The big debates of the past decade: 3) High intensity v high volume training

The debate between high intensity and high volume training has been a perennial topic since the early days of scientifically-grounded training.   Interval training was developed in the 1930’s by the German coach and academic, Woldemar Gerschler. He based his recommendations on the theory that the heart muscle would be strengthened by the increase in cardiac stroke volume that occurs as heart rate drops immediately following an intense effort. A decade later, Gerschler’s compatriot, sports physician Ernst van Aaken proposed that the crucial requirement was delivering copious amounts of oxygen to the heart, and this could best be achieved by running long distances at relatively slow paces. It is noteworthy that a large volume of slow running also increases delivery of oxygen to the leg muscles. Van Aaken’s approach was later developed by New Zealander, Arthur Lydiard, based largely on trial-and-error adjustments of his own training. Lydiard’s method led to medals for his athletes, Peter Snell, Murray Halberg and Barry Magee in distances from 800m to the marathon at the Rome Olympics in 1960. While Lydiard promoted a high volume approach to building basic aerobic fitness, his program also included periodization – a progression from base building to a period of race specific training and final sharpening immediately prior to competition.

Meanwhile, interval training retained its devotees and underpinned the golden age of British middle distance running that reached its pinnacle with Seb Coe’s Olympic gold medals in the 1500m in 1980 and 1984.   By the end of the century, Japanese academic, Izumi Tabata had demonstrated that repeated very intense brief maximal efforts lasting only 20 seconds separated by even briefer recovery periods, produced impressive increases in aerobic capacity (reflected in increases in VO2max) while also enhancing anaerobic capability.

Meanwhile, devotees of high volume, less intense training, led by charismatic individuals such as John Hadd and Phil Maffetone, emphasized the risk that focussing on high intensity training might undermine sound long term development.   So what has the past decade contributed to this long-standing debate?

I think that three main strands of evidence have advanced the debate. These strands are: evidence from physiological investigations; the training of African distance runners; and evidence from a small number of fairly well conducted controlled comparisons of different training protocols

Physiological investigations

The fundamental principle of training is that training produces stress on the various physiological systems within the body, such as the cardiovascular system, skeletal muscles and the nervous system, and subsequent adaptive change as the body responds to that stress leads to increased fitness. The past decade has seen an explosion of knowledge about the multitude of biochemical signalling processes that trigger these adaptive changes. In addition to the hormones produced by the major endocrine glands, there are a vast number of other relevant signalling molecules, including the numerous cytokines that regulate inflammation (the cardinal process that mobilises repair in tissues throughout the body) and growth factors that promote changes in many tissues. In particular, growth factors and hormones promote the activation of satellite cells in muscle. These satellite cells are a type of stem cell that fuse with muscle cells to repair and strengthen them.

While this explosion of knowledge does provide useful clues regarding the way the body might react to various forms of training, at present the complexity of the information precludes any simple answer to the high volume v high intensity debate. It does however provide support to both sides, indicating that the best answer will prove to be a combination of the two.

In light of concerns that high intensity training might destroy the aerobic enzymes that catalyse the chemical transformations involved in aerobic metabolism in the mitochondria of muscle cells, it is of particular relevant to note that a series of studies, Gibala and colleagues at McMaster University in Canada have demonstrated that high intensity interval training is as effective as high volume training for developing these aerobic enzymes. Furthermore, Bangsbo and colleagues in Copenhagen reported that speed endurance training consisting of six to twelve 30 second sprints 3-4 times/week for 6 – 9 weeks improved ability to pump the potassium ions back into muscle cells. Potassium ions are expelled from muscle during exercise. The depletion of potassium within the muscle probably plays an important role in fatigue.   Bangsbo demonstrated that the improved ability to pump potassium back into muscle cells was accompanied by an average improvement of 18 seconds in 3 Km race time, and an average improvement of 60 seconds in 10 Km time, in a group of 17 moderately trained male endurance runners


Elite Africans

The most striking feature of elite distance running in the past decade has been the dominance of African runners, mainly from the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia. There have been many anecdotal accounts that make it clear that high volume training, with several training sessions per day, is an important aspect of the training program of virtually all elite Africans. Usually the day’s program includes one session of quite low intensity running, but many accounts also describe other sessions of quite intense running – especially sustained tempo efforts.  I will not attempt to review all this information here, in part because of its diversity but even more importantly, it remains unclear just how much cultural factors (such as running to school in childhood); multiple genetic factors; and up-bringing at high altitude have contributed to the African dominance.   It remains to be demonstrated convincingly that the training methods employed in Africa can adapted to produce similarly impressive performances by non-Africans.

I will nonetheless draw attention specifically to the training methods adopted by Renato Canova, coach to many of the leading African half-marathoners and marathoners. I have described Canova’s training previously. In his lectures and writing, Canova places little emphasis on low intensity running, perhaps because the athletes he trains have already achieved extensive development of capillaries and other aspects of type 1 fibre development. Nonetheless, the training dairies of the athletes he coaches reveal that in addition to the relatively intense sessions there is a large amount of low intensity running. For example about 80% of the training of Moses Mosop is at an easy pace, with occasional sessions as slow as 5 min/Km (which should be compared with his marathon pace of around 3 min/Km). Canova advocates a periodized approach. The crucial feature of the race specific phase is long runs at near race pace.

Controlled comparisons of training programs

As mentioned above, some of the studies comparing high intensity interval training with standard endurance training, such as the study by Bangsbo and colleagues, demonstrate greater improvement in performances over distances from 3Km to 10Km with the high intensity training, while others, such as those by Gibala and colleagues report similar gains in performance with high intensity training and conventional endurance training, although the high intensity programs achieved similar benefit from a much smaller volume of training. However, those studies were performed over a time scale of approximately 8 weeks. This is scarcely long enough to exclude the possibility that high intensity training might result in a harmful accumulation of stress.

The question of longer term effects was tested in a study by Esteve-Laneo and colleagues from Spain.  They randomly allocated 12 sub-elite distance runners to one of two training programs: a polarised program involving a large amount of low intensity training and small volume of moderate and high intensity training; and a threshold program involving a predominance of training near lactate threshold and a small amount of higher intensity training, for a period of five months. Training was classified in three zones: low intensity below the first ventilatory threshold (VT1) corresponding to the point where lactate rises to around 2 mM/litre; moderate intensity between VT1 and the second ventilatory threshold (VT2) corresponding to the point where lactate exceeds 4 mM/litre; and high intensity, above VT2 during which lactate accumulates rapidly. In the polarised program the proportions of low-, moderate- and high-intensity training were 82%, 10% and 8% while the proportions in the threshold program were 67%, 25% and 8%. At the end of the program, the group allocated to polarised training achieved significantly better performances in a 10.4Km cross country race.

More recently, Stoggl and Sterlich from Austria performed a study comparing a 9 week polarised training program with three other programs: high intensity; high volume (low intensity) and predominantly tempo training, in a sample of national class endurance runners, triathletes, cyclists, and nordic skiiers. The polarized training group exhibited the greatest improvement in VO2 max (+ 11.7%) and time to exhaustion (+17.4%). The high intensity group achieved a 4.8% increase in VO2 max and an 8.8% time to exhaustion 8.8 percent.  The high intensity group lost 3.8% of body weight, which Stoggl and Sterlich attributed to a harmful catabolic state. Improvements were small and insignificant for the other two training programs. It should be noted that these athletes were a national standard and had probably achieved the improvement that might be expected from either a high volume of low intensity training or from a predominance of tempo training.

Neal and colleagues used a cross-over study design in which a group of well-trained cyclists underwent polarised training and threshold training, each for 6 weeks in randomised order. Similar baseline fitness was established by a 4 week de-training period before each training period. The proportion of training time in low-, moderate and high intensity zones was 80%, 0%, 20% in the polarised program, and 57%, 43% and 0% in the threshold program.The polarised training produced greater increases in peak power output, lactate threshold and high-intensity exercise capacity (time to exhaustion at 95% maximum work rate).


Summary and Conclusions

Stephen Seiler, a Texan sports scientist based in Norway for the past decade, presented a summary of the evidence from the controlled comparisons of different training programs and also from studies that have examined the proportions of training time that elite athletes spend in different intensity zones, at a lecture delivered in Paris in October 2013. He provided a compelling argument for polarised training. However, despite the evidence that many elites follow a polarised program, the role of key sessions at a pace near to race pace in the training recommended by Renato Canova indicates that at least a modest proportion of threshold training is beneficial for marathoners. Furthermore, Canova recommends a moderate degree of periodization with a clearly defined period of specific preparation for key races.

Overall, it is likely that any sensible training program will produce benefit for an unfit athlete provided it is consistent. However for an athlete who has achieved a plateau of fitness, it is probable that a polarised program with proportions of low-, moderate- and high-intensity of approximately 80%, 10%, 10% is most effective. Nonetheless, during a period of preparation for a specific race the key sessions should incorporate running at a pace near to race pace.

21 Responses to “The big debates of the past decade: 3) High intensity v high volume training”

  1. Laurent Therond Says:

    I’ll comment further tomorrow. Very good summary. It takes quite a bit of discipline to successfully implement polarized training. Particularly now that I relocated to a hilly area and any “easy” run is susceptible to take my heart rate outside of my aerobic zone, short of taking walking breaks. It certainly strikes me how balancing hard and easy can yield positive results.

    • canute1 Says:

      Thanks for your comment. Because the evidence suggest that high intensity training enhances rather than damages mitochondrial oxidative capacity, I believe that the major reason for avoiding too much high intensity training is avoiding the accumulation of too much catabolic stress over a sustained period. Therefore, I doubt that it is necessary to be very strict about avoiding getting a little breathless on the hills in your easy runs. Nonetheless I would be interested in your opinion on this.

      • Laurent Says:

        There is always a risk in indulging in too much of a good thing.
        As you mentioned in your previous posts, chronically elevated cortisol levels could dampen or negate the adaptation stimulus of any training regimen.

        Such things are very hard to gauge.
        I think I overdid it in my past training cycle and I paid the price by having to cancel my marathon race.
        Earlier this year, I repeated the same mistake and ran until my legs were 2 columns of concrete. It took deep tissue massages and a lot of rest to bring me back to a positive place.
        In both instances, it happened so progressively that I was reminded of the “boiling frog” story. (Look it up, if you are unfamiliar with the anecdote.)

        You may also reference the paper titled “Acute metabolic, hormonal, and psychological responses to different endurance training protocols.” to see that 4 x 30 s intervals are a sure way to score record-high cortisol levels. With suitable rest, it all clears out and the full benefit of the intervals is realized. On the other hand, if I follow them up with an easy run that turns out to be “not so easy” due to terrain, elevation or weather conditions, I may compound the the hormonal load and negate the benefits.

        It all goes back to making sure that easy is EASY when easy needs to be EASY. Just as hard shall be clearly HARD when homeostatic state is well established.

        Please also watch this old video, which proves the pendulum never stopped swinging:

    • canute1 Says:

      Thanks for the reference to the study by Wahl and colleagues. It clearly indicates that 4x30sec all-out produces a large increase of cortisol which is potentially harmful as it might promote a catabolic state, though it also shows increased growth hormone, which is anabolic. Thus, the long term effect is likely to depend on which hormone has the longer lasting effects. This might be influenced by ongoing stress from other activities. More sleep will promote more growth hormone; more work or social stress will promote cortisol.

      I am sorry to hear about your recent experiences with over-training. The boiling frog analogy is very appropriate.

      With regard to hills on easy runs, I make a decision either to take the hill very easily or to push hard. If I decide to push hard, it gets counted in my weekly quota of tempo or high intensity, depending on depth of breathing – but I do not count the amount very precisely.

  2. Robert Osfield Says:

    Great overview pulling together various threads of research. I’m haven’t finished Steve Magness’ book “Science of Running” but I’ve read enough to know it covers similar topics taking many changes to come to broadly similar conclusions 😉

    I suspect most non elite runners don’t do enough recovery paced runs or enough high intensity work, instead spend most runs somewhere in the middle. This is certainly where I started with my own training.

    My plan for training this year has been to build an aerobic base using a high volume (for me) of easy and recovery runs and then in the next phase add hill sprints. This approach is somewhat messed up by doing races that need several weeks of recovery afterwards though…

    From what I’ve gathered from Steve Magness’ book is that low intensity and high intensity work stimulates development of aerobic fitness through different pathways so to maximize you fitness you need both. He advocates starting with very polarised training and move towards race specific intensities as you approach your goal race. Also all types of training should exist in your schedule all year round, but the volume of each type is varied based on whether you wish to develop or maintain the properties that type of training stimulates.

    As I’m training for an long ultra-marathon the race specific part is rather turned on it’s head as race pace is at recovery pace, so I’m not yet sure how best to adapt the suggestions to my training. So far I’ve viewed all my recovery and long runs as race specific preparation as these are at similar intensities to what I’ll race at. All the high intensity work I’d like to do really just fits into stimulating aerobic development and strength.

    I’m not sure where paces in the middle such as tempo runs should fit into an ultra marathon training program. I don’t need to develop my ability to handle lactate as race pace is well below threshold. Would this suggest that a very polarised training plan would be the natural fit for an ultra-runner?

    W.r.t Maffertone low intensity style training. I’d guess that my last four months of training fit quite well into this category, although I haven’t been following his suggested HR as it doesn’t fit me at all (it’s ~20bpm lower than what I feel it probably needs to be for me.) While I don’t believe high volume and low intensity training has got me near my possible peak fitness, what it has clearly done is develop good basic aerobic fitness and with it fat burning capacity. In hind-sight I might have been better off adding a small amount of hill sprints to this period but I really can’t complain about where my current fitness is at.

    • canute1 Says:

      Thanks for your comment. With regard to preparing for an ultra such as the WHWR it is clear that a large volume of relatively slow running is a major requirement. However it is interesting to speculate on the role of some intense sessions. I am aware that some elite ultra runners (eg Scott Jurek) recommend some speed work, but I understand that he does it to build his capacity to work in the upper aerobic or even anaerobic zones on hill ascents. However, for anyone other than a super elite ultra-marathoner, pushing hard up hills is probably not a good strategy.

      The more interesting question is whether a small amount of high intensity training might enhance the adaptations that are essential for any ultra runner. High intensity training can enhance the capacity to metabolise fat in addition to enhancing capacity for oxidative metabolism . For example, proteins involved in transport of fatty acids such as Fatty Acid Binding Protein (FABP pm) are increased by high intensity training. The changes can be achieved in a shorter time via high intensity training than by low intensity training, though I do not know if there is any evidence that high intensity training produces further adaptation beyond the maximum achievable by high volume low intensity training and/or high fat diet.

      Nonetheless the evidence that polarised training can achieve further increases in both oxidative capacity and in time to exhaustion (eg at 80% VO2 max) above that achieved by high volume training or tempo training in well trained runners, suggests that there is a reasonable likelihood that you will benefit from a small amount of high intensity training – some intense hill sessions would appear to be the most relevant.

      • Robert Osfield Says:

        Hi Canute,

        I suspect it will be useful to provide a range of stressors on the body that illicit the adaptations through different stimulus and pathways. With the proviso that stressors aren’t all increased at the same time to overwhelm the bodies ability to adapt. Periodizing seems likely to be the best way to tackle this.

        Steve Magness’s book discusses different types of Peridoization and cites one study that showed that a period of general aerobic training prior to add high intensity interval training produced better results than continuous or reversed order.

        Applying this to my own training my high volume of very easy paced running would be appropriate to follow by adding short duration hill sprints whilst maintaining the or easy paced running, with perhaps a small reduction in this easy running if the load is too high and need reducing.

        Long term it may be appropriate for me to maintain a small amount of hill sprints all year round, and just alter the volume depending upon whether I’m using that to develop my capabilities using that stimulus or to maintain them.

        Unfortunately this all rather moot right now as my calf is still injured after strained in recovery run at the beginning of this week…

        How is you own training going?

    • canute1 Says:

      I am inclined to agree that moderate periodization is sensible, with the addition of the modest amount of high intensity after initial low intensity base-building, though it is interesting to read Ewen’s account of Robert DeCastella’s training in his comment below. Deek was coached by Pat Clohessy who together with Chris Wardlaw developed a program that is usually called ‘ complex Lydiard’. I think the point of agreement between Clohessy and Magness (though I haven’t yet read his book) is that there is some intense running throughout virtually the entire year, but the crucial thing is to avoid excessive accumulation of stress.

      I hope your calf heals quickly. I will post about my own training soon. I had lost a lot of fitness over the winter due to my joint problems but am making slow progress with a periodized program at present.

  3. Ewen Says:

    Thanks for your study of the high volume v high intensity debate Canute. My instinct would have predicted that polarised training is the best method. You could also include the Australian “mixed Lydiard” training popularised by Pat Clohessy & Chris Wardlaw in the polarised training group.

    I think the average runner is undecided on the “winner” of the debate because they see good results from high intensity/low volume and haven’t devoted the time needed for higher volume polarised training. My theory is that there’s a plateau area of somewhat higher volume that doesn’t seem to produce results (especially immediate) any better than low volume/high intensity. This would vary from individual to individual. It could be that medium volume of 40 to 60 ks per week of polarised training is no better than 30 to 40 ks of high intensity training but 60 to 100 ks (or more) of polarised training would produce a better result.

    The issue is further confused by the event that the distance runner is competing in — milers and 5k runners can “get away” with lower volume than 10k and marathon runners.

    • canute1 Says:

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that Pat Clohessy/Chris Wardlaw’s complex Lydiard training is a form of polarised training, though as I understand it they recommend a somewhat higher proportion of hard training than would fit with the 80:10:10 proportions. I am also intrigued as to how much periodization they recommend. As I understand it, Deek performed very similar training throughout the year – though that was quite a while ago. I understand that the ‘complex Lydiard’ program has substantial variation in training sessions within each week but relatively little change over the year.

      • Ewen Says:

        Deek’s training week was reportedly the same year round with I presume tapering for major events (marathons) and recovery weeks after. He still raced well with no tapering, for instance his wins on the US road circuit. I recall a 3000 in Canberra where he broke 8 minutes. He must have substituted a session for these races.

        His week was Mon to Fri, 6 miles ‘easy’ AM, Sat 6 miles easy PM, Sun 6 miles easy PM. Mon PM, 10 miles easy, Tue PM hill repeats (11 miles), Wed PM 18 miles flat 6:15 per mile, Thu 8 x 400 in 62-64s recov 200 in 45s 9 miles total, Fri 10 miles easy, Sat AM 10 miles hard hilly, Sun AM 22 miles hilly 6:15 per mile. Not sure how that fits with the 80:10:10.

    • canute1 Says:

      That is very interesting. Clearly there was little periodization. Nonetheless there is a lot of easy running and only a moderate amount of more intense stuff – definitely quite polarised. I think 6:15 /mile would have been fairly easy for Deek. (Even I used to regard 6:15/mile as easy in my youth – I think it was what Lydiard might have called ‘a good aerobic pace’). So if we count Deek’s flat (and downhill parts of the hilly run) at 6:15 /mile pace as ‘easy’, he appears to have at least 80% easy. Most of the uphills in the 22 miler would probably count as threshold effort (slow accumulation of lactate), while the hill repeats and 400 repeats would have been high intensity (rapid accumulation of lactate). I do not think there is any point in debating the fine details too precisely. I would accept this as approximately an 80:10:10 schedule.

      • Ewen Says:

        Canute, that’s a good summary. I think he used to do the midweek run around the lake, which is pretty flat. I know the early going in the 22 miler was very easy as many local club runners could keep up for the first 4 miles down to the dam – probably near 7 minute miles for that section. Very few runners could keep up with Deek for the entire 22 miles. Some of the 10k (Aus rep standard) runners used to cut the run short.

  4. pkadams Says:

    I think my brain may explode. I am currently training for my 3rd, 4th and 5th full marathons ( Chicago, BCS and Houston) and decided to use the Run Less, Run Faster method instead of the Hal Higdon plan. Now I am having serious doubts after reading this and your post from 2009. Will it be enough mileage? Advice for a relative new marathoner wanting to improve her time? I did end up fairly injured and limping at the end of my training for my last marathon. I seem to be prone to ITBS and foot pains. Thanks for any help.

    • canute1 Says:

      Thanks for you comment and question. In my opinion, the key principles of marathon training are:

      1) Consistency is the most important feature
      2) Avoiding over-training is also crucial. While some tiredness and aches are likely in any adequate program, consistency must be tempered with preparedness to back-off if tiredness and/or niggles continue to increase in severity.
      3) High volume, high intensity or mixed programs can work in the short term. It is largely a matter of individual preference
      4) For year-on-year development, polarised training including a large amount of easy running and a small amount of high intensity running is most likely to be successful. Patience is essential for optimum long term development.

      With regard to the Furman program, there is little doubt that it can be successful in the short term, but it provides little reserve capacity to allow for individual differences. Although the program was designed to avoid cumulative stress, many people find that it is stressful. On the other hand, running only three days a week can work well for individuals who are injury prone.

      Using the Furman program to prepare for three marathons over a 3 month period will require some creativity. If you started 16 weeks before Chicago, you will be committed to almost continuous intense training and racing for a substantial portion of a period of 7 months. If you ended up limping after your last marathon training program, you highest priority this time is avoiding injury. It will be crucial to recover adequately from each race. Unless you have accumulated a good reserve of aerobic capacity and musculo-skeletal resilience, it will be difficult to recover adequately without substantial loss of fitness.

      I think you need to give yourself some flexibility so that you can adjust according to how your body is responding. Whatever you choose to do, set yourself some clear principles with regard to how you will deal with cumulative stress, and do not become demoralised if you need to back off a little at some stage. One positive feature of entering three marathons is that there is scope from making adjustment.

      Only you can judge how your body is coping and therefore any suggestions I might make should be taken with a pinch of salt. However if you have coped well with the first few weeks of Furman, and it continues to go well, I would be inclined to stick with it until Chicago. Try to do as much low intensity cross training as you can cope with without undue exhaustion, but above all do not be worried if you need to back off a little at times.

      Good luck. I look forward to hearing how it goes.

      • pkadams Says:

        Thank you very much for your reply. Chicago is the most important to me so if I have to cut back some for the other two, that will be okay. I can even switch to the half for the second one if necessary. I think I’m doing okay with the Furman plan for now, but it’s very hot in Texas so I am definitely feeling the intensity more. And I do miss easy runs so I may switch out one cross-train day for an easy run occasionally. Thanks again and I will try to remember to update you!

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