November 9, 2023

How to design your perfect training program

Ever since top fitness writer Matt Fitzgerald popularized the research of sports scientist Steven Seiler and others with his 2014 book 80/20 Running, the topic of training intensity distribution (TID) has been one of the hottest, most important in the endurance performance world. We keep learning more, though none of it strays very far from the basic model. In other words, if you don’t want to dive any deeper than 80/20, that’s okay. Just don’t stray too far from that ratio.

On the other hand, if you want more, here’s an important update. A veteran research team investigated what is known about TID in world-class athletes from different endurance sports, and also at different times of the year. They used the simple 3 Zone model--basically easy effort (1), tempo-like easy effort (2), and faster interval-like training (3).

Their findings: First and most important, the principle that Zone 1, easy-effort training predominates is a truism that extends across all endurance sports. Second, cyclists and swimmers can do more hard training than runners, no doubt because their sports don’t involve pounding against gravity. They tended to spend 72% of their training time in Zone 1, and 16% in Zone 2.

Third, most athletes do more hard training during their peak competitive season than during their training-buildup period. Another way of saying this: Training is more pyramidal early in the season, and more polarized later in the season.

Inexperienced athletes often have trouble following the logic of “train slow to get fast.” Here the authors present two nice sentences to explain. The two key concepts to remember: glycogen re-supply, and muscle fibers. 

“One reason for training primarily in Z1 is that glycogen stores can be replenished during sessions of low-intensity endurance exercise performed between more intense workouts. Another reason, although not as well investigated, might be that extensive volumes of low-intensity endurance training are required for additional “aerobic” adaptations in the highly oxidative Type I fibers.”

This free and important paper adds new information to our understanding of TID, but the authors caution strongly against oversimplification. To really figure things out, you need to stick closely to the demands of your own sport, and to the timing of your peak efforts. 

Conclusions: “The analysis presented here does not allow identification of an optimal TID for any individual sport.” Also: “Reliable comparisons between different sports or the phases of a season [are] impossible.” More at Frontiers in Sports & Active Living with free full text.

Only a pin prick away: Use acupuncture and dry needling to resolve injuries

Acupuncture and a physical therapy technique called “dry needling” are both claimed to resolve some running injuries. Of course, it’s hard to rule out a placebo effect after someone has stuck you with needles. 

But many runners also report success from these treatments. In fact, I had a fairly miraculous return to running health earlier this year after just one go-around (with a bit of “Ouch!” involved) of dry needling to my ailing upper leg.

A recent article from Outside Online reports that acupuncture can reduce pain, decrease inflammation, and correct muscle imbalances. Several published journal papers support acupuncture and dry needling for sports injuries. 

One states that “acupuncture can help relieve short-term pain and recovery from dysfunction.” A second systematic review of case studies  “suggests that dry needling is effective in reducing pain associated with lower quarter trigger points in the short-term.” Medical reports have noted only minor risks associated with the two procedures, mostly skin infection if the needles are not clean.

Keep learning, keep improving: Strategies for long term success

However we do it, learning is a key lifelong practice. We all want to run long and healthy. Hence this newsletter. And the only way to do so is to keep learning.

Some of us have been lucky enough to encounter great coaches/mentors in our careers. Alex Hutchinson had a coach who made him take off his watch during interval training, because Alex was checking his splits too obsessively. Link here.

I had a mentor constitutionally averse to spelling out any rules of long distance running. He taught me and his many other disciples by personal example. We ran in his footsteps, and observed that he: started all runs slow, and finished harder; veered off road onto trails at every possible opportunity; ignored the weather to maintain training consistency; and so on. 

Simple stuff. Important stuff. Another term for learning is “acquisition skills.” 

Here several experts in performance “acquisition skills” provide a narrative review of what coaches often do wrong, and what they could do better. In fact, they provide 5 important guidelines from both sides of the coin. It doesn’t take much to turn these into lessons we can adopt for ourselves.

We learn about coaching “myths” that are not backed by solid evidence--like “Demonstrations are always effective,” and feedback should be “frequent, detailed, and provided as soon as possible.”

Other principles of “skill acquisition framework for excellence (SAFE)” may be more helpful. These include: “Find a balance between long-term learning and short-term performance;” and “Facilitate learning rather than dictate or abdicate.”

I appreciate that the authors believe “hands off” instruction may prove more powerful than “hands on.” They also believe in “optimizing challenge.” More at J of Sports Sciences with free full text.

SHORT STUFF you don’t want to miss

>>> Brainy marathoners: New research indicates that marathon runners gain a modest amount of fuel from myelin--a fatty tissue surrounding nerve fibers. 

HERE’S WHAT ELSE you would have received this week if you were a subscriber to the complete, full-text RLRH.

# Every breath you take: Going the distance with nasal breathing

# Experts tell you: “What to look for in your next heart rate monitor”

# Why Boston Marathon runners develop stomach-gut problems

# How whey protein in your recovery drink boosts hydration and endurance

# The truth about the super shoe marathon advantage

# How more exercise is better for those over age 60

# Winning strategies of Olympic 1500-meter champions

# A miraculous combo: motherhood and breast feeding 

# An inspiring “mothers are tough” quote from Kellyn Taylor, first American in the NYC Marathon

Click here for info on subscribing to the full-text RLRH for just $4/month.

And remember: “I spend HOURS searching the Internet for the best, most authoritative new running articles, so you can review them in MINUTES.”

That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading. See you again next week. Amby