Hey you! You’re training too hard. Stop it!
A lot of us are training wrong… all wrong. Not only are we not reaching our potential due to this improper training, but we can even be hampering any meaningful progress at all. This is because we train too hard. Does any of this sound like you?
- Typically you chose to run a distance for training and then run that distance as fast as you can.
- You rely more heavily on high intensity intervals than on low intensity, long sustained efforts.
- Very little if any of your training is done at such a casual pace that you could easily hold a conversation while training. This would be minutes per mile slower than your race pace.
- You do not use any effort measuring device or scale to guide your training.
If any of that describes you, then you are training wrong.
Much to my surprise and perhaps yours as well, elite endurance athletes be it running, biking, swimming, rowing, cross country skiing, speed skating, etc spend the majority of time training at very low intensity levels that you probably wouldn’t even consider doing in your own training. Most people will say it doesn’t even feel like they are working out. It works though. Don’t believe me? Feel free to watch this 35 minute lecture by Dr Stephen Seiler who went out and studied this very thing while also working with Olympic caliber athletes in Norway’s Olympic program. In this lecture, he presents his findings from looking at the training methods of elite endurance athletes around the world. By elite, I mean sub-2:11 marathoners, Olympic gold medalist rowers and skiers, top Kenyan runners, elite cyclists, and so on.
Don’t have 30 minutes to watch a video? Let me summarize. Elite athletes spend 80-90% of their total training time at a very easy pace that does not even approach a speed they’d consider even a moderately hard effort. I’ll go onto the how’s and why’s in a moment, but I want to address a few typical complaints first.
But I’ve read how high intensity intervals are as good and even better at building endurance and things like VO2Max and lactate threshold! Long, slow efforts are old school and scientifically unsound!
That, my friend, is just wrong. We are indoctrinated into believing things like this by people looking to sell us something – typically a faster way to get results. There are no shortcuts to fitness in endurance sports. High intensity intervals are an absolutely essential part of training, but they only make up 5-10% of total training volume.
Training comprised mainly of high intensity intervals is the old school approach. Ever hear of Emil Zatopek? He was a gold medalist distance runner and coach from the 40’s and 50’s. His training was famously interval based (try 400m repeats for a marathon distance). Or take Bill “Mad Dog” Scobey. Same thing. The Germans tried that approach for their endurance athletes back in the 50’s and 60’s, and what they found was that fitness could be raised to a high level, but there was no year over year progress. Finally a coach named Arthur Lydiard hit the scene. He trained his guys in a long “base period” where they did miles and miles of slow, sustained effort work and that was followed by only a few weeks of sharpening for competition. Even his gold medal winning 800m sprinter put in weeks of nearly 100 slow miles. His guys TROUNCED the interval trained athletes. Eventually other national coaches adopted his methods as it was either adopt or fade into obscurity. It’s been a long enough time that people have forgotten the lessons and training mistakes of the past, so now the easier and less time consuming intervals are becoming en vogue again.
But Joe Schmoe trains mainly intervals and fast runs, and he kills John Smith in competitions! He’s probably faster than you too, slow poke!
This is totally possible especially in events with a shallow talent pool. Think of OCR racing or local 5k’s. Big names have impressive resume’s, but they aren’t elite runners. OCR is a new sport and a small pond if you will. Somebody with a lot of natural talent and ability can be successful without optimal training. When you look at sports with large talent pools from all over the world, all the athletes at the top have very similar talent levels. There are razor thin differences separating somebody that podiums and somebody that is in the middle of the pack. Less than optimal training will magnify these differences, which is why you see most of the people training the same way. So Joe Shmoe may certainly be a beast… locally… or in small comps… Joe Shmoe may destroy me in a comp too. Would he get trounced by the World Champ in a foot race of that distance? Yes, and this is how that world champ trains.
Tabata! Ever hear of it?!
The oft-cited and more oft-misunderstood Tabata study has a couple sticking points. The first being that the interval groups results plateaued at week 3 or 4. This is what is commonly seen by endurance coaches, thus the periodized plan of base building with brief periods of speed work/intervals. The non-interval group continued to make gains throughout the study and even finished with a higher VO2Max. The second sticking point is that the Tabata study has participants doing their intervals at 170% VO2Max. That is a huge intensity. Your max heart rate is essentially 100% your VO2Max… think of an effort 70% harder than even that! You simply aren’t going to be able replicate that with any regularity and thus it’d be intellectually dishonest to expect to realize similar gains as those seen in the study. (Yes this is a simplification for brevity’s sake) Did I mention the “interval subjects” still did a 10 minute “aerobic” warmup (70% VO2Max) as well as a training day every week where they trained with the steady-state group for their workout?
Alright, with that out of the way, let’s go into the how’s and why’s.
WHY #1 – Energy Systems – The Engine
This why is pretty simple if you know anything about the energy systems your body uses during exercise: the phosphogen system (good for extreme efforts of up 10 seconds – will be ignored for this article), the anaerobic system (efforts up to 2 minutes), and the aerobic system (dominant in most other durations). In reality, you aren’t going to have your energy demands met by a single system, but a dynamic blend of them. That said, the longer the duration, the more aerobic it is, and that’s important. To make it simple, your aerobic system is for long efforts and your anaerobic system is for sprints.
When you run *x* distance as fast you can, you run near or in excess of your lactate threshold. When your anaerobic energy system is being used, lactate levels rise in your blood. When the exercise is so intense that this lactate can no longer be cleared and will just keep accumulating it, you have reached your lactate threshold (LT)/anaerobic threshold (AT)/Onset of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA). You aren’t targeting and building your aerobic energy system because the effort is too strenuous. Likewise you aren’t targeting and building your anaerobic energy system because the effort is too light. You are targeting both of them in a very sub-optimal way. It’d be like trying to train your max strength bench press and your 100RM bench press endurance by just continually benching a weight somewhere in between the two.
What is optimal and what many elites do is target their aerobic system with very light efforts way under LT. Most of racing is aerobic work, so it makes sense to have a strong aerobic system. They will then have targeted speed workouts with heavy efforts way over LT. These account for 20% of the training sessions or 10% of total training time (as even LT workouts have aerobic lead ins, recoveries, and cool downs). For amateurs that aren’t training 10-15x/week, it’s easier to break down in terms of time. 10% of your time should be way above LT. This “polarized”/”hi-lo” approach allows you to directly target your aerobic and anaerobic systems individually building the capacity of each. As a key race approaches, you may add some more work in at/around LT to bake in your gains.
How low is low? Well these are the zones used by the Norwegian Olympians:
Zone 1 is where they have their athletes spend the overwhelming majority of time. To put this into perspective, my tested running max HR is 193. Zone 1 is anything 145bpm and lower. Zone 2 is where some training will occur, but the upper ends are too close to LT to be as useful. Zone 3 is LT and the sweet spot for most people racing or using the “run as fast as I can” approach. Zone 4 is where most of your intervals should be. Producing an 8-10 minute effort at zone 4 will be VERY hard. Zone 5 is basically an all out sprint. You won’t last for more than a handful of minutes here.
You may be thinking where some polarization is good, then more is better. Ie your intervals will be really intense. That isn’t what the data showed though. It showed that accumulated training time was as important as effort. 32 minutes of Zone 4 intervals (4×8:00) were more productive than 16:00 of zone 5 intervals (4×4:00).
This isn’t new training. This has been around for decades producing many of the champions we see. Check out elite rowers training distribution. 95% of their training is in Zone 1/Zone2
It’s just not sexy, so it doesn’t sell. Nobody wants to be told they’ll have to do hours and hours of frustratingly slow work every week. They’d rather be told that they can get the same or even better results in a fraction of the time with fun and challenging intervals.
WHY #2 – Specificity
General fitness is not the dominant factor in determining success in sport. If it were, then the fittest would also be the best. There are plenty of runners that may beat you that you could out-row, out-lift, and out-bike. By all accounts you are stronger and may have a better aerobic engine. Why then do they beat you? Because they run and run and run some more. The volume combined with the specific movement refines the technical/neurological skill of that movement. It is seen all the time in rock climbing, swimming, Judo, and other sports. Take the best Crossfitter with the strongest grip strength and throw him on a climbing wall. He’ll have circles climbed around him by people that can’t do 1/10th of what he does. He’ll be exhausted and pumped out while they climb up and down. Take an elite marathoner and throw him in a pool with the 10 year local swimming champ, and he’ll have circles swum around him. Take a strong, in-shape guy and throw him on a Judo mat, and he’ll be tossed into oblivion and gasping for breath. That of course begs the question just how transferable is our “supplemental” training to sport.
Another thing volume in the specific task helps do is build capillary density and mitochondria extent in the trained muscles, blood flow and contractile capacity of the heart, and increased fatty acid oxidation metabolism. Not only do you get better neurologically at performing the task, but the muscles you use get better at doing it for long times.
WHY #3 – Recovery
The training effect of low intensity training is all well and good, but as stated, high intensity still does play an important role. By doing the bulk of your training in low intensity fashion, you’ll be doing targeted, useful training in between your sessions of high intensity work. If you do too much high intensity or even medium intensity work, then your skill will start degrading. You won’t be able to hit the high intensity sessions as hard and as fresh, thus you won’t be able to accomplish the same amount of work. This means you’re giving your body less to adapt to.
By training the majority of your time with low intensity work, you allow yourself to undergo important adaptions AND you allow yourself to hit your high intensity sessions that much harder.
Conclusion – Get started now
I know this is a lot to take in. I was first introduced to these concepts in 2011 after over a decade of high intensity training when I contacted Mark Twight of Gym Jones about training for the firsts World’s Toughest Mudder. You see, Twight was one of the coaches that put CrossFit on the map when it was a fledgling fitness trend. He has legit creds in the endurance world as one of the best American alpinists, and he was not shy about broadcasting the terrific results he had with himself and his endurance athletes on a diet of high intensity work. I contacted him really as a confirmation bias of my training method consisting of high intensity work during the week with perhaps a longer duration workout on the weekend.
He flat out told me it wouldn’t work. When I pressed him about his method, he responded that he had been dead wrong and that he had to spend a lot of time rehabbing his own fitness from the effects of his “Free Lunch” method (his term). He introduced me to these concepts, but I never took them to heart. (Note: Not a CrossFit bash. The core of his general program is still very similar to CrossFit. He just has his endurance athletes focus on aerobic work) I continued to train hard… I’d just train longer thinking that was better. It wasn’t until I was laid up with a severe climbing injury in February of 2013 that I started looking more deeply into this. I soon realized I’d wasted years of training. Top Kenyan runners, top Dutch speed skaters, swimmers, triathletes, top Norwegian ski racers, top TDF cyclists, and on and on. They all use similar systems be it called “Polarized Training”, “Hi-Lo Training”, or whatever. There are no secret methods. There are no shortcuts. You just have to put in your time.
It’s only been about a year since I’ve been able to start putting this into effect and about 6 months since I’ve been training this way completely. The results have been amazing, and I’ve realized just how poorly my aerobic engine has run. It will take many more months to fully rehab it, but I’m well on my way there. Twight wrote an article about his journey down the same path.
Some selected quotes from his article:
“Back in the early and mid 60s the German’s training approach … (placed, ed.) … a greater emphasis on high intensity intervals. What they found was that, to a great extent they did reach high performance levels with this training program. But, they were not seeing progressive improvement from year to year among their elite athletes. Every year they came up to the same level, fell back down in the off-season, and repeated the process the next season. Then they changed the composition of the training to higher volume, lower intensity (fewer killer intervals at max speed) and the long term progress began to occur.”
“In an endurance workout lactate, content must not rise too high … if it does then lactate tolerance is trained instead of endurance capacity … Intensive workouts going together with high lactate values may be damaging to endurance capacity … Endurance capacity may deteriorate by this kind of training.”
Peter G.J.M. Janssen
“The acidosis, caused by high lactate values in the muscles, damages the aerobic enzymes system … the acidosis is the cause of the deterioration of aerobic endurance capacity.”
Peter G.J.M. Janssen
“Overloading this training intensity … prevents the body from developing the aerobic base. Rowers can even fall so far behind that they have to start developing the aerobic base from the beginning. It can take weeks or even months to correct such overloading.”
“In the end, excessive anaerobic training pulls down your VO2 max, and you can’t even run the slow stuff very well.”
“During short maximal exercise fat mobilization and utilization is inhibited by lactate production and acidity; even low lactate concentration (3-4 mmol/L) has diminished FFA concentration in the blood.”
“Everybody thinks a four-minute mile is terrific, but it is only four one-minute quarter miles. Practically any athlete can run one one-minute quarter; but few have the stamina to run four of them in a row. How do you give them the necessary stamina? By making them run and run and run some more, until they don’t even think in terms of miles. There is no psychological magic and no pain barrier involved. It is merely a process of gradual conditioning.”
“Zatopek is a good example of the failure of sole reliance on repetition training. As a national coach, he can tap the whole potential of Czechoslovakia. But where were his men at the Rome Olympics? They didn’t win a thing. Yet most coaches still will not believe my system is the right one. One result is that a good many fine prospects have been ruined by excessive speed work and by trying for quick results.” (emphasis added)
“Most people, regardless of sport, train basic aerobic endurance too hard or fast. This happens for two primary reasons. The first is that this intensity level “feels like training” because it feels moderately hard. Secondly, many people are time-limited in their training and imagine that they can make up for the duration of training by increasing the intensity.”
Some references for the scientific minded:
For information on programming a training block using these methods see: Can You Feel the Power? The 4 week Training Block
Diclaimer: I’m obviously speaking in generalities. In general, all of this is sound advice. That said, there are outliers, non-responders, and super-responders in every study. Experiment and find out what works best for you, your physiology, and your enjoyment of life. The latter of which is the most important. Also, this is mainly for people who want to get better at endurance events. If endurance training is not your primary concern, then a more balanced approach may be optimal.