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Endurance Training Methods: Putting it Together

Having completed my examination of the different methods of endurance training in Interval Training Part 2, I want to examine their application.  As with so many different issues in training, how these methods will be specifically used depends entirely on context.   What a full-time elite endurance athlete might do will be different from a more recreational racer and a mixed sport athlete or general public trainee will differ further.

To adequately address application, I need to examine a few more variables. First I’ll summarize the different methods of endurance training that have been discussed.    I also want to examine the idea of both why endurance athletes often focus their energies on building the aerobic engine from the “Bottom up” and how it works in a performance standpoint.

Methods of Endurance Training

First let me summarize all of the different methods of endurance training I’ve discussed.  Since I’m most familiar with cycling volumes, I’ll be using those most of the time.  Just keep in mind that running volumes are typically one-half or less due to the differences in impact and metabolic strain.  Rowing seems a touch higher and cross country seems to be the highest.   I’m not touching swimming since I have failed to understand their training for nearly 20 years now.

For each method I’ll describe the method along with a fairly “typical” workout set up in terms of the duration or interval workout that might be typical or representative.  For intensity, I will primarily use heart rate although it is an imperfect method.  Generally it’s better to anchor intensity to some measured value such as lactate levels of functional threshold (power, speed, etc.).

Even determining heart rate at threshold will be better than using percentage estimates based on maximum heart rate or what have you.  For the values I’ve listed below, I am assuming a functional threshold heart rate of 175 beats per minute.  On average, running heart rates seem to be a bit higher than cycling with swimming a bit lower.  Rowing and cross country skiing also seem to be a bit lower for reasons I don’t want to try to explain.

I’ve also provided rough lactate levels just for perspective.  Lactate testing requires specific equipment along with requiring blood to be drawn and is usually out of the realm for most people.

Finally I’ll list the approximate frequencies for each type of training.   As with volumes, running frequencies tend to be towards the lower end, especially for the more intense methods.  This is just due to the impact nature of running along with differences in muscular and metabolic strain.  Practically, while a cyclist might do a threshold workout twice per week or hard intervals three times weekly, a runner would be more likely to do the threshold workout once per week and hard intervals once or twice weekly.  The runner would also be working at a lower total volume.

Finally I want to make an important note about these methods in general.  While they are invariably discussed as discrete entities, this isn’t correct.   Nor are the methods mutually exclusive (e.g. you can’t use them together).  Rather, the entirety of training is on a continuum with each method/intensity level moving or interacting with the levels above and below it.

This is most easily seen with Dr. Coggan’s Sweet Spot training which is bridged right between Tempo Training and Threshold training.  All three have extremely similar physiological effects and are simply gradations of the same near or at threshold training methods.

Summary of Endurance Training Methods

Please note that the frequency of training is not meant to be added together.  At no time in any athlete’s career would they attempt to do every type of training listed in a given training week. Rather, they are meant to indicate the number of times per week a method might be done if it is the focus.

As well, recall that these methods can be combined, depending on needs.  The non-full time endurance athlete might only be able to do extensive endurance bike rides on the weekends or twice per week. To that they might very well add 2 intensive endurance workouts and a sweet spot, threshold or interval workout.

If you look at various books on endurance training, they will be more or less among the above lines.  You might see minor variances depending on sport and focus.  As well, some systems range from very simple to exceedingly complex.   For example, some swimming books will divide both extensive and intensive endurance into three discrete zones (low, medium, and high). But again, swimming is just a different animal completely.

So how might those different methods be incorporated for different contexts?

Pure Endurance Athletes

Of all the groups that I will examine in this final part of the series, only pure endurance athletes will be potentially utilizing all of the methods of endurance training I’ve discussed.  Everything from extensive endurance all the way up through threshold and on to neuromuscular endurance.

The proportions will vary and, as I’ve mentioned, the use of truly high intensity methods has decreased in the modern era to perhaps 10-20% of total training volume.  The rest is building the aerobic engine, a long-term process that gradually improves performance over weeks, months and year.

That said, I tend to doubt that many readers of my site or this series are full-time endurance athletes training 30-40 hours per week.  There might be but I tend to doubt it.   Generally speaking, top athletes in those sports currently do about 80% of their total training at lower intensities, in the extensive and intensive endurance zones, with the remaining 20% being higher intensity.  Threshold work seems to be done fairly infrequently in the modern era and the focus is more on Vo2 max and anaerobic capacity intervals.  Basically it’s either pretty low or pretty high intensity.

But what if you’re not a full-time endurance athlete but rather a semi-competitive cyclist, runner or rower (there is a rather large indoor ergometer circuit).  If you’re a swimmer or triathlete, honestly, get a swimming coach.  The training baffles me.

In this case, realistically you don’t have the time to make a pure Miles Build Champions/extensive endurance approach to training work effectively. And remember that it really only does work effectively if you can put in the time and frequency.  Certainly you might be able to get in longer workouts on the weekend but that’s it.    Now what?

Well the focus of your training should still be on building an aerobic engine since that will be the primary determinant of your success.  With limited time, most of your weekly training would come from tempo or sweet spot methods with the occasional true threshold workout.  Those types of training let you get a powerful aerobic stimulus without requiring excessive volumes.  In fact, they really can’t and shouldn’t be done with excessive volumes.

To that training you would want to include some neuromuscular work. Again, that can be included during longer workouts fairly easily.   A bit of anaerobic capacity and VO2 max workouts would do the rest.  During focused phases, they could be done 2X/week for 3 weeks.  Alternately they could be done 1x/week for 6 weeks.

Certainly some of it will depend on what you intend to do competition wise.  A cyclist targeting criteriums need a lot of bike handling and the ability to jump to a high top speed out of the corners.  Performing a bit more neuromuscular work would be useful here.

For time trials, the ability to sustain a high threshold power is crucial and more sweet spot or pure threshold work would be done to train the ability to suffer for extended periods.     Certainly a cyclist engaging in very long races would need much more endurance.  Anyone targeting a stage race would need the ability to perform at a high level several days in a row.

Runners often simply want to finish a given event (half- and full-marathons being popular) but even that is different than racing to compete. A marathon can actually be completed on only 4 runs per week with a single long-run on weekends.  Being competitive is far different.

Practically, cyclist with only three days per week to train should make them all tempo or sweet spot rides or two tempo/sweet spot rides and one threshold ride.  During certain phases, they might do 2 threshold workouts and one tempo ride or two tempo and one extensive endurance ride on the weekend.  That would be especially important if they intend to do races longer than an hour.   That training would be done for 8-10 weeks to develop the aerobic engine and then topped off with some VO2 max and anaerobic capacity workouts.

Or consider a cyclist who can train 4 days/week with one day on the weekend.  During the week, 3 shorter tempo or sweet spot ride would be done with a longer extensive workout ride on the weekends.  Or they might do 2 tempo, one threshold and one long ride.  Or one tempo, one sweet spot, one threshold and one long ride.    And eventually one of those workouts, likely during the week would be done to improve VO2 max or anaerobic capacity.

The key factor here is to realize that the more frequently you can or do train, the lower the average training intensity has to be and vice versa.  If you can get on your bike 6 days/week, you should make two or three of those workouts extensive endurance with the others being tempo/sweet spot/threshold rides.   If you try to do tempo or sweet spot/threshold rides 6 days/week you will blow up.

Beginning Endurance Athletes

Let me mention briefly that total beginners to endurance sports should always start with extensive endurance methods if at all possible.  Yes, the interval training studies show faster initial gains but there are other issues to consider, not the least of which being the intensities that can be sustained or tolerated.  I know what’s done in the studies and, well….I’m skeptical.  I’ve trained as an athlete for 20 years and watched people train for just as long.  A proper interval workout is miserable and painful and horrible.   Most simply won’t tolerate it early on.

Frequently the types of interval workouts in the studies aren’t training that beginners are doing to do without a gun to their head (or researchers yelling at them).  Truly maximal interval work makes athletes want to fall down, throw up and die.  To expect a rank beginner to do that is folly.  This is usually even mentioned in the studies.  That while the results are interesting, the intensities are beyond what most beginners can accomplish.  You get the idea.

Basically, beginners should start easy with low volumes and build up gradually.   This is especially true for running due to the impact involved.  Beginners who jump into too much running too soon invariably get hurt. As I mentioned, many would benefit from a walk/run program to start and might need to take 2 or more months before they are running consistently.

I’d also note that it’s nearly impossible to run at a low heart rate when someone is just starting out.  I can’t say exactly why but invariably moving from fast walking at 4.5 mph to even slow jogging at 5mph, heart rate will immediately spike to 160 beats per minute.  It simply can’t be avoided in the early stages because slowing down below 5mph makes it more or less impossible to run.  Eventually as fitness improves, extensive endurance running does become more possible.  Initially it usually isn’t.

Ultimately, beginners have to build up some basic fitness, work capacity and exercise tolerance before they can really make HIIT methods work very effectively.  Joints need to adapt and a base needs to be built first.   Beginners might as well start with low intensity work until they need true high intensity work.

But those are my recommendations for the competitive or semi-competitive endurance athlete who simply doesn’t have the time to put into extensive endurance training and make it work.  Depending on how many workouts they can do, most of their effort should be put into tempo, sweet spot and threshold work.  Neuromuscular work can be done year round during individual workouts and short (3-6 week) blocks of VO2 max and anaerobic capacity training can be done.

But there are two major exceptions when the above won’t work and I’m going to (confusingly) refer to both as Time-Crunched Athletes.

The Time-Crunched Athlete

Even when an athlete doesn’t have the time available to make a true extensive endurance approach to training work, it is possible to use a mixture of tempo, sweet spot and threshold workouts to generate the aerobic adaptations that are needed.   But even those methods of training require a certain amount of time available to be effective.   The athlete has to have sufficient weekly training time available and has to have the weeks, months or longer to allow those systems to maximal develop.

But this is not always the case.  Here I want to address two situations, both of which I will call the Time-Crunched Athlete where another approach may be required..

  1. An athlete has a very limited length of time to get ready for an event
  2. An athlete has a very limited time during the week to train

The Athlete With a Limited Total Time to Get Ready for an Event

A fairly standard endurance training cycle might last in the realm of 12-18 weeks (the classic Lydiard cycle was 18 weeks).  This gives the athlete plenty of time to get adaptations from their endurance work which can then be topped off with some HIIT work before peaking.  But what if an athlete, for whatever reason, only has 6 weeks to get ready for their event.  It’s long enough to get a decent training block in but not long enough to wait for the relatively slower adaptations to tempo/sweet spot/threshold workouts to really occur.

In that situation, the only real option is to throw them in the grinder intensity wise and hope for the best.  Now hopefully they aren’t total beginners and have at least some training background.  Also, some activities are a lot more body friendly than others.  Getting someone in shape on a bike fast is a lot less likely to be disastrous than doing the same with running.

But with only 6 weeks, about the only chance of getting the person ready will be some combination of the higher intensity steady state workouts with some intervals basically from the get go.  Depending on the type of event they are doing, all intervals might be the only workable approach.

So you might give them one moderate intensity break-in week followed by 5 weeks of pounding them.    Taking a few days off in the 5th week is probably more than enough of a taper since there’s just no time to build up much fatigue.  Over 6 weeks, people can handle a fairly shocking amount of training without becoming overtrained.  It’s only when super intense programs like this are continued for much longer that the problems arise.

Essentially you just skip the general preparation phase of training and go straight into specific preparation.  For a cyclist targeting a 2 hour race you might have two sweet spot or threshold workouts, one HIIT workout and one tempo workout.  The shorter workouts would go during the week and the tempo workout would be done on a Saturday and build to at least 2 hours duration and more if possible.

The Athlete With a Severely Limited Weekly Training Time

Another situation that comes up is one where an athlete may have enough time in terms of week and months to get ready for an event but have extremely limited weekly training time.   They might have extremely long work hours or familial obligations or what have you.   Whatever the reason, they don’t have the weekly time to make the tempo/sweet spot/threshold methods work either.  Even this raises the question of how much training is really “required” to begin with.

In an interesting new book by Chris Carmichael called The Time Crunched Cyclist, he describes that over years of coaching, he found that the traditional methods (revolving around easy aerobic, tempo and threshold work) work for cyclists so long as they can put in 10-12 hours/week of training.   That’s less than half of what you’d see in most elites but these are numbers for citizen racers with lives outside of training.  He also notes that once cyclists got to the point that they can only put in about 8 hours per week of training, those traditional methods fail.  The volume and frequency is simply too low to be effective.

In that sort of time-crunched situation, he offers an option that can be valid and that’s based around nothing but high intensity interval training with one long ride per week.   In his book he describes a 12 week cycle build around hard intervals with the goal of getting cyclists through shorter races.  He acknowledges that it won’t prepare most for rides longer than about 3 hours but if they have something shorter, it will at least get them ready.  Many citizen race revolve around criteriums, time trials (the 40km in cycling is popular) or pack races lasting about that long so this is a workable program.

There is a major caveat here which is that this approach to training isn’t sustainable in the long-term.  Each 12 week block has to be offset by periods of easier work.  And some may not even make it those 12 weeks before blowing up.  This is a point I’ve tried to make over and over on the site and in this article series.  True interval work is grindingly hard and will blow you up if it’s done all the time.  It can’t be done year round and shouldn’t be done year round.

As Carmichael puts it, the time crunched approach works when you want to be good a couple of times a year rather than mediocre year round.  You get to be in great shape for a couple of races that are fairly far apart but that’s about it.  In-between the 12 week blocks of truly intensified training, you maintain your fitness with easier training.   You won’t get better but you won’t get worse.

For specifics I recommend you check out that book (he has also written a follow up for the Time-Crunched Triathlete).

Let me note that the above information on time-crunched athletes is really aimed at cycling.  I suppose athletes in other endurance sports could apply it but I don’t know how big of a recreational cross country skiing circuit really exists.  Those sports could certainly apply the same concepts since they tend to operate around similar training volumes and are all low-impact.

But there is an exception that needs to be addresssed.

Running: The Big Exception.

I cannot overemphasize how much the time crunched concepts above do not, should not and can not apply to running training.  And there are two major reasons for this.

The first is that running has the lowest time commitment of nearly any endurance sports.  Recall from earlier in the series that annual and weekly running volumes are typically 1/2 or less that of other sports.  So whereas a high level cyclist might ride 20-25 hours or more per week, most runners will top out at 10-12 hours.  Very high level athletes may go higher than this with some additional morning runs but this is rare.

What that means is that the 10-12 hour basic requirement for cycling will drop to only 5-6 hours for running to begin with.  Carmichael’s 8 hour cut off is only about 4 hours for running.  A marathon can actually be finished with no more than 4-5 hours/week of running.  Generally this consists of several shorter runs during the week and a single long run on Saturday building to at least 20 miles.  Fundamentally, running doesn’t have the same time requirements of other endurance sports.

This makes the need to grind out intervals to get maximum performance in minimum time less relevant.    A runner who puts in no more than two to three tempo runs (strong aerobic running ala Lydiard) with one long run can get pretty far.   Do strides a few times per week during the other runs and top it off with some anaerobic or VO2 max intervals closer to the race and you’ll be golden.   You might not win any races but you’ll be finishing well.

Perhaps the bigger reason that time crunched athlete concepts shouldn’t be used by runners is the impact and joint stress issue.  Cycling, rowing, swimming, Cross country skiing and speed skating are all low impact activities in terms of joint and connective tissue stress.  Yes, you can crash your bike or on skates but you know what I mean.

At least part of the reason those sports do train more than runners is that they can train more than runners.  You can ride a bike for 6 hours and your knees won’t explode.  Your ass might go numb but your joints don’t blow up on the bike.  You can’t do that running.  Even the most elite Kenyan runners only do one long run per week.  They simply don’t need more.

Running and HIIT

In this vein, I’d note that many of the research studies that pro-HIIT individuals love to cite use cycling.  There are two reasons for this.  This first is that it limits joint impact which reduces injury risk.  The second is that, when form breaks down on an exercise bike, you just stop pedalling.  When form breaks down due to fatigue running, people tend to get hurt.  They turn an ankle or strain a knee.  Most people I see running these days have crap form to begin with.  Expecting them to run HIIT or do sprints is asking for trouble.

I also find it telling that the whole heard day/easy day training came out of running, usually being attributed to Bill Bowerman at Oregon.  He was training runners on the track and I suspect he found that two hard days in a  row caused joint or recovery problems. Connective tissues are the slowest to recover and adapt and this is a very real issue that tends to be specific to running.  And while it’s often pointed out that Kenyan runners may run hard several days in a row, they are also very light and running on softer dirt.

Relative to other endurance sports, runners do far less high-intensity training than other athletes both in terms of frequency and volumes.  I’ve tried to reflect that throughout this series although some seem still unclear on it.  Whereas a cyclist might readily do 2 sweet spot or threshold rides for 2 sets of 20 minutes each, a runner might be limited to 1X20′ once weekly.  More isn’t needed or survivable.

A cyclist can do intervals three times weekly and some training systems will program interval training on several consecutive days.  Swimmers probably do more quality training than any other sport.  And even though they generally don’t do it, rowers and cross-country skiiers certainly could because those sports are fairly easy on the body.

But that much high-intensity training would most likely break a runner.  Even the most well trained will get joint issues wiht more than two high-intensity workouts per week and this tends to be reflected in the running programs of most running coaches.  Even there, two truly high-quality sessions per week is for highly trained runners who have conditioned their bodies to handle the pounding.  Many try to avoid running on hard pavement to further limit the stress.

My point being that the time-crunched ideas that might apply to cycling or other non-impact endurance sports should no be applied to running.  Not only are they not usually required to begin with, they wouldn’t be survivable for most people if they were.

Non-Endurance Athletes

Finally let me address the use of the different endurance training methods for non-endurance athletes.  This covers a lot of ground and in many cases I’ll only be able to sketch the ideas out in fairly broad strokes.

Strength/Power Athletes

This category of sports describes those activities that have maximum strength/power output as their primary performance criteria.   Generally they are limited to activities of 10-20 seconds or less such as powerlifting, Olympic lifting, 100/200m sprinting on the track, the match sprint in track cycling and others.  Most other sports don’t have a true event in this duration.

At the pure strength end we have sports such as powerlifting and Olympic lifting where the goal is to lift the heaviest weight a single time.  The requirement for endurance here is literally zero.  At worst a lifter might have to follow themselves after one minute but that’s it.  Rather, the concept of work capacity, being able to tolerate the training volumes and frequencies is discussed.  Even this isn’t pure endurance.

And these sports will realistically never use any of the endurance methods I have described.    Powerlifters will push or pull sleds or do other general conditioning work but endurance work is avoided.   Brisk walking is about it since anything above this intensity can potentially harm performance.  There was a brief trend for Olympic lifters to do short sprints but I believe even this has gone the wayside.

In strongman competition, there is somewhat of an endurance component as most of the events last in the 45-60 second range.  However this is more strength endurance with little true endurance requirements.  These athletes might do short blocks to improve this capacity near a contest but that’s it.

In sports such as the 100/200 m sprint or match sprint speed endurance is required but this is trained through fairly specific training and it would be almost unheard of for those athletes to do even extensive endurance intensities.    I would note that track cycling match sprinters do ride their bikes at low intensities a few times per week but this seems to be more for active recovery and because they like to ride their bikes.

Mixed/Team Sports

I’ve mentioned mixed/team sports throughout this series and, once again, this refers to those activities with a fairly broad set of requirements.  Generally some amount of technique, tactics, strength, power, endurance and speed are required.  The specific amounts depend on the sport in question but those athletes have two distinct characteristics to their sport:

  1. They have to find a way to balance out the different requirements of their sport.
  2. They don’t have to develop any of those characteristics to a maximal level.

So whereas the pure endurance athlete has to maximize every component of aerobic and anaerobic performance, and the pure strength/power athlete is maximizing their strength/power/speed output, the mixed athlete is in the middle in all aspect.

More specifically their sports tend to alternate between two intensities: low and maximum.   A soccer, hockey or lacrosse player might sprint for the ball and then slow down to essentially an aerobic intensity until their next sprint.  In basketball, it’s usually athletes jogging quickly from one end of the court to the other.

Even in American football, the maximum distance anybody would ever have to run is about 100m and that’s only a touchdown run from one end of the endzone to the other.  Most plays last a much shorter period of near maximal intensity before recovering at low intensity.  Rugby is more continuous to be sure.

So what those events have in common are the need for maximum speed/power output over short periods and the ability to recover rapidly in-between.  There is also the durational aspect of many of those sports.  The 90 minute duration of a soccer match, 60 minutes of football, etc.  Even there there are typically quarters or play periods with breaks.  In some sports, the athletes come in and out of the game so they aren’t going continuously to begin with.

Which means that those athletes need to have sufficient top speed, the ability to recover in-between those maximal efforts and the basic endurance to get through the entire game or match.

The same holds for individual mixed sports such as boxing/MMA where there is a broad set of requirements for performance with the athlete having to balance technical, tactical, endurance, strength, power and speed components.

An additional issue for these athletes is the sheer amount of training that has to be done for the different components.  There are overlapping workouts and the athletes have to be careful not to generate too much fatigue from one workout that it negatively impacts on another.

That is, a pure endurance athlete can follow a maximal threshold or anaerobic capacity workout with an easy day.  The mixed sport athlete doesn’t have that option.  They can’t allow fatigue from a Tuesday workout impair a Wednesday technical or tactical workout.

And the end result of this is that athletes in these sports are usually best served working at the extremes.  They need basic fitness and endurance, developed through extensive or possibly intensive endurance training.  Sprint speed and repeated sprint ability (RSA) are equally important.    At least some of the latter may be developed by scrimmages or small sided games.

But there would be almost no use of the higher intensity aerobic methods such as tempo, sweet spot or threshold.   Nor would there be any real benefit to training VO2 max or anaerobic capacity.   Athletes in team sports simply don’t work at maximum output for 30-90 seconds.  Even when MMA athletes go to the ground, this is more about muscular endurance.  And much of that will be trained with technical work and training.

Even with that said, coaches or trainers will often think “But MMA has to do 5X5 minute rounds with a short break”.  Or try to apply a great deal of specificity to the sport.  And what is often forgotten is that the athlete is already getting that training when they practice their sport.   And there is always a limit to how much more “specific” training can be tacked onto that.

Certainly near an important fight, a small amount of out of ring conditioning to top off those high end characteristics could be important.   Maximal upper and lower body efforts with a short rest would certainly mimic the dynamics of a fight.  But it would make up a very small amount of the total training.

In case, the use of a few basic endurance workouts per week with some short sprints before practice would tend to be sufficient in these sports.  Maximal aerobic outputs or fitness is not require and neither is a major development of anaerobic capacity.

General Training

Next let me look at recommendations for the general trainee.  This is the person seeking basic fitness and health which should include basic cardiovascular health, basic strength and possibly flexibility as needed.  Most likely they don’t have the availability or interest to perform extremely large amounts of training to begin with which means finding a balance between different types of training along with the benefits:time investment ratio.

First and foremost, as beginners, I maintain that the person seeking general health and fitness should start with easier rather than more intense methods.  No the data is not universal but adherence and tolerability is likely to be a lot higher.  This will generally mean working in the extensive endurance range which can be gauged by heart rate or RPE.  A general intensity of “Challenging but doable” works fine.

This should be done with progressive durations (up to a maximum of 45-60 minutes) for a minimum of 4-6 weeks at which point some higher intensity work can be done.  This might include the gradual inclusion of intervals one one or two workouts per week.    I’d suggest strongly against running in this phase as the risk of injury is much higher.

As their fitness develops, the possibilities increase.  Given its purpose and effort, I tend to doubt that sweet spot or threshold training would ever have a role.  However, extensive and possibly intensive endurance are both options.   I’d tend to recommend a mixture although that depends on the total amount of training being done.

HIIT can be done for a maximum of 1-2 workouts per week.  Here I’d tend to suggest intervals in the anaerobic capacity range. VO2 max intervals are exhausting comparatively speaking.  I see no purpose for neuromuscular or sprint training.

In practice, someone performing 5 “aerobic” workouts per week might make 4 of those either extensive or intensive endurance and one HIIT session or perhaps 3 endurance and 2 HIIT.   This provides some nicely weekly variety and the HIIT sessions can be inserted on days when the trainee has less time to devote.

Dieting/Fat Loss

Next up let me look at dieting and fat loss where the use of all sorts of training is aimed at changing body composition rather than performance.  In this case the general goal of endurance training is burning calories/”Burning fat”.  In this sense, maximizing calorie expenditure would seem to be the goal and there is some truth to that.

For years, dieters were recommended to do rather endless amounts of low intensity aerobic work.  This was due to the incorrect idea of the existence of a “fat burning zone”.  Essentially the percentage of fat burned at low intensities is higher and this was interpreted to mean that this would generate greater fat loss.

The problem here being that while the percentage of fat burned is high, the total calorie burn is low.   Burning 100% fat at 5 calories/minute still burns less total fat than 75% of 10 cal/minute.  As well, whether actually burning fat during exercise is important is debatable.

In any case, the goal should be to maximize calorie burn during the session and this generally means working at a higher intensity.  Realistically this might mean being up in the intensive endurance range for extended periods.   A lower intensity won’t burn as many calories per minute and a higher intensity tends to reduce the sustainable duration.

But what about HIIT?  For years HIIT became the go-to method during a diet with claims of it being superior to traditional steady state methods although this was based on some incorrect ideas.  One had to do with the so-called “afterburn effect”, the calories burned after high-intensity training.   The idea is this effect, technically termed EPOC was so massive it would outstrip the calorie burn of more traditional cardio.  But this is untrue.

Studies had also occasionally found that HIIT led to greater fat loss than steady state cardio although there were other major confounds such as no diet control.  Any claims of time-efficiency were equally incorrect since only HIIT workouts that were about as long as the traditional methods worked “better”.

Basically a 20′ HIIT session didn’t burn more calories or generate more fat loss than traditional steady state methods.  Which isn’t to say that they don’t have potential benefits.  Combined with steady state activity, they can be potent to help with the issue of stubborn body fat.

But there was a bigger issue that was overlooked.  That was that, during a diet, most dieters will do some type of activity daily.  Folks did actually try performing HIIT every day and they all ended up burned out.   It’s simply impossible to recover from nothing but high-intensity training when calories are restricted.

When HIIT is limited to twice weekly which is about the maximum that can be recovered from during a diet, especially if weight training being done, that means more traditional methods should be done on the other days.

So in the case of dieting, I would recommend the use of multiple sessions of extensive/intensive endurance training on most days with HIIT being saved for 1-2 workouts per week.

Physique Athletes

Finally let me address the sub-category of physique athletes.  Here I am referring to sports such as bodybuilding, fitness, figure, etc.   I’d also include those trainees who want to improve their physique, change their body composition with no intention of ever competing.

The goal in these activities is generally to maximize/optimize muscle mass while maintaining some degree of leanness.  For competitions, physique competitors will drop to very low body fat percentages indeed with men at 4-5% and women at 10-12% or a little higher depending on the sport.    General physique trainees don’t approach those levels.

In a general sense, training for these activities tend to alternate between periods focused on muscle gain and periods focused on fat loss.  The question then becoming what, if any endurance training methods, would be used during each phase.

During a mass gaining phase, many physique athletes will do zero forms of aerobic training.  The idea here being that anything outside of the weight room will cut into recovery and gains.  There is both truth and falsehood to this and there are often benefits to performing aerobic work during phases of mass gaining.

If aerobic work is done, it should be kept at the extensive endurance level.   This will burn some calories, maintain fat burning pathways without cutting into recovery.  Anything more intense is more likely to cause harm than good.  And I would never ever advocate a physique athlete work anywhere near threshold levels.  The issue here is that Type II fibers, the ones that grow the most will be recruited and trained to become more aerobic which is totally unwanted.

In general, I don’t advocate HIIT during mass gaining phases.   All it will do is cut into recovery and limit gains. For a brief period, sprint training was recommended for mass gains but it seems to have fallen by the wayside.  Certainly if any type of HIIT is “compatible” with strength training, sprinting is probably it.    However, I fail to see much of a real benefit.  As well, physique athletes who made the mistake of trying to run sprints just got hurt.

But what about for fat loss?  Here the same general principles apply but to an even greater degree.  When the general public is aiming for fat loss, the goal is not necessarily a total optimization of the physique.  Certainly not to the same way as the competitive physique athlete.

Physique athletes are balancing out muscle size, symmetry, balance while dieting themselves down to the extremes.   Six month diets are not uncommon and it’s very easy to become burned out.  Many found this out the hard way when they tried to do HIIT every day.  Factually, physique athletes got into contest shape performing nothing but low-intensity aerobic activities.  Certainly they often did a lot of it near the end but it’s not as if it didn’t work.

Extensive endurance training in this range burns calories, can be done daily and doesn’t impair recovery.   That’s why it works.  And it should make up the majority of “endurance” training in this population.  To this one or two weekly HIIT sessions might be added.  In the sense of maximizing fat loss, working in the anaerobic capacity range, 30-90 second intervals with equal rest would be the best approach.


For a good look at rather classical endurance methods, Succesful Endurance Training by Neumann/Pfutzner/Berbalk.  This is very classic, very German kind of book.

Possibly the most accessible book on running is Daniels Running Formula by Jack Daniels, PhD.

For a look at Arthur Lydiard’s classic system, Running with Lydiard by Arthur Lydiard and Garth Gilmour is a good place to start.

Perhaps a clearer examination and explanation of Lydiard’s system can be found in Healthy Intelligent Training by Keith Livingstone.

For a look at modern rowing training, I recommend Rowing Faster by Volker Nolte.

For anyone interested in training with a power meter, Training and Racing with a Power Meter by Dr. Andrew Coggan.

The Time-Crunched Cyclist by Chris Carmichael details what I talked about above for those specific situations.

For anyone interested in the growing field of MMA, I’d highly recommend Ultimate MMA Conditioning by Joel Jamieson.  Joel is training many of the top talents in the sport and, contrary to what is often asserted on the Internet, finds that developing a strong aerobic engine improves performance.  It’s not just complexes and intervals all the time.



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8 thoughts on “Endurance Training Methods: Putting it Together

  1. I wouldn’t be taking Keith Livingstone’s word on El Guerrouj’s training, particularly when concrete examples exist that show he does hard intervals and hills from the start and runs nowhere near the volumes Lydiard would suggest for a miler, the only similarity to Lydiard stuff is very basic facts that i.e. he runs frequently and goes from a general phase to a specific pre-comp phase (which will of course be the case for pretty well every top level middle distance runner). This is generally sufficient for the likes of Livingstone to proclaim that every athlete is doing what Lydiard said all along, where really their training is miles away from his reccomendations, and their opinion is just proximity bias at its finest.

    I expect Livingstone is referencing this

    Which has for the general/base phase:

    “Aerobic endurance is of four types:
    1) 30-45 min of continuous running
    2) 50-60 min of continuous running
    For this workout there are no pre-set conditions, he is not asked any specific pace. However, he is demanded that he runs at his maximum at that moment, this varies from day to day and has nothing to do with the season. So, this means that El Guerrouj can run one day between 3:00-3:10/km pace and sometimes at 2:50/km.
    3) 4 x 2000 m in 5:10 with 2 min recovery
    4) 6 x 1000 m in 2:30 with 2 min recovery

    The distances of the repetitions have been standardized because his coach considers important to set a “work rhythm” with high intensity (around 70% for him). For this reason, when El Guerrouj can not finish a certain training session, he repeats the workout the following day, instead of seeking a different solution.”

    With 6 or 7 of these sessions per week combined, TOTAL, i.e. interval sessions + continuous running.

    He does once a week up-hills 10 x 300 m and horizontal jumps and vertical jumps over hurdles.”

    2:48/km for 59:15 is the World Record pace for the half marathon, and El Guerrouj is no half marathoner, so 2:50/km is really approaching “maximum” as stated not 90% of best aerobic pace, note ZERO runs over 60min, and many well below i.e. 30-45 min, out of only 6-7/week TOTAL of intervals plus these continous runs.
    2:30/km is close to world record pace for 3km (actual is 2:26/km), 5:10/2km is his lifetime PR pace for 5km, 6*1000 and 4*2000 with that low a recovery will be very tough for him to complete (especially given the statement that at times he cannot finish them).
    10*300 hills is 10*50ish sec which is higher intensity again and will generate serious lactate.

    Again, this is his general prep.

    How on earth someone can relate this to 60-90 min daily at 90% best aerobic pace with no intervals and just some striders for neuromuscular co-ordination is beyond me, it has absolutely nothing to do with Lydiard and Livingstone is just talking a bunch of proximity bias. It would seem that if an athlete runs at all they must be following Lydiard’s methods.

  2. Where you talk about interval training and you say that steady state cardio targets mainly the muscles while intervals primarily affect the heart got me thinking (I actually always thought it was the other way round).
    Wouldn`t then training on a stationary bike, where one can put 100% effort on a smaller muscle group, be even better at developing endurance in those muscles when compared for example to running?
    If that was the case then, supposing someone got enough high intensity heart-related work from practicing a certain sport (MMA in my case), wouldn`t this person be better off with a mixture of stationary cycling and swimming (I`m even thinking about swimming while holding one of those floating boards between one`s knees in order to further isolate the upper body) as far as endurance training goes?
    Hope this isn`t a silly question.

  3. It’s probably more accurate to say that both target both, just to different degrees. clearly intervals are working the muscles and steady state work targets the heart. It’s just a matter of degrees (in the same way that all weight training impacts in both muscle and nervous system function, just to differing degrees based on loading parameters).

    As far as MMA is concerned, keep in mind that specificity always holds. Joel Jamieson includes some MMA specific/upper body aerobic/conditioning methods in his book for that reason.

  4. TSCM: Here’s what I said “Guerrouj’s training is very similar to Arthur Lydiard’s training, a metric ton of ’strong aerobic running’ (essentially intensive endurance) topped off with small amounts of speed work and intervals.”

    “Very similar” is not synonymous with “identical” and he lists hard interval sessions in Herrouj’s training.

    And the source is actually an article reprint from an Australian magazine called VO2 max written by someone named Robbie Johnston.

    If he is misrepresenting Gerrouj’s training, you can take up with either him or the author of the article.

  5. Very interesting, thanks

  6. So you are saying, relative to heart rate, the lactate / functional / whatever threshold will not change over time with training. Interesting…this would indicate that the performance would be either improved efficiency, lower bodyweight, or increase in stroke volume. What is it about the long bouts of aerobic training that produces an effect on one of those things? Do you think stroke volume is increasing, so power output increases at a given heart rate?

  7. It’s odd: early literature and training theory talked about raising the functional threshold in terms of the %age of maximum that could be sustained. So a goal might have been to raise that threshold from say 80% of maximum power output to 85% or what have you. Some recent work (for example one study following highly trained cyclists over the course of a year) has shown that threshold in terms of the %age of maximum (in this case, heart rate was measured) doesn’t change. What changes is the power output/speed that the threshold represents. So whereas you might only hold 250 watts at threshold initially, 3 months down the road, you might be able to hold 280 watts at the same HR.

  8. Thanks a lot for these really illuminating articles on endurance training!! I’ve put lots of it to work already, and have had great results. Thanks again!

    One question: in the table above, the row on sweet spot training differs with respect to durations compared to what you have written in the article on sweet spot training. Also, this row is suspiciously similar to the tempo training row. Is there some sort of typo there?

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