Continuing from Part 1, I want to go ahead and move into perhaps the most commonly used method of endurance training which is the miles build champions approach.
Miles Build Champions
.Arguably the most commonly popular (or certainly most traditional) approach to developing endurance over the years has been a volume oriented ‘miles build champions’ type of approach. Many coaches echo that idea that unless you can do “X amount of miles/kilometers/volume per week” you simply can’t succeed at the highest levels or build maximal endurance. Cycling coaches will often tell up and coming athletes that they just “need another 1000km in their legs” to reach the next level.
The focus with this philosophy is basically on just doing endless volumes. You do the miles, you build a champion. I saw it summed up on one power training forum with the simple coaching mantra “Ride lots”. But the goal here, basically is to do about as much training as you can, stand, handle or recover from without overtraining. And the numbers tend to be pretty high.
How Many Miles?
Some specific examples may help to clarify this. One little German book on endurance training lists some weekly volumes for maximal endurance performance, listing weekly averages of 20-25 hours and peaks of 40 hours/week to maximize adaptations. If you do the math on that’s 3-4 hours/day done 6 days/week as an average and upwards of 7 hours/day done 6 days/week at the high end.
A more specific example is the paper I keep mentioning on the site which was an analysis of the training of the German 2000 4km team pursuit’s training in the 4k time trial. Now this is an event lasting roughly 4 minutes and the team is described as doing the grand majority of training as easy aerobic work to the tune of 29,000-35,000 km/year (18,000-21,000 miles/year). That’s 400 miles/week on average, assuming a fairly reasonable 20 mph, that’s 20 hours/week of cycling. For an event lasting 4 minutes. This was supplemented with stage races and interval/speed training 10 days prior to the event. Put that in perspective, a 4 minute event and literally 90%+ is basic aerobic training.
Current rowing training seems to be based around tons and tons of aerobic training, swimming has always used pretty much massive volumes although the training of swimmers confuses me to the point that I won’t comment further on it to hide my own ignorance. Cross country skiing does the same with just massive amounts of aerobic training.
As a real-world example, here is a graph from Stephen Seiler’s paper Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance: the Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training showing the real world monthly training volumes of an elite rower.
You can see that his lowest volume is in September (presumably his transition phase) at only 40 hours. So still 10 hours/week during a recovery phase. He peaks at 120 hours/month in December in January which is an average of 30 hours/week.
I would note that the total weekly, monthly or annual volumes does differ by sport. This graph comes from the same paper by Stephen Seiler I linked above.
What you can see is that distance running (and orienteering which is running with a map) has the lowest annual volumes peaking at 600 hours per year while cycling and swimming may achieve 1200-1400 hours/year with rowing at “only” 1000 hours per year. The difference is assuredly due to running having an eccentric and impact component that all other endurance sports lack. It stresses connective tissues in a way that others sports do not as well as being more metabolically costly. I’ll come back to the implications of this later in the series.
Generally with this type of training the intensity is fairly low. In cycling it’s called “all-day pace” that is a speed you could do all day. In running its “easy” running. I like to call it “pissing around'”intensity. It barely feels like you’re doing anything at all but the stimulus in this case comes from the sheer volume (and frequency) of training being done.
There are a ton of different methods of determining optimal intensity for this type of work but they all end up putting folks in about the same place. The German track cycling team set intensity as heart rate at individual anaerobic threshold (IAT) minus 30-50 beats. So for someone with an IAT at around 175, that’s a HR of 125-145. With an IAT of 180, that’s 130-150.
Other use some percentage of maximum heart rate but invariably when you math it out for athletes, it all ends up in about that range. Some sports don’t use heart rate but use some percentage of functional threshold (think of this as the maximum speed you could do for an hour) or race pace. Cyclists will use functional threshold power with a powermeter and runners set intensity as a mile/minute pace.
Rowing and swimming often use lactate levels with a lactate level of 1.5-2 mmol/l being the cutoff. For most, this will occur in about those same heart rate ranges. but it’s a little bit more accurate. It also requires being able to do lactate measurements which is its own thing.
I’d note that running tends to generate a little bit higher heart rate due to the body being upright and unsupported. But easy/long runs are generally set at about 75% of maximum heart rate which is around 140-150 on average. Swimming heart rates can be a little bit lower as a function of being horizontal in the water and the gold. I think.
But ultimately all of these different sports specific methods put pretty much everybody in the same general intensity range. It’s a heart rate that is above the recovery zone but still pretty easy. It’s just good old basic aerobic training. As I’ll talk about in the next part of this series, trying to use a higher intensity with this type of training can easily cause more harm than good.
If you look back up at the graphic of the elite rower, the colors indicate the training zone. The grand majority of the athlete’s training is in Zone 1 and 2 which Seiler defines as 55-85% of maximum heart rate and a lactate of 0.8-2.5 mmol/l. The higher values actually describe the type of training I’ll discuss in the next part of the series. The point is that the vast majority of training is aerobic. Oh yeah, rowing races only last about 7-8 minutes to begin with.
A commonality with this type of training is that near daily training is done (most athletes take one day off per week). Due to the low intensity nature of it, it’s not uncommon to see multiple sessions in a single day. Swimmers almost always train twice daily. Decades ago runners would add a short easy morning run to bump their volume to good effect.
Kenyan runners, currently dominant in the distances are known for running 3 or even 4 times daily although most of it is very easy. Cycling has not by and large adopted this for logistical reasons. With bike rides already at the 4-6 hour duration, it’s hard to add a second ride.
The reason for this high frequency has to do not only with AMPk but with gene expression. With daily or multiple daily training, expression of genes important for endurance are kept upregulated nearly constantly. And this leads to long-term adaptations in the system which improve performance.
Let me note again that this extreme level of endurance training is for pure endurance athletes who are trying to maximize that one factor only. For non-endurance athletes, these types of high volumes and frequencies would never be used.
Summary of the Miles Build Champions Methods
So the basic idea of the miles build champions method is that you do a tremendous amount of relatively low intensity work fairly frequently. Depending on sport, the goal might be to train at a lactate of 1.5-2 mmol/l with a heart rate in the range of 130-150 heart rate.
So the next part of the series will make more sense, I’d note that this approach to training is more generally called extensive endurance training. Extensive is a term used to describe basically any method of training that relies more on submaximal volume, I used the term extensive bodybuilding in my periodization series for example.
Benefits of the Miles Build Champions Method
There are other potential benefits to this type of training as well. For sports with high technical demands, doing massive amounts of low-intensity work lets the athlete accumulate a zillion proper repetitions. Rowing, swimming and cross-country skiing are good examples.
Even running has a small technical element and part of developing an efficient running style is probably related to the repetition of putting in the miles. Since the intensity is low, technique will stay pretty stable the entire time and it lets the athlete really burn in proper motor patterning.
Tangentially, I suspect that part of the reason swimmers do such massive volumes compared to their rather short duration events is technically driven. Humans are utterly inefficient in the water and swimming strokes are incredibly technically demanding. Swimmers need as many good repetitions as humanly possible. And doing an enormous amount of high-frequency low-intensity training can accomplish that.
Finally, from a calorie burning standpoint, nothing beats this method of training. At even moderate intensities, a trained endurance athlete can readily burn 450+ calories per hour. A cyclists doing a 4 hour ride is burning 1800 calories. You can eat a ton and still stay lean.
So far so good. We have a low intensity, low strain method of training that lets you build an aerobic engine, burn a ton of calories and develop good technique all at the same time. What’s the catch?
Drawbacks to the Miles Build Champions Method
There are some drawbacks to the miles build champions method and I imagine most readers have already noticed the big one: the huge time commitment. Recall from above that low volumes for endurance athletes might be 3-4 hours per day every day. At the high end, roughly double that.
And outside of professional athletes with nothing else going on their lives, the time requirements for this type of training tends to be completely impossible. The average person simply can’t put in 3-4 hours on the bike on top of working a full time job. It won’t even fit in the day.
By the time they are done with work at 5pm and changed out to ride at 6pm well…3-4 hours means ending the workout in the dark. At best athletes in this situation can put longer workouts on the weekends to supplement shorter ones during the week. But doing it daily is nearly impossible for anyone but the full-time athlete.
There is also the fact that, depending on your individual mindset, this type of training is incredibly boring. Sitting on a hard bike seat 3-4 hours/day 6 days/week is not most people’s idea of fun. This is a big part of why cyclists ride in groups. Not only does it better mimic races since you ride in a pack but you can talk the entire time. This can work in running too.
And in swimming? Well swimmers are screwed. Underwater headphones and MP3 players are relatively recent which means that swimmers spend 2 hours/day twice/day staring at a black line on the bottom of the pool trying to not go nuts.
For non-endurance athletes, there’s simply too much other training to be done (technical, tactical, strength ,power, etc.) that putting that much time into pure endurance training would be both absurd and unnecessary. But, as I mentioned in Part 1, those types of athletes don’t have nearly the endurance requirements to begin with. So they wouldn’t ever need those kinds of volumes.
Of course, for non-endurance athletes, so much other training needs to be done (Technical, tactical, strength, power, etc.) that putting that much time into pure endurance training would be absurd and unnecessary. But, as I discussed above, those athletes don’t have nearly the endurance/aerobic requirements as pure endurance athletes so they would never need those kinds of volumes in the first place.
Another potential issue with this type of training is overuse injuries. Running is notorious for this due to the physical impact. The sheer daily pounding can destroy people’s joints if they aren’t careful and running is one of the few activities where beginners have a much higher injury risk than more advanced runners. Beginners break when they do too much too soon. And the advanced runners are the survivors.
Even in non-impact sports, there an be a lot of overuse type injuries. Shoulder problems are endemic in swimming and rowers can get weird imbalances due to rowing with one oar above the other. In ice speed skating, back pain is incredibly common due to the odd posture and always turning left. Even track runners who always turn left can occasionally get into issues. Cyclists mainly get chafed inner thighs.
And those issues are often exacerbated by doing endless volumes, even at a low intensity. In fact, the ability to do this type of training every day makes it worse. Connective tissues are the slowest to adapt to training. Even if the muscles are recovered to daily, your joints may fall off with daily high-volume training (note that elite endurance athletes spend years building up to high volumes).
A final adaptation, one I sort of alluded to in Part 1 is that the Miles Build Champions method only really generates adaptations in the Type I muscle fibers. The intensity simply isn’t high enough to really recruit the Type II fibers or force them to adapt. Now this would only be an issue if this were the only type of training being done. But all endurance athletes use a mixture of methods in their training. I’ll discuss this in the final part of the series.
Miles Build Champions for the Average Human
Ultimately the biggest problem with this method of endurance training is the enormous time commitment it requires. Someone who is not a professional athlete who does nothing but rain and recovery simply can’t make the method work. Certainly, for those athletes who simply need some endurance, the methodology still holds. But the volumes and frequencies will be enormously lower. The time isn’t there but neither is the need for maximizing those adaptations.
Which brings up a tangential issue that leads into the next method of endurance training which is this: outside of relative beginners, doing low volumes of pissing around intensity aerobic work doesn’t really generate a ton of adaptations. Basically, the miles build champions method only works when you can do a metric ton of it. When you can’t, it becomes much less effective.
So if you don’t have that time, you need a different type of training that generates similar adaptations without the enormous time commitment which is what I will discuss next.