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Methods of Endurance Training Part 3: Tempo and Sweet Spot Training

On Tuesday, in Methods of Endurance Training Part 2: Miles Build Champions, I discussed what is probably the most traditional and common of endurance development methods, to whit ‘pissing around’ at fairly low intensities for just massive durations (along with a high frequency).  Before moving onto the next set of methods including both intensive endurance and sweet spot training, I want to address a few other topics of relevance to that method.

.Some Finishing Comments on the Miles Build Champions Method

The first comment I want to make is that the method I described on Tuesday is often generally called extensive endurance training simply referring to any type of training where the focus is on volume and the intensity is relatively low (lactate around 1.5-2 mmol/l and HR in the range of perhaps 130-150 with some variance depending on the sport).   I’m only making this point since it will make the phrasing of the next few paragraphs easier to write and read.

I’d also note that volumes between different modalities of training tend to differ with cycling typically using training durations perhaps 2-3 times greater than running.  This is most likely due to differences in metabolic strain, 30 minutes of running seems about equivalent to an hour of cycling and whereas a runner would rarely go over 3 hours (and that wouldn’t be often), a cyclist might do 6 hours from time to time.

More common would be running durations of 1-2 hours and cycling in the 2-4 hour range for extensive endurance training.  Rowing seems to be at least roughly similar to cycling, I don’t know enough about cross country skiing to comment and I still can’t figure out swimming.

Clearly extensive endurance to training ‘works’ and ‘has worked’ for decades in terms of developing the aerobic engine.  It has certain advantages and, like all training methods, certain disadvantages.  Probably the biggest disadvantage being the time requirement needed.   Except for rank beginners (discussed in a second), unless you can do a lot of it, extensive endurance training doesn’t generate a huge training effect.

That doesn’t make it useless mind you, but for athletes with limited time who are past the beginner stage looking to improve aerobic endurance or power significantly, doing an hour at 130-140 heart rate on the bike or 30 minutes of easy running or what have you simply doesn’t get much done.

Tangentially, I suspect that this is some of the backlash against this method of training, unless you can be a full-time athlete and put in 20+ hours per week of that kind of training, it simply doesn’t generate much fitness past the beginner stage.   Which is what I want to address next.

In basically all aspects of training, beginners don’t need much or very intense training to get adaptations.  For example, total beginners get the same strength gains working at 60% of 1 repetition max as higher intensities and, in general, a single set will generate as much gains as multiple sets (this is contentious in the literature and I do NOT want to discuss it in this article or the comments).  But the point is made: beginners don’t need much or very hard training to get adaptations.  In fact, it’s usually better to work at lower intensities for a bunch of reasons I don’t want to get into here.

So even 20-30 minutes of extensive endurance training 3 times per week can generate aerobic adaptations in those individuals although duration or frequency usually needs to increase over the first months of training.  In addition, and this was something I addressed in the comments of Tuesday’s article is that beginners often make the mistake of trying to jump into massive volumes of training.

The underlying logic is “If I want to be elite, I should just adopt the training of an elite athlete.”  But they forget that that athlete may have taken 5-10 years to build to that level of training.  And they get destroyed.  Not only do beginners not need that level of training to start, trying to do it usually does more harm than good.

As well, for athletes with more moderate aerobic/endurance requirements, lower volumes of extensive endurance training can be useful since the need to develop the aerobic engine to absolutely maximum levels simply isn’t there.  For those athletes, 30-60 minutes of training in this range a few times per week may develop their aerobic engine to as much as degree as they need.  As an example of this, 400m runners may only do a couple of relatively short, 20-30 minute, easy runs per week.  It’s all they need since the development of a massive aerobic engine simply isn’t required.

This is especially true as they may be working at much higher intensities in other aspects of their sport.  If they are doing high intensity work elsewhere in their training, extensive endurance may be the only type of ‘aerobic’ training they can really do without blowing up.

Finally, extensive endurance can still have benefits even if it isn’t generating massive fitness benefits beyond the beginner stage.  It’s good active recovery, can be useful for weight/body composition control by burning a decent amount of calories (without cutting heavily into recovery), etc.  In that vein, cyclists and runners have often felt that this type of training is good to ‘teach the body to use fat for fuel’.  It’s often done fasted for that reason.  This is an important adaptation to avoid bonking during long races.

Which is all a very long introduction to what I want to talk about next.  Essentially, when someone is in a situation where extensive endurance training won’t get the job done (for whatever reason, usually time), something else has to be done.  On Tuesday, I said I would primarily be talking about Sweet Spot training (a term used extensively in the power meter community as coined by Dr. Andrew Coggan) but before I can get to that I need to cover something else.


Method 3: Intensive Endurance or Tempo Training

Although still an aerobic training method (meaning that lactate levels are stable and most metabolism is ‘aerobic’ ), a method that has often been used to improve the aerobic engine is something generally referred to as intensive endurance training.  In the cycling community it’s usually called tempo training (note: this should not be confused with the extensive or intensive tempo training done by sprint and track athletes which is more of an ‘interval’ style of shorter runs with short rest periods).

As implied by the name, intensive endurance/tempo training is done at a higher intensity than the extensive endurance I talked about on Tuesday; volume is traded for intensity to some degree although both still play a role.  As usual, loading parameters differ between sports slightly but, in general it comes down to working somewhere between 2-4 mmol/l lactate (certainly below the lactate threshold or whatever you want to call it) with a HR generally between 150-160 and for shorter durations.  As usual, this depends on the sport, in cycling, workouts of 1-2 hours are common (with occasionally longer workouts being advocated), runners might go 60-90 minutes or less.

The drawback of this training is that it’s good bit harder than extensive endurance training.  It’s work although it’s still steady state.  It’s certainly well above ‘pissing around’ intensity although it’s not nearly as gruesome as working right at the lactate threshold (which in most athlete might occur around 175-180 HR or thereabouts).

In Methods of Endurance Training Part 1, I mentioned that the idea of an ‘optimal endurance training intensity’ is often bandied about and, generally speaking, this is about it.  It’s worth noting that while Arthur Lydiard (the great endurance running coach) is often credited, or blamed depending on who you’re talking to, with the promotion of a ton of long slow distance running the intensity he actually advocated running at was far closer to the intensive endurance range than anything else.  It’s not quite race pace but it is working.

And the reason that this tends to get thrown around as the optimal intensity, at least so far as improving the size of the aerobic engine, is that, for the time investment, it tends to have one of the strongest training effects.  As Andrew Coggan puts it in his excellent book Training and Racing with a Power Meter, this type of training offers ‘the biggest bang for the buck’ in terms of time invested to training effect generated.

In terms of the AMPk stuff I discussed in Methods of Endurance Training Part 1, you can probably imagine that the higher intensity of training has an effect here which is a lot of why it ‘works’. By working at a higher intensity, you get better (or at least quicker) AMPk activation during the training bout since cellular energy levels are disrupted more readily (and note that AMPk has both a duration and intensity dependent component as I mentioned in Part 1).  And since the intensity is still manageable, you can get in a decent duration of training.  Essentially you’re finding an optimal mix of intensity and duration.

For non-full time athletes who can only put in a limited amount of time to train each week and who want to maximize potential aerobic/endurance adaptations, this is probably the intensity to train at.    Because whereas 3-6 hours of training in the extensive endurance range is unlikely to promote much in the way of aerobic adaptations (again, beyond the beginner stage), that amount of intensive endurance training will definitely improve endurance performance.

At the same time, there has long been a belief that training at this intensity is a no-man’s land for endurance athletes and that too much time spent here is detrimental.  What’s going on?

Part of the issue is that while intensive endurance training does a lot to maximize the size of the aerobic engine, it leaves other important adaptations untouched.  If someone like a cyclist did nothing but intensive endurance training, they probably wouldn’t be prepared for all types of racing (where breaks, sprints, climbs, etc.) need to be done.  They’d have good aerobic endurance but would lack the top end or sprint or climbing skills so often needed in races.

But there’s more going on than that which I sort of alluded to on Tuesday.  Training in the intensive endurance range works really well when you only have limited time to train.  If you can only get in 3-4 workouts per week of 1-2 hours, this is the place to train to improve endurance performance.

The problem comes in with athletes who can train more frequently or more voluminously.  When you start training at this intensity day-in, day-out real problems can start because it’s simply too high of an intensity to work at that frequently.  Overtraining or at least overuse injuries usually follow if it’s done for extended periods.

Basically, if you can train a lot, you need to work towards the lower intensities or you’ll end up outstripping your recovery capacity.  If you can’t train a lot (by needs or desire), working harder works better because you can’t put in the volume to get the adaptations to lower intensity work.  It’s the combination of a lot of training at too high of an intensity that causes the problems.  Hopefully that makes sense.


Method 4: Sweet Spot Training

Which brings us to the discussion of Sweet Spot training which I’ve mentioned a couple times.  Honestly, to better discuss this it would actually be best for me to discuss Method 5 of endurance training which training right at (or at least around) the lactate threshold/functional threshold power/whatever you want to call it (see the article Predictors of Endurance Performance for the discussion of Thresholds and Pedantry).

I’ll discuss it in more detail in the next part of this article (Next Tuesday) but simply put, it’s generally done as 1-3 sets, generally of 20 minutes (but other durations work) right at the LT/OBLA/FTP/etc.  This is hard training, it takes a lot of work and is grindingly miserable.  But it is generally taken as one of the absolute best ways to push up speed or power at the threshold (for today I’ll just call it threshold training).  Again, I’ll talk more about it next Tuesday.  Right now I want to talk about Sweet Spot Training as defined by Dr. Andrew Coggan.

The Sweet Spot actually falls somewhere in-between intensive endurance/tempo training and true FTP training.  So whereas intensive endurance training might be 150-160 HR and true threshold training might be in the realm of 175-180 HR (depending on the athlete), sweet spot training is perhaps 160-170 HR.  It’s HARD.  But it’s not so hard that you can’t maintain it for a fairly extended period.

Most commonly athletes do bits at this level as broken blocks (e.g. as sets of 10-20 minutes with a rest interval of perhaps 1/2 as long as as the work bout so you might do 4X10′ with a 5′ rest of 2X20′ with a 10′ rest or whatever) but it certainly can be done as continuous work (perhaps for an hour) if you’re willing to work.

As conceptualized by Dr. Coggan, sweet spot training represents the point where you’re generating the maximum amount of strain per unit time but are able to maintain it for long enough to get in the duration.  Tying it again into strength training concepts, this is similar to the argument I made in the article Reps Per Set for Optimal Growth, you’re working at an intensity that maximizes fiber recruitment and stress but allows you do to the most volume per set.

That’s what the sweet spot is: you get a maximum amount of metabolic strain (and AMPk activation should be very high per unit time) but can do enough of it to get a training effect.  Working at a lower intensity would require longer durations and working at higher intensities would limit duration severely (due to lactate accumulation and fatigue).  It’s also not quite as miserable as true threshold work.  Again, it’s hard but doable if you’re motivated.

As you might imagine, this type of training is especially beneficial for athletes with limited time. With a 10′ warm-up and cool-down on either end, a sweet spot workout can be done in 1-1.5 hours and generate a massive training effect in terms of improving the aerobic engine (as well as pushing up power or speed at threshold).  For time limited athletes, it’s a powerful, albeit painful, way to train.

Of course, as you’d imagine, the same warning I made for intensive endurance training holds here: if you can train more frequently or more voluminously, trying to do a lot of sweet spot training will get you into trouble.  Generally, two workouts per week might be done tops with the occasional maniac doing it three times per week.  If you had other days to train, it would have to be lower intensity or bad things would happen.

I’d only wrap up by noting that sweet spot training (or even intensive endurance training) is really not something to jump into out of the gate.  It’s an intense method and while very effective in driving up fitness, it requires some base of lower intensity stuff to survive.  It also wouldn’t make up the entirety of training being done.   An athlete moving into sweet spot training twice per week might be doing two easy workouts (probably in the extensive endurance range) for recovery, etc.

On Tuesday I’ll try to wrap things up by talking a little more about true threshold training and then address interval training in some fashion or another.

Read Methods of Endurance Training Part 4: Threshold Training

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