Friday, June 18, 2010

Training Errors - Emphasizing Volume Over Intensity

In writing this, I'm making some assumptions, first that the reader is interested in improving his or her speed and performance. Second the reader is not an elite caliber endurance athlete, and finally that the reader probably has limited time available for training. My advice might be substantially for those who do not fit these assumptions.

The Most Common Training Error
A common mistake people make when estimating the quality of their workouts, as well as their level of fitness, is basing that judgment on how much they do rather than how fast they do it. While this is not unique to the running community, it certainly seems to endemic to it. How many runners out there have a number in their mind, that represents the minimum weekly mileage they must achieve in order to feel fit, or to at least to feel good about their workouts for that week.

Similarly how many people start running and immediately set a goal of running a marathon. Usually sedentary people who take up running are so awed by the distance of the marathon that their training become solely about going further and further. As a result, many of these people, after the first few weeks of training, never get any faster. They are just able to extend their slow pace over longer and longer distances.

I suppose to some extent, for most people, this is a natural reaction, because distance is easier to quantify than intensity, and it is therefore easier to use as a marker of both fitness and of improvement. Besides, the first question most people will ask a runner is, "How far do you run?" Rarely, if ever, do they ask, "How fast do you run!" So it appears that most people are just naturally and incorrectly more impressed by volume than intensity.

There are a lot of variable that determine how well one can run, under what conditions, and with what kind of training. There are people who will do very well with almost any type of training, and others who will struggle to do well even when training optimally.  But what constitutes optimal training? It is likely that optimal training will vary significantly between individuals. We all have a unique combination of strengths and weakness. My experiences have led me to conclude that most people can benefit from running fewer miles (lower volume), but running those miles faster (higher intensity). However, I'm not claiming that this is necessarily true for everyone.

I have consistently seen example after example of individuals who do low volume - high intensity training out performing people who do low intensity - high volume. Even for longer distances. I have also consistently seen examples of people who are able to improve dramatically by changing their training over to higher intensity and lower volume. Unfortunately, I have also seen the reverse; people performing worse when changing to high volume training.

At this point, let me get something straight, what constitutes high or low intensity, as well as high or low volume is relative to the distance for which one is training as well as one's fitness level and abilities. Clearly a marathon runner must do more volume than a sprinter. I also want to get something else straight, obviously volume is an important element of training, but it is generally not as important as most people imagine.

There are many tangible examples of lower volume high intensity training working very well, and these examples help to demonstrate just how little running volume may be necessary for most people to improve performance in everything from the 800 meter run to ultra-marathons. Below are a few examples. These examples also touch on a future posts about doing more than just running in order to train properly, and how often to run, but I'll get into those subjects later.

CrossFit Endurance
Brian Mackenzie of CrossFit Endurance  is training people successfully for marathons and ultra-marathons, and never having them do much more than 10k for any single training run.

It should be noted that Brain Mackenzie is, for many reasons, a controversial figure in the endurance training community. Many endurance athletes are dismissive and hostile to his training methods. However, in my opinion, results are all that matter, and he gets great results on many levels.

The Tarahumara Indians consistently do very well in ultra endurance events even though the volume of their training is quite low by today's standards. However, they live very active life styles filled with a wide variety of physical activity.

Evolutionary Thinking
From an evolutionary point of view, too much high mileage training probably doesn't make a lot of sense. There is no way our hunter gather ancestors would have done the kind of daily and weekly high mileage training that is popular today. Just like modern hunter gathers, our ancestors would have only run when they felt it was necessary and not much more.

Let's assume that the assertions in the book Born to Run (by Christopher McDougall) about human evolution are true. The main assertion is that humans originally fed themselves via persistence hunting; requiring long runs of approximately 10 to 80 miles. Like the small number modern persistence hunters, our ancestors would have only done these long runs roughly once a week, and I doubt that our ancestors would have felt the need to go on long training runs between hunts.

Incidentally, this pattern of activity might sound familiar. One long run per week interspersed with shorter more intense runs is a popular training method. Even more to the point, one long run interspersed with a large variety of low volume high intensity activity similar to the way Brian Mackenzie of CrossFit Endurance trains runners, and the Tarahumara Indians live.

Personal Experience
When I was younger, I was a much faster runner than I am now. I'm sure that's not a big surprise, right? Back then, as a competitive runner, I did a lot more mileage, but included in that mileage was a significant amount of speed work. As I have reexamined my training, I've come to realize that a significant amount of my training consisted of "junk mileage" or mileage that does nothing to improve speed, stamina or endurance. I did this junk mileage with the misconception that I needed to do some magic number of weekly miles to maintain my running fitness. In reality, I was probably impeding my progress as a runner, or at best I was simply burning a few extra calories. However, when I was young, I could better afford to train inefficiently.

As I have struggled to get back into some kind of shape, as a middle aged man, over the past few years, my speed and endurance flat lined using more traditional training methods. When I finally threw out my notion of having to run some specific number of miles per week, and focused more on shorter faster runs, my times dropped dramatically. However my times not only decreased for shorter distances, but for longer distances as well, despite the fact that my volume is currently less than half of what it used to be.

Granted, I'm nowhere near as fast as I was in my youth, and I doubt that I will ever get that fast again. Also to be honest, my improvement is not solely due to my improved running workouts. My running technique is much better, and my general fitness is also much better thanks to CrossFit.
    General Advice
    So is there anything wrong with high mileage training? It depends, because each individual is different. Some people will be able to do high mileage workouts and still do an adequate amount of high intensity training with no trouble. However, these people are exceptional in their abilities to recover. For most people, running higher volume automatically means sacrificing intensity. The trick, of course, is to optimize the volume and intensity of your workout for your specific needs. So, when planning your workouts, I recommend asking yourself a few questions.
    • What is the purpose of this workout? Is it to build speed, stamina, or endurance? If the workout is not directly associated with one improving one of these attributes, then the workout is probably just junk mileage. Every workout should have a purpose. If you can't describe the purpose of your workout, then it probably doesn't have one and should be skipped or changed. The only exception is for runs used to work on technique.
    • Have you fully recovered from your last hard running workout, and are you ready for another hard workout that will build speed, stamina or endurance? If not, then you shouldn't run, you should rest or so a different activity. At best, your run will be harmless junk mileage, and at worse it will interfere with your recovery, delaying your next meaningful workout. I'll go into this more in my next post about how often to run.
    • Have you adequately covered building speed, stamina, and endurance for your racing distance? In other words, you need to work on all three. However, the emphasis is likely to change depending on a lot of other factors. However, even ultra-marathon runners should be doing speed work, and sprinters should still do endurance work, just with a very different emphasis.

    Rules of thumb
    • When in doubt, work on your speed. Getting faster is usually more difficult than building endurance. Also, speed work will have a significant carry-over into your endurance training, but your endurance training will have very little carry over into your speed training.
    • Don't do more than one long run per week.
    • If you have to skip a workout, skip your long run.  
    • Use our evolutionary past to your advantage when you train, and you will get better results. 
    • If you are tired from you last run, either rest or do something other than running
      • Finally let go of the idea that more mileage is better or that doing more miles will make you fitter. 
      More information

        CrossFit Endurance -
        My workout blog - 

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