The Endurance Equation
Recently we’ve been helping a lot of athletes figure out their plans for the season. This includes helping define their overall goals along with how they intend to achieve them and importantly, how to structure their training along the way.
For many people, when trying to figure out their daily training requirements the same old question crops up again and again. How much and how hard? Unfortunately in most cases, we see lots of athletes getting it wrong, doing way too much training at high intensities. The logic of their decision seems sound on the face of it, they want to go fast in races, so they train fast. A lot. Whilst this will undoubtedly make a difference to begin with, most amateur athletes aren’t strangers to strains, sprains and injuries, often brought on through going too hard too often, or simply over-training on an already tired body. We have to look at the bigger picture of what allows the body to get stronger to make steady gains over the season.
To make sure we don’t plateau over the course of our training we have to keep introducing some stimulus to prompt the body to adapt. There’s generally two ways to do this – do it harder or do more of it.
How much, how often, how hard – that’s the endurance equation…
A plethora of different tests over the last decade or so have widely proven that low intensity exercise at only just over 60% of your max heart-rate will make a difference to your aerobic capacity. This is generally a comfortable level of training for all, which we can sustain for a significant period of time. Whilst training at high intensity will usually increase aerobic capacity quicker, a typical athlete will max-out their aerobic potential quite quickly but not necessarily make you a more efficient athlete. This leaves you with the problem of what to do to keep improving?
Low intensity exercise not only encourages the body to adapt, it also allows training of the brain along with it. If you spend a greater time doing something, it allows the body to become more efficient at doing that action. To become a better juggler, you would juggle. So to become a better runner, cyclist or rower, you need to run, cycle or row. Low intensity exercise allows an increase in training volume that couldn’t be sustained at high intensity and means lots of movement repetition.
98% of athletes out there are going too hard too often however, especially during recovery workouts. Athletes are often very task oriented individuals which means we like to get stuff done. Quite often we’ll pick up the pace a little in training to get through it a little quicker. We don’t want to go too hard though as the body hurts a little bit at high intensity so we naturally compromise and settle into the training black-hole that is “somewhere in the middle” of intensity training.
A moderate intensity training session is a lot more stressful on our bodies than the low intensity stuff mentioned above and is also way less beneficial than high intensity training. High intensity gives the biggest bang for your buck and low intensity allows for sustained repetition, but the middle ground is often just a poor compromise. The growing body of evidence out there shows that high level and successful endurance athletes do 80% of their training at low intensity and only 20% at high intensities.
At the start of this post I did mention that high intensity training works and usually gives quicker results, and of course at some point, to go fast in races you’ve got to go fast in training. So why do elite athletes, who we can probably assume are efficient athletes, train at high intensity for 20% of the time?
With high intensity training a little bit goes a long way, but more and more intensity doesn’t just keep on giving. The point of diminishing returns generally isn’t too far off with high intensity training, so do too much and you’ll start going backwards. Too much stress on the body breaks it down and high intensity sessions require a much greater recovery time between sessions. The most important thing for any endurance athlete is consistency in training. Low intensity training allows a higher volume of daily practice which supports your high intensity training when you come round to it. Elite runners will often run over 100 miles/week, would they be able to do this if it was all high intensity?
Low intensity training should be the foundation of your training programme which in turn allows you to make the high intensity sessions a real quality workout, arrive fresh and get the biggest bang for your buck.
So next time you go out running, take it slow. And then go slower.