Monday, August 9, 2010

Training Philosophies - Competing Ideas About Intensity and Volume

There are many different training philosophies for distance running. In my opinion, they fall into two main categories. High volume low intensity and low volume high intensity.

High Volume and Low Intensity
This is more or less the traditional approach to training distance runners. I grew up using this approach in the 1970's. The basic idea is that runners should train doing a lot of very easy mileage to build up aerobic capacity, and then fine tune their training with various types of speed work. Typically speed work will consist of about 10 percent of the runner's total mileage.

This form of training has generally been very successful in producing world class distance runners. It was abandoned for a while in the 1990's for higher intensity lower mileage programs, resulting in generally poorer performances.

I think this method works very well. However I believe that there are some common mistakes people make in implementing this type of training. If the runner does not have a good level of general fitness as well as some basic running speed when going into this type of program, then he or she will usually never really get much faster.

Low Volume High Intensity
The most extreme example of low volume high intensity training, I am aware of, is CrossFit Endurance. Unlike every other training program I've read about for runners, CrossFit Endurance is a much more holistic. In my opinion, it definitely address many of the short comings of more traditional programs, but I am a bit skeptical that they can consistently produce the same levels performance on their very limited mileage program, especially for distances over 10k. It probably will work well for some people, but I'm not sure about most people.

Putting my skepticism aside, most people just don't get the ideas behind CrossFit, and when they look into CrossFit Endurance they are left even more confused. I consistently read and hear criticisms of CrossFit and CrossFit Endurance that are clearly based on ignorance of the underlying methodology, and are completely unfair and usually ungrounded.What I definitely do like about CrossFit Endurance is that they address three key areas as training priorities that most other more traditional programs do not address well if at all.
  • First, the runner must start with a basic level of general fitness and continue to work on his or her general fitness as part of their training. Runners have notoriously poor levels of general fitness, and many runners have serious fitness deficiencies that interfere with their ability to run well. 
  • Second, they consider technique to be important (as do I), and they take steps to get all of their runners running with good technique.
  • Third, they, as part of general fitness conditioning, have their people develop a base of running speed via sprinting and the use of good technique.  If a runner is exceptionally slow, endurance training probably should not be his or her first priority.
Has this method been successful?  Yes it has shown some success, but that success has not been scientifically quantified yet. It is my understanding that they are in process of validating their methods via scientific studies, but science is slow, and it will take a while. I'll be very interested to see the results when they are done. In any case, they do claim to improve upon the performance of experienced runners, who were using more traditional training methods, in everything from 5k runs to ultra-marathons. I hope we'll see if this is the exception or the rule once the studies are completed.

My Experiences with These Approaches
As a competitive middle and long distance runner in my youth, I had a fair amount of success using the more traditional high volume low intensity methodology. However, when I started running as a 12 year old, I had a good basic level of fitness and speed. When, as an out-of-shape 44 year old, I tried to apply these training methods I basically flat lined. I was building endurance, but I was not getting faster.

After my dismal failure with the traditional training methodology, I started using CrossFit and CrossFit Endurance methodology. The result was that I saw dramatic improvements in my times for everything from the mile to the 10k. Even my 15k runs of late have been done at a pace that was unthinkable just a year ago.

Although this is speculative at best, I believe that my success using CrossFit Endurance had a lot to do with getting my basic fitness back up to a good level, as well as the improvements to my running technique. However, now that I've started to add in some longer runs to my training, I've found that although I'm still running faster, these runs take a lot out of me. Clearly my endurance needs work now, and I suspect that it is time to up my mileage and lower my intensity for a while.

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