want 100% of the load to come from the bike. If you specialize in short course racing, you don't want the whole thing to come from LSD miles. But, first and foremost, at least for the majority of the year, your number one focus is this - hit the burn. Everyday. Hit the burn.

While there may be some benefit to a little variety in the load pattern, the practicalities of the AGer working life is such that they usually have a relatively fixed period of time to train that is constant across the working week. For this reason, my preferred strategy in a loading week is usually – 5 days at the target burn, 1 big day at ~twice the target burn (on the weekend) and 1 easy/off day. This strategy also gels with the principle of consistency and makes it very easy to keep track of “did I hit my burn?”

If you’re having a hard time hitting your daily burn consistently, have an honest look at the composition/intensity of your training and, if needed, back it off until the consistency is established.

If, after adjusting the intensity, you're still having a hard time hitting your burn, take a good, hard look at the rest of your life and see if you truly have enough time, energy and life space to support the recovery demands of that target (developmental) training load. It is worth considering that, coming from our current fitness level, maintenance is not a dirty word! Let me repeat that: Over the long term - years and decades, wouldn't maintaining the current level of fitness that you have be considered a win? If you're still capable of swimming, biking and running at close to your current levels as you enter your 50's, 60's and even 70's, that would be a huge win! Bigger perhaps than a couple of KQs? This is not to downplay those 'big pushes' but to recognize that high performance is the cherry on top. Identifying a firm, stable fitness 'base camp' that promotes long term exercise consistency and longevity of health and fitness is what counts in the long run.

This strategy may seem over-simplistic with all the complex training protocols floating around out there but I can assure you, there is a magic to it, centered around the consistency that it promotes, that is incredibly powerful. While not the ‘end all, be all’ to training, this approach will provide a fitness base that is integral to supporting the stuff that does make the highlight reel.

Train (consistent and) smart,



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