By Matt McNamara
Do you follow the classical model and build fitness through long hours of low intensity, or do you grab edge of the sword and undertake the higher intensity model that is all the rage in chat rooms, books and training blogs?
From the dawn of the endurance cycling, long slow distance (LSD) rides have been argued as fundamental to one’s improvement and success. Small ring rides, heart rate restricted rides in Zone 2, and long, long hours have been extolled by coaches and physiologists for decades. More recently, with the advent and rise of power based training a new mantra has taken hold – using steady state, threshold efforts as the foundation of your fitness paradigm. Well respected coaches and physiologists promote this model with equal vigor So which is best? The answer is – it depends. This week we’ll look at the LSD model…
Analysis of Research
To try and answer this question, Stephen Seiler and Espen Tonnessen undertook a meta-analysis of existing literature (a method of quantitatively analyzing a big database of research studies) in combination with a review of current training methodologies of Olympic and World Champion caliber athletes to try and tease out the ‘right’ answer. Seiler and Tonneson sought to “discuss this issue in a way that integrates research and practice.” Their study, published just last month in the online journal www.sportsci.org, offers a comprehensive overview of the intensity-duration relationship.
The sheer volume of research in this area is simply amazing. For their purpose Seiler and Tonnessen looked at more than 90 published research articles and several real world case studies to determine which are the most effective. They then sought to standardize some of the nomenclature and research design into discernable ranges of exercise intensity that could be viewed across populations and research.
Grouping the research studies based on a “standard” categorization of exercise intensities was the first challenge in sorting through the mass of literature. Seiler and Tonneson chose to use a three zone system that correlates well with various other forms of intensity measurement that use more zones (eg a 5 zone system) or differing parameters (e.g., percentage VO2max, blood lactate concentration, etc). For the review the zones were established around the two ventilatory turn points correlated with O2 and CO2 equivalence and the movement of blood lactate levels from baseline (LT1/VT1) to supra-maximal (LT2/VT2/MLSS – maximal lactate steady state). Here are the zones they used:
Image From Seiler & Tonnessen Research
To further refine the discussion, Seiler and Tonnessen also defined high and low intensity training ranges based on the findings of other researchers including Robinson et al (1991), Mujika, et al (1995) and Billat, et al (2001), among others. Low intensity was defined as being below 2mMol blood lactate concentration (<2-mM), while high intensity was established as being above 4-mM blood lactate concentration.
Endurance Training Volume and Intensity
Endurance sports require lots of training. It was noted that cycling, in particular, was characterized by a culture where long training bouts (4-6h) were common, and where total training volume for elite level athletes routinely tops 35,000 kilometers, and over 1,200 hours per year. That averages out to over 24 hours per week, 50 weeks per year!
The composition of that training was of primary importance to the authors. Time and again they make the point that most of the training volume undertaken by top tier athletes is at either levels below 2-mMol of blood lactate concentration, or above 4-mMol blood lactate concentration. Which is to say that their training is highly polarized. A couple of examples:
A 2002 study by Schumacher and Muller noted the daily training mix for a group of elite level German pursuiters. In the 200 days leading up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 the athletes trained 140 days at intensities under 60% of VO2max, spent 40 days stage racing, and only 20 days of track riding at race level intensities. Further, in the last 110 days before the games the pursuit squad had only 6 days of high intensity interval training on the track. They won Gold.
Billat, et al in 2001 found that a group of French and Portuguese marathon runners spent approximately 78% of their training time in Zone 1, 4% at marathon pace (correlated to Zone 2), and 18% in Zone 3. Similarly Billat et al found, in 2003, that Kenyan 5k and 10k runners spent approximately 85% of their training kilometers at levels below Lactate Threshold (LT1).
Gullich, et al found that 95% of the training undertaken by world class junior rowers in the 37 weeks before the National Championships was at 2-mMol or less blood lactate concentration.
When taken in total Seiler and Tonnessen advocate for an approximate intensity mix of 80:20 for low and high intensity training. They note that increases in training volume correlate well with increases in the physiological variables of performance.
The Recreational Athlete
So what does all this mean to the rest of us? The study did reference the training programs of recreational athlete: those who train 6 – 12 hours per week. In a 2001 study Foster et al found that most recreational athletes tend to train too hard on easy days, and not hard enough on hard days. Over time this puts the athlete into what Seiler and Tonnessen describe as the “black hole” of training intensity, where nearly every workout is completed at the same threshold intensity.
This was shown in a study by Esteve-Lanao where athletes were prescribed a highly polarized training load of approximately 77-3-20% zones 1-2-3 respectively, yet based on HR recording their actual training load was 65-21-14% for zones 1-2-3 respectively. In short, they found that athletes with limited time have a hard time following a polarization protocol.
Interestingly, they did not offer any additional insight as to the effects of these ‘black hole’ training regimes beyond the above mentioned Esteve-Lanao study that showed an improvement in 10k times for athletes following a polarization protocol during an 11-week study.
Low intensity training has long been the standard for endurance sports. Upon reviewing nearly 100 published articles and case studies, Seiler and Tonneson postulated that elite level athletes tend to progress and perform best under a program that emphasizes a high volume of low intensity exercise (<2-mMol blood lactate concentration) mixed with focused high intensity efforts at and above ones lactate threshold (>4-mMol). Their belief is that this review and approach repudiates the current trend towards high intensity and steady state training in lieu of building a traditional aerobic base. Next time we’ll look at the other side of the equation – the efficacy and effectiveness of a program built on a diet of steady state and threshold level workouts for those with less time to train.
Seiler, Stephen, and Tonnessen, Epsen. Perspectives in Training: Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance. The Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training. www.sportsci.org online journal, 13, 32-53, 2009.
About Matt McNamara:
Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. In 2010 he will be offering a series of webinars on training and performance management. Details and registration can be found by visiting his website: www.sterlingwins.com.