Methods of Endurance Training Part 2: Miles Build Champions

On Friday, in Methods of Endurance Training Part 1, I took a quick look at some of the major adaptations that occur to endurance type training and talked about one of the prime ‘drivers’ for at least some of the adaptations (especially as they occur in skeletal muscle), a cellular energy sensor called AMPk.  AMPk is ‘turned on’ in response to disruptions in the energy state of the cell and this ends up explaining a lot about why many of the types of endurance training do what they do (e.g. how they basically ‘work’).

Today I want to continue by looking at some general concepts of endurance training methods focusing on the most commonly used method which is the Miles Build Champions approach to endurance development.  I’ll look at other methods in Part 3 (and possibly beyond depending on how wordy I get) on Friday.

I want to make it clear that this probably won’t be completely comprehensive, there are a lot of ways to achieve certain goals from training and while I’m going to focus on some of the more traditional methods, just note that there are other approaches that can achieve the same types of adaptations (through creative use of work and rest intervals).  I’ll make mention of these a bit as I go.

Pure Endurance Athletes vs. Other Athletes Who Need Endurance

Before getting into the methods, I want to make a point that I think some folks tend to miss or confuse.  And that’s that pure endurance athletes are a different animal with different goals and needs than athletes (usually team sports but even some individual stuff like MMA or strongman have a mixed set of requirements for optimal performance) who need some level of endurance as part of their overall performance goals.

For the pure endurance athlete, developing things like VO2 max, Lactate threshold and efficiency to the absolute maximum levels is going to be more or less the be-all, end-all of their training goals and this determines how they train.  Strength per se is rarely a massive determinant of overall performance although this depends on the sport (e.g. the start in rowing requires a good deal of strength to overcome inertia).

In contrast, athletes who need some degree or type of endurance as part of their overall performance won’t need nearly the development in those terms.  Aerobic endurance is certainly part of the overall package but it’s not the be-all, end-all of performance.  Which is why you tend to see more average values for things like VO2 max. and such in those types of athletes (you also see more moderate levels of strength compared to say, pure strength athletes).  They are simply having to balance out those metabolic needs with strength, power, technique, etc.  Endurance is part of the package but not the whole thing.

I mention this because you’ll often see these truly silly arguments along the lines of “Look at marathon runners, they are small and weak, why would a [insert non-running athlete here] every do steady state cardio like that?”  And the answer is that they wouldn’t, or at least not to that extreme.  But that doesn’t mean that you throw out the baby with the bathwater and NEVER do continuous aerobic work or apply the methodologies used to improve endurance.

Because where the marathoner might need a 2.5 hour run once/week and 120 miles per week total to perform optimally, a non-marathon athlete who needs endurance might only be doing 30 minutes of continuous running/aerobic work a few times per week to develop some basic endurance or what have you.  But people play game of ‘excluding the middle’ where it’s either you’re running 120 miles per week or you NEVER do aerobic steady state work.

Not only is it a logical fallacy to exclude the middle, it ignores how real-world athletes actually train.

My point being that the methods used by the pure endurance athletes can still have some application to the non-pure endurance athletes.  They simply aren’t used to nearly the same extent or degree since they don’t make up the entirety of the performance structure.  But the methods can still be useful when applied within some reasonable level.

And with that out of the way, let me look at the first and arguably most common method of developing endurance which is the Miles Build Champions method.

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Method 1: Miles Build Champions

Arguably the most commonly popular (or certainly most traditional) approach to developing endurance over the years has been a volume oriented ‘miles build champions’ type of approach.  Many coaches (and a lot of supporting scientific literature) echo that idea that unless you can do ‘X amount of miles/kilometers/volume per week’ you simply can’t succeed at the highest levels or build maximal endurance.

The focus with this philosophy is basically on more, I saw it summed up on one power training forum with the simple coaching mantra “Ride lots”.  But the goal is, up to the some limits, you do more.

Some specific examples may help to clarify this.  One little German book on endurance training lists some weekly volumes for maximal endurance performance, listing weekly averages of 20-25 hours and peaks of 40 hours/week to maximize adaptations. Do the math on that, that’s 3-4 hours/day 6 days/week as an average and upwards of 7 hours/day 6 days/week at the high end.

A more specific example is the paper I keep mentioning on the site which was an analysis of the training of the German 2000 4km team pursuit’s training.  Now this is an event lasting roughly 4 minutes and the team is described as doing the grand majority of training as easy aerobic work to the tune of 29,000-35,000 km/year (18,000-21,000 miles/year).  That’s 400 miles/week on average, assuming a fairly reasonable 20 mph, that’s 20 hours/week of cycling.  For an event lasting 4 minutes.

For completeness, this was supplemented with some stage races (which adds a bit of intensity) along with interval training in the 10 days prior to competition to maximize things like lactate buffering and speed.  Please read that again, for an event lasting 4 minutes, interval training and some speed work was done for about 10 days immediately prior to competition.

Other sports use similar volumes, running volumes of 100-120 miles/week are fairly common at the highest levels with the occasional athlete doing much higher for at least short periods (e.g. 200 miles/week).  Current rowing training seems to be based around tons and tons of aerobic training, swimming has always used pretty much massive volumes although the training of swimmers confuses me to the point that I won’t comment further on it to hide my own ignorance.  Cross country skiing does the same, hours and hours and hours.  I think you get the idea.

Before moving on, let me talk a little bit about intensity here.   Generally with this type of training the intensity is fairly low.   In cycling it’s called ‘all-day pace’, in running its ‘easy’ running.  I like to call it ‘pissing around’ intensity.  It barely feels like you’re doing anything at all but the stimulus in this case comes from the sheer volume (and frequency) of training being done.

There are a ton of different methods of determining optimal intensity for this type of work but they all end up putting folks in about the same place.  The German track cycling team set intensity as heart rate at individual anaerobic threshold (IAT) minus 30-50 beats.  So for someone with an IAT at around 175, that’s a HR of 125-145.  With an IAT of 180, that’s 130-150.  There are other systems to determine intensity (such as using percentage of functional threshold power for the power meter folks, or using some percentage of heart rate over a time trial or whatever) but, when you work them through, they all end up about the same place.

Rowing and swimming often use lactate levels with a lactate level of 1.5-2 mmol/l being the cutoff.    For most, this will occur in about those same heart rate ranges.  I’d note that running heart rates often ends up a touch higher (due to being upright and using more muscle mass) but easy/long runs are generally at about 75% of maximum heart rate.  Perhaps 140-150 on average.   My understanding is that swimming HR’s can be a touch lower as a function of being horizontal in the water along with the cold.  Perhaps someone can verify this or tell me I’m an idiot in the comments.  But training of this sort is always sort of in that range.

Basically, it’s pretty easy.  A little bit of stress and strain but that’s it and, as I’ll mention when I talk about the next method on Friday, working at too high of an intensity with this kind of volume can do more harm than good.

I’d note that a commonality with this approach is near daily training. Due to the low intensity of training, it can be done daily or even multiple times daily (Kenyan runners are known for runing 2-3 times per day at least 6 days/week).   While I focused on AMPk in Methods of Endurance Training Part 1 there are certainly other parts of the adaptation process and one of these is gene expression (which is related, mind you to the metabolic perturbations during training) which is kept nearly constant trough this type of training; this leads to long-term adaptations in muscle which improves performance.  Again, this is a key for pure endurance athletes trying to maximize those adaptations; they need to keep gene expression humming along daily.  For non-endurance athletes, it’s not quite as important since the level of adaptation required isn’t nearly as high.

There are other potential benefits to this type of training as well.  For sports with any sort of technical requirements (rowing, swimming and cross-country skiing come to mind), doing massive volumes of low-intensity work allows athletes to accumulate zillions (give or take millions) of proper repetitions.  Technique can stay pretty stable for most of the workout and this just builds proper motor patterning.  Even running has a technical element and part of developing running efficiency is probably related to the repetition of putting in the miles.

In fact, I strongly suspect that this is one reason that swimmers do such massive volumes compared to the rather short length of their sport: humans are so inefficient in the water and swimming is so technically demanding that swimmers need as many good repetitions as humanly possible.  That can only be achieved through volumes of relatively low intensity work (because technique invariably degrades at higher intensities).

So, so far so good, we’ve got a type of training that develops aerobic endurance, is relatively strain and stress free due to the low intensity, develops technique through the accumulation of a zillion repetitions, etc.  Of course, you burn a metric crapload of calories with this type of training which means you can still eat a ton and stay lean.

Now, the drawbacks.  And there’s one huge one that I imagine everybody has already noticed: the time commitment.  Simply put, outside of professional athletes who can do nothing during the day but train, the time requirements of this type of training is impossible.  The average person simply can’t put in 3-4 hours/day of training on top of a full-time job.  As well, depending on your mindset, it can be incredibly boring.  Sitting on a hard bike seat 3-4 hours/day 6 days/week is not most people’s idea of fun.

Of course, for non-endurance athletes, so much other training needs to be done (Technical, tactical, strength, power, etc.) that putting that much time into pure endurance training would be absurd and unnecessary.  But, as I discussed above, those athletes don’t have nearly the endurance/aerobic requirements as pure endurance athletes so they would never need those kinds of volumes in the first place.

Another potential negative, and this is certainly true for an impact sport like running, is injuries.   The sheer daily pounding can destroy joints if people aren’t careful. Even non-impact sports can generate a lot of overuse type injuries: shoulder issues are endemic in swimming, rowers get weird imbalances from how they row (one oar above the other), back pain in speed skaters is common due to the odd posture and always turning left.  This is simply exacerbated by doing endless volumes, even at a low intensity.  This can actually be made worse by the ability to train daily.  Connective tissues tend to be the slowest to adapt so even if muscles and such are recovered, your joints may fall off with daily training.

A final potential drawback, that I sort of alluded to in Methods of Endurance Training Part 1 is that this type of training tends to only promote adaptations in Type I muscle fibers.  The intensity simply isn’t high enough to hit Type II fibers for the most part. In essence, this method can’t be the only thing done in training to maximize performance.  I’ll come back to this in the final part of this series when I finish up.

But for most the big drawback to this type of training will be the sheer time commitment involved.  Outside of a professional athlete who does nothing but train and recover, the miles build champions approach simply may not be workable.  Certainly for non-pure endurance athletes the methodology still holds but, as noted above, the amount of aerobic development required isn’t as high and neither are the volumes.

As a final teaser for what I’m going to talk about on Friday, and this is especially true for pure endurance athletes, outside of relative beginners, pissing around at low intensities for short periods doesn’t generate a ton of adaptations.  Basically, this type of low intensity training only generates a lot of adaptations when you’re just starting and/or able to do a lot of it.  If you don’t have that time, you need something else.

That something else I’m going to refer to as Sweet Spot Training, a term stolen from Andrew Coggan, PhD who is on the cutting edge of power meter training.  And that’s what I’ll talk about Friday.

Read Methods of Endurance Training Part 3: Tempo and Sweet Spot Training