In recent weeks I have been deliberating between the merits of low volume, high intensity training (embodied in the Furman approach) compared with the high volume, lower intensity training typical of the base building phase of the Lydiard approach. As I described last week, I am inclined towards a Lydiard type approach, at least for the early part of my preparation for a half marathon in the autumn, mainly because I think that the intensity demanded by the Furman approach is likely to be too stressful and thereby create too high a risk of illness or injury. However, for a person who has limited time for training, might there be advantages in combining Lydiard base-building with some higher intensity work? This raises the crucial question of whether or not moderate or high intensity training actually hinders the development of a good aerobic base.
Lydiard maintains that peak performance in distance running is determined mainly by the capacity to utilize oxygen and that this can only be acquired by aerobic training. This capacity can in principle be expanded year by year. Anaerobic training merely adds a small extra power generating capacity that can be maximized in about 6 weeks of training. Unfortunately it is not easy to obtain direct evidence for Lydiard’s claims via a systematic study of groups of athletes assigned randomly to different training regimes because a convincing demonstration would require a study performed over several years. It is virtually impossible to acquire data systematically over such a time period.
High intensity can be more efficient than high volume in the short term
On the other hand, there is good evidence from short term studies, that high intensity training can improve aerobic capacity while providing a more efficient use of time than traditional endurance training. For example Giballa and colleagues (J Physiol Vol 575, pp 901-911, 2006) compared 6 sessions of high intensity sprint cycling consisting of 4 to 6 30second sprints with 6 session of endurance training consisting of 90-120 minutes of cycling at 65% of VO2max, over a two week period. The total training time commitment was 2.5 hours for the sprint training compared with 10.5 hours for the endurance training, while total training volume measured in terms of energy consumption was 630 KJ for sprinting and 6500 kJ for endurance training. However, the improvements in performance; muscle oxidative capacity; muscle buffering capacity; and muscle glycogen content were similar in both groups. Thus, if you have very limited time available, high intensity training is possibly best in the short term.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence regarding long term training methods is provided by anecdotes about successful athletes, There are plenty of instances of successful athletes who followed a Lydiard type approach, ranging from Peter Snell, Murray Halbert, Barry Magee, Ron Clarke, Lasse Viren and Pekka Vasala in the 1960’s and 70’s, to the dominance of contemporary African runners, many of who m apparently established a sound aerobic base in childhood. It is less easy to find clear-cut examples of great runners who relied solely on high intensity work. In the 1950’s, the interval techniques introduced by Woldemar Gerschler led to dramatic improvements in performance, initially over middle distances, but with subsequent development, also over longer distances. The greats of those days, including Emil Zatopek and Gordon Pirie, did prodigious amounts of interval training.
It would be expected that aerobic capacity might deteriorate during a period of low volume but high intensity anaerobic training simply because maintenance of an aerobic base requires a high volume of training. Therefore in a high intensity, low volume program, the damage to the aerobic base might be attributed to the lack of volume rather than the presence of high intensity. What about high intensity work embedded within a high volume program?
It might be argued that Pirie and Zatopek demonstrate that extraordinary performance can be achieved by including intense workouts within a high volume program. A session of 50x400m combines both volume and intensity in the same session! On the other hand, it could be argued that Pirie and Zatopek would both have achieved more if they had not employed such demanding schedules. Despite recording a greater training volume than any other person in human history, Pirie had only a few really good competitive seasons. In 1956 he achieved an epic victory over Vladimir Kuts in the 5K, broke the world 3K record twice, and won a 5K sliver medial at the Melbourne Olympics, but he never reached such heights again. Zatopek had a somewhat longer period at the top. He won gold in the 10K in London in 1948. In Helsinki in1952 he won gold in 5K, 10K and marathon. He was a fading force in the European championships in 1954, and after suffering a hernia during preparation for the Melbourne Games in 1956 he finished 6th in defense of his marathon title.
So historical anecdotes do not answer our question completely. Another approach is to consider what we know about physiology. The problem with this approach is that the human body is incredibly complex and any conclusions derived from considering one system (eg basic energy metabolism) might be countermanded by the consequences in a related physiological system (eg the endocrine system). I am still struggling to find time to review all the relevant physiological evidence, so at this stage I will pose a few of the issues and give some preliminary information that points is towards some conclusions.
First there is the fact that anaerobic metabolism generates lactate and hydrogen ions (acid). While the lactate is potentially a useful by-product as it can be usefully metabolized in other tissues in the body, the increased acidity due to the increase in hydrogen ion concentration almost certainly has undesirable consequences. Many physiological processes slow down or stop in an acid environment. Paradoxically, acidity can in fact promote stronger contraction of muscle fibres isolated in a Petrie dish in the laboratory, but almost certainly, within the intact human being, acidity diminishes muscle contraction, possibly via effects on the central nervous system.
Another metabolic process adversely affected by increased acidity is the ability to utilize fat as fuel. Fat oxidation process stops when acidity is high. On the other hand, it should be noted that high intensity training can produce an increase in the ability to metabolise fats, possibly via an increase in mucle mass which would lead to an increase in resting state fat metabolism (Talanian and colleagues J Appl Physiol vol 102: pp 1439-1447, 2007).
The build up of extra-cellular potassium has a simlar potnetial for deleterious effects. In the resting state, potassiun concentration is high inside cells, including both heart and muscle fibres, and low in the extracellular fluid. (i.e the fluid surrounding the cells). This imbalance is maintained by active pumping across the cell membrane. Intense muscle contraction results in transport of some potassium out of the cells and unless there is an opportunity for pumping the potassium back into cells, the accumulation of extra-cellular potassium would eventually inhibit muscle contraction. Injection of potassium is sometimes the method of choice by the writers of murder fiction,as it can produce cardiac arrest with relatively little external evidence (apart maybe form an injection site).
Therefore, there is little doubt that within a single session, anaerobic activity will impede the development of optimal aerobic metabolism Attempting to develop aerobic and anaerobic capacity at the same time by a session of 50x400m is almost certainly not a good idea.
But what about combining aerobic and anaerobic sessions in the same week? The relevant system to consider is the endocrine (hormone) system. The natural response to stress of various kinds, both physical and psychological, includes an increased release of cortisol from the adrenal gland. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone that promotes the break down of proteins to generate energy. As protein is the main constituent of the contractile machinery in muscle, excessive cortisol production is likely to be counter-productive. On the other hand, moderate muscle activity promotes release of natural anabolic hormones, especially anabolic steroids and growth hormone, which promote the growth of muscle. Therefore if we want maximum development of muscle fibres, it is essential to facilitate the release of anabolic steroids and growth hormone, while avoiding excessive release of cortisol. It is probable that doing many anaerobic training sessions in a week will tip the balance in favour of harmful levels of cortisol while suppressing beneficial anabolic hormones.
I suspect that the training regimes of Zatopek and Pirie went near to or perhaps even beyond the balance point where catabolic effects were greater than anabolic effects. It is tempting to speculate that they might have enjoyed more seasons of high performances if they had been a little less Spartan in their training. So my conclusion so far is that if you plan more than about 10 hours of training per week, the Lydiard approach is the safer approach, though the evidence I have considered does not rule out the possibility that inclusion of at least a moderate amount of higher intensity work in the base-building phase might provide a more time-efficient approach to training.
Medium term plans
For the next few months I will persist with my current Lydiard type approach. It is important to note that Lydiard advocated including some speed training even in the base-building phase. So in order to avoid loss of neuromuscular coordination and loss of strength of fast twitch fibres, I will continue to include some short sprints (e.g. 10×50 metres) near the end of some of my low intensity runs.
Sleet and rainbows
This morning I ran an easy 21 Km, at about 3/10 effort, in 2 hours. My mean heart rate was 120. The weather was an extreme illustration of the fickleness of March and April.. There was a brisk northwesterly breeze which at times drove flurries of sleet against my bare legs. I even wondered at one point if it would turn to snow. Then within a few minutes the sun was shining brightly and a rainbow banished the gloom. In the woods, the first of the bluebells were in flower. I had been aware of a mild tightness in my quads when descending hills so I decided to be cautious with the planned sprints. Nonetheless, in the final 2KM I included 5×50 metre sprints and was pleased to find that there was no increase in tightness in the quads.