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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

In Defense of Distance

One of the most polarizing issues in our field is volume vs. intensity.  Though champions in all sports at all levels have practiced a high volume approach, “long slow distance” is often criticized as an antiquated remnant of tradition with a propensity to create overtraining.  Just search for “High Intensity Interval Training” and you’ll find dozens of studies touting the benefits of a low mileage, high intensity approach.   In fact, much of the evidence for high volume training comes from race results.  While competitive results are one barometer of success, just because "everyone does it" is not itself a sufficient justification for something working. 

Although high intensity interval training grabs the headlines in the literature, Seiler (2010) conducted a review and found several studies looking at the high mileage programs of high level athletes in several endurance sports… 

***Robinson (1991) explored 6-8 week block of tranining of 13 national class male runners in the 1500m to marathon in New Zealand.   4% of their total mileage was races or interval training.  Remaining training conducted at approximately 60% of VO2 max (low intensity). 

***Billat (2001) (she of the famous 30-30 interval workout).   French and Portuguese marathoners prior to respective Olympic Trials.  Training distribution…

  • 78% slower than marathon pace
  •  4% at marathon pace
  • 18% at 10k to 3k race pace. 

***Esetve-Lanao (2005) Eight regional-national class Spanish distance runners over a six month period averaging 70km/week.  Training distribution…

  • 71% training low intensity
  • 21% between 2mmol – 4 mmol blood lactate (approximately marathon pace to threshold pace)
  • 8% above threshold pace.
  • Average training intensity 64%VO2 max.  
  • Findings: Performance was correlated with time spent at low intensity zone.  NO correlation between volume of high intensity training and performance.

While even the most ardent proponents of low mileage, high intensity training will concede the importance of mileage for races lasting into the hours, more debate exists as to shorter events where the duration seems modest but the customary training approach includes high volume and lower intensities…

***Steinacker  (1998).  Elite 2000m rowers (6-7 minute event) from four different European countries.  Athletes averaged 90-96% of training at lower intensities with only 4-10% of training volume at higher intensities.

***Fiskerstrand and Seiler (1970-2001) – Studied evolution of Norwegian World or Olympic medalists in rowing in 70s, 80s, 90s.  During these three decades…

  • total training volume increased by 20%, low intensity training increased in proportion
  • monthly hours of high intensity training decreased by 1/3,
  • high intensity sprint training decreased significantly in favor of longer interval training (85-95% VO2 max)
  • 12% increase in VO2max, and 10% improvement in performance, with no differences in body mass.

***Guellich (2009). Studied 36 junior elite rowers for thirty seven weeks.  27 of the 36 junior rowers won medals following period analyzed.  95% of training performed at low intensity, though intensity distribution shifted in favor of higher intensities as competition approached (evidence of periodization as discussed below…)

***Zapico (2007) Studied U23 elite cylists during two training blocks.  Divided intensity into three different zones (low, medium, and high).  In the second training block, there was a 4x increase in high intensity training but no improvement in power output at each intensity level, though it is possible that length of time each athlete could have sustained at each power benchmark could have improved.

***Sandbakk (2010)Compared international vs national class XC sprint skiers.  International class trained 1/3 greater volume with almost all of difference coming via lower intensity training and speed training.  Both groups trained identical loads of high intensity training (45 min per week).  Note that speed training does not equate to high intensity is if the duration is short and the workbouts are ample. 

***Schumacher and Mueller (2002) Studied 4000m pursuit cycling race on the track.  Gold medal team 200 days before Olympic Games...

  • Low intensity high mileage at 50-60pct of VO2max on 140days
  • Stage races 40 days
  • specific track cycling at competition intensities on fewer than 20 days. 
  • In 110 days before Games they performed high intensity track cycling performed only 6 days.

What about adding intensity upon a base? 

***Evertsen (1997-2001).  XC skiers (well trained juniors).  All spent two months pre-study with 84% of training at 60-70% VO2max, 16% at 80-90% of VO2max.  During study there was a moderate intensity and high intensity group.  Moderate intensity group raised volume from 10-16 hour per week with same intensity distribution as pre-study.  High intensity group trained 12 hour per week and increased intensity to 83% of volume at 80-90% of VO2max, but 17% at low intensity.  After five months, physiological and performance changes were similar between groups.

***Gaskill (1999) Two year study of XC skiers.  84% of volume lower intensities and 16% high intensity in year 1.  Divided group into responders and non-responders in year 2, based on who improved in year 1.  Both groups showed improvements in year 2. (my comment: periodization and individualization at work)

***Esteve-Llano (2007) Subelite distance runners.  Five month study. 

  • Group 1: 81pct volume low intensity, 12 pct volume moderate intensity, 8 pct volume high intensity (note that moderate was bracketed by range 2-4 mmol blood lactate concentration)
  • Group 2: 67pct low, 25pct moderate, 8pct high. 
  • Unable to increase time in zone 3 for a third group (too much intensity). 
  • Significantly better race time improvements in group 1

***Ingham  (2008)- Two groups of rowers…Group 1 did 98pct of training 60-75pct of peak oxygen consumption (low intensity group); other group did 70pct of training at 60-75pct of VO2max and 30pct of training at 50pct of way between LT and VOX2max.  Two groups performed identical volumes.  Both groups improved in all measures similarly. (Meaning second group worked harder but got the same results as group 1!)

What about periodization?

“An established endurance base built from high volumes of training may be an important precondition for tolerating and responding well  to a substantial increase in training intensity over the short term. Periodization of training by elite athletes is achieved with modest reductions in total volume and a careful increase in the volume of training performed above the lactate threshold as athletes transition from preparation to competition training phases” (Seiler 2010)

And recovery? Benefits of higher volume may be indirect as a higher volume may promote improved recovery…

"An intensity distribution strategy that allows frequent training (twice daily) may give an important long-term adaptive advantage via what can be conceptually described  as optimization of the ratio between adaptive signal and stress response. Recent  studies comparing twice daily training with training the same total volume every  other day suggest that training twice daily induced greater peripheral adaptations.

We have also found that autonomic  nervous system recovery (measured via heart rate variability) is very rapid after  training bouts at 60% VO2 max for up to 120 min, but becomes markedly delayed  in highly trained subjects when exercise intensity increases to an intensity eliciting >3 mM blood lactate. We also observed that highly trained subjects (often training twice daily) recovered parasympathetic control after a standardized HIT (high intensity training) session dramatically faster than a group of subjects training about once a day.  Similarly, elite female rowers can train for 2 h at 60% VO2 max with only minor hormonal  or immune system disturbance." (Seiler 2010)

Conclusion

It’s not what you’re doing…it’s how your doing it!  Just because people progress volume too quickly, don’t address musculoskeletal issues, or pay inadequate attention to recovery doesn’t mean that high volume is wrong.  In fact, there’s reason to believe that a proper distribution of volume and intensity may enhance recoverability, though more study is needed in that area.  Unfortunately, we see all kinds of recovery gimmicks but less talk about organic approaches in training design to enhance recovery.

Though higher volume does not work for some athletes (non-responders), this simply points to the importance of individualization. It’s also critical to recognize long term context...what matter is not what is the “best” training in the abstract, but instead what is the best training of that particular athlete at that particular moment.   

Reference

Seiler S.  What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes?  Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2010 Sep;5(3):276-91.

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