Most of your training should be Low Intensity Training (LIT); 90-100% in fact! The remaining amount ought be High Intensity Training (HIT).
All work over the moderate intensity zone is decreasingly economical because the rate of oxygen consumption versus power output is disproportionally high (compared with low intensity). A small amount of severe intensity training is beneficial for stimulating neuromuscular pathways, some improvements in cardiac response, as well as to strengthen connective tissue (assuming type and amount of load is appropriate for the individual).
The reason we stay out of the middle is that “heavy” training creates a high burden for the small amount of adaptive stress that is produced. This means that not only are you less efficient, you won’t improve relative to the workload because of increased recovery needs.
Research by polarized training expert Dr. Stephen Seiler has shown that our upper range improves as we improve in the lower end of the spectrum. Moreover, it’s in the lower intensities where we can influence and develop our physiology the most. Thus, by strengthening our base we also get more capable and robust at the top end without the high risk associated with training at severe intensity.
HIT efforts should be done no more than twice a week, and the total accumulated time at that effort per session should not be greater than forty minutes. Keep in mind that this is the maximal amount of severe workload for a well-trained athlete, while also staying within 0-10% of total training volume as HIT (as measured by Time in Zone). For less well-trained athletes, and in lower amounts of total training hours per week, the number of aggregate HIT training minutes must be reduced accordingly. ‘Crushing it’ because that’s all the time you have is not beneficial!
The commonly used 5 zone model of training intensity can be simplified into 3 zones. There are biophysiological reasons for using five zones, but for most cases three are sufficient thanks to rather clear intensity delineations that don’t require lab based data: Ventilatory Thresholds 1 and 2 (VT1 & VT2).
Rate of Perceived Exertion has been shown to be a reliable method of judging workloads. I often prescribe workouts based on this scale. Nonetheless, the importance of listening to your breath and feeling your heart rate can’t be understated. The human body is constantly calculating hundreds of thousands of data every second, and when the athlete learns to listen carefully to what their body is communicating, workouts become increasingly effective AND more fun! You also enhance the potential for longevity in athletics and life.
In a lab environment bio-energeticists and physiologists can analyse blood lactate levels as well as oxygen & carbon dioxide (gas) exchange to determine thresholds and correlate them to various heart rates. (Note: Critically evaluate any tester you’re thinking of using because most people don’t collect data or interpret it properly.) Fortunately, the body also gives us an easy field method—breathing.
Delineating LIT and HIT from the middle is easily done using VT1 & VT2.
- Below VT1, you can speak comfortably.
- At VT1, speaking requires some effort.
- Above VT1/Below VT2, breath sounds are noticeable, almost forced.
- Above VT2, speaking is only possible in one or two word spurts, and breathing is primary.
LIT is a relatively low level of intensity marked by light breathing and the feeling that you could maintain the effort for a few hours. In this video we see Alistair Brownlee below VT1, and Anna above it (especially after 5:00). Alistair is training appropriately. Anna is exerting herself just to keep up in order to get the job done. (I’m glad I didn’t have Anna’s job since I’d also be extending myself running next to a jogging Alistair.)
Use this as a guide to help you judge your intensity. Training easier provides greater improvements that help you perform significantly better. Reallocate the energy that you might have wasted in the middle/heavy zone in order to train more consistently at a low/moderate intensity.
(1) 68 Avoiding the Mediocrity of the Middle, Dr. Shawn Bearden, Science of Ultra.
(2) What is Best Practice for Training Intensity and Duration Distribution in Endurance Athletes?, Dr. Stephen Seiler, Universitetet i Agder.
(3) Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance: the Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training, Stephen Seiler1 and Espen Tønnessen
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Soulful Sojourn: Belief – Gratitude – Living
My guiding principle in life is the invitation to show up each and every moment to live life. With confidence and understanding we develop a structure to improve fitness and choose a lifestyle that includes training, mindset, and nutrition. The intention is to discover, appreciate and express the process of living. I call this my Soulful Sojourn.