The place of low-intensity training
Coach Bernard shines some light on low-intensity training.
There has been quite a bit of discussion on this subject in recent months, both within our training group and more widely, so here I’ve pulled some of my own thoughts together along with some background information. Others may well take a different view.
The “hard-easy” principle first came out in the 1960s, the idea being that you interspersed your hard sessions with easier ones, thus allowing your body to absorb the hard work, recover and adapt. You might do two hard days in succession (which you might find yourself doing in competition) but basically this approach produced a balanced – up programme. It was used by many distance runners over the next few decades. “Easy day” is of course a subjective term, and for example for the 1972 Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter this meant seven miles in the morning and another 10 later on. But he was pretty good at it, the pace was for him fairly relaxed and he’d built up to it. For more ordinary mortals, an easy day might still mean a gentle 8 miles or so, while a full blown recovery day would be half that, or indeed a day off.
Fast forward to the 1990s and the “less-is-more” approach came to the fore, where the majority of training consisted of relatively short, fast intervals. Any easier, continuous running was considered as “junk” by many coaches and athletes. Thankfully, we seem to have weathered that storm and continuous running is back in its place as a key part of our training. However, in the meantime the “hard-easy” principle seems to have been forgotten by many, and we have runners today bashing in too many of their sessions at a hard pace. The result is that, not surprisingly, the amount of work that they can cope with before breaking down is relatively modest.
The importance of building a huge base of aerobic fitness was first developed in New Zealand by Arthur Lydiard in the 1950s. It would be a mistake though to think that this had much if anything to do with the LSD (Long Slow Distance) jogging boom that hit the USA in the 1970s. “Arthur’s Boys” weren’t there to mess about, Lydiard worked on “effort”, and a quarter effort (not quarter pace) was no shambling jog. They knocked in 100 miles each week during their basic conditioning phase. The level of effort varied between sessions but two of them were three quarters effort 10 milers that would correspond to our beloved “Tuesday 10”. Since three of them medalled at the Rome Olympics in 1960 and one of them did the 800/1500 double in Tokyo four years later, something was clearly working.
The Lydiard principles have been brought up to date in recent years. An excellent book by Keith Livingstone (Healthy Intelligent Training) brings in work that’s been done since in exercise physiology that supports the ideas that Lydiard came up with largely by experimenting on himself. To put these levels of effort in context, Livingstone was a 14 min 5000m performer and when in shape a quarter effort was six min miles – so not exactly hanging about.
Exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler examined the training diaries of various super-elite performers across a range of endurance sports and found that in general terms so-called “low-intensity” training formed 80% of their overall workload. American author Matt Fitzgerald fastened on to this idea in his book (80/20 running: run stronger and race faster by training slower), which he was prompted to write from observations that many people were doing too great a proportion of their training too hard. This was written mainly for the US market where there are massive numbers of recreational runners and joggers, often with very limited training backgrounds, and many of them don’t have to run very fast before they are too out of breath to hold any conversation – this being the rough cut – off between low- and moderate –intensity training. Let’s face it, time is tight for many of us and if 20 mins is all you have for running or a gym session then the temptation is to get a move on. Understandably therefore it’s all too easy to train too hard too often.
Low-intensity for club runners
The situation in the UK is a bit different, where many athletics and running clubs have groups of seasoned competitive distance runners. To use the Americanisms, we’re not “pros” but neither are we “hobby-joggers”, our attitude is hugely positive even if our ability is modest and we are prepared to train to get the best out of ourselves. As I’ve said though, many work on the idea that they just need to do more and harder training in order to improve. After all, group sessions are generally pretty tough so shouldn’t we also finish our other runs in a similar state, draped over the front gate, gasping for breath and hoping our last meal is going to stay where we put it?? No – to quote the old maxim “effective training is always hard, but hard training isn’t always effective”. And effective training means a balanced programme with lower-intensity work accounting for most of the volume over the week – and the 80/20 rule isn’t a bad rough guide to work to, while also of course remembering the hard-easy principle.
Of course it’s great when a young or new athlete says that they want to start doing some additional running on top of the group sessions. But this is why my advice is always to keep this extra stuff to steady, money-in-the-bank running – many is the time I’ve heard the comment “I can only train flat out”, said it myself for a short time over half a century ago. It was nonsense then (as I soon found out) and it still is today. Keep your overall programme balanced and your risk of injury should be reduced, you can tolerate a higher amount of training and you should have more oomph when it matters.
What?? Me exhorting you to run slowly?? Well not exactly, it’s all relative and as so often happens, the devil is in the detail. Note that the word in the title of Fitzgerald’s book is “slower” and not “slow”. Seasoned distance runners have a much wider range of speeds to work with than beginners, and our “bread and butter” conversational pace is still moving along when we’re in shape. And drifting along on easy runs in pleasant surroundings is an absolute joy – you’re totally at one with the world, and if you’ve never felt like that on a run, well, you just haven’t lived. As with Arthur’s Boys, for us low-intensity running is far from a shambling jog, it has a specific purpose and so it certainly can’t be classed as “junk”.
Let’s look at a couple of practical examples that I’ve written about before. The long Sunday run should be part of the training of any distance runner year-round. Yes it’s big on volume but it should be low on intensity – hammering out a hard 12 or 15 miles the day after a race or one of our typical Saturday sessions is not a good idea. The “Tuesday 10” on the other hand is intended to be a tough session, “sub-threshold” in the words of Keith Livingstone, and it quite definitely falls into the moderate/high intensity category. But it might just fall to bits if you’ve done that long run too hard a couple of days earlier – and if you’re not fulfilling the purpose of the session then it comes under the classification of “junk”.
Fish, chips and peas
And finally, just to reassure everyone that I’ve not gone soft, I am still of the view that recovery runs can be too slow - we all have our optimum speeds for recovery, easy, steady runs etc and what’s more these can vary from day to day. To illustrate this here’s an anecdote from many years ago when a work colleague who said he’d done a lot of running asked if he could join me on my recovery run one lunchtime. It was literally painfully slow and far more tiring than it should have been, and what I now know to be my gait was all over the place, prancing about to stop with him and putting myself at risk of injury. What’s more, by the time we got back the lab restaurant was shut and so there was no Friday fish, chips and peas – an essential component of my recovery session (recovery is about more than just physical refreshment). I was seriously hacked off. Recovery session?? – I don’t think so, it never happened again.