Category Archives: Training Tips

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Seven things I’ve learnt training for Karkloof100

Ultra running is no joke, but it’s the training that really shows you what you are made of. When I set myself the goal of running 100 miles (160km) I knew it was going to be tough as nails, I thought yeah I will learn so much running it (and I am sure I still will when we toe the line in September at the legendary Karkloof100) but it is the training that has been something of a revelation for me.

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Don’t let the vert hurt

Depending on the type of terrain your goal race is you will naturally train accordingly. If your race is over smooth jeep track and clean forest trails spending hours in the rocky technical mountains every single run won’t necessarily benefit you as much as flat dirt road running will. I’ve had to force myself to walk the hills, and hey it’s OK! No one is going to be laughing at your Strava laps because you walked the hills. Saving energy on the ups means you run the flat and downhills when others are forced to walk later in the race.

Don’t waste tired legs

For years I have tried my best to make sure I am as rested as possible before the weekend long run, but a few weeks back when I was slogging through a 4 hour run feeling like death warmed up all I wanted to do was stop. Then it suddenly hit me, I worked hard to get this tired and I am not injured, so just keep running. Running your long run on tired legs is a great way to simulate a possible race day environment when you start to feel tired towards the end of the race. This can be applied to any run distance training. It not only teaches you to run on tired legs but builds some serious mental fortitude because we are never as tired as our brain tries to tell us we are. You can always go more!

Train at goal race pace

This has been by far the toughest part of my training. Not counting the very little speed work I do, most of my runs have tried to be at goal race pace for the karkloof100, which happens to be almost 3 minutes per km slower than the average I am most comfortable at. Training slow takes proper discipline, having people pass you while you are walking is not good for the ego but training at 4min/km will have zero benefit when you are running for 24 hours plus at 7mins/km. Training the slow twitch muscle fibres and building endurance is a patience game. One that you will reap serious benefits from if you can get right.

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The hunger is real

It’s true what they say, training for an ultra puts a fire in your belly. The proverbial fire of passion and zeal to go further than ever before, but more importantly a literal fire that burns up anything you eat in 30 seconds flat. The fight for clocking as many miles as you can without getting injured before race day is only surpassed by the fight to consume as many calories as humanly possible, and hope it’s enough.

Make sure you like being with yourself

For the most part running is a selfish sport, especially ultra running. You will be spending hours out there, mostly by yourself. If you don’t like your own company you will have to quickly learn to like yourself. Ultra running for me is about self-discovery (among other things), if you feel like you don’t know yourself very well just enter an ultra. You will get acquainted very quickly. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable and still being patient with yourself when things don’t go according to plan is a skill that is learnt and one that can benefit in all spheres of life.

Spotify will change your life

If you still don’t like yourself after training for an ultra just register on Spotify. Podcasts and playlists for days that will keep you entertained. I try not run with music mostly but there are some days when you are just so flat and can’t bring yourself to have to process any thoughts while running. It’s days like these when a Spotify “Lazy Weekend” playlist serenading you through your long run makes you feel like you are running on cotton wool.

Find an understanding spouse

I should have lead with this because it is probably the most important part of training for an ultra, especially if you would still like to be married when you cross the finish line. Don’t forget to put that quality time into your spouse / partner / significant other on top of all the hours you are hogging to clock the miles. Making them feel special and that they are still the most important goal of your life goes a long way to helping them support you in your goal to reach that finish line. You might be so focused on the sacrifices you as the runner make in your pursuit of your goal, that you haven’t seen the sacrifices the love of your life is making.

P.S. Loni if I hadn’t said it enough thank you for letting me train for this. Thank you for having yummy suppers ready when I get home late in the week from long runs. Thank you for understanding and support me in this. I couldn’t have / can’t do it without you :)

Best Wife Ever :)

Best Wife Ever :)


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Basic Principles of Endurance Training

Most people think that speed wins races in running, but I am not so sure this true. For me it is Endurance that wins races, or gets you to the finish line. Without a solid base of Endurance that is built up over hours and hours of training a runner would not be able to realise their full potential and speed. Even 100m sprinters have need of endurance.

So what are some of the basic principles of endurance training that one would need to build their training program on? In this article we will look at some of the basic principles of Endurance and why they are important. You will only get so good by going out and smashing a hard run, if you implement some of the principles you will discover hidden potential in you running that you never knew existed.

Before training our Endurance levels we need to understand the different energy systems that enable us to use that hard earned Endurance. Each energy system is different and directly effects a runner’s endurance. If Endurance is the engine, the energy systems are the fuel that run the engine. Utilising each energy system effectively will mean the runner is able to draw the most out of their endurance training that they possibly can. Even the best Endurance Training programs will mean little return without even a basic understanding of what energy is required at what level and how to train those energy systems in conjunction with the endurance training.

So what are our bodies Energy Systems?

Energy Systems

The energy systems, as the name implies is all about the production of energy in your working muscles. As your muscles fire at various points through training and racing energy is required to sustain them. This could be in a 10second sprint or a 24hour endurance run. For the body generate the energy you require there needs to be a combination of fuel, a spark and oxygen (the same as a combustion engine). Each energy system is evaluated according to their fuel and oxygen requirements. A fast effort will require a higher level of fuel in a shorter time period. The bodies ability to generate the fuel supply to satisfy the energy requirements in this system is different to that of a slower but longer effort, where the fuel is needed over a long period of time at a consistent supply to fuel the effort.

These are the two major energy systems that have to be addressed during your training. They are your aerobic and your anaerobic energy systems. The goal event and desired result in that event will determine what percentage of your program will be devoted to which. Aerobic energy systems will give you the fuel for the long haul and your anaerobic energy system gives you the gas for the shorter, faster efforts. Regardless of the runners goal event they will require training in both these systems to fully realise their endurance and speed potential.

Aerobic Energy System

Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.

Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.

This is the foundation of any effort over 30 seconds and refers to your bodies ability to absorb and use oxygen to produce energy. The key to this energy system is Oxygen. The better your body is at absorbing and using oxygen, the higher the intensity will be which you can use while remaining in the aerobic energy system. A measure of aerobic fitness is your VO2 Max which refers to the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can utilise during exercise. Although VO2 Max is generally a product of your genetics and cannot really be trained a great deal (so the ability to absorb oxygen is pretty fixed), the ability to use that oxygen is highly trainable.

When you develop your aerobic system you can get more oxygenated blood to your working muscles. You also develop the ability for your body to use that oxygen that has been transported to your working muscles to generate energy. The more oxygen you get to your muscles the more your muscles are able to fire for longer at a consistent strength and pace.

Typically the way you develop your aerobic capacity is by fairly low intensity training. This is different for everyone and you need to determine where the crossover point is between your aerobic and anaerobic systems. This crossover point, or anaerobic threshold (AT) is important to know for two reason. Firstly because your aerobic training needs to be at an intensity lower than this point to get the desired training effect and secondly because this is the intensity that you should aim for as your race pace during competition. Any event over a few hours is best raced at the pace of where you remain at your aerobic threshold, going into anaerobic for too long will eventually cause you to ‘hit the wall’. As we will see a little further on the anaerobic system isn’t as sustainable as your aerobic system. AT is highly trainable and needs to be evaluated at least once a month during the training year as it changes as you build your aerobic capacity.

The power behind the aerobic system is the fact that your body can use stored fat as fuel. This enables the body to run for hours as our fat stores are massively greater than our carbohydrate stores. Training and racing at an aerobic level means there is enough oxygen available to burn fat as fuel, saving the much need carbohydrates for the faster, more anaerobic efforts during a race or training session. It therefore also holds true that as you increase your aerobic capacity you should also be able to use fat as fuel at higher intensities. This is wonderful news for the endurance athlete because as mentioned earlier our fat stores far outweigh our carbohydrate stores (which generally only last around 90mins before needing to be replenished), effectively burning fat as fuel means the duration of the effort is increased greatly.

Anaerobic Energy System

A hard anaerobic effort is always fun :)

A hard anaerobic effort is always fun :)

This is the all out sprint effort energy system. It does not require oxygen to generate energy, but lasts for a very short period of time. Typically it only lasts for all out efforts of 30 seconds or less. It requires a fuel that is very easy to burn and therefore primarily uses carbohydrates (Glycogen) stored in muscles and your liver as fuel. As mentioned earlier it only has a limited supply so if an endurance athlete goes out too hard early on and depletes their carb stores they will have to replenish on the go with gels and energy bars. This is very ineffective because at this point while replenishing energy levels on the go it is very difficult to keep your energy levels at a stable level. You will dip low and then rocket high as the simple sugars are converted to energy, only to be dropped down again as your body uses up the fuel. This from a mental perspective can be very damaging and make an already tough event even tougher. At this level of effort your body isn’t able to convert energy fast enough to maintain the pace of the effort which only contributes to up-and-down energy loss mentioned earlier. Training your anaerobic energy system helps you get comfortable at this level of effort. It will be almost impossible to race an endurance event at this level for the entire time. There will be times on the route where you will go anaerobic to get up a sharp but short climb for example but ultimately you want to remain within your aerobic threshold for as much of the event as possible.

What this means then is in order to get faster over the long haul a runner needs to increase the intensity he / she is able to maintain at an aerobic level. This is the key to running well and running fast, speed work can only make you fast for so long. Having an aerobic base that can power a jet engine is the secret to running fast. So now that we understand a little more about the energy systems how would one look at structuring their program to train these systems and increase their endurance capacity?

Below we look at a broad outline on how a program could be structured, we don’t go into much depth on individual sessions this is purely how to structure it for the long term.


The first and most basic principle is that of periodisation, or splitting your training before an event up into parts or periods. You do this to allow your body time to adapt to the training load in preparation for an event. Periodisation allows for a gradual increase in the load in order to prevent injuries and build an endurance foundation. Once this has been done you can look to add intensity to your training regime. High intensity training too early on or ‘too much mileage too soon’ will ruin the consistency of your training through injury and over-training. Periodising your program helps you see which ‘blocks’ you are in and keeps you focused on the specific goals for each block.


The first part of Periodisation is dividing your year into periods or phases lasting anything from 4-8 weeks. Each of these seasons / phases have a specific purpose. In coaching we typically like to break the training year up into:

  1. Adaptation Phase (also known as Pre-Season) – This phase is very much focused on technique and getting your body used to training after an off season layoff. Training is not only sports specific and could include quite general training such as Cycling, Boxing, Stand Up Paddle Boarding or Crossfit.
  2. Base Phase (or Pre-Competitative Season) – This phase is sometimes broken into a Base 1 and Base 2 but in essence it is the phase to build aerobic capacity, to build the capillary system and mitochondria in muscles and start working on strength (not speed). A note on strength, this is to strengthen your muscles, tendons and ligaments for increases in distance and intensity.
  3. Speed Phase (or Competitive Season) – In the speed phase the intensity of the workouts increase to the your anticipated (or goal) race pace or greater. As with most things in life when you take on the one side you have to give on another. So when you increase intensity you have to decrease duration / distance. Sessions will be mostly interval based and you can anticipate this being a taxing phase.
  4. Recovery Phase (or Off-season) – Once you have completed your competition season it is always a good idea to take some time off. During this time you can still remain active but give your body and mind a break from a structured training routine. Do activities that are not related to those which you have spent a whole season training for. You will start the next season mentally refreshed and physically revived.

The actual duration of each phase and the specific workouts during each phase will be determined by the actual goal that you have. You would need to evaluate the requirements of the goal to determine what you need to do to reach it. If your race is 1 hour long your base phase is going to look very different (and will be much shorter) than it would if your race was a 7 hour race.

The start of the training year (Adaptation phase) will be determined by the date of the event that you are wanting to peak for. Start with the date (or dates) and work phases back from there.

Micro-cycles (also known as Mesocycles)

Once you have planned the big blocks, you need to split these further into smaller parts, known as micro-cycles. These cycles are also aimed at allowing your body adaptation time. You will typically work in 3 or 4 week cycles. Which works best for you should be evaluated based on your current fitness levels and the event that you are training for. A 3 week cycle generally works best when you require more recovery, such as when you are in the Speed Phase or if you are just starting training from a long layoff. Or even in the Adaptation Phase. A 4 week cycle works best when you require a cumulative training effect such as when you are in Base Phase and training for a long distance event where intensity isn’t very high.

A 3 week cycle would look something like this:

  1. Maintenance Week – Maintain load (intensity or distance) at a manageable level.
  2. Overload Week – Increase load (intensity or distance) to stress your body and cause adaptation.
  3. Recovery Week – Decrease load (intensity or distance) to below manageable level to allow your body to complete the adaptation that was triggered by the overload week.

A 4 week cycle would just include a second Maintenance Week before the Overload Week with a slight increase in load (intensity or distance) but still at a manageable level.

In conclusion, Periodisation is a structured breakdown of your training year into seasons where specific goals can be set and managed. The seasons are then broken down further into micro-cycles. This allows for a controlled increase in load which improves the chances of a consistent and sustainable training load. It also ensures that all the required energy systems are effectively trained enabling you to maximise. Keeping an indepth log of all your training is a great way of staying motivated as well as seeing where you are at with regards to your goals.

Set your training up for the long run, not just short term gains.

Set your training up for the long run, not just short term gains.


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Exercise Intensity – How Hard Should I Go?

I often get questioned (and sometimes challenged) by athletes about exercise intensity. Competitive athletes generally feel they should always “go hard” as this will make them faster. So that begs the question, “how hard is hard enough” and “when am I going too hard”?

I am afraid there is no simple answer to these questions. The reason for this is that it depends on where you are in your training cycle and, you guessed it, what your goal is and your current fitness level and physiology! So to understand how hard you should go (your exercise intensity) in any training session you need to understand:

  • Your overall goal
  • Your current fitness level
  • You physiology
  • Where you are in your training cycle (Base 1, Base2, Speed)?
  • What is the specific session / workout goal?

A word on your physiology. Do not compare your heart rate figures with other athletes. Having a low resting heart rate is some indication of fitness but does not mean you will perform better in races. The numbers in terms of max HR (MHR) or anaerobic threshold (AT) etc that we use are tools to help you train at the correct intensity. They are not bragging rights in your training group!

If you are training in a group exercise intensity can be a two edged sword. On the one hand group training is a fantastic tool to ensure that you push and reach the workout intensity that is required. On the other hand it often leads to an athletes competitive instinct taking over and cause them to push too hard. An example of this would be where the required workout is a “long slow distance” endurance workout. Often these are performed in a group because the boredom that can sometimes set in with hours of running alone, which can also be a little overwhelming. As the workout progresses the group often start picking up pace until some of the slower members are actually not training at the correct intensity any more! This should be avoided as it prevents the athlete from achieving the correct load for the workout, as well as benefiting from the adaptation that would have followed.

So, how does one prevent this from happening?

How hard is too hard?

How hard is too hard?

Measure Exercise Intensity

Most important is to have a measure of exercise intensity. This measure can either be objective or subjective.

The objective measure is using a heart rate monitor. Once you have calculated your “zones” you can use your heart rate monitor (HRM) to ensure that you stay within the upper and lower limits of the zone required. This is a very good way to ensure that workouts are performed at the correct exercise intensity but it does sometimes take the “fun” out of training.

A subjective measure is using a method known as rate of perceived exertion (RPE). This method relies on how you “feel” to determine how hard you are going. It requires you to rate your exertion on a scale of easy to very, very hard. I have found this is a very difficult measure for most people other than seasoned athletes. Once you have trained with a heart rate monitor for some time and you know what different zones feel like you can use RPE effectively when you do not feel like using your HRM, but not before.

Know Your Zones

There are a lot of resource available on heart rate zone training. Go and do a search online and you will find a lot of information, some good and some not so good. Here is some high level information but I encourage you to do some more research.

Start by knowing what your zones are. Your zones will be a percentage of either your maximum heart rate (MHR), your VO2 Max or your anaerobic threshold. Don’t get too bogged down by the different methods to determine your zones. Look at the following and select a method.

Max Heart Rate (MHR)

As the name suggests, this method uses the number of beats per minute that your heart would beat during an all out effort as your upper limit. There is a simple (but quite inaccurate method to determine your max, MHR = 220 – your age. I say inaccurate because it assumes a very general fitness level and physiology. A better method is to test it. It is however quite hard to get yourself to 100% HR. If you are just starting HR training and need some kind of guidance the simple MHR calculation method could be good enough, but I do suggest that that you do some testing to determine a more accurate method as soon as possible.

Anaerobic Threshold (AT)

This is in my opinion a better method to use. AT is the HR that you will be able to maintain during racing and it is highly trainable (more so than max HR). If you periodically test your AT and train at a percentage of AT I think you will get the most out of your training. The method to determine your AT using a field test is also fairly simple and all you will need is a HR monitor that has a stopwatch. Do a 15-20 min warmup at a very easy pace. Then do a 30 min time trial at the fastest pace that you can maintain for the entire duration. Rather start a bit slower and go faster than to go very fast and then be forced to slow down toward the end. Use the average HR for the last 20 min of the time trial as your AT. A more complicated method to determine your AT (but that has been disputed of late) is the Canconi method.

VO2 Max

This is an indication of your aerobic capacity and measures the volume of oxygen your body can absorb. The higher the VO2 the more oxygen you can absorb and send to your working muscles and the better your capacity to perform in endurance sport. It is however mostly determined by genetics and is not very trainable (it is to some extent possible to improve when just starting out training, but not really for trained athletes). Testing also requires a laboratory and in my opinion is a bit too complex to work with for the average athlete.

Calculate Your Zones

Once you have determined the upper limit of your training using one of the methods above, you can work out your zones. You do this by using the percentage (mentioned below) of your upper limit (determined above). So for instance if I choose to use MHR simple method to determine my upper limit and I am 30 years old, I would use 220-30 = 190 as my max HR and then use the percentages below to define the zone as a percentage of 190.

  1. Zone 1 – Very low intensity (active recovery). Usually <60% of your max HR / <70% of your AT / very, very light to very light on the RPE scale.
  2. Zone 2 – Aerobic conditioning. Usually between 60%-75% of your max HR / 70%-90% of your AT / fairly light to somewhat hard on the RPE scale.
  3. Zone 3 – Anaerobic threshold conditioning (including Tempo training). Usually between 75% – 90% of your max HR / 90%-100% of your AT / hard to very hard on the RPE scale.
  4. Zone 4 – Pure power and speed work. Usually at 90%+ of max HR / 101%+ of AT / Very, very hard on the RPE scale.

So How Hard is Hard Enough?

As I mentioned earlier your plan would largely dictate when you use which zones (exercise intensities). You would for instance use mostly Zone 2, with some Zone 3 in Base1 training. You need to therefore make sure that you have a plan to know when to use which zones. The question about what is the correct exercise intensity is determined by:

  1. Your goal and where you are in your training cycle – Your plan is based on your goal and will determine which zone you should train in. Where you are in the training cycle on your plan will more specifically determine the Zone you are training in.
  2. Your fitness level and physiology – If you do some field testing to determine your MHR or AT you will be working at a percentage of the intensity that was determined by your current fitness level and your physiology.

It is worth spending the time to determine your zones. You will make sure that you reach the intended outcome every time you go and train. You will also make sure you don’t overdo things and get injured or sick because you just went too hard, too soon.

The key is consistency!

The key is consistency!

Originally posted at SUPRACETRAINING.COM

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Running Goals – Achieving Yours

Where do you start with putting together a plan for achieving your running goals? In this article we will explore 5 steps that can set you on the road to running success.

Running Goals

The road to achieving goals are often not clear till you have a roadmap on where you are trying to get to!

1. Set  Running Goals

I often chat with athletes that want to start running or competing in races, but don’t know where to start. It all starts with understanding your running goals. You don’t drive around aimlessly when you go on vacation?! No, you decide where you want to go, and then you can figure out the details of how to get there.

For me training is the same. You need to start by setting the goals (your running goals), then you can work out a training program to help you achieve those goals. It is important to align goals with your training using a program. As we explored before in a previous post  by James Murphy titled “Irony: Your Training May Not Be Helping You Reach Your Goals – Try Polarised Training” training has to be specific and not random to really benefit you. The two components to achieve this specific training are goals and a program.

So take some time to think about why you run and what you hope to get out of it and that will be a good indication of what your running goals are.

2. Evaluate Your Running Goals

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help shape your goal a little:

  • Do I want to do any races?
  • What races do I want to do?
  • Is it a single big event, an event series or compete in a racing season with many different events?
  • What is date of the event?
  • What type of weather conditions can you expect in the event?
  • Does it involve a lot of climbing / is it undulating / is it flat?
  • What is the duration of the event (distance and anticipated finish time)?
  • What do I want to achieve in the event / events? Do I want to win the event, win my age division or just complete the event?
  • How much time do I have available from now to the event?
  • What is my current fitness level?
  • What is my current skill level?
  • Do I have any injuries? Slight or worse?
  • Do I need to qualify for my goal event?
Running Goals

Know where you want to go before you can work out how to get there!

Write the answers to these questions down and then test them against the voice of reason. I believe anything is possible, but some things might take a bit more planning and time to achieve than others.

So if you plan on doing an epic 100’miler at altitude on very technical terrain you might push it out for a season and first build up to the distance and gain the skill required. Don’t sell yourself short, you can achieve it, maybe just not immediately.

Work out a multi year strategy and you can still achieve your running goals. I guess what I am saying is, it is ok to have goals that might seem impossible as long as the plan to achieve them is realistic.

3. Tell Your Friends

I have found a very powerful tool for us to actually achieve our goals is to tell others about it. Just the action of speaking the goal out load seems to give you the confidence that you can do it and it also commits you to it. No one wants to tell everyone they are going to be doing an event and then later has to explain why they never did it.

This is a step that makes you quite vulnerable but trust me it works. I have in the past often committed myself to doing something and then later felt I had to push through because I had committed.

4. Surround Yourself With Like Minded People

Running Goals

Solo is not the way to go to reach your goals

Training on your own on cold rainy winters mornings is enough to make anyone hit the snooze button en drift back into lala land. But knowing you have a crew waiting for you that would not have a problem ringing the doorbell and waking the your entire family is enough motivation to get anyone out of bed!

Training and racing with others also knit you into a tight unit. It is funny how suffering together actually builds deeper friendships. So find a crew that shares your goals and can motivates you when you feel like giving up, pushes you when you want to slack off and holds you back when you want to do too much too soon too fast. O yes, and you do the same for them!

5. Get a Program

Running Goals

When is it enough, when is it too much?

You need a roadmap. Let me say it again, you need a roadmap! Say it with me, I need a roadmap!

The purpose of a program is to ensure that you focus on the right things at the right time and remove the need for decision making from your training. Unless you a pro athlete (and even if you are), you probably have limited time. You need to get maximum returns for the effort that you put in.

Programs take things into account like periodisation, the different energy systems that you need to train, your current fitness levels etc. and mixed together with your running goals to provide you the most efficient roadmap to achieving your running goals.

All the training program should do is to provide structure and focus. It does not need to be complex but it also should not be generic (unless you have the same goals, skills, level of fitness, time available etc.).

If you want to download a generic program, that is fine, but at least be find one that is tailored to the event you are wanting to complete in or the distance you want to conquer.

If you however want to excel in the event a more tailored program will be required. You can draw up your own program if you  understand the principles of endurance training (I will be taking you through this process in this series of articles). However if you do not understand these principles or really want to excel, enlist the help of a coach. The coach’s years of experience will save you a lot of time in drawing up an appropriate program.

Done correctly, a properly constructed program will help you achieve your running goals and keep you injury free.


I read a quote somewhere once that went a little something like this, “we are kept from our goal not by obstacles, but by a clear path to a lesser goal”. It is not secret knowledge that we as humans somehow always seem to choose the easier road. There will be times in your training when you will make up a million excuses why you can’t do it. Don’t give in, don’t give up! Keep that goal before you and persevere, the rewards will be sweet.

Now go and have a chat with yourself and figure out what your running goals are! In another articles we will look at how to construct your own program based on your running goals.

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Polarised Training

Irony: Your Training May Not Be Helping You Reach Your Goals – Try Polarised Training

Guest Post by James Murphy

What is the purpose of training?

Is it for fun?  Is it to test yourself? Is it to cause adaptations that make you better?  Something else altogether?

I think all of these things are potentially valid, but in my opinion what training actually involves is a person attempting to cause an adaptation (or set of adaptations) to occur in order to become better able to achieve specific goals.  A focus on fun and tests doesn’t necessarily achieve this, and as as tempting as they may be I don’t think this is what training is for. But, ultimately, it does depend on what your goals are; and please note that I didn’t say to completely exclude these.


So what if your goal is to become a better runner?

If you want to win races, and to get fast over certain distances, always training for fun or treating every training session as a test is quite simply a mistake; this would be a case where you either need to change your training or re-evaluate your goals.

If the above-mentioned “get faster over certain distances” is your goal, then specific adaptations that allow the human body to do this are what we want to result from our training.

I think one of the most important adaptations to seek as an endurance athlete that would aid this goal would be mitochondrial biogenesis, which can be mediated by a protein called PGC-1α  – a key regulator of energy metabolism.  Our mitochondria are the part of our cells that generate most of the energy, so it should make sense that we want lots of mitochondria that function well in order to be a good endurance athlete. Increasing PGC-1α, then, would be a goal that one should probably have as an endurance athlete, and so training in a way that best does this might be a good idea!

One of the things that I’ve recently learned exhibits control over PGC-1α in skeletal muscle, is testosterone.

In this study, wherein some rats were fed exogenous testosterone, there were significant increases in their skeletal muscle PGC-1α.  The level of increase here would likely only be seen if one were supplementing with exogenous testosterone, since the rats doing so had ~12-fold increase in serum testosterone vs. the control; but this at least demonstrates a potential link between testosterone levels and PGC-1α (and so mitochondrial biogenesis) in skeletal muscle.

PGC-1α itself also increases angiogenesis (the development of new blood vessels) and fat oxidation — so it does more than simply increase mitochondria.  Both of these factors would also be helpful for improving performance.

The fact that PGC-1α is affected by testosterone should make us think twice about whether we want to engage in training that has a robust and prolonged stress response involved with it, which may negatively impact testosterone.  This goes back to my original point of matching our training up with our goals.

So perhaps simply running as much as possible as fast as possible for as long as possible might not be the best way to train.  We can negatively affect our testosterone production by waking up early to run (ie sleeping less), running too much or, more simply put, experiencing chronic stress.  In doing these things we are potentially stopping one of the adaptations we want to be happening in the first place as a result of our training.

2014-02-23 11.01.43

So if we want to actually benefit from our training and propel ourselves toward our goals, how should we go about doing so?

I believe the method that makes the most sense is to reduce or remove the junk middle-ground training and train either at a high- or low-intensity.

High volume training, at a low intensity which can be sustained for long periods of time has lots of benefits, one of which is increasing mitochondrial biogenesis.

High intensity training induces metabolic stress, and also increases mitochondrial biogenesis through AMPK which is an enzyme that becomes more active when there is low energy levels within the cell, and subsequently activates PGC-1α. This happens especially so when in a glycogen-depleted state.  This especially makes sense when we think of metabolic stress as a state wherein we don’t have enough energy as we need for whatever we are doing, and high intensity exercise is the “whatever we are doing” and the lack of glycogen (stored carbohydrate) is the “don’t have enough energy.”

Middle ground training is not as intense as high-intensity training (because high-intensity is done at a level beyond which is sustainable for time), and not as long-duration as low intensity high volume training, so although it will still obviously have some of the effects mentioned above, it is not going to give you the biggest return on investment.  As fun as a tempo run may be, it should have a specific place in training in relation to your goals (race) and should probably not make up a large part of training.

Polarised Training

This is a training model that I have mentioned before referred to as polarised training, which was looked at in this paper where they tested a group of well-trained athletes who were randomised into groups of either high intensity interval training (HIIT), high-volume low-intensity training (HVT), lactate threshold (THR) or polarised (POL).  Here is a description of the intervention:

The HVT included three blocks each lasting 3 weeks: 2 weeks of high-volume training followed by 1 week of recovery. The two high volume weeks each included six training sessions with three 90 min LOW sessions, two 150–240 min LOW sessions (according to the training mode: running, cycling, or roller skiing) and one 60 min LT session using different types of interval training (e.g., 5 × 7 min with 2 min recovery, 3 × 15 min with 3 min recovery). The recovery week included three training sessions with two 90 min LOW sessions and one 150–180 min LOW session.

The THR included three blocks, each lasting 3 weeks: 2 weeks of high volume and intensity training followed by 1 week of recovery. The two high volume and intensity weeks each included six training sessions with two 60 min interval sessions at the LT (5 × 6 min and 2 min recovery in the first block, 6 × 7 min in the second block and 6 × 8 min in the last block), one 90 min LT session with longer intervals (3 × 15 min with 3 min active recovery in the first block and 3 × 20 min for the remaining two blocks), one 75 min session with varying changes in intensity (“fartlek”) (intensities resulting in a blood lactate of 1.5–5 mmol·L−1) and two 90 min LOW sessions. The recovery week included one 60 min LOW session and two 60 min LT interval sessions (5 × 6 min with 2 min of active recovery).

The HIIT included two interval blocks of 16 days with one adaptation week prior to and one recovery week after each block. The adaptation week included two 60 min HIIT sessions, three 90 min LOW sessions, one 120 min LOW session and 1 day of recovery. The condensed 16 day interval block included 12 HIIT sessions within 15 days, integrating four blocks of three HIIT sessions for three consecutive days followed by 1 day of recovery. The recovery week contained four LOW sessions of 90 min and 3 days without any training. All of the HIIT sessions included a 20 min warm-up at 75% of HRpeak, 4 × 4 min at 90–95% of HRpeak with 3 min active recovery and a 15 min cool-down at 75% HRpeak based on the protocol proposed earlier. The LOW sessions lasted 90–150 min depending on the training mode (running vs. cycling) at an intensity resulting blood lactate of <2 mmol·L−1.

The POL included three blocks, each lasting 3 weeks: 2 weeks of high volume and intensity training followed by 1 week of recovery. The high volume and intensity week included six sessions with two 60 min HIIT sessions, two 150–240 min long duration LOW sessions (duration according to training mode: cycling, running or roller skiing), which included six to eight maximal sprints of 5 s separated by at least 20 min, and two 90 min LOW sessions. The recovery week included one 60 min HIIT session, one 120–180 min LOW session and one 90 min LOW session.

The study was meant to assess specific “key endurance parameters” over 9 weeks.  These parameters included submaximal and peak VO2 (VO2submax and VO2peak) and HR (HRsubmax and HRpeak), as well as time to exhaustion (TTE) and velocity/power.  At the end of the 9 week period, it seemed that polarised training demonstrated “the greatest increase in VO2peak , time to exhaustion (during a specific protocol) and peak velocity/power.”

It would seem that a training model that includes the best of both worlds (and eliminates what interferes) makes sense both intuitively and in light of evidence.  Polarised training  allows one to use both high intensity training and high volume training (mentioned above to both induce mitochondrial biogenesis through different mechanisms) separately and effectively without running the risk of overtraining.  I would, however, plan my own training quite a bit differently than was done in the above paper, which will likely be discussed in the future.

Train smart.


About the Author:

James is an amateur-adventurer and a curious thinker that spends much of his time outdoors playing amongst and exploring nature.

According to James he is a “pretty average person” (note however that he doesn’t claim to be normal!).  He feels there’s nothing special that he possess that allows him to enjoy any of the things he does, or to live the way that he decide to.  That mean’s that pretty much anybody is capable of doing whatever he does here, or at least has the capacity to develop an ability to do such things.

James is attempting to explore the full capacity of being a human — to enjoy life to the fullest extent that he know’s how.

Becoming a better human is something he deems to be important, and thankfully for us he will share anything he can come up with that may help!

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