Sprinters vs. Marathoners

In Pole Vault Your Way to a Hot Body, after a bit of satire, I pointed out that the argument of “400m runners are lean and muscular, therefore you should train like a 400m runner (by doing intervals” is utterly silly and flat out wrong. If you’re too lazy to click on the link, here’s the recap

  • Most 400m training is low intensity work in the first place
  • The ‘interval’ work that 400m guys do isn’t the kind of interval training being advocated for fat loss in the first place. It’s maximum speed work interspersed with very long rest periods. It’s not short intervals with short rest periods for the most part.
  • 400m sprinters are muscular because of their weight training, genetics and drug use. Not because of their track training.

Before moving onto other issues surrounding this debate, today I want to address the other half of the argument for intervals that’s usually presented with the poor comparison to 400m runners. It usually goes something like this:

“Go watch a marathon, you’ll see fat people who can finish it. Compare that to 400m runners who are always lean.”

Essentially, this is meant to imply that steady state marathon/cardio training is therefore ineffective for fat loss. Ok, let me take this one apart bit by bit.

First off, I want you to look around the next time you’re in the weight room. Go look at all the people who are lifting weights. I bet some of them are not very muscular. Does this allow me to conclude that “Weight training doesn’t build muscles””? Of course not, that would be moronic. What it means is that there are other factors (e.g. how they are training and their diet) that are interacting with the weight training.

Another question, I bet you can find people in your gym who are on the high intensity, metabolic training interval for fat loss bandwagon who aren’t losing fat. Does that allow me to conclude that “Intervals don’t help you lose fat?” Of course not, that would be moronic. What it means is that there are other factors (e.g. ESPECIALLY DIET) that are equally if not more important. Eat too much and even the magic of intervals and afterburn won’t do shit.

So how does the argument that “You can finish a marathon and still be fat” somehow mean that steady state cardio doesn’t cause fat loss? The ‘logic’ is identical to the two examples above. And still idiotic. Other factors are interacting here (such as diet) which I’ll come back to below.

But that’s not the only intellectually dishonest part of the marathoners vs. sprinters argument. Check this picture out:

Lean Marathon Runner

This is an elite marathon runner. Damn will you look at all of that body fat. Right…..

Quick tangent: Before I get involved in the rest of this discussion. Everybody is probably thinking now “Yeah but he’s not muscular.” Correct. Because most marathoners don’t lift weights, nor need to carry a lot of muscle for optimal performance. Muscularity is going to be a function of weight training anyhow and fairly irrelevant to the discussion of steady state versus interval training for FAT LOSS. Ok, back to the blog.

Now, I’m not discounting the fact that you can train to finish a marathon and still be fat. You’ll finish, you just won’t finish very well. Because optimal performance will not be had dragging around excess body fat.

The same will hold for cycling or whatever ‘steady state/aerobic/cardio’ event you want to talk about. Of course you can finish and be fat. You just won’t be very good. For example, Lance Armstrong claims to be low single digit body fat levels for example and most top cyclists are insanely lean. They also do about 80% of their total training at low intensities. Yes, they do interval training of various sorts as well but the grand majority of their training is aerobic work. The stuff that is supposed to make you fatter.

The same thing is true for a 400m. You can train for a 400m event and still be fat, you just won’t be very good. But the simple fact (and this is where the confusion lays) is that there isn’t much call or opportunity for recreational 400m running; it’s just not something the average individual would do in the first place. When you look at 400m runners, pretty much all of the guys you’re seeing are high level competitors.

Do you see what’s going on here?

As part of the overall intellectual dishonesty involved (or perhaps it’s just sheer stupidity on the part of ‘coaches’ who should know better), high level 400m competitors are being compared to recreational marathoners. And there are massive differences between those two even beyond the training that they do.
The recreational runner basically wants to finish and get a t-shirt and the accomplishment that comes with running 26.2 miles.

The 400m guy is trying to optimize all aspects of his performance (in addition to having the right genetics for the event) and part of that is keeping body fat down.

And keeping body fat down, in addition to training, is going to be about diet in the first place. Which is why

  • You can do intervals without dieting and stay fat.
  • Or do steady state cardio and restrict your calories and get lean.
  • Or do intervals and restrict calories and get lean.
  • Or do steady state cardio without adjusting your food intake and stay fat.

Do you see what I’m saying here? The entire argument and comparison is flawed on a number of levels to begin with (e.g. 400m runners do not train the way it’s being suggested that they train, high level 400m runners are being compared to recreational marathoners). But, by carefully ignoring the component of dieting (and I’d note that high-intensity activity often blunts appetite more than low-intensity; studies that don’t control diet will often see better fat loss because the high-intensity group ate less), the already stupid comparison is made worse. A recreational runner who just wants to finish the race isn’t going to worry about lowering their body fat; a high level 400m runner will be working actively to keep their body fat at a low level to optimize performance.

Note again: This series of posts is absolutely NOT meant to be against interval training as one tool in the fat loss arsenal. My issue is simply with the uncritical claim being made that intervals are always superior to steady state (or that steady state is somehow detrimental to fat loss) as well as the truly moronic arguments being made to support the contention that interval training is any of these things.

Next up in the series, a technical look at The Effects of Exercise Intensity and Duration on the Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption