Methods of Endurance Training: Summing Up Part 2

Ok, as is so often the case, what was meant to be a two-part article has now gotten utterly out of hand.  But today’s article will finish up.  In Methods of Endurance Training: Summing up Part 1 I summarized loading parameters for all of the methods I’ve discussed and looked at some of the reasons (read: misconceptions) that ‘training slow’ can actually have an end result of making you fast. Which leads me into one last digression before I make some practical recommendations for different groups.

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Training Isn’t an Either/Or Proposition

In all areas of training, diet and I’m sure everywhere else, people tend to play a game of excluding the middle: training is either one thing or it’s another, you’re either eating zero carbs or 80% carbs, you’re either doing one set to failure or 80 sets.  People love absolutes and it can’t possibly be some middle ground or combination of factors.  And this certainly seems to have become true recently in the area of not only performance training but fat loss with regards the issue of aerobic work vs. high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Some coaches, driven I fear more by marketing goals than informational ones, are basically coming out completely against steady state training.  Since that ‘didn’t work’ for them, it now has to be all intervals all the time.  That’s not only the best way to condition athletes but the only way.

To put this very bluntly: this is idiotic.  And here’s part of why.

If you get nothing else from this series of articles, I want you to get one take home message: steady state aerobic work (of varying type) generates adaptations in the body that HIIT doesn’t.  And HIIT (depending on the specifics of what’s done) generates adaptations to the body that steady state simply can’t accomplish.  Did you get that?  The methods do different things, generating different specific adaptations to either muscle or what have you.

And, both types of training are clearly important to overall performance.  Which, amusingly, nobody has ever suggested wasn’t the case.  Even among endurance athletes, no-one has ever suggested that doing nothing but piss-easy endurance work was the key to optimal performance.  Some amount of high-intensity work was always done.  When and how much depended on the system and the specifics but it was always a mix of different types of training to do all the things that endurance athletes needed to do.

Yet somehow, many performance coaches seem to think that conditioning training is an either/or proposition: you do one or the other but can’t possibly do both.  Either their athletes are doing nothing but sloggging miles at a jogging pace OR they are doing nothing but intervals.   It’s silly as hell and, as I suggested above, probably has more to do with marketing than reality.

If this concept is still unclear, let me try to make this point with another example: in the weight room, there are numerous methods of training all of which can or do accomplish different things.  Higher rep pump training (done circuit style or not) can have benefits for joints, glycogen storage and recovery between heavy workouts; moderate rep work is good for muscle mass; heavy low rep work for maximal strength; true power training (OL’s or speed work) for power, etc.  Depending on the needs of an athlete, some mix of those methods would always be used to reach ultimate performance.  Thinking any single method can accomplish all things for all people is simply idiotic.

Yet that’s exactly the kind of ‘logic’ that some seem to be applying to conditioning training for athletes.

But again, no single method can generate all of the adaptations that are potentially beneficial, necessary or useful for a given athlete.  Some mix of methods will always be needed.  What that exact mix will be depends on the specifics.  The nature of the sport, the athlete in question (their strengths and weaknesses, how long they’ve been training, how long the coach has to get them into shape) and a whole host of other variables go into deciding what mix might be best.

But it has to be some mix.

And with that out of the way, let’s look at some different populations and how they might apply the information that I’ve talked about for altogether too long in this series.  First I want to look at pure endurance athletes since I think that’s the easier case to address and then I’ll do my best to address the non-pure endurance sports which have some element of endurance involved.  I’ll admit beforehand that this isn’t my area of forte or expertise and most of my comments will come out of physiological background or what little I think I know.

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Pure Endurance Athletes

I’m going to assume that few reading this series are elite endurance athletes training 30-40 hours/week. There might be some but I doubt it.  Rather, you might be a semi-competitive cyclist or runner or possibly a rower (I know there is quite an involved ergometer circuit in that sport).  If you’re a swimmer, go get a coach; I have no idea what I’m talking about with that sport.

But odds are that you don’t have the time available to make the classic Miles Build Champions method work.   True extensive endurance training may still play a role as active recovery or for when you do have time to go do some distance (e.g. cyclists often can get in a very long ride on the weekends, runners may fit in a long run once/week at a lower intensity).  Job, life, family are all going to limit how long you have to train.  So what’s the solution to make you the most competitive athlete you can be?

If you’ve paid attention to this series at all, you can probably imagine what I’m going to say: since extensive endurance/miles build champions isn’t going to work, and going from the assumption that focusing primarily on building the aerobic engine is going to be the primary determinant of your success, a mix of the tempo/sweet spot methods and threshold methods is going to be the best bet in terms of deriving the maximum bang for the buck in terms of improvement relative to time investment.

That can and should make up the bulk of your training volume.  Occasional training in higher intensity levels to ensure optimal anaerobic power/capacities along with Vo2 max development will be key too.   Some neuromuscular work can be included year round for speed development, just keep the intervals shorts and non-metabolically fatiguing. They can be done after warm-up but before a long workout or even done during the workout itself (e.g. a cyclist might throw in some 10 second high speed sprints during a tempo workout).

Some of that will, mind you, depend on the nature of what you want to do.  A cyclist targeting crits usually needs more top speed and the ability to jump out of corners, handling is key too.  Time trialists need more sustainable power (and a high pain tolerance) and building functional threshold will be a bigger goal.  Runners often simply want to finish a given event (half- and full-marathons being popular) but even that is different than racing to compete.

More practically, a cyclist who had three workouts per week might do nothing but tempo/sweet spot rides.  Or they might hit two tempo/sweet spot rides and one threshold ride; during certain phases they might do 2 threshold workouts and one tempo ride. Or two tempo and one longer extensive ride.  That would be done for 8-10 weeks and then topped off with some higher intensity work.

A rider with 4 workouts per week might do 3 tempo and one longer extensive endurance ride (perhaps on the weekends when more time is available).  Or 2 tempo, one threshold and one long ride.  Or….the options are pretty endless.  Just keep in mind that as your ability to train more or more frequently goes up, the overall intensity has to go down. If you can get on the bike 6 days/week, several of those better be easy/extensive endurance types of rides.  You might do tempo Monday/Wednesday/Friday and easier rides in-between.

I’d also note that for total beginners to endurance sports, I would say that extensive endurance/miles build champions methods are pretty much the only thing that should be done initially.  Yes, I know, the interval training studies show faster initial gains in fitness comparatively speaking but there are issues that need to be considered.  Not the least of which is that the intensities involved are usually beyond what beginners can or will do.

Yes, I know, everyone on the Internet does intervals and does them all out (as well, everyone on the Internet is advanced, and 5% body fat and squats full rock bottom and…..).  Let me be blunt: I’ve trained as an athlete for 2 decades and  watched people train for just as long.  The number I’ve seen truly work hard I can count on maybe three hands and I was training two hands worth of them.

And the kinds of intervals that are being done in the studies aren’t the kind of things that beginning exercisers are going to do without a gun to their head (or a researcher yelling at them).  True interval work is very hard: it’s miserable work that makes athletes fall down, throw up and want to die.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in a commercial gym work at that level.  Certainly not often.

Amusingly, this is usually mentioned in the interval training studies (you only know this if you read the full paper, not just the abstract): the researchers always point out that while the results are interesting, the intensities being used are usually far beyond what a beginner can accomplish.   When people say they are ‘doing intervals’, I usually take that to mean ‘I worked a little bit out of my comfort zone’.  They aren’t doing HIIT in the sense that it’s being used either in the studies or by athletes.

But that’s enough of that: outside of one specific situation (discussed below), I feel that beginners should start with extensive endurance methods.  They have to build up a basic tolerance to regular training before they even consider moving up to more intensive methods (tempo/sweet spot/threshold) training.  Joints need to adapt and some sort of base needs to built to be ready for the higher intensity methods.   And since lower intensity stuff stimulates adaptations anyhow, not only is the higher intensity stuff overkill, it’s not necessary anyhow.

In any case, that’s my recommendation to competitive or semi-competitive endurance athletes without the time to put into the miles build champions method: do the bulk of your training in the sweet spot/tempo/threshold zone and top it off with occasional forays into higher intensity work to ensure that no adaptations are left out.  I’m not going to get into specifics beyond that, I’ve provided some further reading for specific sports and issues of volumes and durations and periodization and planning are always discussed therein.

But there are two major exceptions when the above won’t work and I’m going to (confusingly) refer to both as Time-Crunched Athletes.

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Time Crunched Athletes

I’m actually going to use the time-crunched athlete phrase to describe two different situations that I’m going to discuss next.  Basically, it represents two specific situations where even the more intensive tempo/sweet spot/threshold methods may be insufficient to get an athlete where they want to be.  That is, the above methods are fantastic when you have moderate amounts of time available and can focus on the longer term (weeks, months or even years) to develop; but that’s not always the case.  Two specific situations that come up that render even the methods suggested above moot are the following:

  1. An individual has a very limited length of time to get ready for an event
  2. An individual has a very limited time during the week to train

So consider a situation where someone needs to get into shape for something but only has 3-4 weeks to do it.  Or let’s say 6 weeks to make it marginally more realistic.  Long enough to get a nice full training block in but not long enough to wait for the relatively slower adaptations of even sweet spot/tempo/threshold methods to work.

That is, a fairly ‘standard’ endurance cycle might be 18 weeks to reach a peak (the classic Lydiard cycle was about this long) but what if you don’t have 18 weeks?  In that situation, you have little choice; you throw the person into the grinder and hope for the best.

Hopefully they have some form of previous training and certain activities are relatively more body friendly than others (I’d feel more comfortable getting someone in shape on a bike or non-impact activity than having them run for example).  But with only 6 weeks you may simply have to use a combination of both some steady state and interval methods to have any chance of getting them ready.  It might even be nothing but intervals in that specific situation.

So you might realistically get 1 break-in week and then beat on them for 5 weeks and then taper them into the event.  It’s not ideal but may be the only workable situation.  Over 6 weeks, people can actually handle a fairly shocking amount of training and if that’s all you have (or less), you can punish them.  Essentially, you skip general preparation and go straight to specific (to put it in old-school periodization terms).  Or you do a very truncated general preparation period (perhaps 2-3 weeks) and then beat the hell out of them with more specific work. It’s what you do because it’s all you have time to do.

The other situation that comes up is one where people may have no time pressure in terms of how long they have to get ready for something but may be severely limited in their weekly training time.  Perhaps they work long hours or have family commitments or what have you.  Whatever the case, they don’t even have the time available to make the tempo/sweet spot/threshold methods work.  Which brings up the question of how long is actually needed each week.

In an interesting new book by Chris Carmichael called The Time Crunched Cyclist, he describes that over years of coaching, he found that the traditional methods (revolving around easy aerobic, tempo and threshold work) work for cyclists so long as they can put in 10-12 hours/week of training.  That’s about half what you’d see on average with elites (where 20-25 weeks would be average and more wouldn’t be unheard of) but this is for citizen racers with lives.  He also notes that once folks got to the point that they can only put in about 8 hours a week, even those traditional methods fail.  The volume simply becomes too low for the lower intensity methods to be effective.

In that sort of time-crunched situation, he offers an option that can be valid and that’s based around nothing but high intensity interval training (with one long ride a week).  In his book he describes a 12 week cycle build around hard intervals with the goal of getting cyclists through shorter races.  He acknowledges that it won’t prepare most for rides longer than about 3 hours but if they have something shorter, it will at least get them ready.

With this major caveat: the training won’t be sustainable in the long-term.  Each 12 week block has to be offset by periods of easier work.  And some may not even make it those 12 weeks before blowing up.  This is a point I’ve tried to make over and over on the site and in this article series.  True interval work is grindingly hard and will blow you up if it’s done all the time.  It can’t be done year round and shouldn’t be done year round.

As Carmichael puts it, the time crunched approach works when you want to be good a couple of times a year rather than mediocre year round.  You get to be in great shape for a couple of races that are fairly far apart but that’s about it.

But the above offers a solution for both situations I describe above.  Since neither volume nor duration of training is workable, you can use intensity, at least in the very short-term, to prepare someone.  Just with the very real understanding that the training won’t be sustainable and won’t do a whole lot for long-term development.   It’s just a trade-off.

Again, over short periods folks can usually tolerate a lot and higher intensity, quicker result methods may be preferred or the only option available.  Over the long-term, focusing on longer term developmental methods works better and that means putting the time into tempo/sweet spot/threshold methods topped off with interval work to cover the other adaptations.

I would note that the examples above used cycling for a reason, it would also apply to rowing and cross country skiing.  All sports which are not only non-impact but tend to require fairly large volumes (per week or per year) to get even moderate performance gains.  Again, I can’t comment on swimming.

Now, let’s talk about running.

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Running: The Big Exception

I want to really really really emphasize that the above section really does not, should not and can not apply to running training.  And there are two major reasons for this.

The first is that, by and large, running training doesn’t require nearly the time commitment as other endurance sports.  As I’ve noted several times in this series of articles, running volumes are typically about 1/2 what you’d see with sports such as cycling or rowing.  Put differently, while you might see average elite cycling volumes of 20-25 hours/week, runners might put in 10-12 hours per week for their core work (with possibly some very easy extra running done at higher competitive levels).

Meaning that the 10-12 hour basic requirement for cycling (as described by Carmichael) is only about 5-6 hours for running in the first place.  The 8 hour cutoff Carmichael mentions for cycling is only about 4 hours for running (even a marathon can be finished with maybe 4-5 hours/week of running if you’re smart about it).  Running doesn’t have the basic time requirements of most other endurance sports.

So the need to grind out intervals to get the maximum result shouldn’t be required in the first place.  With only 4 hours/week, if you put in two or three tempo runs (strong aerobic running) and one longer easier run you can get pretty far.  Top that off every so often with strides and some interval work every so often and you’re golden.  You probably won’t be winning races but you will be finishing well.

But there is another, perhaps bigger issue and one that I sort of alluded to above.  And that’s the impact issue.  Cycling, rowing, swimming, cross country skiing are low impact activities in terms of how they stress the body and joints.  Ok, sure, you can crash your bike but you know what I mean.  I think at least part of the reason that those sports train more (on top of differences in metabolic strain) is that they can.  You can ride a bike for 6 hours and, assuming it’s set up right, your knees won’t explode.  Your ass might go numb but your joints don’t blow up on the bike.  Try that running.

It’s worth noting in this regards that most of the interval studies that people love to reference use cycling as the exercise mode.  There are at least two reasons for this.  The first is that it limits joint impact and injury.  The second is that, when form breaks down on an exercise bike, you just stop pedalling.  Run to exhaustion during sprints and you get hurt when you twist an ankle or knee when form breaks down.  Most runners I see these days have crap form running at slow speeds; thinking they can sprint or run intervals is just asking for problems.

In a related vein, I find it intriguing that the original ideas about hard/easy training came out of running (the concept is usually attributed to Bill Bowerman at Oregon).  He was training runners on the track and I suspect he found that two hard days in a row caused joint problems because the connective tissues never got time to recover.  And this is a very real issue that tends to be very specific to running.

On average, runners do far less quality (high-intensity) training than any other athlete.  I’ve tried to reflect that through this series although questions in the comments make it clear that I haven’t been explicit enough.  But whereas a cyclist might readily do two threshold workouts of 2X20 minutes per week, a runner would be limited to 1X20 minutes once/week (possibly twice if they were really robust).

A cyclist can do intervals three times per week (and some training systems have them do intervals multiple days in a row), swimmers seem to do more quality work than any other sport.  Even though they generally don’t do it at the highest levels, rowers and cross-country skiiers certainly could because these sports are fairly easy on the body.

That much quality work would kill all but the most robust runner.  Even the most well trained would probably get into joint issues with more than two quality workouts per week and this tends to be reflected in the training systems of most running coaches.  Even there, two quality sessions per week is still generally for fairly highly trained runners who have conditioned their bodies through years of training.  They also often try to avoid doing too much quality work on pavement, preferring a softer track or running on ground.

So while the time crunched ideas of all intervals all the time can work for non-impact endurance sports, runners neither need to do it (as a function of needing less total training time in the first place) and certainly shouldn’t do it unless they want to get hurt.  Especially at the lower levels of training.

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Athletes Who Need Endurance As Part of Their Overall Performance

And finally, a topic that is really a lot more complicated than I have the time or qualifications to cover.  As I mentioned earlier in this article series, when you get outside of pure endurance athletes (for whom developing things like the aerobic engine, VO2 max, lactate threshold and efficiency is THE end goal of their training) and into athletes for whom endurance (of varying sorts) is simply part of their performance package, things get a little bit less clear.

Part of this is that this category of athletes covers a whole lot of ground.  Most team sports live here, with requirements for both explosive high-speed activities (think soccer players sprinting after the ball or hockey players) but also the ability to sustain that over what are often long time frames (e.g. 90 minute soccer match, however long rugby lasts, the seeming 80 hours that professional football takes).  Even within those sports, different positions may have drastically different requirements (e.g. soccer goalie vs. forward, hockey goalie vs. forward, football lineman vs. running back/receiver).

As well this category includes other peculiar activities such as say boxing or MMA where an athlete may have fairly high power/strength/anaerobic requirements but also needs the ability to sustain that.  An MMA fighter may have to get through multiple 5 minute rounds with a short-break (1′ on average) and a full boxing match might run 15X3′ rounds with a short break in-between.  Wrestling is in a similarly odd spot with 3X2′ rounds with a short break.

Basically, this category of activities lives between the extremes of the pure endurance athlete (roughly defined as any event where aerobic metabolism dominates which is anything past about 2 minutes in duration) and the pure strength/power athlete (powerlifting, Olympic lifting, throwing).  The latter athlete may need some form of work capacity but endurance per se is rarely an explicit goal (unless you want to make them perform worse).

Basically there’s this continuum from pure endurance on one end to pure strength/power on the other with all of these weird mixed sports in the middle, requiring some amount of the adaptations of each with the specific amounts depending on the sport in question, the position, the team’s playing style, etc.

In this mixed group of sports, there is neither the requirements for the maximal strength/power of the pure strength/power sports (an exception might be football linemen) or the endurance of the pure endurance athlete. While the methods of each sport can be used, the mixture of methods is likely to be higher in the middle category of sports.  Figuring out how to best integrate them is, mind you, a huge problem since many types of training interfere with one another.

While traditionally, the extensive endurance types of training methods have been used, as I noted earlier in today’s article there has been quite a backlash with a newly found focus on interval training for performance coming to the forefront.   But it shouldn’t be an either/or situation in the first place.

Certainly short-term studies (usually 4-8 weeks) indicate that interval training and speed endurance training improves performance either in terms of various performance tests (such as the Yo-Yo or beep test) or in-game performance.  As well, over those time frames, they tend to maintain endurance performance.

But what happens over longer time frames?  The studies haven’t answered that and, as we’ve all been told over and over, if you don’t train an adaptation it goes away.  And, as noted in the first part of this article, the adaptations to HIIT aren’t the same as those to more traditional endurance methods.

And coaches will often argue to the effect that “A soccer player may only sprint 40 meters, or a football play is only 10 seconds long.”  All true and easy endurance training, by and large, tends not to develop that capacity.  But they also have to be able to do it over and over again across the course of a full game.  And doing nothing but HIIT won’t tend to give them that capacity (unless you intend to do intervals for 90 minutes straight).

And, generally speaking, the recovery between bouts of high intensity activity (this also holds for MMA or boxing athletes during easier periods during the rounds, or between rounds) is dominated by aerobic metabolism.  An MMA athlete with the cardiovascular development to recover to a greater degree in the 1 minute between rounds will be starting each round fresher than the one who can’t.  This is even more pronounced if they can generate more power aerobically during the round itself.  Not only don’t they dig the hole as deep during the round, they get out of it quicker between rounds.

An added situation is this: in the mixed sports, usually the athletes are already doing a tremendous amount of fairly specific training when they practice their sport.  Boxers or MMA may be training/sparring at high intensities, football/soccer/hockey players are scrimmaging and that alone may be mimicking the energetics of their sport.

My question: How much more specific training can you tack onto that?

The answer is generally not much. Certainly if an athlete is in a situation where they can’t practice their sport at high intensities, doing more specific work in non-sport related conditioning (e.g. intervals on the bike or rowing machine) may be perfectly appropriate to get them ready.  But if they are already getting what amounts to HIIT in their in-game practices, how much more do they need?   The body can only handle so much high intensity work before things go awry and trying to take on HIIT conditioning on a bike or something on top of what amounts to HIIT work in-practice seems excessive.

But since they may need other general conditioning, I’d tend to argue that some form of extensive or possibly intensive endurance methods might have a role.  Not only does it help with recovery but it can improve the aerobic engine such that recovery between high-intensity bouts is better and faster.  And, unless done to stupid extremes (e.g. you’re not going to train a hockey player like a distance runner in the first place), won’t cut into other important adaptations.

Do you get me here?  It’s a function of balance.  You wouldn’t train a mixed sport athlete like a pure endurance athlete with nothing but endless aerobic work; that would be fairly nonsensical.  But neither is ignoring all base endurance work going to be productive since important adaptations will go untrained.

What you might end up doing is blocks of reasonable aerobic development but topped off with more specific speed/explosive/speed endurance work.  Since developing aerobic capacities as high as possible isn’t relevant, the training doesn’t have to be extensive in terms of volumes or frequencies.  Or you might see a situation where two speed/speed endurance type workout per week are done along with a couple of more traditional endurance workouts (to develop/maintain basic aerobic fitness/work capacity).

I’d note that for that reason, even a moderate amount of extensive endurance/miles build champions may be sufficient with occasional work up towards the intensive endurance/tempo intensity.  Threshold work tends to be pretty draining and I’d fear that it would cut too heavily into recovery to allow a mixed sport/team sport athlete to do the other training they need to do.

There are other options, sprint coach Charlie Francis has long advocated a combination of pure speed work and extensive endurance (a low-intensity method of training that has a pseudo-aerobic effect without having to grind miles) for sports such as soccer and hockey.  This builds top-end speed and work capacity and the specific speed endurance work is typically covered with in-game scrimmages and what have you.

The point being that, in these types of mixed sports, while there might be a greater predominance of higher intensity methods (simply reflecting the needs of the sport), throwing out the baby with the bathwater by thinking that intervals can get everything done is a mistake.

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And Finally, We’re Done

And that’s the end of that.  I can’t begin to summarize the entire series of articles here so I won’t bother trying.   Rather, I’m going to provide the promised resources (primarily for pure endurance sports) for anybody who wants to delve into the topic and see where some of what I wrote throughout comes from.

For a good look at rather classical endurance methods, Succesful Endurance Training by Neumann/Pfutzner/Berbalk.  This is very classic, very German kind of book.

Possibly the most accessible book on running is Daniels Running Formula by Jack Daniels, PhD.

For a look at Arthur Lydiard’s classic system, Running with Lydiard by Arthur Lydiard and Garth Gilmour is a good place to start.

Perhaps a clearer examination and explanation of Lydiard’s system can be found in Healthy Intelligent Training by Keith Livingstone.

For a look at modern rowing training, I recommend Rowing Faster by Volker Nolte.

For anyone interested in training with a power meter, Training and Racing with a Power Meter by Dr. Andrew Coggan.

The Time-Crunched Cyclist by Chris Carmichael details what I talked about above for those specific situations.

For anyone interested in the growing field of MMA, I’d highly recommend Ultimate MMA Conditioning by Joel Jamieson.  Joel is training many of the top talents in the sport and, contrary to what is often asserted on the Internet, finds that developing a strong aerobic engine improves performance.  It’s not just complexes and intervals all the time.