“Go hard or go home”. How many times have you heard that pedantic statement? Probably too many to count, I’m sure. Normally, the mouth from which that originates is situated about a foot above a body clad in Under-Armor holding a Gatorade in one hand and some brightly decorated protein bar in the other. You know the type, I’ll move on. Unfortunately, endurance sport isn’t immune from the effects of this Stone Age training methodology characterized by a trophy-like sense of accomplishment spawning from a desire to create the urge to vomit during each training session. Obviously, you, by now, as an intelligent reader have picked up on my disdain for any kind of training methodology whose primary goal is based on increasing one’s tolerance of pain as a sadistic way of increasing their abilities… oh, and I have my reasons…. Too many times I’ve had to explain to teary-eyed endurance athletes the truth as to why this kind of training methodology has completely undermined their ability to function as highly efficient machines and has systematically limited their internal faculties to create energy aerobically. So, in going forward, there is just one more thing I have to say to all of you who think that the “ride till you puke” mentality actually has some ridiculous place in endurance sport: I’m sorry. You were right and I was wrong.
As I gather my collective strengths and muster what is left of my dignity, I can only say that I was functioning as a physiologist who was acting on the best interest of his athletes and colleagues. With somewhat limited information, and a mountain of research to back up my decisions regarding an increase in someone’s endurance capabilities I only wish to set the record straight and bring to you an essay compiling an entirely new system of training based both on the (relatively) old and the (relatively) new. We have known for a while that high intensity training is somewhat useful in building and maintaining the systems that allow an athlete to work in excess of his/her threshold. What I am describing here is something that, if you work with us, you’ll know very well – that is the ability to tolerate an increasing amount of lactic acid as your exercise becomes more and more strenuous. The process by which this happens, which we really don’t need to clarify for the sake of simplicity, has to do more with chemistry than it does with “structure”. By this, I mean that regulating your blood pH (a vital component of an athlete “good” at going hard) is less to do with structural entities and more to do with ionic interaction (blood-chemistry). Oxygen delivery and consumption, on the other hand, has everything to do with structural entities, such as red blood cells, capillaries, and mitochondria. This items have mass and must be built in order to function in increasing the amount of oxygen an athlete can transport and consume with every breath.
It was my contention, for years, that the only way to increase the rate at which these “tangible systems” were built was to use a complementation of diet and exercise aimed at creating a stimulus which terminates in their assembly. Much in the same way a body builder focuses on one body part to stimulate growth and increase strength; we (as the physiological community) held the assertion that your training should be specific to the type of response you want from your body. Simply put, if you want an increase in your aerobic profile you should focus your training on the zones that stimulate the systems responsible for increasing oxygen delivery.
It seems now that is not exactly the case. Thanks to recent research, we are seeing that high intensity training not only increases the “top end” of athletic potential (i.e. the anaerobic tolerance mentioned above), but has been shown to stimulate the growth of aerobic systems as well…. almost 30% faster than regular, more mainstream methods of endurance training. According to this research, it seems that the effect of short-term intermittent high intensity exercise is sufficient to create a scenario in the muscles that mimics the effect created by riding beneath your anaerobic threshold for hours at a time.
This kind of methodology, commonly referred to as Tabata Training, has been around for quite some time, but has been primarily used as a tool for weight loss not as a substitute or even replacement for long distance endurance training. Tabata Training has been shown to considerably elevate post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) for up to 5hrs after each session. This overabundance of oxygen creates a perfect environment for fat usage thus making this kind of training such an effective tool for shedding unwanted pounds. However, if you examine the necessities for increased fat usage, you will find that it is the exact same biochemical scenario necessary to stimulate maturation of the aerobic energy system as well.
Obviously this is all well and good, but does this mean that you have total freedom to completely ditch your ideas regarding high volume training? No. Here’s why. First of all, high intensity training is completely dependent upon carbohydrate oxidation. This is HUGE problem for endurance athletes who absolutely must possess an increased metabolic efficiency and sparing of carbohydrates simply due to the amount of time they spend in motion. Because carbohydrates are the only fuels that can be burned in excess of the anaerobic threshold, this means that athletes who opt to train constantly at high intensities never place any emphasis on the systems that use fat to create energy. They are instead almost completely dependent on carbohydrate stores for fuel, which when exhausted, can mean a catastrophic decline in performance. When we at Sigma: Human Performance conduct an Advanced Metabolic Profile and find carbohydrate dependent endurance athletes, we can tell them with unwavering certainty that their training is much too intense to elicit any type of efficient response. They are often blown away by the startling accuracy of that statement. However, it’s not smoke and mirrors, it’s a simple understanding that constant training above anaerobic threshold as a primary training philosophy motivates the muscle to select carbohydrates as the primary fuel… not fats. Because fats are so much more energy rich than carbs, overlooking fats due to a metabolic imbalance is a tremendous disadvantage.
Secondly, and in conjunction with the aforementioned issue, is your diet. For an athlete to glean the benefits of adding components of high intensity exercise to training, an additional 10-15% fat consumption is necessary to ensure that the body receives proper stimulus to continue fat oxidation during exercise intensities more suitable for long distance races (~80% Vo2max). That, in short, means that prolonged high intensity training can set up an environment for carb usage that can take months of proper aerobic training and nutrition to repair. Without a diet high in fats, the muscles will naturally pre-select carbohydrates as the fuel of choice thus reducing overall fuel economy during endurance competition.
Thirdly, prolonged high intensity training will lower the percentage of Vo2max at which anaerobic threshold occurs. This means that without some offset by exposure to training far below that of anaerobic threshold, the muscles will lose their ability to stay aerobic even at intensities that are moderate in nature (~70-75% Vo2max). This again, is a remarkable disadvantage when one considers how important it is to remember that fuel consumption increases exponentially once anaerobic threshold is reached. Additionally, with a depressed anaerobic threshold comes an early onset of blood-lactate accumulation, which, if you have perused “The importance of Breathing”, you’ll find that elevated lactic acid levels in the blood can bring your performance to a complete stop – not preferable if your event requires you to operate anaerobically on a repetitive basis.
While there are infinite offshoots anyone could make to these points, as their ramifications are somewhat sweeping in nature, it is important to focus on the crux of the argument.
High intensity training is a remarkable “supplement” to endurance training, but when it is used as the primary training mode, it can result in massive changes to your internal metabolics and substantially reduce your overall aerobic economy.
If implemented properly, supplementing your seasonal training regime with 2-3 days/wk of short term (30mins-1hr) high intensity training can reduce your need to log long miles and trim your overall training commitment by up to 20%. This is music to the ears of anyone who is crunched for time, but has aspirations to complete an Ironman distance event or score a “personal best” with less time-commitment.
Furthermore, high intensity training can serve as a perfect taper in the 15-20 days prior to an event when most think that reaping any further aerobic benefit is impossible simply due to the rapidly shrinking bulk of time in the final lead-up to an event. Of course, what I am discussing is known as “tapering”, but what many fail to realize is that a proper taper shouldn’t just consist of a slight decrescendo in overall aerobic hours, but an exchange of aerobic time for time spent training at or near Vo2max for short periods. In this way, it is possible to still garner some benefit in the days prior to your race. The only caveat pertains strictly to your diet – which should be rich in unsaturated fats so as to insure that fuel selection during competition stays as fat-oriented as possible for maximal efficiency. If these pieces of advice are heeded, the supplementation of high-intensity exercise in up to 40% of your training hours is a remarkable way of reducing overall training time, boosting the desired aerobic response, and increasing your ability to tolerate exercise far above your anaerobic threshold for considerable periods of time.