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Importance of Intervals and Training Easy on-Easy Days

The general deficiencies with most training programs is that people generally run at the same intensity that whole time and when elite athletes do intervals, they don’t do them when rested.

Two key questions that arise are:
1. "Why not do more of the low intensity distance training at higher intensity, or in other words, what is wrong with the "pretty tough" medium intensity workout?" Whatever happened to "No Pain, No Gain?"
2. "If interval training is so important, why not do more?"

I think answering both requires not only a knowledge of muscle and heart physiology, but an understanding of the "whole athlete". Historically, many people have made the mistake of thinking of training one-dimensionally. By this I mean they only think of training as a means to induce the positive physiological changes that result in better performance. This type of thinking rapidly leads to the "more intensity is better" or, more precisely, "more intervals are better" mentality. In the lab, numerous sport scientists have designed short training studies with untrained subjects and demonstrated that those who train at higher intensity improve more in the short run. I have done it myself, having made rats run hard intervals 5 days a week before! Clearly, intensity is a critical determinant of the training response. BUT, pushing intensity too far, too often leads to big problems when we try to extrapolate to the long term development of the elite endurance athlete.

Training must be thought of "two-dimensionally." The first dimension is training as inducer of positive change. The second dimension is training as a stress that does cellular damage, alters brain chemistry, and disturbs hormone levels, negative consequences all in all. When we realize that the training sword cuts both ways, then the "magic" of ensuring the long term progress of the elite athlete can be understood as an exercise in maximizing the "Benefits to Risk ratio," both from week to week and over the long haul. The answer to both "why not more interval sessions?" and "why so much low intensity steady state work?" is similar I think. I call it avoiding regression towards the mean. If we try to do hard/interval training (read: high lactate accumulation over many minutes) too frequently, we either break down completely or we end up performing many of the interval sessions at inadequate intensity. It can be either the head or the body that cracks, but the result is the same. If we instead try to turn up the intensity on those "long tour sessions," they become too stressful and too limited by glycogen availability, and we shorten them.

As a related point, one of the best ways to end up overtraining is to have too little variation in training intensity (coined "training monotony" in some nice research on speedskaters and cyclists by Dr. Carl Foster). Athletes can eventually handle high workloads if they successfully avoid letting all the workouts drift towards a middle of the road intensity.
1. Build the the typical training week around 2 hard/high intensity training sessions.
2. Increase the total volume of training with primarily low intensity work at not more than 70-75% % or so of HR max. Don't view these long, low intensity sessions as valueless, and don't adopt a "harder must be better" approach!
3. Avoid a training condition in which each session begins to take on the same medium intensity.


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