"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Monday, March 21, 2011

High Volume vs. High Intensity, Revisited

[Had the first trail run of the year yesterday. Hope to cover that here tomorrow or Wednesday.]

There are two contrasting bad ideas that recur in running training: 1) You can run fast by just running long and slow and 2) You only need to run very hard for a few minutes to get full benefits. The first idea appeals to those who don't ever want to push very hard; the second appeals to those who want to be "efficient" and get the workouts out of the way as quickly as possible. Neither method works well by itself for very long and the two seem mutually exclusive. How does one decide which method to choose, or how does one blend them?

It's important to recognize that "high volume" and "high intensity" methods of training are relative terms. There are almost no examples of anyone who's had success with just one or the other (there are some multiday runners who never run fast and of course some sprinters who never run long, but those are the extremes of events). The two examples commonly used for marathoning are Derek Clayton for high volume and Steve Jones for high intensity; both set world records in the marathon, with seemingly very different training plans.

[Here's where I complain how it's nearly impossible to make a chart on Blogger.]

Here's an idealized week of training for Clayton, excluding his occasional 4x 1 mile interval workouts:

M am 5-6 miles easy (easy=5:40/mile)
M pm 17 fast (fast=5:00/mile)
T am 5-6 easy
T pm 12 medium
W am 5-6 easy
W pm 14 fast on hills
Th am 5-6 easy
Th pm 14 fast hills
F am 5-6 easy
F pm 10 easy
Sa 4 easy
Sa pm 25 in 2:20
S am 17-20 hills
S pm 10 medium

That's certainly high mileage, but the intensity is there; he's running fast on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, and his Tuesday and Saturday runs are not easy.

Here's Jones' idealized week:

M am 12-16 @ 5:00/mile
M pm 6-10
T am 9 with 4x5:00 hard
T pm Race (5K or 10K), cross-country or track
W am 7
W pm 6-10
Th am 10 hill repeats
Th pm 5-12
F am 6-7
F pm Race (10K) or 16x1:00 or 10x2:00 or 16-24x 0:45
Sa am 0
Sa pm 0
S am 15-20 @ 6:00
S pm 12 @ 5:00

That's certainly intense (two races per week?!), but the volume is there too, it's just half of what mileage Clayton was doing.

Both methods obviously work, but neither would have succeeded with the other's schedule. Clayton had a relatively low VO2max and mostly slow-twitch muscle fibers (assumed from his best 400m time), so he trained to be able to run as close to his VO2 max as possible for two hours, which meant a lot of long runs and a lot of miles, all done fairly fast, but not all-out. Jones was the opposite type, essentially a 10K racer doing marathons, so his training was aimed at trying to extend how long he could run at a very fast pace. If you think about it, those two plans begin to look alike, as the goal is (obviously) to be able to run marathon pace for 26.2 miles; the difference being that for one the distance is the easier thing to manage and for the other, the pace is easier to manage than the distance.

Can one do both? There are people who've tried training with just very long slow runs and then adding a short intense bout like Tabata's 8x20 sec.-10 sec. high-intensity interval workout. All this accomplishes is making one capable of running either very long and slow or very short and fast, but not long and fast; training is too specific for that plan to work.

Can one switch from one to the other and get the benefits of both? The standard method of periodization for marathons had been to do as much mileage as possible, then to add intensity while dropping mileage, reaching a peak of intensity at race time. This can work, but it's tricky. It's common to overtrain with too much mileage early. It's common to get injured as one tries to add speedwork. It's common to overtrain by doing too much speedwork late in the schedule and being burnt out by race time. Trying to do the opposite (intensity first, then add mileage) has the same pitfalls, just in a different order.

Can one run high volume and high intensity at the same time? Not well and not for very long.

Can one split the difference and run moderate mileage and moderate intensity? This is both the Holy Grail of training and the most common way of not doing enough. Brad Hudson, in his book "Run Faster," advocates "consistent moderately-high volume" and "extreme intensity modulation," but the more one thinks about it, the less this says. As every coach will say, it's a matter of running as many miles as you can without sacrificing the ability to run one's fastest, which can only be determined after the fact. When you run hard, run very hard and when you run easy, run very easy; the two-a-day workouts are done to have the right proportion of easy runs.

So how would I set up a week for a sub-2:10 marathoner?

M am 30 min. cross-train
M pm 15-16 in 90 min.
T am 30 min cross-train
T pm 12 in 60 with 4x1 mile in 4:20
W am 30 min cross-train
W pm 11 in 60
Th am 30 min cross-train
Th pm 15 in 90, hills
F am 30 min cross-train
F pm 0
Sa am 12 in 60 with 10K race
Sa pm 0
S am 27 in 2:45 with 10 hills
S pm 0

The week looks a lot like both Clayton's and Jones' plans, with a few changes. First, the easy runs aren't run, but cross-trained, so they're even easier. Second, the extremely long run on Sunday becomes challenging just by its duration; whether running for almost 3 hours is useful for someone whose race is only 2 hours long is debatable, but I think it has its advantages. Third, I separate the hard runs more; Jones ran fairly hard on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday without an easy day and Clayton ran at least 17 miles in a single run on each of those days; the callousing effect of running hard day after day (after day) might be the secret to their success, but I think one can run harder on the hard days if there's more rest in between the hard runs.

We'll never know if I'm right. Even if someone sets the world record using a plan that looks like mine, we'll still never know. And for me, that's part of the fun of the sport.


joyRuN said...

You can run fast by just running long and slow.

Not true?


I need to figure out my VO2 & slow twitch stuff. It sounds like I'd line up more with Clayton, but that'd be waaay to much running for me.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'm a fan of low mileage, low intensity. Bring on the Sweet Marthas!