Methods of Endurance Training: Summing Up Part 1

Well, as so often happens, what was meant to be a two part series got a little bit away from me and even the summary is going to have to be in two parts.   First off I want to summarize the major methods of endurance training I’ve discussed previously looking at what I’ve called it, some common volumes and intensities as well as frequencies of training and such.

I’ll also make some general comments about how and why developing aerobic metabolism from the lower intensity end of things works.  I’ll truly finish up on Friday by talking about the time issue and actually making some specific recommendations for both pure endurance and other athletes as well as general trainees.  I’ll also give some suggested resources for different endurance sports for anybody who wants to pursue this topic in more detail.

Since I’m most personally familiar with cycling, the volumes I’m going to list are going to be for that activity. As I’ve noted previously, running volumes are typically about 1/2 that of cycling due to the differences in metabolic strain.  So a 3 hour cycling workout is roughly equal to 1.5 hours of running (This is also reflected in differences in average weekly volumes between the two sports).  Rowing seems to be at least similar to cycling or perhaps a touch higher, cross-country skiing is possibly a bit higher and swimming…well, you’ll have to ask a swimmer.  They train a lot for various reasons even if their training seems to violate specificity on most levels.

In terms of intensity for each method, I’m going to use heart rate although, it’s really an imperfect method, it’s far better to anchor intensity to some measured value such as lactate levels or functional threshold (either in terms of power or the heart rate achieved).  For the values I’ve listed below, assume a functional threshold heart rate of 175 beats per minute or so.

On average, running heart rates tend to be a bit higher compared to cycling, swimming is a bit lower.  Rowing and cross country skiing also seem to fall a bit lower comparatively, probably due to their use of upper body musculature (explaining why this is the case is beyond what I want to talk about here; just take my word for it).

For reasons I’ll discuss on Friday, running tends to be on the lower end of the frequency spectrum, especially when it comes to higher intensity training methods.  There are several reasons for this not the least of which is that joint impact tends to make higher amounts of high-intensity training a very bad idea.  But, practically, while a cyclist might do threshold training twice per week, a runner would rarely do it more than once/week (and at a reduced volume as well: 1X20 minute for the runner versus 2×20 minutes for the cyclist).

Please note that while I’m listing each of the methods as a discrete entity, this isn’t really correct.  Nor are the methods mutually exclusive (e.g. you can’t use them together).  Rather, the entirety of training is on a continuum with each method/intensity level moving or interacting with the levels above and below it.  This is most easily seen with Dr. Coggan’s Sweet Spot training which is bridged right between Tempo Training and Threshold training.  For the intervals I’ve listed common loading parameters and nothing more.

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Method Name Volume Per Workout Frequency Intensity Lactate
Miles Build Champions (Extensive Endurance) How Long Do You Have 6-7 days/week+ 130-150 1.5-2 mmol
Tempo Training (Intensive Endurance) 1-3 hours 3-4 days/week 150-160 2-4 mmol
Sweet Spot Training 1-3 hours 3-4 days/week 155-165 2-4 mmol
Threshold Training 1-3X10-20 minutes/5-10′ rest 2-3 days/week 170-180 4-8 mmol
Aerobic Capacity (VO2 max Intervals) 3-6X3′/3′ rest 1-2 days/week VO2 max High
Anaerobic Power 8-12X30-45 seconds/3-5′ rest 1-2 days/week Max Owww
Anaerobic Capacity 8-12X60-90 seconds/60-90 rest 1-2 days/week Max Owww
Neuromuscular Training 6-10X6-15″/Full rest Variable as hell N/A N/A


If you looked at the grand majority of texts or books relating to endurance training, they’d probably have a chart that was at least reasonably along those lines.  As I’ve mentioned, specifics (especially of interval training) can vary and systems ranges from exceedingly simple to very complex depending on the author.

And with that out of the way, I want to make another digression that will hopefully clear up some of the confusion over the whole steady state aerobic vs. interval training argument to some degree.

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How Does Going Slow Make You Fast?

From a specificity standpoint, the whole idea of using the miles build champions or even tempo training methods seems to violate specificity of training for many things.  That is, even pure endurance sports are based around the idea of covering some usually set distance in the shortest time possible: that is holding the highest speed possible over that distance.  Shouldn’t you just train at race pace (or faster) all the time?

A question that comes up (I saw this recently on a power training forum in relation to the idea that most top endurance athletes are doing most of their volume at low intensities) is ‘How does training slowly make you fast?’.  I’ve seen it put differently as an argument for doing nothing but interval training, the idea being that ‘Going slow makes you slow, since all training leaves traces on the nervous system’.  This is usually aimed at team event athletes (such as soccer) who tend to require short bursts of speed and for whom many seem to think that sprint work is all that should be done.

First let’s look at the idea that ‘going slow makes you slow’ and I’ll do it with a real world example.  The current world record holder in the 1500 track event is a Moroccan named Hicham El Guerrouj with a time of 3:26.  As described in the book Healthy Intelligent Training by Keith Livingstone, Guerrouj’s training is very similar to Arthur Lydiard’s training, a metric ton of ‘strong aerobic running’ (essentially intensive endurance) topped off with small amounts of speed work and intervals.

Now, do the math on that, a 3:26 1500 is the equivalent of 13.7 seconds per 100m.  While that certainly won’t win any sprint events, that’s not slow.  And he does it 15 times in a row which is something no pure sprinter could do.  The same individual has run a 1:47 800 which is 13.3 seconds per 100m done 8 times in a row.  Not sprinter speed but certainly not ‘slow’ in the sense that most throw the word around.  The world record, held by a Kenyan runner is currently 1:41 which is 12.6 second per 100m.  Done 8 times in a row.  And while Kenyan runners are often reported to do proportionally more high-intensity speed work, analyses of their training actually show a staggering amount of aerobic running.

So what’s going on?  How is all of this ‘slow’ work making people so damn fast?

The first mistake in assuming that pure endurance training will make an athlete slow probably comes out of a misinterpretation of how folks think top runners train.  It all basically goes back to people mistranslating Lydiard and thinking that he advocated enormous amounts of long slow distance (LSD): jogging at piss slow speeds for hours at a time, which he didn’t.  Rather, he advocated running at a strong aerobic pace which, for top level runners can be pretty quick.  They might go 60-90 minutes at 90% of their best hour speed which, for those athletes, is not slow.

The second mistake is in assuming that that type of ‘slow’ endurance training is all an athlete (pure endurance athlete or not) would be doing.  Even Lydiard recommended performing regular neuromuscular work (short speed intervals) during the base endurance period so that the athlete would always feel some amount of speed.  And the aerobic work was always topped off with hills, intervals and repetitions to peak them to a new level of speed performance and speed endurance.

Other systems approach this differently, putting different speed work into every week of training.  So a runner would be doing base aerobic running along with speedier work at a variety of paces each week of training.  This would prevent any of the systems from ever becoming de-trained since they are all being worked to some degree.  The volume of the high-intensity work is still small relative to the total but it’s being done.

But the specifics aren’t really relevant, the point is this: while endurance athletes certainly do the majority of their volume at aerobic intensities, it would be rare for any pure endurance athlete to perform 100% of their work at aerobic intensities, some amount would always be dedicated to speed or some sort of higher intensity work at higher speeds.

Certainly lower intensity aerobic work leaves ‘traces on the nervous’ system but so does everything else.  If a non-endurance athlete combined proper speed work (and there will also be weight training on top of the rest) with their aerobic work, why would they magically get slow?  Oh yeah, they wouldn’t.   And since, as I’ve noted, those types of athletes don’t have nearly the requirements for endurance or what have you, they wouldn’t be doing nearly the volume of the pure endurance athlete in the first place.

Basically the folks making this argument are playing a game of excluding the middle, an athlete is either doing nothing but long slow distance training like a marathoner OR nothing but high intensity interval work.  Apparently the concept of mixing the two in a week of training is beyond them.

The final reason that the above is incorrect is something that will take a bit of physiology to explain.  I didn’t put the methods of endurance training in the above order (in the chart) by happenstance.  I want you to try to imagine that the list was inverted (easiest at the bottom) in a pyramid going from lowest intensity/highest volumes to highest intensity/lowest volumes.   Essentially moving from base aerobic work to tempo work to sweet spot to threshold, etc.  Got i?  Now keep reading.

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Of Thresholds and Adaptations

I’ve mentioned a couple of different thresholds throughout this series of articles although I think the main focus has been on the anaerobic/lactate/functional threshold (whatever you want to call it).  I’d add a threshold that is usually called the aerobic threshold (cycling now calls this LT1) which can be thought of as the lowest intensity of training that will generate any sort of aerobic adaptations.   For most people it’s probably in the 130-140 range or thereabouts.

Below that it’s active recovery and you’re not really stimulating gains (why walking on a treadmill at a heart rate of 90 won’t really make you ‘fit’).  Cross that threshold and you get some adaptation depending on how long you do it and your training status.  I’d note that, on average, the functional threshold will occur for most in the realm of 175-180 heart rate (again, heart rate is imperfect here, I’m talking averages) but won’t really change much for any individual athlete.

Here’s what’s interesting: with training those thresholds don’t really change very much.  In one study, elite cyclists were tracked over a year and the place where the two thresholds occurred didn’t change regardless of training.  The heart rate at which each threshold occurred was completely stable.  I haven’t seen data on other sports but see no fundamental physiological reason this would be different.  The thresholds might differ between sports but for any individual over time, where those thresholds occur is probably not going to change massively.

But here’s what did change with the cyclists over a season of training: the power output being generated/sustained at each of those thresholds.  That is, with training, the power output that was being performed at each threshold went up due to proper training.  For running, the equivalent idea would be that speed would be increasing.

And here’s why this matters: clearly race performance in endurance sports is determined to a great degree by the ability to maintain speed over the distance.  And we know that the most efficient way of maintaining that speed is to do it aerobically.  Or at least to minimize the anaerobic contribution.   Because once you get severely anaerobic, you’ve got about 90 seconds of capacity before you blow up but good.  And in most sports, once you blow up, you’re done for the day (there are exceptions, in cycling you can get back in the peloton and recover).  So for any event lasting longer than 90 seconds, the faster you can go using purely (or nearly purely) aerobic metabolism the better.

And the best way to push up the speed you can generate aerobically over a long period of time (this is a key phrase I’ll come back to) is through either the miles build champions method (if you have time) or some combination of tempo, sweet spot and threshold training (generally more realistic for folks who can’t train full time), topped off with a bit of higher intensity training to maximize those other systems (which, again, aren’t terribly trainable).

Ok, this may be unclear, let me give a specific example.  Let’s assume a generic cyclist who has an aerobic threshold power output of 175watts, a tempo threshold power output of 200 watts, a functional threshold power output of 240 watts and a VO2 max power output of 300watts.  For anaerobic work, he might use 325 watts for capacity work and hit higher than that for power work.

Let’s say that over 8-10 weeks that athlete works with a combination of primarily tempo, sweet spot and threshold training (perhaps topped off with a small amount of neuromuscular and VO2 max work to ensure no limiting systems) and drives the aerobic threshold power output up by 25 watts.  This would be expected to raise all of the other thresholds (pushing it up from the bottom) by a roughly equivalent amounts.  The old and new numbers are shown below.

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Threshold Start Finish
Aerobic 175 watts 200 watts
Tempo 200 watts 225 watts
Functional 240 watts 265 watts
VO2 Max. 300 watts 325 watts
Anaerobic Capacity 330 watts 355 watts

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So initially this athlete can hold 240 watts (working, mind you) for an hour.  If the pace requires him to put out say 275 watts up to about 300 watts, he’ll be working near VO2 max.  He’ll have 3-8 minutes before he’s blown.  If the event is longer than that…..He’ll have even less time to exhaustion at higher power outputs.  If the race requires say 330 watts or more, he’ll get maybe 60-90 seconds and that’s all she wrote.

But after training, this has changed.  Now the athlete can hold 265 watts for an hour.  A pace that might have fatigued him in 8 minutes previously is sustainable.  And the same 330 watts that would have shut him down after 60-90 seconds (because it was so anaerobic) is now nearer to VO2 max.  He’ll still only have 3-8 minutes there but that’s a lot better than 60-90 seconds.  But all of this translates to improved performance at pretty much all levels by pushing things up from the bottom.  Improving performance at the ‘slow’ end ends up pushing everything up to some degree.

Of course, driving up the functional threshold and/or VO2 max wattages will probably take some specific training at those intensities which is why all endurance athletes do some of it.  You can think of the increase with the other methods as providing the potential for an increase with the specific higher intensity training causing it to occur.  Basically, the high volume, predominantly aerobic training improves the performance potential while the specific high-intensity work realizes it.

The same would hold for running and this is sort of ultimately the goal of all running systems: to increase the speed that can be handled through purely aerobic metabolism.  Not only does this improve performance over just about any distance beyond 2 minutes, it means that even higher speeds can be handled by going anaerobic.  The same basic concept holds for other endurance sports as well, by gradually increasing the speed/power output that can be handled with purely aerobic metabolism you push up all other levels of performance (especially if proper amounts of high intensity work for those systems are done).

I’d note that training in the above fashion means focusing on the long-view. Adaptations to pure aerobic training, whether the Miles Build Champions Method, Tempo, Sweet Spot or Threshold methods, take time.  But those adaptations also tend to occur more predictably over time (the aerobic engine is often described as being able to adapt to a near-unlimited degree in contrast to the anaerobic systems which show limited adaptational possibilities).  As well, they tend to last longer than the fast results generated by the higher intensity methods.

Tangentially, this is a general truism with training methods.  While high intensity method generate results faster, they tend to be shorter lived.  Lower intensity methods take longer to generate gains but the results hang around longer.

For those more familiar with strength training, the above is no different than driving up maximum strength potential by doing a high volume of relatively moderate intensity work.  That is, if you assume that for an average athlete a 5 repetition maximum is about 85% of their 1 repetition maximum, if you use a lot of volume to improve how much weight they can handle for 5 reps, their potential for a 1 repetition maximum should have increased as well.

That is, if someone has a 5RM of 85 kg, that predicts a 1RM of 100kg.  If they drive that 5RM to 100kg, their theoretical 1RM is now 117 kg (117 * 0.85 = 100).  Of course, anybody who’s trained knows it never works out that way, unless the individual does a bit of higher intensity work to realize that potential.  But the concept is the same: you use volume methods to raise performance potential and intensity methods to realize it.  And you do it without having to work at balls-out maximum all the time (which tends to burn people out or get them injured).

Of course, some might argue that even for our cyclist above using intervals would be more time efficient or generate similar results in a shorter time-frame (in the same way that training at 90%+ gives faster strength gains in the short-term), with much smaller amounts of training, you can get the same approximate benefits.  Which is a nice place to stop today and which will segue into Friday’s article where I’ll really finish up with some actual recommendations.

Read Methods of Endurance Training: Summing Up: Part 2