Avoiding the “Black Hole” of Training

One of the most common runner errors is pace. Whether it’s the starting pace of a race or the pace of a long, slow run – it’s either too fast or too slow. The result being that even though we put in long hours of training, we’re never quite as good as we could be.

During my first few years of running, every run was a race against the previous day’s run. My calendar included elapsed time for every run until technology could advise me of current pace on-demand. It was the focus of my training — that and a steady stream of injuries.

Speed is a leading cause of injury among recreational runners. What we don’t realize in our quest for speed is that there is a limit to how much you can develop your absolute speed. At some point, your body approaches its natural talent point and working to improve speed proves increasingly difficult. Improving your aerobic capacity, on the other hand, is virtually limitless. The million dollar word for running faster appears to be balance.

Ultimately it boils down to this: don’t get caught in the “moderate middle”.

Studies support the benefits of a somewhat off-balanced approach of polarized training – mixing low and high intensity training in just the right combination.

The annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine was held in Seattle, Washington in June of 1999 with three largely independent themes: athletic performance, sports injuries, and physical fitness. Dr. Stephen Seiler’s contribution to the symposium were on the practical aspects of lactate measurement and polarized training.

5-zone-intensity-model-for-trainingDr. Seiler is a well-known and respected researcher in the field of endurance training physiology. On the basis of his experience with elite cross-country skiers and rowers, he argued that top endurance athletes do comparatively little training at or near lactate-threshold intensity (corresponding to intensities of ~85% of maximum oxygen consumption). Instead, their training is “polarized” around this intensity, in the sense that they do only a few sessions per week at intensities well above lactate threshold, this being what Seiler calls the running version of the 80/20 Rule. Periodized training still occurs over the course of the athlete’s training cycle even though the 80/20 rule is closely maintained.

World-class runners, cyclists, rowers, swimmers, and cross-country skiers all do about 80 percent of their training at low intensity. This cannot be a coincidence. Seiler believes that endurance athletes across disciplines have discovered this balance independently and have stuck with it because it produces better results than any alternative.

Why does the 80/20 Rule work?

polarized graphThe conclusion is that athletes who do most of their training at low intensity are generally less fatigued and consequently get more benefit from the small fraction of their training that is done at moderate and high intensities. This is not a new concept. However, in between these two polarized intensities of high- and low- is an area of ultimate doom.

Seiler coined the phrase “black hole” in the athletic world to mean the no-man’s land of mediocrity — a place where an athlete’s high-intensity effort is performed too slow and the low-intensity effort is performed too fast, resulting in every training effort being performed at medium-intensity….which accomplishes nothing.

Mediocre: Ordinary, not extraordinary; not special, exceptional, or great; of medium quality;

Whether you subscribe to the theory of polarized training or not, there are useful applications for life and training:

1. Be disciplined enough to stick with the Plan:

Seiler used the example of a group of marathon runners he saw when he first moved to Norway who to his surprise were walking up a hill during a long run. Their coach explained they were remaining disciplined to their training by saving energy for the next day’s high-intensity training session. It’s easy to go all out. It takes discipline to stick with a plan.

80202. Understand the 80/20 rule:

Devote quality time to the 20% that will ultimately get you where you want to be. It’s true in life, in business, and it’s true in sports.

“Intensity eats duration for breakfast” is just wrong.

3. Back off the intensity just enough:

Measurements from Seiler’s research suggest the transition from a “92%” VO2 max effort to “97%” during interval training induces a special kind of hell that does not provide a clear payoff physiologically. In the ‘no pain, no gain’ lingo, the pain-to-gain ratio becomes too high, too risky. Thinking of long-term development, elite athletes use this highest level of intensity surprisingly sparingly.

A good friend gave me the analogy that best fits here – use a dimmer switch.

There is such a thing as the 110-year-old Centennial Bulb in Livermore, California. This light bulb was installed in a firehouse over 110 years ago and still hasn’t burned out. It’s not known exactly how it has lasted so long, but there are a few good clues: One, it has only rarely been moved; two, it has been switched off only a handful of times, and three, it is operated at very low power. When you dim a bulb, you are lowering the voltage delivered to the bulb filament, putting it under less stress. The same applies to the athlete’s body.

4. Don’t get lost in the ‘black hole’ by filling time with a mediocre effort:

Ensure every minute of training counts toward it’s intended goal whether that’s low-intensity designed to build aerobic capacity or high-intensity training to build speed.

 “If you want to be your best, go hard and go easy, just don’t go in the middle.”