Entries in Periodization (7)


Phasing in preparation of triathletes

Dr Malcolm Brown was the Olympic Team Leader in 2012. His talk on phasing in Triathlon looked at certain factors that lead to Great Britain's success over the last few years, lessons that are applicable to rowing. In multi-sport, there are key factors to consider. Training volumes and specific periodization across three disciplines. 

Key points were covered: 

- Leadership and coaching. 

- The Training environment.

- The Culture within that training environment. 

- Building at team for international competition. 

- Progression.

- Training structure and periodization. 

For more on Malcolm Brown's talk: Phasing in preparation of triathletes


Cycling Your Periodization Plan

By: Michael H. Stone and Meg Stone (East Tennessee State) and William A. Sands.
From:  Olympic Coach Winter 2008.

Updated: Aug 27th 2009 2:20 PM UTC by Matt Fitzgerald

The “principle of the cyclic arrangement of load demands” consists of two concepts working simultaneously: 1) cycling and 2) stages (Harre 1982, p. 78). Cycles of training are organized so that work is punctuated with rest and so that athletes progress through a program that systematically varies the training tasks and load.
The overall cycle that each athlete goes through consists of repeating three stages: a) acquisition of athletic form b) stabilization of athletic form c) temporary loss of athletic form (Harre 1982). Practical experience has shown that athletes do not continue to improve in a progressive linear manner. Athletes require work periods that cause fatigue, and then these work periods are followed by rest and adaptation.
Training load is cycled by increasing load demands followed by decreasing demands. The second concept, stages, is again based on practical experience. Athletes simply cannot work on all of the demands of training and competition at the same time. The demands are too numerous, and available time is too limited. Taken together, these two concepts are united under the modern training approach called periodization.
The concept of periodization has been around at least since the 1920s (Nilsson 1987), and there are at least a dozen models of periodization. Caution should be exercised in their use due to the tendency to infer too much from individual models (Francis and Patterson 1992; Siff 1996a, 1996b; Siff and Verkhoshansky 1993; Verkhoshansky, U. 1981; Verkhoshansky 1977, 1985; Viru 1988, 1990, 1995). Further, most of the models have been tested only cursorily, if at all. Table 1.1 presents a list of several models.



Planning with Periodization

The most common method of developing a periodization plan is to divide a competitive season into three levels of cycles: a) macrocycles - several months in duration up to a year or slightly more: b) mesocycles - from approximately two to approximately eight weeks in duration; and c) microcycles - usually seven to fourteen days in duration.
The three levels of training organization permit a “divide and conquer” approach to the assignment of training tasks in a definite pattern for a definite period. Unfortunately, various authors have taken considerable liberty in using terms to describe varying durations, contents, and objectives of training within this context.
The three levels of training duration are placed within an overall structure of the training year that consists of a preparatory period, a competitive period, and a transition or rest period.
An athlete requires approximately 22 to 25 weeks to reach peak performance (Verkhoshansky 1985) before a type of fatigue or exhaustion occurs that is poorly understood (Poliquin 1991). Experience has shown that performance generally declines within these times constraints, but the mechanisms of the decline are unknown.
This idea of a limited time for adaptation leads to the concept of multiple periodization, which simply means that the training year is usually divided into two, rarely more, phases consisting of preparatory, competitive and transition periods (Bompa 1990a, 1990b, 1993; Siff and Verkhoshansky 1993; Verkhoshansky 1985). Perhaps unfortunately, many modern training programs force athletes to attempt to peak too often.


Description of the Periods

The preparatory period is usually divided into general and specific phases. The general preparatory phase is used for broad or multilateral training (Bompa, 1990b). The training tasks are aimed at improving the athlete’s overall strength, flexibility, stamina, coordination, and so forth.
The specific preparatory phase more closely resembles the sport and sport-specific tasks. Training during the specific preparatory phase are aimed at improving sport-specific tasks and fitness such as jumping, flexibility and strength in extreme ranges of motion and applying any newly acquired fitness to solving specific sport tasks.The preparatory period should be relatively longer for inexperienced athletes in order to allow for sufficient development of basic fitness.
However, in elite athletes the preparatory period may be relatively short due to frequent competitions and the necessity of elite athletes to remain close to top condition throughout the training year (Francis and Patterson 1992; Siff 1996b; Siff and Verkhoshansky 1993; Zatsiorsky 1995).
The competitive period involves the majority of competitions during the particular season or macrocycle. The fitness of the athlete should be relatively stable during this period, and training focuses on maximizing and stabilizing performance. The preparatory period is linked to the competitive period in that a well-executed preparatory period, with sufficient duration to achieve a high level of fitness at a reasonable pace, allows the athlete to demonstrate more stable performances during the competitive period ( Harre 1982; Siff and Verkhoshansky 1993;Verkhoshansky 1985).
The idea of performance stability is particularly important for athletes in resistance training, and may differ somewhat from sport to sport. For example, the tactical approach of a pole vaulter is quite different from that of a diver. The pole vaulter may often face performances that he or she has never equaled. This is seen in personal-best records. The pole vaulter may try previously unachieved heights in many competitions throughout a season. The diver should face this type of scenario only in the protected environment of training. The diver must perform what he or she has performed (i.e. dives) hundreds or thousands of times before, but must perform dives precisely in the decisive moment of competition. No byes or failed attempts are allowed in diving. Therefore, the diver seeks to stabilize performance at a level that is consistent with his or her skills, while the pole vaulter must assault and achieve new levels of performance during a competition and can use more than one attempt.
The transition or rest period involves one to four, rarely more, weeks of reduced training load to facilitate recovery from the rigors of previous training both physically and mentally (Bompa 1990a, 1990b; Harre 1982, 1986; Siff and Verkhoshansky 1993). During the transition period the athlete should attempt to maintain fitness while allowing injuries to heal, develop new goals for the next competitive season, evaluate the previous competitive season and basically ensure that the next competitive season begins with a renewed vigor and commitment.


Types of Periods

There are a number of different types of periods of training depending on training goals, time of the season and capabilities of the athlete. Macrocycles are usually described based on common sense understanding of the nature of the competitions within the macrocycle. For example, there may be an Olympic preparation type of macrocycle due to the modification of competition schedules to fit properly with the Olympic Games. There may also be a Pan American, national championship, or other type of macrocycles depending on the most important goal of the macrocycle. The second level, mesocycles can be categorized by the objectives of the mesocycle. Mesocycle-level objectives are relatively similar across macrocycles, which aids in the consistency of their defining characteristics. Mesocycles thus become similar to inter-changeable planning “parts” that can be used and reused in different macrocycles. Table 1.2 shows a list of mesocycle types and corresponding tasks (Harre 1982).
The mesocycles can be linked to form an annual plan (Bompa 1990b), or a specific macrocycle (Harre 1982, 1990; Matveyev 1977). Microcycles are periods of training lasting from seven to fourteen days. Microcycles are the smallest basic unit of training planning that has strictly applied objectives. The training lesson is a smaller training unit, but the goals of any particular training lesson can be modified based on current circumstances. However, the objectives of the microcycle remain intact so that the subsequent training lessons are adapted to reach the objectives set for the microcycle (Verkhoshansky 1985). Various types of microcycles are shown in Table 1.3 below.


As described earlier, the cyclic arrangement of load demands refers to periodization, which is composed of two concepts used simultaneously. The first concept is that of cycling the training load by alternating between work and rest. The second concept is that of periods of training with specific, distinct and linked goals. The importance of these periodization concepts lies in the organized and systematic fashion in which training loads can be applied for the improvement of sport performance.
Excerpted from Principles and Practice of Resistance Training by Michael H. Stone, Meg Stone and William A. Sands; Human Kinetics Champaign, IL. 2007. Reprinted with permission from Human Kinetics.

Annual Planning, Periodisation and its Variations

Author: Tudor Bompa (CAN)
Fisa Level 3: Section 6- Annual Planning, Periodisation and its Variations.

Tudor Bompa

Tudor Bompa is the father of periodisation, a training system developed by the Soviets that aimed for optimal performance by varying the training stress throughout the year rather than maintaining a constant training focus. Bompa's training theory was laid out in his seminal work Theory and Methodology of Training

Bompa's understanding of assisted the Eastern Bloc domination of athletic competitions for three decades. He was on the faculty of the Romanian Institute of Sport.
As a coach, Dr. Bompa trained 11 medalists in various Olympics (2 gold medals) and World championships in 2 sport disciplines: track and field and rowing. He was himself an Olympic rower, and he later revolutionized the training concepts in cross country skiing. It is widely known that Jurgen Grobler uses these concepts when he plans his Olympic preparation. Bompa's book has simply been described as the Holy Grail of Training methodology and periodisation. A 'must have' for your training book collection.

North America: Periodization-5h Edition: Theory and Methodology of Training

United Kingdom and Europe: Periodization-5th Edition: Theory and Methodology of Training

Annual Planning

The annual plan is often viewed as the most important tool for the coach to guide athletes' training over a year. Such a plan is based on the concept of periodisation, which has to be viewed as an important concept to follow if one intends to maximise his athlete's performance.

The main objective of training is to reach the highest level of performance at the time of the main regatta of the year. But in order to achieve such a task one has to carefully plan the main activities of a crew, to create the best training menu, and to periodise the dominant abilities such as endurance and strength in such a way that will result in the highest probability of meeting the annual training goals.
Considering the above goals, and the high level of knowledge of my audience, I will be focusing in this presentation mostly on the concept of periodisation and its variations.


Periodisation is a process of dividing the annual plan into small phases of training in order to allow a program to be set into more manageable segments and to ensure a correct peaking for the main regatta of the year. Such a partition enhances a correct organisation of training, allowing the coach to conduct his program in a systematic manner.

In rowing, the annual training cycle is conventionally divided into three main phases of training: preparatory, competitive and transition. Both the preparatory and the competitive phases are also divided into subphases since their tasks are quite different. The preparatory phase, on the basis of different characteristics of training, has both a general and a specific subphase, while the competitive phase usually is preceded by a short pre-competitive subphase. Furthermore, each phase is composed of macro- and micro-cycles. Each of these smaller cycles has specific objectives, which are derived from the general objectives of the annual plan.

High levels of athletic performance are dependent upon the organism's adaptation, psychological adjustment to the specifics of training and competitions and the development of skills and abilities. On the basis of these realities, the duration of training phases depends heavily on the time needed to increase the degree of training and to reach the highest training peak. The main criterion for calculating the duration of each phase of training is the competition calendar.

The athlete trains for the competition for many months aiming at reaching his highest level of athletic shape on those dates. The accomplishment of such a goal assures very organised and well-planned annual training, which should facilitate psychological alterations. Organisation of an annual plan is enhanced by the periodisation of training and the sequential approach in the development of athletic shape.

The needs for different phases of training were inflicted by physiology because the development and perfection of neuro-muscular and cardio-respiratory functions, to mention just a few, are achieved progressively over a long period of time. One also has to consider the athlete's physiological and psychological potential, and that athletic shape cannot be maintained throughout the year at a high level. This difficulty is further pronounced by the athlete's individual particularities, psycho-physiological abilities, diet, regeneration and the like.

Climatic conditions and the seasons also play a determinant role in the needs of periodising the training process. Often, the duration of a phase of training depends strictly on the climatic conditions. Seasonal sports, like rowing, are very much restricted by the climate of a country.
As the reader may be aware, each competition and, for that matter, the highly challenging training that is specific to the competitive phase, has a strong component of stress. Although most athletes and coaches may cope with stress, a phase of stressful activities should not be very long. There is a high need in training to alternate phases of stressful activities with periods of recovery and regeneration, during which the rowers are exposed to much less pressure.

Periodisation of Biomotor Abilities

The use of the concept of periodisation is not limited to the structure of a training plan or the type of training to be employed in a given training phase. On the contrary, this concept should also have a large application in the methodology of developing the dominant abilities in rowing (endurance and strength).

Figure 1: The Periodisation of Dominant Abilities in Rowing

Periodisation of Strength Training

The objectives, content and methods of a strength training program change throughout the training phases of an annual plan. Such changes occur in order to reflect the type of strength rowing requires muscular endurance (the capacity to perform many repetitions against the water resistance).

The Anatomical Adaptation - Following a transitional phase, when in most cases athletes do not particularly do much strength training, it is scientifically and methodically sound to commence with a strength program. Thus, the main objective of this phase is to involve most muscle groups to prepare the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints, to endure the following long and strenuous phases of training. A general strength program with many exercises (9-12), performed comfortably, without "pushing" the athlete, is desirable. A load of 40-60% of maximum, 8-12 repetitions, in 3-4 sets, performed at a low to medium rate, with a rest interval of 1-1:30 minutes between exercises, over 4-6 weeks will facilitate to achieve the objectives set for this first phase. Certainly, longer anatomical adaptation (8-12 weeks) should be considered for junior athletes and for those without a strong background in strength training.

The Maximum Strength Phase - Ever since it was found that the ergogenesis of rowing is 83% aerobic and 17% anaerobic, the importance of strength has diminished in the mind of many coaches. In addition, the rowing ergometer has captivated the attention of most coaches. Often the rowing ergometer is used at the expense of strength training.

All these changes in training philosophy favoured the development of aerobic endurance to high levels. The results were to be expected: rowing races were never faster than now. However, what coaches should observe in the future is that to spend the same amount of time for the further development of aerobic endurance might not result in proportional increases in performance. One should analyse whether or not his athlete has maximised his endurance potential? Or, is there anything else which could improve the rower's performance?

In our estimation now is the time to add a new ingredient to the traditional training menu: maximum strength (which is defined as the highest load an athlete can lift in one attempt). This shouldn't frighten anybody! Nobody proposes to transform the rowers into weightlifters! As illustrated by the following figures, maximum strength has to be developed only during certain training phases of the annual plan.

Why train maximum strength anyway? A simplified equation of fluid mechanics will demonstrate this point: D ~ V²

That is that drag (D) is proportional to the square of velocity (V²).

Assuming that a coach has concluded that endurance has been developed to very high levels, spending more time on it might not bring superior performance. He might decide that in order to cover the 2,000m in superior speed the rowers have to increase the force of blade drive through the water (say by an average of 2 kg per stroke). But, according to the above equation for any additional force pulled at the oar handle, drag (water resistance) will increase by the square of blade's velocity. If one pulls against the oar handle with an additional 2kg (our example), according to the above equation, drag increases by 8kg! Therefore, the need to increase the level of strength has been demonstrated.

The duration of the maximum strength phase could be between 2-3 months, depending on the rower's level of performance and his needs. The suggested load could be between 70-90% of maximum, performed in 3-6 sets of 3-8 repetitions with a rest interval of 3-4 minutes.

The Conversion Phase - Gains in maximum strength have to be converted into muscular endurance; this type of strength is dominant in rowing. During these 2-4 months, the rower will be exposed to a training program through which progressively he will be able to perform tens, and even hundreds, of repetitions against a standard load (40-50%) in 2-4 sets.

The Maintenance Stage - Strength training must be maintained through some forms of land training, otherwise detraining will occur, and the benefits of maximum strength, and especially muscular endurance, will fade away progressively. And, rather than being used as a training ingredient for superior performance at the time of the main regatta, the reversal of such gains will decrease the probability of having a fast race.

A training program dedicated to the maintenance of strength will address the weakest link in the area of strength. It could be organised 2-3 times per week, following water training and could consist of either elements of maximum strength, muscular endurance or a given ratio between the two. In either case it has to be of short duration and planned in such a way as to avoid to unrealistically tax athlete's energy stores. Certainly, exhaustion is not a desirable athletic state.

The Cessation Phase - Prior (5-7 days) to the main competition of the year, the strength training program is ended, so that all energies are saved for the accomplishment of a good performance.

The Rehabilitation Phase completes the annual plan and coincides with the transition phase from the present to the next annual plan. While the objectives of the transition phase are through active rest, to remove the fatigue and replenish the exhausted energies, the goals of rehabilitation are more complex. For the injured athlete, this phase of relaxation also means to rehabilitate, and restore injured muscles, tendons, muscle attachments, and joints, and should be performed by specialised personnel. Whether parallel with the rehabilitation of injuries, or afterwards, before this phase ends all the athletes should follow a program to strengthen the stabilisers, the muscles which through a static contraction secures a limb against the pull of the contracting muscles. Neglecting the development of stabilisers, whether during the early development of an athlete or during his peak years of activity, means to have an injury prone individual, whose level of maximum strength and muscular endurance could be inhibited by weak stabilisers. Therefore, the time invested on strengthening these important muscles means a higher probability of having injury free athletes for the next season.

Periodisation of Endurance

During an annual plan of training, the development of endurance is achieved in several phases. Considering, as a reference, an annual plan with one main regatta (Olympic Games), endurance training is accomplished in three main phases: 1) aerobic endurance, 2) develop the foundation of specific endurance, and 3) specific endurance.

Each of the suggested phases has its own training objectives:

1. Aerobic endurance is developed throughout the transition and the long preparatory period (4-6 months). The main scope of the development of aerobic endurance is to build the endurance foundation for the regatta season and to increase to the highest level possible the rowers' working capacity (the cardio-respiratory system). The whole program has to be based on a high volume of training (20-28 hours per week).

2. The development of the foundation for specific endurance has an extremely important role in achieving the objectives set for endurance training. Throughout this phase, a representation of the transition from aerobic endurance to an endurance program has to mirror the ergogenesis of rowing (the aerobic-anaerobic ration expressed in percentage). Some elements of anaerobic training are introduced, although the dominant training methods are: uniform, alternative, long, and medium distance interval training (2-5 km).

3. Specific endurance coincides with the regatta season. The selection of appropriate methods should reflect the ergogenesis of rowing, its ratio being calculated per week (3-5% anaerobic alactic, 8-12% anaerobic lactic, and the balance aerobic endurance). The alteration of various types of intensities should facilitate a good recovery between training sessions, thus leading to a good peak for the final competition.

Variations of Periodisation

Figure 2 attempts to illustrate the periodisation of dominant abilities in rowing with the goal of peaking for the Olympic Regatta. This attempt is an adaptation of figure 1, but at this time it considers the time factor.

Figure 2: A Suggested Periodisation of Dominant Abilities for Rowing in 1992

Assuming that the coach may decide that in order to take his athletes to higher levels of performance, additional strength is desirable. In such a case a variation of the standard periodisation (figure 2) is suggested by figure 3.

In order to achieve this goal, two phases of maximum strength of six weeks each are proposed (total 12 weeks), each of them being followed by phases of muscular endurance so necessary in rowing (a total of 14 weeks). Such an approach is more desirable for elite athletes with very high endurance capabilities, whose progress in the past two years did not materialise. It is expected that this novelty in periodisation will bring the additional ingredient for a higher step in athletic proficiency.

Figure 3: A Suggested Variation of Periodisation for Rowing

In many walks of life improvements were often the result of challenging the tradition. It is expected that variations of periodisation signify such a challenge.




Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance: the Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training

Sportscience - sportsci.org
Perspectives / Training

Stephen Seiler1 and Espen Tønnessen2
Sportscience 13, 32-53, 2009 (sportsci.org/2009/ss.htm)
1 University of Agder, Faculty of Health and Sport, Kristiansand 4604, Norway.  
2 Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee National Training Center, Oslo,  Norway.
Reviewers: Iñigo Mujika, Araba Sport Clinic, Vitoria, Spain; Stephen Ingham, English Institute of Sport, Loughborough University, Leicestershire, LE11 3TU, UK.


Endurance training involves manipulation of intensity, duration, and frequency of training sessions.   The relative impact of short, high-intensity training versus longer, slower distance training has been studied and debated for decades among athletes, coaches, and scientists.  Currently, the popularity pendulum has swung towards high-intensity interval training.  Many fitness experts, as well as some scientists, now argue that brief, high-intensity interval work is the only form of training necessary for performance optimization.   Research on the impact of interval and continuous training with untrained to moderately trained subjects does not support the current interval craze, but the evidence does suggest that short intense training bouts and longer continuous exercise sessions should both be a part of effective endurance training.  Elite endurance athletes perform 80 % or more of their training at intensities clearly below their lactate threshold and use high-intensity training surprisingly spar-ingly.  Studies involving intensification of training in already well-trained ath-letes have shown equivocal results at best.  The available evidence suggests that combining large volumes of low-intensity training with careful use of high-intensity interval training throughout the annual training cycle is the best-practice model for development of endurance performance. KEYWORDS: lactate threshold, maximal oxygen uptake, VO2max, periodization.


Interval Training: A long History
Exercise Intensity Zones
Training Plans and Cellular Signaling
Training Intensities of Elite Endurance Athletes
Units for Trainong Intensity
The 80-20 Rule for Intensity
Training Volume of Elite Athletes
Intensified-Training Studies
Intensity for Recreational Athletes:
- Case 1-From Soccer Pro to Elite Cyclist
- Case 2 From Modern Pentathete to Runner
Valid Comparisons of Training Interventions

The evening before the start of the 2009 European College of Sport Science Congress in Oslo, the two of us were sitting at a doctoral dissertation defense dinner that is part of the time honored tradition of the “doctoral disputas” in Scandinavia. One of us was the relieved disputant (Tønnessen) who had successfully defended his dissertation. The other had played the adversarial role of “førsteopponent.” Tønnessen’s research on the talent development process included extensive empirical analyses of the training characteristics of selected world champion female endurance athletes. His career case-study series systematized training diary logs of over 15,000 training sessions from three World and/or Olympic champions in three sports: distance running, cross-country skiing, and orienteering. Common for all three champions was that over their long, successful careers, about 85 % of their training sessions were performed as continuous efforts at low to moderate intensity (blood lactate ?2 mM). Among the 40 guests sat coaches, scientists, and former athletes who had been directly or indirectly involved in winning more endurance sport Olympic gold medals and world championships than we could count. One guest, Dag Kaas, had coached 12 individual world champions in four different sports. In his toast to the candidate he remarked,  ”My experience as a coach tells me that to become world champion in endurance disciplines, you have to train SMART, AND you have to train a LOT. One without the other is insufficient.”

So what is smart endurance training? The question is timely: research and popular interest in interval training for fitness, rehabilitation, and performance has skyrocketed in recent years on the back of new research studies and even more marketing by various players in the health and fitness industry. Some recent investigations on untrained or moderately trained subjects have suggested that 2-8 wk of 2-3 times weekly intense interval training can induce rapid and substantial metabolic and cardiovascular performance improvements (Daussin et al., 2007; Helgerud et al., 2007; Talanian et al., 2007). Some popular media articles have interpreted these findings to mean that long, steady distance sessions are a waste of time. Whether well founded or not, this interpretation raises reasonable questions about the importance and quantity of high- (and low-) intensity training in the overall training process of the endurance athlete. Our goal with this article is to discuss this issue in a way that integrates research and practice.

In view of the recent hype and the explosion in the number of studies investigating interval training in various health, rehabilitation, and performance settings, one could be forgiven for assuming that this training form was some magic training pill scientists had devised compara-tively recently. The reality is that athletes have been using interval training for at least 60 years.  So, some discussion of interval training research is in order before we address the broader question of training intensity distribution in competitive endurance athletes.

Interval Training: a Long History

International running coach Peter Thompson wrote in Athletics Weekly that clear references to “repetition training” were seen already by the early 1900s (Thompson, 2005).  Nobel Prize winning physiologist AV Hill incorporated intermittent exercise into his studies of exercising humans already in the 1920s (Hill et al., 1924a; Hill et al., 1924b).  About this time, Swede Gosta Holmer introduced Fartlek to distance running (fart= speed and lek= play in Swedish).  The specific term interval training is attributed to German coach Waldemer Gerschler. Influenced by work physiologist Hans Reindell in the late 1930s, he was convinced that alternating periods of hard work and recovery was an effective adaptive stimulus for the heart. They apparently adopted the term because they both believed that it was the recovery interval that was vital to the training effect. Since then, the terms intermittent exercise, repetition training, and interval training have all been used to describe a broad range of training prescriptions involving alternating work and rest periods (Daniels and Scardina, 1984). In the 1960s, Swedish physiologists, led by Per Åstrand, performed groundbreaking research demonstrating how manipulation of work duration and rest duration could dramatically impact physiological responses to intermittent exercise (Åstrand et al., 1960; Åstrand I, 1960; Christensen, 1960; Christensen et al., 1960). As Daniels and Scardina (1984) concluded 25 years ago, their work laid the foundation for all interval training research to follow. In their classic chapter Physical Training in Textbook of Work Physiology, Åstrand and Rodahl (1986) wrote, “it is an important but unsolved question which type of training is most effective: to maintain a level representing 90 % of the maximal oxygen uptake for 40 min, or to tax 100 % of the oxygen uptake capacity for about 16 min.” (The same chapter from the 4th edition, published in 2003, can be read here.)  This quote serves as an appropriate background for defining high intensity aerobic interval training (HIT) as we will use it in this article: repeated bouts of exercise lasting ~1 to 8 min and eliciting an oxygen demand equal to ~90 to 100 % of VO2max, separated by rest periods of 1 to 5 min (Seiler and Sjursen, 2004; Seiler and Hetlelid, 2005). Controlled studies comparing the physiological and performance impact of continuous training (CT) below the lactate turnpoint (typically 60-75 % of VO2max for 30 min or more) and HIT began to emerge in the 1970s. Sample sizes were small and the results were mixed, with superior results for HIT (Henriksson and Reit-man, 1976; Wenger and Macnab, 1975), superior results for CT (Saltin et al., 1976), and little difference (Cunningham et al., 1979; Eddy et al., 1977; Gregory, 1979). Like most published studies comparing the two types of training, the CT and HIT interventions compared in these studies were matched for total work (iso-energetic). In the context of how athletes actually train and perceive training stress, this situation is artificial, and one we will return to.

McDougall and Sale (1981) published one of the earliest reviews comparing the effects of continuous and interval training, directed at coaches and athletes. They concluded that both forms of training were important, but for different reasons. Two physiological assumptions that are now largely disproven influenced their interpretation. First, they concluded that HIT was superior for inducing peripheral changes, because the higher work intensity induced a greater degree of skeletal muscle hypoxia. We now know that in healthy subjects, increased lactate accumulation in the blood during exercise need not be due to increased muscle hypoxia (Gladden, 2004). Second, they concluded that since stroke volume already plateaus at 40-50 %VO2max, higher exercise intensities would not enhance ventricular filling. We now know that stroke volume continues to rise at higher intensities, perhaps even to VO2max, in well trained athletes (Gledhill et al., 1994; Zhou et al., 2001). Assuming a stroke volume plateau at low exercise intensity, they concluded that the benefit of exercise on cardiac performance was derived via stimulation of high cardiac contractility, which they argued peaked at about 75 %VO2max. Thus, moderate-intensity continuous exercise over longer durations and therefore more heart beats was deemed most beneficial for enhancing cardiac performance. While newer research no longer supports  their specific conclusions, they did raise the important point that there are underlying characteristics of the physiological response to HIT and CT that should help explain any differential impact on adaptive responses.

Poole and Gaesser (1985) published a citation classic comparing 8 wk of 3 × weekly training of untrained subjects for either  55 min at 50 %VO2max, 35 min at 75 %VO2max, or 10 × 2 min at 105 %VO2max with 2-min recoveries.  They observed no differences in the magnitude of the increase in either VO2max or power at lactate threshold among the three groups. Their findings were corroborated by Bhambini and Singh (1985) in a study of similar design published the same year. Gorostiaga et al. (1991) reported findings that challenged McDougall and Sale's conclusions regarding the adaptive specificity of interval and continuous training. They had untrained subjects exercise for 30 min, three days a week either as CT at 50 % of the lowest power eliciting VO2max, or as HIT, alternating 30 s at 100 % of power at VO2max and 30 s rest, such that total work was matched. Directly counter to McDougall and Sales conclusions, they found HIT to induce greater changes in VO2max, while CT was more effective in improving peripheral oxidative capacity and the lactate profile. At the beginning of the 1990s, the available data did not support a consensus re-garding the relative efficacy of CT vs HIT in inducing peripheral or central changes related to endurance performance.
Twenty years on, research continues regarding the extent to which VO2max, fractional utilization of VO2max, and work efficiency/economy are differentially impacted by CT and HIT in healthy, initially untrained individuals. Study results continue to be mixed, with some studies showing no differences in peripheral and central adaptations to CT vs HIT (Berger et al., 2006; Edge et al., 2006; Overend et al., 1992) and others greater improvements with HIT (Daussin et al., 2008a; Daussin et al., 2008b; Helgerud et al., 2007). When differences are seen, they lean in the direction that continuous work at sub-maximal intensities promotes greater peripheral adaptations and HIT promotes greater central adaptations (Helgerud et al., 2007).

Controlled studies directly comparing CT and HIT in already well-trained subjects were essentially absent from the literature until recently. However, a few single-group design studies involving endurance athletes did emerge in the 1990s. Acevedo and Goldfarb (1989) reported improved 10-km performance and treadmill time to exhaustion at the same pace up a 2 % grade in well-trained runners who increased their training intensity to 90-95 %VO2max on three of their weekly training days. In these already well-trained athletes, VO2max was unchanged after 8 wk of training intensification, but a right shift in the blood lactate profile was observed. In 1996 -97, South African sport scientists published the results of a single group intervention involving competitive cyclists (Lindsay et al., 1996; Weston et al., 1997). They trained regionally competitive cyclists who were specifically selected for study based on the criteria that they had not undertaken any interval training in the 3-4 months prior to study initiation. When 15 % of their normal training volume was replaced with 2 d.wk-1 interval training for 3-4 wk (six training sessions of six 5-min high intensity work bouts), 40-km time trial performance, peak sustained power output (PPO), and time to fatigue at 150 %PPO were all modestly improved. Physiological measurements such as VO2max and lactate profile changes were not reported. Stepto and colleagues then addressed the question of interval-training optimization in a similar sample of non-interval trained, regional cyclists (Stepto et al., 1999). They compared interval bouts ranging from 80 to 175 % of peak aerobic power (30 s to 8 min duration, 6-32 min total work). Group sizes were small (n=3-4), but the one group that consistently improved endurance test performance (~3 %) had used 4-min intervals at 85 % PPO. These controlled training intensification studies essentially confirmed what athletes and coaches seemed to have known for decades: some high-intensity interval training should be integrated into the training program for optimal performance gains. These studies also seemed to trigger a surge in interest in the role of HIT in athlete performance development that has further grown in recent years.

If doing some HIT (1-2 bouts per week) gives a performance boost, is more even better? Billat and colleagues explored this question in a group of middle distance runners initially training six sessions per week of CT only. They found that a training intensification to four CT sessions, one HIT session, and one lactate threshold (LT) session resulted in improved running speed at VO2max (but not VO2max itself) and running economy. Further intensifi-cation to two CT sessions, three HIT sessions and one LT session each week gave no additional adaptive benefit, but did increase subjective training stress and indicators of impending overtraining (Billat et al., 1999). In fact, training intensification over periods of 2-8 wk with frequent high-intensity bouts (3-4 sessions per week) is an effective means of temporarily compromising performance and inducing overreaching and possibly overtraining symptoms in athletes (Halson and Jeukendrup, 2004).  There is likely an appropriate balance between high- and low-intensity training in the day-to-day intensity distribution of the endurance athlete. These findings bring us to two related questions: how do really good endurance athletes actually train, and is there an optimal training intensity distribution for long-term performance development?

While arguments can be made that tradition, resistance to change and even superstition may negatively influence training methods of elite endurance athletes, sports history tells us that athletes are experimental and innovative. Observing the training methods of the world's best endurance athletes represent a more valid picture of “best practice” than we can develop from short-term laboratory studies of untrained or moderately trained subjects.  In today’s per-formance environment, where promising athletes have essentially unlimited time to train, all athletes train a lot and are highly motivated to optimize the training process. Training ideas that sound good but don't work in practice will fade away. Given these conditions, we argue that any consistent pattern of training intensity distribution emerging across sport disciplines is likely to be a result of a successful self-organization (evolution) towards a “population optimum.” High performance training is an individualized process for sure, but by population optimum, we mean an approach to training organization that results in most athletes staying healthy, making good progress, and performing well in their most important events. 

Exercise Intensity Zones

To describe intensity distribution in endurance athletes we have to first agree on an intensity scale. There are different intensity zone schemes to choose from. Most national sport governing bodies employ an intensity scale based on ranges of heart rate relative to maximum and associated typical blood lactate concentration range.  Research approaches vary, but a number of recent research studies have identified intensity zones based on ventilatory thresholds.  Here we will examine an example of each of these scales.
Table 1 shows the intensity scale used by all endurance sports in Norway. A valid criticism of such a scale is that it does not account for individual variation in the relationship between heart rate and blood lactate, or activity specific variation, such as the tendency for maximal steady state concentrations for blood lactate to be higher in activities activating less muscle mass (Beneke and von Duvillard, 1996; Beneke et al., 2001).

Several recent studies examining training intensity distribution (Esteve-Lanao et al., 2005; Seiler and Kjerland, 2006; Zapico et al., 2007) or performance intensity distribution in multi-day events (Lucia et al., 1999; Lucia et al., 2003) have employed the first and second venti-latory turnpoints to demarcate three intensity zones (Figure 1). The 5-zone scale in the table above and the 3-zone scale below are reasonably super-imposable in that intensity Zone 3 in the 5-zone system coincides well with Zone 2 in the 3-zone model. While defining five “aerobic” intensity zones is likely to be informative in training practice, it is important to note that they are not based on clearly defined physiological markers. Note also that 2-3 additional zones are typically defined to accommodate very high intensity sprint, anaerobic capacity, and strength training. These zones are typically defined as “anaerobic” Zones 6, 7, and 8.

Training Plans and Cellular Signaling

Athletes do not train at the same intensity or for the same duration every day. These va-riables are manipulated from day to day with the implicit goals to maximize physiological capacity over time, and stay healthy. Indeed, the former is quite dependent on the latter. Training frequency is also a critical variable manipulated by the athlete. This is particularly evident when comparing younger (often training 5-8 times per week) and more mature athletes at peak performance level (often training 10-13 sessions per week). Ramping up training frequency (as opposed to training longer durations each session) is responsible for most of the increase in yearly training hours observed as teenage athletes mature. Cycling might be an exception to this general rule, since cycling tradition dictates single daily sessions that often span 4-6 h among professionals. The ultimate targets of the training process are individual cells.  Changes in rates of DNA transcription, RNA translation, and ultimately, synthesis of specific proteins or protein constellations are induced via a cascade of intra-cellular signals induced by the training bout. Molecular exercise biologists are unraveling how manipulation of intensity and duration of exercise specifically modifies intracellular signaling and resulting protein synthetic rates at the cellular or whole muscle/myocardial level (Ahmetov and Rogozkin, 2009; Hoppeler et al., 2007; Joseph et al., 2006; Marcuello et al., 2005; McPhee et al., 2009; Yan, 2009). About 85 % of all publications involving gene expression and exercise are less than 10 y old, so we do not yet know enough to relate results of Western blots to the specific training of an athlete.

The signaling impact of a given exercise stress (intensity×duration) almost certainly decays with training (Hoppeler et al., 2007; Nordsborg et al., 2003).  For example, AMP activated protein kinase a2 (AMPK) activity jumps 9-fold above resting levels after 120 min of cycling at 66 %VO2max in untrained subjects.  However, after only 10 training sessions,  almost no increase in AMPK is seen after the same exercise bout (McConell et al., 2005). Manipulating exercise intensity and duration also impacts the systemic stress responses associated with training. Making this connection is further complicated by recent findings suggesting that muscle glycogen depletion can enhance and antioxidant supplementation can inhibit adaptations to training (Brigelius-Flohe, 2009; Go-mez-Cabrera et al., 2008; Hansen et al., 2005; Ristow et al., 2009; Yeo et al., 2008). It seems fair to conclude that while we suspect important differences exist, we are not yet able to relate specific training variables (e.g., 60 min vs 120 min at 70 %VO2max) to differences in cell signaling in a detailed way. Our view of the adaptive process remains limited to a larger scale. We can still identify some potential signaling factors that are associated with increased exercise intensity over a given duration (Table 2) or increased exercise duration at a given sub-maximal intensity (Table 3). Some of these are potentially adaptive and others maladaptive.  There is likely substantial overlapping of effects between extending exercise duration and increasing exercise intensity.

It may be a hard pill to swallow for some exercise physiologists, but athletes and coaches do not need to know much exercise physiology to train effectively. They do have to be sensitive to how training manipulations impact athlete health, daily training tolerance, and performance, and to make effective adjustments. Over time, a successful athlete will presumably organize their training in a way that maximizes adaptive benefit for a given perceived stress load. That is, we can assume that highly successful athletes integrate this feedback experience over time to maximize training benefit and minimize risk of negative outcomes such as  illness, injury, stagnation, or overtraining.

Training Intensities of Elite Endurance Athletes

Empirical descriptions of the actual distribution of training intensity in well-trained athletes have only recently emerged in the literature. The first time one of us (Seiler) gave a lecture on the topic was in 1999, and there were few hard data to present, but a fair share of anecdote and informed surmise. Carl Foster, Jack Daniels and Seiler published a book chapter the same year, “Perspectives on Correct Approaches to Training” that synthesized what we knew then (read chapter here via Google books). At that time, much of the discussion and research re-lated to the endurance training process focused on factors associated with overtraining (a training control disaster), with little focus on what characterized “successful training.” The empirical foundation for describing successful training intensity distribution is stronger 10 years later. 
Robinson et al. (1991) published what was according to the authors “the first attempt to quantify training intensity by use of objective, longitudinal training data.”  They studied training characteristics of 13 national class male, New Zealand runners with favorite distances ranging from 1500 m to the marathon. They used heart rate data collected during training and related it to results from standardized treadmill determinations of heart rate and running speed at 4-mM blood lactate concentration (misnamed anaerobic threshold at the time). Over a data collection period of 6-8 wk corresponding to the preparation phase, these athletes reported that only 4 % of all training sessions were interval workouts or races. For the remaining training sessions, average heart rate was only 77 % of their heart rate at 4-mM blood lactate. This heart rate translates to perhaps 60-65 % of VO2max. The authors concluded that while their physiological test results were similar to previous studies of well trained runners, the training intensity of these runners was perhaps lower than optimal, based on prevailing recommendations to perform most training at or around the lactate/anaerobic threshold.

In one of the first rigorous quantifications of training intensity distribution reported, Mujika et al. (1995) quantified the training intensity distribution of national and international class swimmers over an entire season based on five blood-lactate concentration zones. Despite specializing in 100-m and 200-m events requiring ~60 to 120 s, these athletes swam 77 % of the 1150 km completed during a season at an intensity below 2 mM lactate.  The intensity distribution of 400- and 1500-m swim specialists was not reported, but was likely even more weighted towards high-volume, low-intensity swimming.

Billat et al. (2001) performed physiological testing and collected data from training diaries of French and Portuguese marathoners. They classified training intensity in terms of three speeds: marathon, 10–km, and 3–km. During the 12 wk preceding an Olympic trials mara-thon, the athletes in this study ran 78 % of their training kilometers at below marathon speed, only 4 % at marathon race speed (likely to be near VT1), and 18 % at 10–km or 3–km speed (likely to be > VT2). This distribution of training intensity was identical in high-level (<2 h 16 min for males and <2 h 38 min for females) and top-class athletes (<2 h 11 min and <2 h 32 min). But the top-class athletes ran more total kilometers and proportionally more distance at or above 10–km speed.

Kenyan runners are often mythologized for the high intensity of their training. It is therefore interesting that with data from another study by Billat et al. (2003), we calculated that elite male and female Kenyan 5- and 10-km runners ran ~85 % of their weekly training kilometers below lactate-threshold speed.

The first study on runners to quantify training intensity using three intensity zones was that of Esteve-Lanao et al. (2005). They followed the training of eight regional- and national-class Spanish distance runners over a six-month period broken into eight, 3-wk mesocycles. Heart rate was measured for every training session to calculate the time spent in each heart-rate zone defined by treadmill testing. All told, they quantified over 1000 heart-rate recordings. On average these athletes ran 70 km.wk-1 during the six-month period, with 71 % of running time in Zone 1, 21 % in Zone 2, and 8 % in Zone 3. Mean training intensity was 64 %VO2max. They also reported that performance times in both long and short races were highly negatively correlated with total training time in Zone 1. They found no significant correlation between the amount of high-intensity training and race performance.

Rowers compete over a 2000-m distance requiring 6-7 min. Steinacker et al. (1998) reported that extensive endurance training (60- to 120-min sessions at <2 mM blood lactate) dominated the training volume of German, Danish, Dutch, and Norwegian elite rowers. Rowing at higher intensities was performed ~4-10 % of the total rowed time. The data also suggested that German rowers preparing for the world championships performed essentially no rowing at threshold intensity, but instead trained either below 2 mM blood lactate or at intensities in the 6-12 mM range.

Seiler collaborated with long time national team rower, coach, and talent development coordinator Åke Fiskerstrand to examine historical developments in training organization among international medal winning rowers from Norway (Fiskerstrand and Seiler, 2004). Using questionnaire data, athlete training diaries, and physiological testing records, they quantified training intensity distribution in 27 athletes who had won world or Olympic medals in the 1970s to 1990s.  They documented that over the three decades: training volume had increased about 20 % and become more dominated by low-intensity volume; the monthly hours of high-intensity training had dropped by one-third; very high intensity overspeed sprint training had declined dramatically in favor of longer interval training at 85-95 %VO2max; and the number of altitude camps attended by the athletes increased dramatically. Over this 30-y timeline, VO2max and rowing ergometer performance improved by ~10 % with no change in average height or body mass.  Most of the changes occurred between the 1970s and 1980s, coinciding with major adjustments in training intensity.

Most recently, Gullich et al. (2009) described the training of world class junior rowers from Germany during a 37-wk period culminating in national championships and qualification races for the world championships. These were very talented junior rowers, with 27 of 36 athletes winning medals in the junior world championships that followed the study period. Remarkably, 95 % of their rowing training was performed below 2 mM blood lactate, based on daily heart-rate monitoring and rowing ergometer threshold determinations performed at the beginning of the season.  This heavy dominance of extensive endurance training persisted across mesocycles. However, the relatively small volume of Zone 2 and Zone 3 work shifted towards higher intensities from the basic preparation phase to the competition phase. That is, the intensity distribution became more polarized. It is important to point out that time-in-zone allocation based on heart-rate cut-offs (the kind of analysis performed by software from heart watch manufacturers) underestimates the time spent performing high-intensity exercise and the impact of that work on the stress load of an exercise session (Seiler and Kjerland, 2006). Although the outcomes are biased by this problem, there was still a clear shift in the intensity distribution towards large volumes of low- to moderate-intensity training. We also evaluated retrospectively whether there were any differences in junior training characteristics between a subgroup of rowers who went on to win international medals as seniors within three years (14 of 36 athletes) and the remainder of the sample, who all continued competing at the national level. The only physical or training characteristic that distinguished the most successful rowers from their peers was a tendency to distribute their training in a more polarized fashion; that is, they performed significantly more rowing at very low aerobic intensities and at the highest intensities. We concluded that the greater polarization observed might have been due to better management of intensity (keeping hard training hard and easy training easy) among the most successful athletes. This polarization might protect against overstress.

Professional road cyclists are known for performing very high training volumes, up to 35,000 km.y-1. Zapico and colleagues (2007) used the 3-intensity zone model to track training characteristics from November to June in a group of elite Spanish under-23 riders. In addi-tion, physiological testing was performed at season start and at the end of the winter and spring mesocycles.  There was an increase in total training volume and a four-fold increase in Zone 3 training between the winter and spring mesocycles (Figure 2), but there was no further improvement in power at VT1, VT2 or at VO2max between the end of the winter and spring mesocycles (Figure 3), despite the training intensification. Anecdotally, this finding is not unusual, despite the fact that athletes feel fitter. It may be that VT2 and VO2max determi-nation using traditional methods can miss an important increase in the duration that can be maintained at the associated workloads.


Individual and team pursuit athletes in cycling compete over about 4 min. The event ap-peals to sport scientists because the performance situation is highly controlled and amenable to accurate modeling of the variables on both sides of the power balance equation. Schumacher and Mueller (2002) demonstrated the validity of this approach in predicting “gold medal standards” for physiological testing and power output in track cycling. However, less obvious from the title was the detailed description of the training program followed by the German cyclists monitored in the study, ultimately earning a gold medal in Sydney in world-record time. These athletes trained to maintain 670 W in the lead position and ~450 W when following using a training program dominated by continuous low to moderate intensity cycling on the roads (29-35,000 km.y-1). In the 200 d preceding the Olympics, the athletes performed “low-intensity, high-mileage” training at 50-60 % of VO2max on ~140 d. Stage races took up another ~40 d. Specific track cycling at near competition intensities was performed on less than 20 d between March and September.  In the ~110 d preceding the Olympic final, high-intensity interval track training was performed on only 6 d.

Units for Training Intensity

Cross country skiers have rather legendary status in exercise physiology circles for their aerobic capacity and endurance capacity in arms and legs. Seiler et al. (2006) studied 12 competitive to nationally elite male 17–y old skiers from a special skiing high school in the region. The mean VO2max for the group was 72 ml.kg-1min-1. They were guided by coaches with national team coaching experience and were trained along similar lines to the seniors, but with substantially lower volumes of training. Like Esteve-Lanao (2005) did with runners, we used heart-rate monitoring to quantify all endurance sessions and determined three aerobic intensity zones based on ventilatory turn points. We also recorded the athletes' rating of perceived exertion (RPE) using the methods of Foster et al. (1996; 1998; 2001a) for all training bouts. Finally, we collected blood lactate during one training week to relate heart rate and perceived exertion measurements to blood lactate values.

When comparing the three different intensity quantification methods, we addressed the issue of how training intensity is best quantified. Heart-rate monitoring is clearly appealing. We can save heart rate data, download entire workouts to analysis software, and quantify the time heart rate falls within specific pre-defined intensity zones. Using this “time-in-zone” approach, we found that 91 % of all training time was spent at a heart rate below VT1 intensity, ~6 % between VT1 and VT2, and only 2.6 % of all 15-s heart rate registrations were performed above VT2. We then quantified intensity by allocating each training session to one of the three zones based on the goal of the training and heart rate analysis. We called this the “session-goal approach”. For low-intensity continuous bouts, we used average heart rate for the entire bout. For bouts designed to be threshold training we averaged heart rate during the threshold-training periods. For high-intensity interval-training sessions, we based intensity on the average peak heart rate for each interval bout. Using this approach, intensity distribution derived from heart rate responses closely matched the session RPE (Figure 4), training diary distribution based on workout description, and blood-lactate measurements. The agreement between the session-by-session heart-rate quantification and session RPE-based assignment of intensity was 92 %. In their training diaries, athletes recorded 30-41 training sessions in 32 d and described 75% of their training bouts as low intensity continuous, 5% as threshold wor-kouts, and 17% as intervals.

We have also recently observed the same time-in-zone mismatch when quantifying intensity distribution in soccer training (unpublished data). It seems clear that typical software-based heart-rate analysis methods overestimate the amount of time spent training at low intensity and underestimate the time spent at very high workloads compared to athlete perception of effort. We think this mismatch is important, because the unit of stress perceived and responded to by the athlete is the stress of the entire training session or perhaps training day, not minutes in any given heart-rate zone. 

The 80-20 Rule for Intensity

In spite of differences in the methods for quantifying training intensity, all of the above studies show remarkable consistency in the training distribution pattern selected by successful endurance athletes.  About 80 % of training sessions are performed predominantly at inten-sities under the first ventilatory turn point, or a blood-lactate concentration <=2mM. The remaining ~20 % of sessions are distributed between training at or near the traditional lactate threshold (Zone 2), and training at intensities in the 90-100 %VO2max range, generally as interval training (Zone 3). An elite athlete training 10-12 times per week is therefore likely to dedicate 1-3 sessions weekly to training at intensities at or above the maximum lactate steady state. This rule of thumb coincides well with training studies demonstrating the efficacy of adding two interval sessions per week to a training program (Billat et al., 1999; Lindsay et al., 1996; Weston et al., 1997). Seiler and Kjerland (2006) have previously gone so far as say that the optimal intensity distribution approximated a “polarized distribution” with 75-80 % of training sessions in Zone 1, 5 % in Zone 2, and 15-20 % in Zone 3. However, there is considerable variation in how athletes competing in different sports and event durations distribute their training intensity within Zones 2 and 3. 

Why has this training pattern emerged?  We do not have sufficient research to answer this question, but we can make some reasonable guesses. One group of factors would involve the potential for this distribution to best stimulate the constellation of training adaptations required for maximal endurance performance. For example, large volumes of training at low intensity might be optimal for maximizing peripheral adaptations, while relatively small volumes of high intensity training fulfill the need for optimizing signaling for enhanced cardiac function and buffer capacity. Technically, lots of low intensity training may be effective by allowing lots of repetitions to engrain correct motor patterns. On the other side of the adaptation-stress equation is the stress induced by training. Athletes may migrate towards a strategy where longer duration is substituted for higher intensity to reduce the stress reactions associated with training and facilitate rapid recovery from frequent training (Seiler et al., 2007). Interestingly, Foster and colleagues reported a very similar intensity distribution by professional cyclists during the 3 wk and 80+ racing hours of the grand tours, such as the Tour de France. Perhaps this distribution represents a form of pacing that emerges over the months of elite training (Foster et al., 2005).

”Low intensity”–between 50 %VO2max and just under the first lactate turnpoint–represents a wide intensity range in endurance athletes. There is probably considerable individual varia-tion in where within this range athletes accumulate most of their low-intensity training volume. Technique considerations may play in: athletes have to train at a high enough intensity to allow correct technique. For example, Norwegian Olympic flat-water kayak gold medalist Eric Verås Larsen explained that the reason most of his Zone 1 continuous endurance training tended to be closer to his lactate threshold than normally observed was that he could not paddle with competition technique at lower intensities (Verås Larsen, personal communication).  These qualifiers aside, we conclude that a large fraction of the training within this zone is being performed at ~60-65 %VO2max, We note that this intensity is about the intensity associated with maximal fat utilization in trained subjects (Achten and Jeukendrup, 2003), but it is unclear why optimizing fat utilization would be important for athletes competing over 3-15 min.

Training Volume of Elite Athletes

Obviously, training intensity distribution and training volume together will determine the impact of training. Elite athletes train a lot, but to be more specific requires some common metric for comparing athletes in different sports. Runners and cyclists count kilometers, swimmers count thousands of meters, and rowers and cross-country skiers count training hours.  With a few reasonable assumptions, we can convert these numbers to annual training hours. This physiological metric is appropriate, since the body is sensitive to stress duration. 

Training volume increases with age in high-level performers, mostly through increased training frequency in sports like running and cross-country skiing, but also through increases in average session duration, particularly in cycling. A talented teenage cyclist training five days a week might accumulate 10-15 h.wk-1. A professional cyclist from Italy performing a 1000-km training week will likely be on the bike between 25 and 30 h.

Cycling 30-35,000 kilometers a year at, say, ~35 km.h-1 with occasional sessions of strength training, will add up to ~1000 h.y-1.  An elite male marathoner would likely never run more than about 15 hours in a week. At an average running speed of 15 km.h-1, that would be at most 225 km.  Former world record holder in the 5 km, 10 km, and marathon, Ingrid Kristiansen trained 550 h.y-1 when she was running (Espen Tønnessen, unpublished data). At a younger age, when she competed in the Olympics for Norway as a cross country skier, she actually trained 150 more h.y-1. Bente Skari, one of the most successful female cross country skiers ever, recorded peak annual training loads of 800 h.y-1 (Espen Tønnessen, unpublished data). Annual training volume measured in hours is around 1000 among world class rowers. For example, Olaf Tufte recorded 1100 training hours in 2004, when he took his first gold medal in the single scull event (Aasen, 2008). His monthly training volume for that year is shown in Figure 5. Of these hours, about 92 % were endurance training, with the remainder being primarily strength training. An Olympic champion swimmer like Michael Phelps may record even higher annual training volumes, perhaps as much as 1300 h (a reasonable guess based on training of other swimming medalists).

The Kenyan marathoner, Italian cyclist, Norwegian rower and American swimmer are all at the top of their sport, but when we measure their training volume in hours, they seem quite different, with international success being achieved with a two-fold or larger range in hours per year (Figure 6). What can explain this difference?  One explanation is that the muscle, tendon, and joint loading stress of the different movements vary dramatically. Running imposes severe ballistic loading stress that is not present in cycling or swimming.

There seems to be a strong inverse relationship between tolerated training volume and degree of eccentric or ballistic stress of the sport. Swimming, rowing, and cross-country skiing are all highly technical events with movement patterns that do not draw on the genetically pre-programmed motor pathways of running.  Thus high volumes of training may be as important for technical mastery as for physiological adaptation in these disciplines. Rowers and speed skaters do less movement-specific training than most other athletes, but they accumulate substantial additional hours of strength training and other forms of endurance training.

Intensified-Training Studies

Is the “80-20” training intensity distribution observed for successful athletes really optimal, or would a redistribution of training intensity towards more threshold and high intensity interval training and less long slow distance training stimulate better gains and higher perfor-mance? Proponents of large volumes of interval training might invoke the famous pareto principle and propose that in keeping with this “rule” of effects vs causes, these athletes are achieving 80 % of their adaptive gains with 20 % of their training and wasting valuable training energy. In the last 10 y, several studies have been published addressing this question.

Evertsen et al. (1997; 1999; 2001) published the first of three papers from a study involving training intensification in 20 well-trained junior cross-country skiers competing at the national or international level. All of the subjects had trained and competed regularly for 4-5 years. In the two months before study initiation, 84 % of training was carried out at 60-70 %VO2max, with the remainder at 80-90 %VO2max.  They were then randomized to a moderate-intensity (MOD) or a high-intensity training group (HIGH). MOD maintained essentially the same training-intensity distribution they had used previously, but training volume was increased from 10 to 16 h.wk-1. HIGH reversed their baseline intensity distribution so that 83 % of training time was performed at 80-90 %VO2max, with only 17 % performed as low-intensity training.  This group trained 12 h.wk-1. The training intervention lasted five months. Intensity control was achieved using heart-rate monitoring and blood-lactate sampling.

Despite 60 % more training volume in MOD and perhaps 400 % more training at lactate threshold or above in HIGH, physiological and performance changes were modest in both groups of already well-trained athletes. Findings from the three papers are summarized in Table 4.

Gaskill et al. (1999) reported the results of a 2-y project involving 14 cross-country skiers training within the same club who were willing to have their training monitored and manipu-lated. The design was interesting and practically relevant. During the first year, athletes all trained similarly, averaging 660 training hours with 16 % at lactate threshold or higher (nominal distribution of sessions). Physiological test results and race performances during the first year were used to identify seven athletes who responded well to the training and seven who showed poor VO2max and lactate-threshold progression, and race results. In the second year, the positive responders continued using their established training program. The non-responders performed a markedly intensified training program with a slight reduction in training hours. The non-responders from Year 1 showed significant improvements with the intensified program in Year 2 (VO2max, lactate threshold, race points). The positive responders from Year 1 showed a similar development in Year 2 as in Year 1.

It is interesting in this context to point out that many elite athletes now extend the  peri-odization of their training to a 4-y Olympic cycle. The first year after an Olympics is a “recovery season”, followed by a building season, then a season of very high training volume, culminating with the Olympic season, where training volume is reduced and competition specificity is emphasized more.  Variation in the pattern of training may be important for maximal development, but these large scale rhythms of training have not been studied.

Esteve-Lanao et al. (2007) randomized 12 sub-elite distance runners to one of two training groups (Z1 and Z2) that were carefully monitored for five months. They based their training intensity distribution on the 3-zone model described earlier and determined from treadmill testing. Based on time-in-zone heart-rate monitoring, Z1 performed 81, 12, and 8 % of training in Zones 1, 2, and 3 respectively. Z2 performed more threshold training, with 67, 25, and 8 % of training performed in the three respective zones. That is, Group Z2 performed twice as much training at or near the lactate threshold. In a personal communication, the authors reported that in pilot efforts, they were unable to achieve a substantial increase in the total time spent in Zone 3, as it was too hard for the athletes. Total training load was matched between the groups. Improvement in a cross-country time-trial performed before and after the five-month period revealed that the group that had performed more Zone 1 training showed significantly greater race time improvement (-157 ± 13 vs  122 ± 7 s).

Most recently, Ingham et al. (2008) were able to randomize 18 experienced national standard male rowers from the UK into one of two training groups that were initially equiva-lent based on performance and physiological testing. All the rowers had completed a 25-d post-season training-free period just prior to baseline testing. One group performed “100 %” of all training at intensities below that eliciting 75 %VO2max (LOW). The other group per-formed 70 % training at the same low intensities as well as 30 % of training at an intensity 50 % of the way between power at lactate threshold and power at VO2max (MIX). In practice, MIX performed high intensity training on 3 d.wk-1. All training was performed on a rowing ergometer over the 12 wk. The two groups performed virtually identical volumes of training (~1140 km on the ergometer), with ±10 % individual variation allowed to accommodate for variation in athlete standard. Results of the study are summarized in Table 5.

Sixteen of 18 subjects set new personal bests for the 2000-m ergometer test at the end of the study. The authors concluded that LOW and MIX training had similar positive effects on performance and maximal oxygen consumption. LOW training appeared to induce a greater right-shift in the blood-lactate profile during sub-maximal exercise, which did not translate to a significantly greater gain in performance. If MIX training enhanced or preserved anaerobic capacity more than LOW, this may have compensated for the observed differences in blood-lactate profile.

Intensity for Recreational Athletes

Elite endurance athletes train 10-12 sessions and 15-30h each week.  Is the pattern of 80 % below and 20 % above lactate threshold appropriate for recreational athletes training 4-5 times and 6-10 hours per week?  There are almost no published data addressing this question. Recently Esteve-Lanao (personal communication) completed an interesting study on recreational runners comparing a program that was designed to reproduce the polarized training of successful endurance athletes and compare it with a program built around much more threshold training in keeping with the ACSM exercise guidelines.  The intended intensity distribution for the two groups was: Polarized 77-3-20 % and ACSM 46-35-19 % for Zones 1, 2, and 3. However, heart-rate monitoring revealed that the actual distribution was: Polarized 65-21-14 % and ACSM 31-56-13 %.

Comparing the intended and achieved distributions highlights a typical training error com-mitted by recreational athletes.  We can call it falling into a training intensity “black hole.”  It is hard to keep recreational people training 45-60 min a day 3-5 days a week from accumulating a lot of training time at their lactate threshold. Training intended to be longer and slower becomes too fast and shorter in duration, and interval training fails to reach the desired intensity. The result is that most training sessions end up being performed at the same threshold intensity. Foster et al. (2001b) also found that athletes tend to run harder on easy days and easier on hard days, compared to coaches' training plans.  Esteve Lanao did succeed in getting two groups to distribute intensity very differently. The group that trained more polarized, with more training time at lower intensity, improved their 10-km performance significantly more at 7 and 11 wk. So, recreational athletes could also benefit from keeping low- and high-intensity sessions at the intended intensity.

Interval training can be performed effectively with numerous combinations of work duration, rest duration, and intensity. We have found that when subjects self-select running speed based on a standard prescription, 4-min work duration and 2-min recovery duration combine to give the highest physiological response and maintained speed (Seiler and Sjursen, 2004; Seiler and Hetlelid, 2005). However, perceptual and physiological response differences across the typical work and recovery spectrum are fairly small and performance enhancement differences are unclear at best. Some researchers have proposed that specific interval regimes (e.g., 4 × 4 min at 95 %VO2max) may be superior for achieving adaptive gains (Helgerud et al., 2007; Wisloff et al., 2007), but other research studies and our observations of athlete practice suggest that a variety of combinations of work and rest duration are effective for long-term development. Table 6 shows typical combinations of intensity and effective duration used by elite endurance athletes for workouts in the different aerobic training zones described earlier. All the examples are taken from the training diaries of elite performers. The effective durations for the different zones are utilized by highly trained athletes. For those without the same training base, similar workouts would be performed but with less total effec-tive duration.

Case Studies of Training Manipulation

Case studies are the weakest form of scientific evidence. But, for coaches and high performance athlete support teams, each elite athlete is a case study.  So, we present here two case studies that we think are instructive in demonstrating the potential physiological impact of successfully manipulating training  volume and intensity distribution variables at the individual level. Both cases involve Norwegian athletes who were followed closely by one of the authors (Tønnessen).  Both would be considered already highly trained prior to the training reorganization.

Case 1–From Soccer Pro to Elite Cyclist

Knut Anders Fostervold was a professional soccer player in the Norwegian elite league from 1994 to 2002.  A knee injury ended his soccer career at age 30 and he decided to switch to cycling.  Knut had very high natural endurance capacity and had run 5 km in 17:24 at age 12.  After 15 y of soccer training at the elite level, he adopted a highly intensive training regime for cycling that was focused on training just under or at his lactate threshold and near VO2max; for example, 2-3 weekly training sessions of 4-5 × 4 min at 95 %VO2max.  Weekly training volume did not exceed 10 h.

After 2.5 years of this high-intensity, low-volume training, Fostervold initiated cooperation with the Norwegian Olympic Center and his training program was radically reorganized.  Weekly training volume was doubled from 8-10 h to 18-20.  Training volume in Zone 2 was reduced dramatically and replaced with a larger volume of training in Zone 1.  Training in Zone 5 was replaced with Zones 3 and 4, such that total training volume at intensities at or above lactate threshold was roughly doubled without overstressing the athlete. The typical effective duration of interval sessions increased from ~20 min to ~ 60 min (for example 8 × 8 min at 85-90 %HRmax with 2-min recoveries).  The intensity zones were initially based on heart rate but later adjusted relative to lactate and power output measurements made in the field.  Table 7 shows the training intensity distribution and volume loading for the athlete during the season before and after the change in training to a high-volume program. Table 8 shows the outcome.





The athlete responded well to the training load amplification and reorganization.  During the 2005 season, after 2.5 y performing a low-volume, high-intensity program, a season training with higher volume and lower average intensity resulted in marked physiological and performance improvement. Although the athlete’s training de-emphasized both training near his lactate threshold intensity and training at near VO2max, both of these physiological anchors improved markedly.

Fostervold won a bronze medal in the Norwegian national time-trial championships, seconds behind former world under-23 time trial champions and Tour de France stage win-ners Thor Hushovd and Kurt Asle Arvesen.  His failure to perform even better, given his exceptionally high VO2max, was attributed to poorer cycling efficiency and aerodynamics and a lower fractional utilization at lactate threshold compared to the best professionals with many years of specific training. In 2006 and 2007 he represented Norway in the world cham-pionship time trial. His absolute VO2max in 2005 was equal to the highest ever measured in a Norwegian athlete. 

Case 2–From Modern Pentathlete to Runner

Prior to 2003, Øystein Sylta was a military pentathlete (European champion in 2003).  In the Fall of 2003 he decided to focus on distance running and is now nationally competitive, with personal bests for 3000-m steeplechase, 5000-m, and 10000-m of 8:31, 14:04 and 29:12 respectively.  His case is interesting due to the dramatic change in training volume and intensity distribution he undertook from 2003 to 2004 and associated changes in physiolog-ical test results.

Prior to 2003, Sylta trained using a high-intensity, low-volume training structure.  When he agreed to try a new approach, emphasis was placed on increasing training volume with low-intensity sessions and changing his interval training.  He either trained long slow distance or long intense interval sessions. However, his total training distance at intensities above his lactate threshold was reduced and redistributed.  From 2002/2003 to 2003/2004 he increased his total running distance from 3,500 to 5,900 km.  He also reduced his strength training from 100 annual hours to 50.  Table 9 shows a typical hard training week in the Fall of 2003 and Fall of 2004, and Table 10 summarizes the running specific training.  His physiological adaption to the first year of restructured training is documented in Table 11.

From 2003 to 2009, Sylta’s threshold running speed increased from 16.9 to 19.5 km.h-1. From 2002 to 2009,  his 10-km time improved from 31:44 to 29:12, and 3000-m steeplechase from 9:11 to 8:31.  In the first five months of training reorganization, his 3000-m steeple result improved by 30 s.




Both these case studies demonstrate that even in already well trained athletes, meaningful improvements in physiological test results and performance may occur with appropriate training intensity and volume manipulation.  Both athletes showed clear improvements in physiological testing despite reductions in HIT training.  Both seemed to respond positively to an increase in total training volume and specifically, more low-intensity volume.

Valid Comparisons of Training Interventions

Matching training programs based on total work or oxygen consumption seems sensible in a laboratory.  As we noted earlier, this has been the preferred method of matching when com-paring the effects of continuous and interval training in controlled studies. Unfortunately, it is not realistic from the view of athletes pursuing maximal performance. They do not compare training sessions or adjust training time to intensity in this manner. A key issue here is the non-linear impact of exercise intensity on the manageable accumulated duration of intermittent exercise. We have exemplified this in Table 12 by comparing some typical training sessions from the training of elite athletes.

The point we want to make is that the athlete’s perception of the stress of performing 4 × 15 min at 85 %VO2max is about the same as that of performing 6 × 4 min at 95 %VO2max, even though total work performed is very different. To answer a question like, “is near VO2max interval training more effective for achieving performance gains in athletes than training at the maximal lactate steady state?”, the matching of training bouts has to be realistic from the perspective of perceived stress and how athletes train. Future studies of training intensity effects on adaptation and performance should take this issue of ecological validity into account.


Optimization of training methods is an area of great interest for scientists, athletes, and fitness enthusiasts. One challenge for sport scientists is to translate short-term training intervention study results to long-term performance development and fitness training organi-zation. Currently, there is great interest in high-intensity, short-duration interval training programs. However, careful evaluation of both available research and the training methods of successful endurance athletes suggests that we should be cautious not to over-prescribe high-intensity interval training or exhort the advantages of intensity over duration.
Here are some conclusions that seem warranted by the available data and experience from observations of elite performers:

• There is reasonable evidence that an ~80:20 ratio of low to high intensity training (HIT) gives excellent long-term results among endurance athletes training daily.
• Low intensity (typically below 2 mM blood lactate), longer duration training is effective in stimulating physiological adaptations and should not be viewed as wasted training time.
• Over a broad range, increases in total training volume correlate well with improvements in physiological variables and performance.

• HIT should be a part of the training program of all exercisers and endurance athletes. However, about two training sessions per week using this modality seems to be sufficient for achieving performance gains without inducing excessive stress.
• The effects of HIT on physiology and performance are fairly rapid, but rapid plateau effects are seen as well. To avoid premature stagnation and ensure long-term development, training volume should increase systematically as well.
• When already well-trained athletes markedly intensify training with more HIT over 12 to ~45 wk, the impact is equivocal.
• In athletes with an established endurance base and tolerance for relatively high training loads, intensification of training may yield small performance gains at acceptable risk.
• An established endurance base built from reasonably high volumes of training may be an important precondition for tolerating and responding well to a substantial increase in training intensity over the short term.
• Elite athletes achieve periodization of training with reductions in total volume, and modest increases in volume of training above the lactate threshold. An overall polarization of training intensity characterizes the transition from preparation to competition mesocycles. The basic intensity distribution remains similar throughout the year.


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The Runners-Cycle (With a view to application to rowing periodization)

By: Philip Tam
From: The Runners-Cycle
Site Link: The North Face 100
PDF Link: The Runners-Cycle

High Performance Rowing: Editors Note:

Rowing requires a very similar view to building and periodizing a training program. Philip Tam provides an interesting insite into training in his article: The Runners-Cycle.

The Runners Cycle

“Faster, Higher, Stronger”. The 3 comparatives that make up the Olympic Motto, and which are also commonly associated with the desires of an athlete. As runners, we train so as to increase the ability to sustain the fastest speed for a given distance or amount of time. When not done correctly, we may be putting ourselves at risk of overuse injuries.

The approach towards structuring a running programme safely and optimally is the understanding of the 6 principles of training combined with the knowledge of periodization. The latter, sadly, is often overlooked. Periodization is the alternation of training load with recovery in a running programme. Its greatest purpose is really to minimize long-term physiological and psychological fatigue and hence preventing the onset of overtraining.

What happens when you train?

The above diagram is commonly known among exercise physiologists as the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). This model depicts the process that the runner’s body actually goes through when he / she trains. The first phase or the Alarm reaction phase refers to the introduction of a training programme or when you begin to increase your mileage above the usual volume. The body enters a state of “shock” and this is reflected through the soreness, stiffness and tiredness which the individual experiences. It will struggle to return to its original level through the counter-shock state.

With time, the human body begins to adapt and enters the second phase or the Resistance phase. Through a good balance of training and recovery, the runner’s body would be able to perform at a higher level. Should the runner continue to be stressed with a greater training volume without adequate recovery, the body will enter the final or Exhaustion phase. Prolonged dwelling in this phase would put the runner at risk of reaching the state of overtraining.

The 6 principles of training (a brief overview)

1) Individuality: No two runners will react to a training program in the same manner due to our different
genetics. Hence, individualize your training whenever possible.

2) Progressive overloading: To minimize overuse injuries, gradually and slowly increase your running distance. While the rule of thumb is not to increase more than 10% of your weekly mileage, you should maintain or reduce your training volume should you begin to feel fatigue.

3) Recovery: Improvement comes from a combination of stress and recovery. It is important to have off days from running to rest.

4) Variety: Cross-training (e.g. swimming, gym-work etc) is valuable in minimizing injuries and helping you avoid mental staleness.

5) Specificity: Runners run, bikers cycle, swimmers swim, tri-athletes do everything. If you want improvements in your running, you do not cross-train more than you run.

6) Reversibility: Aerobic fitness would be reduced when you stop training. Maintain your fitness by decreasing the frequency and duration of runs yet keeping or even increasing intensity. slightly higher.

Understanding the 3 cycles

The components that make up periodization are training cycles, usually 3 different types in the following
ascending order:
a) Micro-cycles = the smallest training cycles which constitute the Meso-cycle; usually 1 week in duration.
b) Meso-cycles = shorter blocks which make up the macro-cycles; usually 4 – 8 weeks in duration.
c) Macro-cycles = the longest blocks which usually last from 3 months to a whole year.

The Micro-cycle


(X-axis = days of a week, Y-axis = training intensity; H is high, M is moderate, L is low, R is rest).

The micro-cycle normally refers to a weekly running programme (Monday to Sunday). When designing a microcycle, the exercise physiologist has to consider the training purpose and current fitness level of the runner. The example above is known as a “low-load” cycle which is commonly used by most recreational runners.

The Meso-Cycle:

The above is a common example of a meso-cycle. Making up of 4 micro-cycles (1 week per cycle), training volume is increased each week until the 4th week where a reduction occurs. This is to allow adequate recovery from any residue fatigue accumulated through the past 3 weeks of training. Such is known as the 3:1 strategy; 3 weeks of gradual mileage loading accompanied by 1 week of unloading.

The Macro-cycle:

(Number = month)

In the management of races of prolonged duration (e.g. marathon, ultra-marathon etc), a macro-cycle tends to consist of at least 6 meso-cycle (1 month each). As seen above, the 3:1 micro-cycle strategy is commonly employed with the last meso-cycle reserved for tapering (for more details, refer to the article “Tapering and peaking for the final victory”).

Summary points for optimal periodization

1) Learn to employ the 6 principles of training in your programme.
2) A good running programme involves periodization, familiarize yourself with the cycles.
3) Have a mixture of loading and unloading micro-cycles, the 3:1 strategy is a good start.
4) Ensure your macro-cycle comprises of more meso-cycles should the event you are undertaking requires highmileage training (marathon to an ultra-marathon).


Is Variation In Training Overrated?

By: Matt Fitzgerald.

Updated: Aug 27th 2009 2:20 PM UTC by Matt Fitzgerald

Much is made of the virtue of variation in endurance sports training. Heck, I've made much of it myself. Some coaches and experts go so far as to say that one should never do the same workout twice in a training cycle. But lately I've come to believe that too much is made of the virtue of variation in endurance sports training, and not enough of the complementary virtue of repetition.

There are a lot of great athletes out there who don't buy into the whole variation thing. Among them is Beijing Olympic Women's Marathon gold medalist Constantina Dita-Tomescu, about whose training the following was written in a Running Times article:

    Constantina Tomescu-Dita's marathon training is based on a one-week block of workouts that has remained constant for years, with only slight variations for the season and distance from a goal race. not only are the distances and intensity of each day consistent, but also the location, even the course...

There can be such a thing as too much repetition, of course. But everyone knows this. During an eight-year meathead phase of my early adult life, when I lifted weights five or six hours a week with no goal other than getting girls, I did the same workouts over and over with no variation and, predictably enough, after an initial adaptation period my body stopped making any progress. The same thing would happen in an endurance training program with no variation. But I believe that many endurance athletes could benefit from including more repetition in their training.

The benefit of repeating certain key workouts throughout the training process is that it allows for apples-to-apples comparisons of performance and thus encourages the athlete to compete against himself, trying to best his previous benchmark each time he repeats a given session. You don't necessarily have to become fitter and fitter for this process to work. You just have to try harder and harder. Indeed, as some of the recent science on the brain's regulation of exercise performance suggests, one of the most important outcomes of an effecive training program is the ability to do more with the same resources. Engaging in a training program in which certain bread-and-butter key workouts are frequently repeated is a great way to enhance this underappreciated outcome of training.

Early in a training cycle, when you perform your first session of your bread-and-butter workouts, you shouldn't kill yourself. Just go hard but controlled to establish a benchmark. The next time you perform the same session, don't try to demolish that standard; just shave it down a tick or two by trying a little harder. Continue in this manner until, in the peak period of your training, you really have to turn yourself inside out to improve your key workout times.

It's not all about trying harder, of course. Training should make you fitter too. But the very process I just described will itself make you fitter and give you the resources to progressively improve your key workout performances. Pushing hard but not too hard in your early key sessions will stimulate physiological adaptations that enable you to reach higher the next time.

You should also manipulate the context in which your go-to workouts occur to stimulate fitness gains that you can then exploit in these workouts. As the training cycle unfolds, there should be an overall gradual increase in your training load that is punctuated by short recovery periods. You will make the biggest improvements in your key workout performances when you perform them within recovery periods.

So what exactly are the bread-and-butter key workouts that you might want to consider doing repeatedly in your training? There is no single right answer to this question. However, generally speaking these workouts should collectively test and provide an opportunity to assess the various major components of your overall fitness: strength, speed, aerobic capacity, lactate threshold and endurance. Examples of workouts that might be used to test each of these components in running are as follow:

Strength: 10 x 2-minute hill intervals with 3-minute jog recoveries

Speed: 10 x 300m with 400m jog recoveries

Aerobic capacity: 5 x 1K with 400m jog recoveries

Lactate threshold: 10K relaxed time trial

Endurance: 20-30K relaxed time trial

Each of these sessions could be performed as often as once every other week. The variety would come from other key sessions sprinkled into the mix and from fluctuations in overall training volume.

It is rightly said that you can't improve by doing the same workouts over and over. But when you try progressively harder in each iteration of a key workout and manipulate the context in which these sessions are performed, you're really not doing the same workouts over and over.


Periodization: Latest Studies and Practical Applications

By: Christopher C. Frankel and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
From: UDM Aticles.


Periodization is an organized approach to training that involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period of time. The roots of periodization come from Hans Selye’s model, known as the General Adaptation Syndrome, which has been used by the athletic community since the late 1950s (Fleck, 1999). Selye identified a source of biological stress referred to as eustress, which denotes beneficial muscular strength and growth, and a distress state, which is stress that can lead to tissue damage, disease, and death. Periodization is most widely used in resistance program design to avoid over-training and to systematically alternate high loads of training with decreased loading phases to improve components of muscular fitness (e.g. strength, strength-speed, and strength-endurance). This system of training is typically divided up into three types of cycles: microcycle, mesocycle, and macrocycle. The microcycle is generally up to 7 days. The mesocycle may be anywhere from 2 weeks to a few months and can further be classified into preparation, competition, peaking, and transition phases. The macrocycle refers to the overall training period, usually representing a year. This article will discuss the efficacy of periodization and present some of the current issues from recent research.

Theory and Research

The research has focused primarily on the variation in training volume (total repetitions per workout or total repetitions x mass lifted) and exercise intensity (%1RM). While the underlying mechanisms that explain the differences between periodized and non-periodized programs remains to be fully investigated and explained (Fleck 1999), the effects on neural adaptations and the avoidance of overtraining are suggested as possible factors (Fleck 1999, Stone 1999 a & b).

Most comparative studies have demonstrated the superiority of periodized over non-periodized programs in terms of greater changes in strength, body composition, and motor performance (Fleck 1999).

In these investigations, programs were evaluated based on changes in strength and/or power-related measures such as 1 RM bench, 1 RM squat,vertical jump power and height, and cycling sprint performance. The studies ranged in duration from seven to 24 weeks. When summarized, these studies demonstrate that even over a relatively short period of time (the length of a mesocycle), significantly greater improvements can be realized using systematic variation in training volume and intensity compared to linear programs using constant sets and reps (i.e., 3 sets of 10 repetitions).
In two separate studies, groups using a one-set-to-failure program were compared to other groups using periodized training principals.

Both methods resulted in improvements in strength and power measures over the training period. However, the periodized groups demonstrated significantly greater increases than did subjects in the single set groups (Fleck 1999). An obvious concern in the interpretation of these results is the greater amount of training volume (reps, sets, and total mass lifted) in the periodized programs, which may account for the differences in performance gains between the groups. However, these findings may furnish evidence for the use of periodized, multiple set, programs over single set programs, which continues to be an ongoing debate among fitness professionals.

To address the influence of overall training volume, multiple set linear programs (constant reps and sets) have been compared to periodized programs (decreased volume-increased intensity with time). In the majority of cases, periodization based programs still provided significantly greater improvements in performance measures (Fleck 1999, Stone 1999a, Stone 1999b). Therefore, there is evidence to support the idea that appropriate manipulation of volume and intensity, over and above just increases in total training volume alone, is an important factor in optimizing strength training effects.

Periodization, Variation, Periodization Models

Periodization, as it has been defined, refers to specific methods of manipulating training variables to provide variation in volume and intensity. While variation itself may play an important role in optimizing strength-related improvements, not all programs that include a variation component will provide similar results (Stone 1999a). In other words, random variations in training variables may not produce the desired results, lending credence to the adage "Fail to plan—plan to fail."

Traditional models of periodization describes a progression from high volume and low-intensity work towards decreasing volume and increasing intensity during the different cycles. Other periodization programs have been developed and have potential advantages over non-periodized approaches. A reduction in volume and an increase in intensity in steps during the training cycle is referred to as stepwise periodization. In the overreaching periodization model there is periodic short term (1-2 week) increase in volume or intensity followed by a return to normal training (Stone 1999b). During undulating periodization, training volume and intensity are increased and decreased on a regular basis, but not in the general pattern of always increasing intensity and decreasing volume as the training period progresses (Fleck 1999).

Practical Considerations

Coaches and athletes have long been aware of the benefit of changing the training stimulus at regular, or even irregular intervals. Tapering training volume prior to competition, planned periods of active rest, and interspersing power and strength workouts to challenge different energy systems are all attempts to exploit the General Adaptation Syndrome. In the "black box" model of performance are qualitative variables such as motivation, adherence, and compliance which not be underestimated as determining factors in the success of any program. For instance, Stone et al. (1999b) describe that the attrition and noncompliance rate of their constant reps group was attributable to the monotony and boredom of this type of training. There may be psychological factors that additionally influence the quality and quantity of work performed during training.While the body of research pertaining to periodization focuses on the effect of varying volume and exercise intensity, it should be clear that these are not the only variables that determine training adaptations.

Other influential components of any program include

  1. choice of exercises
  2. order of exercises
  3. resistance or load
  4. number of sets per exercise
  5. number of exercises per muscle group
  6. repetition range
  7. type of contraction
  8. speed of movement
  9. rest periods between sets
  10. rest periods between training sessions, and
  11. nutritional status.

Further research remains to be conducted and evaluated. However, for more advanced resistance training designs, the evidence appears to strongly suggest utilizing a periodized approach as compared to constant repetition/set type programs.


Linear: Volume (reps x sets) remains constant during training period. Intensity increases with load progression.

Random Variation: Volume and/or intensity change randomly, with no consideration other than to introduce variation into the program.

Traditional: Volume and intensity are systematically manipulated. Training cycle begins with a high-volume, low-intensity profile, then progresses to low volume, high intensity over time.

Step wise: Like the traditional model, intensity increases and volume decreases during the training period. Volume is decreased during the training period. Volume is decreased in a stepwise fashion: Repetitions are reduced from eight to five, five to three, and so forth, at specific time intervals.

Undulating: Training volume and intensity increase and decrease on a regular basis: but they do not follow the traditional pattern of increasing intensity and decreasing volume as the mesocycle progresses (Fleck 1999).

Overreaching: Volume or intensity is increased for a short period of time (one to two weeks), followed by a return to "normal" training. This method is use primarily with advanced strength trained athletes.

Sample Periodization Model by Muscle Fiber Type

Articles Reviewed:

Fleck, S. J. (1999). Periodized strength training: A critical review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 13, 82-89.

Stone, M. H., O’Bryant, H. S., Schilling, B. K., Johnson, R. L., Pierce, K.C., Haff, G. G., and Stone, M. (1999). Periodization: Effects of manipulating volume and intensity. Part 2. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 21(3), 54-60.

Stone, M. H., O’Bryant, H. S., Schilling, B. K., Johnson, R. L., Pierce, K.C., Haff, G. G., and Stone, M. (1999). Periodization: Effects of manipulating volume and intensity. Part 1. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 21(3), 54-60.