Train a lot but train smart

In proposing the toast at a dinner celebrating Espen Tǿnnessen’s successful defence of his PhD thesis, in Oslo in June 2009, Dag Kaas, coach of world champion cross-country skiers and orienteers remarked, ”My experience as a coach tells me that to become world champion in endurance disciplines, you have to train SMART, AND you have to train a LOT. One without the other is insufficient.”

This anecdote is recounted in an excellent review by Stephen Seiler and Espen Tǿnnessen entitled ‘ Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance: the Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training’ published this month in Sportscience (Vol 13, 32-53, 2009). Simon Wegeriff had provided a link to this in his comment on my post on 8th November describing the study by Esteve-Lanao. Esteve-Lanoa and colleagues provided a fairly convincing demonstration that a polarized training program in which about 80% of the work is done at low intensity, is more effective that a program including a higher proportion of work in the mid-zone, near to lactate threshold.

In their review, Seiler and Tǿnnessen present a contrast between the mixed bag of evidence from scientific studies of benefits of high intensity v low intensity training, with the observations from the training of selected elite endurance athletes. To obtain a full appreciation of the evidence it is best to read the full review. Here I will focus on a few issues that caught my attention.

Who are the authors?

Perhaps the first issue when reading a selective review article is appreciating the background of the authors. There is no reason to doubt that Seiler and Tǿnnessen are rigorous scientists with a commitment to establishing the truth. However, a scientist’s background inevitably influences the way in which evidence is selected and evaluated. The senior author, Stephen Seiler, is a strong advocate for polarized training: a large amount of low intensity training, together with a small amount of high intensity training, and a minimal amount on the intervening grey zone. He was one of the co-authors of the report on the Esteve-Lanao study, and had also previously led a study of autonomic recovery following low, medium and high intensity sessions, in which the low intensity sessions were associated with the most rapid recovery. Espen Tǿnnessen’s doctoral dissertation included detailed analyses of the training of selected world champion female endurance athletes. He examined training diary logs of over 15,000 training sessions from three World and/or Olympic champions: Bente Skari (cross-country skier), Hanne Staff (orienteer) and Ingrid Kristiansen (marathon runner). The feature common to the selected champions from the three disciplines was that about 85 % of their training sessions were performed as continuous efforts at low to moderate intensity (with blood lactate less than 2 mM).

Thus, Seiler and Tǿnnessen had good reason to approach this review with a bias towards polarized training. The bias shows through in the use of phrases such as ‘In view of the recent hype and the explosion in the number of studies investigating interval training…’ While their selection of data includes studies favoring high intensity training in addition to studies favoring low intensity training, to my eye, there is a degree of bias in the selection.

Evidence regarding African training

For example, in discussing the training programs of Africans they start with the challenging statement: ‘Kenyan runners are often mythologized for the high intensity of their training’ and go on to refer to their own re-analysis of the data collected by Veronque Billat which led them to conclude that elite Kenyan 5- and 10-km runners ran ~85 % of their weekly training kilometers below lactate-threshold speed. However, they make no mention of the study in which Tim Noakes and colleagues compared elite black African runners with elite white Africans and found that the black runners did 36% of their running at above 80% of VO2max, while the white runners did only 14% of their running above this level (Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 75, pp.1822-1827, 1993).

Training logs of elite athletes

Seiler and Tǿnnessen present compelling evidence for major improvements in both performance and in physiological variables such as VO2max, after a change to a training program with a higher proportion of low intensity training, in the case of two Norwegian athletes: Øystein Sylta, and Knut Anders Fostervold. Sylta was a military pentathlete, who was European champion in 2003, and subsequently became an elite distance runner. Fostervold was a professional soccer player who switched to cycling after a knee injury ended his football career at age 30. He subsequently represented Norway in the world championship time trials in 2006 and 2007.

However, they make no mention of Norway’s greatest female marathon runner, Grete Waitz , who won the New York marathon 9 times, a silver medal in the 1984 Olympics in LosAngeles, and gold at the 1983 World Championships. As far as I have been able to determine, Waitz did a lot of training at mid and high intensity. For example, in an article by elite Norwegian distance runner Marius Bakken, based on Waitz’ training diary; and on talks between magazine writer, Lief Tjelta and Waitz herself; and also on talks between Bakken and one of Waitz’ mentors, Johan Kagestad, Bakken claims: ‘The most mileage for one week came in 1976 with 180 km/week. Her mileage at this time was never long and slow. She often ran it with the boys at a steady 3.30-3.45/km pace, which is quick for a female athlete (according to Kagestad). This indicates a sub AT type training to build endurance.’   Marius Bakken has a reputation for racing with tiger-like ferocity and tends to advocate a substantial amount of moderate and high intensity training. It might be possible to offer alternative interpretations of Grete Waitz’ training diary. The point I wish to make is that in the much debated question of the merits of high intensity v low intensity (high volume) training, one needs to take account of possible biases in the way in which the data is selected and presented. Notwithstanding this important caveat, I think Seiler and Tǿnnessen present a large amount of very valuable information in their review.

Differing physiological benefits at different intensities

Among the things that struck me was their discussion of the possible differences in the physiological benefits of high intensity and of low intensity, high volume training. They conclude that both forms of training are likely to lead to increased activation of fast twitch muscle fibres producing a beneficial increase in metabolic activity in these fast fibres. High intensity training will recruit these fibres early. In the case of low intensity, high volume training they propose that the fast fibres will be recruited after exhaustion of slow fibres. It might be expected that this benefit would greatest after long runs –suggesting that one long run might be better for this purpose than two shorter runs. They also indicate that high intensity training will produce increased filling of the heart and increased end-diastolic volume, thereby producing a beneficial increase in maximum stroke volume and maximum cardiac output. In addition they propose that high intensity training might lead to increased vascular supply to muscle fibres as a result of local mechanical and metabolic signals. In addtion, they  list several other possible physiological benefits of each type of training. The overall conclusion appears to be that high intensity training is likely to be more efficient for certain types of beneficial physiological development, especially in the cardiovascular system, but low intensity training also has its advantages. Thus, ‘smart’ training should include an appropriate proportion of high intensity training in addition to low intensity training. It is crucial to note that Seiler and Tǿnnessen do not argue against the inclusion of high intensity training; they are mainly arguing for polarized training with a relatively small proportion of high intensity training and avoidance of the ‘grey’ mid-zone. They argue that tiredness from mid-zone training impedes the ability to perform the high intensity sessions well.

Differences between individuals

Another important point raised by Seiler and Tǿnnessen is that individuals differ. They describe a 2 year study of cross-country skiers by Gaskill and colleagues, in which all the athletes trained similarly with about 16% of training at lactate threshold or higher, in the first year. By the end of the first year, half of the athletes had shown substantial improvement in race performance and in physiological measurements. In the second year, those who had shown improvement continued on their established training program, while those who had not improved in the first year, undertook a program with more high intensity training. In the second year, the previously poor responders improved significantly on the higher intensity program, while the previously good responders continued to improve on the established program with only 16% at or above lactate threshold. I think the lesson is that whatever program one adopts, one must monitor progress and change if the expected improvement is not occurring.

Training smart

Overall, I consider that Seiler and Tǿnnessen present a strong case for polarized training with a high proportion of low intensity sessions. However, I also think that Dag Kaas is right: it is necessary to be smart in addition to training a lot. Each individual needs to work out a program that addresses his or her specific needs; invest faith in that program for an adequate length of time while monitoring progress, and if progress is not occurring, make appropriate adjustment. In my next two posts I intend to deal with what adjustments in a training program are required to deal with some of the limitations of the older runner, and I will also describe the testing procedures that I am incorporating in my own program.

6 Responses to “Train a lot but train smart”

  1. Ewen Says:

    Thanks Canute for a great summary of that study. I have Waitz’ book which includes the diaries and remember thinking a lot of her training was high intensity, or even “grey” (when you think that 3:30 per km is about marathon race-pace for her). Also, her career as a former elite 1500m runner probably influenced her training preferences. For example, in 73/74 her volume was moderate (around 110k per week), but included some very high quality/low volume track sessions.

    Individualisation of training is something I agree with – even older athletes respond differently to the mix of high/low intensity and volume. One thing I’d propose as a generalisation, is that if volume is ‘limited’ then results would be better if a higher proportion of that volume were in the high intensity range (at lactate threshold or above).

    I’m not convinced that high volume, low intensity training is the best method of developing fast-twitch fibres (by ‘having them recruited after the exhaustion of slow fibres’). Wouldn’t doing a small % of weekly training at sprinting speed (or doing short hills or drills), be the more efficient way of recruiting fast-twitch fibres? In other words, the polarized training recommended by Seiler and Tǿnnessen?

  2. canute1 Says:

    Ewen, Thanks for your comment. I agree that the most efficient way to train type 2 fibres is high intensity running (either fast or uphill) or perhaps resistance work. However the point made by Seiler and Tǿnnessen regarding recruitment of type 2 fibres after exhaustion of type 1 fibres during a long run raises an interesting additional question. The principle that adaptation occurs in response to unaccustomed stress raises the possibility that the type 1 fibres only increase their aerobic capacity to an appreciable extent when they are used almost to the point of exhaustion. If so, a smaller number of fairly long runs (maybe 60-90 minutes) would be more valuable for development of aerobic capacity of type 1 fibres than an equivalent amount of time on short runs. I have always believed that longer runs were more beneficial than short runs of the same total distance, but have never been sure whether this is largely due to better development of aerobic capacity, or to other factors such as promoting improved glycogen storage and also greater ability of connective tissue to cope with the greater forces when the muscles are tired and less able to adjust to sudden jolts.

  3. Ewen Says:

    Canute, Steve Magness wrote a good piece about training in a glycogen depleted state:

    He looked at two studies which compared training once every day to training twice per day every other day. On the ‘double’ days there’d be a good chance the muscles are performing in a glycogen depleted state. There’s an argument that being pre-fatigued for a session could produce positive adaptations. I presume that’s after appropriate recovery.

    So, “doubles” every other day could be a good method to fully develop type 1 fibres.

  4. canute1 Says:

    Ewen, Thanks. The blog by Steve Magness is very interesting. In particular he quotes a study by Hansen and colleagues using used knee extensor exercises with one leg being trained every day and the other twice every other day. The twice every other day leg should significant better time till exhaustion at the end of the training, along with the increased enzyme activity.
    What would have been interesting with regard to the question of the value of one long run compared with two short runs would have been to have include a third comparison group: those who trained once every other day but for twice as long.

    Nonetheless, Hansen’s evidence certainly provides food for thought about the value of doubles. An alternative possibility is that the really beneficial thing is recovery periods of more than 40 hours. I have wondered whether or not this is one of the main benefical aspects of the Furman program (assuming the intervening cross training stresses different muscles).

  5. Simon Wegerif Says:

    Canute – I have to hand it to you for doing a fantastic job of summarising complex material in a very lucid fashion. To add my 2c worth to the topic of indvidualisation of adaptation & recovery, one of the things my iPhone application, ithlete, has allowed me to do is to experiment with training intensities & durations and then look at the response of the autonomic nervous system over the following days, and of course my subsequent performance. After a number of months, I have observed that in my case, recovery from even quite long (2hr+) cycling sorties at sub threshold (2mm) intensities can be accomplished within 24hrs, so I could do them every day if it was not for the boredom that going slowly all the time brings. On the other hand ‘grey zone’ training, which used to be my staple diet of group rides and accompanied runs takes me at least 2days to recover. Recovery from a hard interval session is similar, with perhaps a little more muscle soreness. Research studies by Dr F Iellamo & colleagues have recently led to some fascinating insights on the ability of longer term autonomic changes to predict marathon performance & even being able to tell when intensification has started to reverse the beneficial parasympathetic increases brought about during the earlier training phases. I am hoping that frequent autonomic monitoring may one day lead via a combination of daily recovery indications and longer term trends to safe optimisation of training programs for all individuals, whether they be gifted or average athletes, first time exercisers or heart rehab patients.

  6. Grete Waitz and Paula Radcliffe: do they make the case against polarised training? | Canute's Efficient Running Site Says:

    […] review confirmed the direction of my own thinking about endurance training, so I posted a positive commentary but included a cautionary […]

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