As I sat on the train this morning, I finalized my thoughts on a topic I’ve been bouncing around for the past 6-10 months. It’s a topic that 99 percent of coaches and athletes likely don’t consider. Let me lay the ground work, and the typical scenarios:
1) Athlete who increases stress properly, but without compensatory restoration measures – in this case the athlete becomes burnt out, stagnant, and lacking progress. Many times they believe this “plateau” is due to lack of work, so they do more. This typically further undermines restoration techniques, and leads to over training, declined performance, or injury.
2) Athlete who identifies burnout and reduces training stress as they believe they are working too hard and THAT is why things aren’t progressing. They do not change restoration techniques. This approach typically results in an improvement in overall systematic health, and initial race speed. However, over the long-term, progress is not as consistent as maybe it could be due to reduced stimulation of the aerobic system over years.
3) Athlete who again identifies burnout and decides a reduced volume and increased restoration type approach will fix them up. Along with these changes they also increase intensity some. This athlete makes tremendous progress for a 6-10 month period because they “freshened up” from an overtrained state, and still have the deep aerobic fitness they developed from the large mileage they were doing previously. They typically have 1-2 great races before the progress starts to slip as their aerobic fitness slips.
I’ve written on the micro level before that “two wrongs don’t make a right”. In that writing a few years ago I was referring to the athlete who trains hard one day, but then eats junk, and doesn’t sleep enough. That athlete then wakes up in the morning and says “boy, I feel beat up so I better listen to my body and take the day off”. In this case, they didn’t take care of their restoration, which led to a missed training day…..two wrongs! #2 above is very similar to this concept but on a larger scale.
Of the 3 response scenarios to feeling beat up, and overtrained, now obviously #1 isn’t the solution, #2 gives the athlete the sense that this is the right answer because they feel better and improve their race results. #3 can be the most misleading because many times the athlete has come from years of big volume and under-restoration. Following that build up, they reduce their training volume, rest a bunch more, and increase intensity. This is very similar to a taper that an athlete may do leading into a major goal race. It produces a short term performance peak as they still have fitness from the large volume they were doing, and then shake out some of the fatigue that may be limiting their race speed. This case is counted in months rather than weeks. The major detriment with this approach comes 1-2 years down the road as their deep aerobic base begins to erode. With all of this being said, let’s look at two more scenarios where an athlete may apply this type of an approach (lowered volume, with higher intensity):
1) Athlete who has 6-10 years of big volume and maybe weak restoration. The athlete is over the age of 35. In this case, it may not be a bad approach since the athlete is getting older, and a peak in race speed (fitness minus fatigue) may be their last chance at performing at a world class level.
2) Athlete who has 4-8 years of big volume and is 28. Over the short term, this is an approach that will produce results, but for an athlete of this age, their development should still be focused on long term progress….4-5 years down the road. Many times the path to speed, 1 year away is much different than the path to speed 5 years down the road, and actually the path to speed 1 year away undermines the 5 year approach. Many athletes who take the lower volume, higher intensity approach at this age, halt their long term progress for short term gratification.
3) Athlete who has 1-3 years of training and is 24. In this case, the lower volume, higher intensity approach is detrimental to the athlete’s career and long term progress because a deep aerobic base is never built. This doesn’t mean an athlete at this age who takes this approach won’t be world class; it just means they won’t be as good as they could be. Talent out of the box can be very powerful, and compensates for many, many mistakes in training that mislead a talented athlete that what they are doing must be the best thing since they are succeeding.
In my honest opinion, for the problem scenarios above, the proper approach would be to leave stress via volume in the program (when an athlete starts to feel beat up), improve restoration to compensate for the continued big stress, and continue long term progress. Unfortunately, many age groupers cannot logistically compensate for big stress via improved restoration. In these cases the stress should likely be reduced (from volume) and compensated for via added intensity; then taking the extra time to focus on restoration (sleep, nutrition, etc). Also, in a few cases where the athlete has dug themselves too deep in a hole over the course of several years, its necessary to have them take some serious time off and build back volume very slowly. The last case where it may make sense to take a lower volume/higher intensity approach is when an athlete’s career is reaching the final 3-5 years. They already have the deep aerobic base from years of training, and a 1-2 year taper of sharpening might do them some good. Coincidentally this also corresponds quite well with most athletes’ training volume reaching the 10,000+ hour level over the course of their life (“life-hours”). I continue to believe this is a key benchmark in endurance sport potential.
In summary, it’s not about the high intensity/low volume versus low intensity/high volume debate you hear all the time between coaches, and/or athletes. It’s more about what the appropriate measure is given an athlete’s logistical circumstances and particular history in sport. I hear too many coaches categorize complex training approaches to “I use a low volume, high intensity approach”. Again, in my opinion, it should be approached in a bit more detail and at a minimum should consider all of the various inputs you have from an athlete.
My hope with this post is to get you thinking…..