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“[A study suggests] in a nutshell that the ‘Goldilocks’ approach to training (not too hard, not too easy) is detrimental for optimum performance, resulting in a no man’s land of not much progress,” Joe Beers, Peak Performance Online

Barbell Aerobics Strategy Works

Train Low, Train High Approach Works for Rowers

How Much Training Is Too Much?

Winett and Smith Square Off--Pro & Con (See below)

I wrote in Challenge Yourself that I do a combination of high-intensity intervals and low-intensity walking. By completely eliminating the moderate-intensity aerobics that most people do, I thought I was out on a limb by myself. I called it “Barbell Aerobics,” referring to the shape of a barbell: easy training on one end, hard training on the other—and nothing in between. It seems that I have company.

Dr. Wade Smith, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine (and an avid rower), called my attention to a study of the training methods of elite rowers, reported in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance (2009). The train low, train high approach is looking better and better.

Researchers in Germany looked at the training and competition data of elite rowers with national, world, and Olympic performance capabilities. Over a 37-week period, their training was monitored for heart rate, lactate threshold points, and performance outcomes. Training time was put into three zones: Zone 1 was heart rate between 60-75% of maximum; Z2 was 80-85% HR max; and Z3 was above the threshold to induce lactate accumulation. Simply put, the zones were low-, moderate-, and high-intensity.

Zone one is barely working, Z2 is definitely working, and in Z3 you are working so hard that you hope it will end soon. For elite rowers, Z3 typically involves from 40 seconds to 8 minutes of maximum effort.

For our purposes, the most important—and surprising—finding was that internationally successful junior rowers performed 94.5% of all specific rowing training in zone 1, only 2% in zone 2, and 3.1% in zone 3. They also spent a significant amount of time doing resistance training. 

With an average of 12-14 hours of weekly training time, they logged six hours of rowing in zone 1, two to three hours of resistance training, two hours doing cross training, and one hour doing warm-up and flexibility work. Importantly, the athletes spent only 30 minutes a week in zone 3 doing very high intensity rowing.

It should be pointed out that few endurance athletes compete in events as short as rowers. (Anything over 40 seconds is considered endurance.) Most rowers compete at distances from 500 to 2000 meters, events generally lasting from 70 seconds to eight minutes. By contrast, most endurance athletes compete in events lasting from 15 to 20 minutes. Others compete in marathons and ultra-endurance events such as the Ironman where finishing times are 9 to 17 hours. (We’ll discuss the possible downside of such long events below.)

Back to the three training zones, here’s a thought-provoking quote from respected cycling journalist and coach Fred Matheny which appeared in Bicycling magazine (Oct, 1995): “No man’s land workouts [Z2] provide a kinesthetic sense of working hard but expose the rider to too much stress per unit gain. Instead, most base training should be guilt-producingly easy, and the top end, high-intensity training should be very mentally hard, not sort of hard.”

I know nothing about Coach Matheny, but what he says rings true.

I’ve heard endurance athletes talk about “building a base,” but I’ve never consciously tried to do it myself. As I understand it, building an aerobic base means volume training to condition your body to utilize oxygen more efficiently. An aerobic base allows you to burn mostly fat longer before you are forced to switch to fast-burning carbohydrates (glycogen) to fuel high-intensity exercise. Some might say that my many years of walking have served that purpose.

How can something as easy—and pleasant—as walking build a base? I wonder, but it may do so, at least to some degree.

Henry S. Lodge, MD, co-author of the hugely successful book Younger Next Year (Random House, 2004), called light exercise (up to 65% of HRmax) “a wonderful pace…the metabolic zone where your body and brain heal and grow.” Dr. Lodge added that harder exercise builds more fitness, “but you gain more general healthiness with prolonged light exercise.”

Here’s another explanation given by endurance coach and author Joe Beer in Peak Performance Online: “Well, first off if you do your base work in the 60-80% HRmax zone, you will get as fit and efficient as your genetics will allow for that particular training mode…Although you may feel guilty, easy training can get you 9/10ths of the way to your peak potential.”

Like Dr. Lodge, Beer emphasized that easy-pace training is only part of what’s required to build peak fitness. “Inclusion of the very high intensity [Z3] work is absolutely critical,” Beer wrote in Peak Performance Online. He doesn’t put much stock in what he calls the Goldilocks approach: “Training (not too hard, not too easy) is detrimental for optimum performance, resulting in a no man’s land of not much progress.”  

So, I am apparently in good company practicing and recommending the train low, train high approach. The barbell aerobics strategy does work.

*  *  *

That brings us to the troublesome side of prolonged endurance training. Dr. Wade Smith—a self-described endurance training addict—also called my attention to a “nice scientific summary” of the dangers of long-term endurance exercise. The summary is by Hans R. Larsen, MSc, ChE, Editor of THE AFIB REPORT. (Afib stands for atrial fibrillation, a cardiac arrhythmia characterized by disorganized electrical activity.)

The dangers Larsen addresses result from long term, vigorous endurance exercise. (Endurance training is often described as 45 minutes or more of vigorous exercise.) Dr. Kenneth Cooper famously wrote: "If you are running more than 15 miles a week, you are doing it for some reason other than health."

The gap between enough exercise and too much is very wide. Any reasonable amount of exercise is fine; the benefits probably far outweigh any possible adverse effects. It’s the extremes where the benefit/risk ratio becomes less clear.

British researchers followed 20 veteran athletes for 12 years and concluded that high intensity lifelong endurance exercise is associated with altered cardiac structure and function. Two of the athletes ended up having a pacemaker implanted. Long term endurance exercise can cause irregular heart beat, Larsen reported.  

Considering the name of the journal Larsen edits, it comes as no surprise that his focus is on irregular heart beat. What he concluded, however, has implications far beyond the “afib” community. It’s an eye-opener for all serious trainers.

Larsen described a series of studies, but here’s the problem in a nutshell.

Long-term endurance training profoundly affects the body’s physiology. Among other things it significantly reduces the heart rate and testosterone levels. Vigorous, long-term endurance exercise has also been associated with an increase in inflammation. Participants in a 36-hour long distance run experienced a 152-fold increase in C-reactive protein (CRP), an important marker of systemic inflammation. Research has identified CRP as an independent risk factor for coronary heart disease.

“Taken together,” Larsen wrote, “all these effects of vigorous, long-term training is likely to combine to form a potent breeding ground for the development of atrial fibrillation. It would seem logical that continued vigorous endurance training after experiencing a first afib episode would be a poor choice.”

It’s also a warning for endurance training extremists, especially the ultra-endurance people and the streakers who never miss a day of running or aspire to complete many marathons or triathlons a year.

*  *  *

As I was putting the finishing touches on this piece, a head-turning article appeared in the Wall Street Journal (November 28, 2012). The articles is titled "One Running Shoe in the Grave."

The focus of the article is an editorial to be published next month in the British Journal Heart. "Running too fast, too far and for too many years may speed one's progress toward the finish line of life," the soon to be published editorial concludes.

The editorial discusses two new studies. One involving 52,600 people followed for three decades found that the runners in the group had a 19% lower death rate than nonrunners, but those who ran a lot--more than 20 to 25 miles a week--lost that mortality advantage. Another large study found no mortality advantage for those who ran faster than 8 miles an hour, while those who ran slower reaped significant mortality benefits.

"Chronic extreme exercise appears to cause excessive 'wear-and-tear' on the heart," says the Heart editorial.

The WSJ added that several other recent studies have found cardiac abnormalities (including coronary artery calcification) in extreme athletes to a degree "typically found in the utterly sedentary." Ouch!

Alarming as these findings may be it's important to understand that (except for the risk of atrial fibrillation that Mr. Larsen warned about) cardiologists are lining up on both sides. Critics of the newer research say that the idea that running can harm the heart is based on research showing only an association, meaning that exercise may not be the cause of the problem. They note that in any large group of runners, high-mileage and high-speed athletes may be too few to be statistically significant.

Sports cardiologist James O'Keefe, a co-author of the editorial, says they are simply trying to let people know the risks "and make up their own minds."

*  *  *

Returning to barbell aerobics, I did some calculations to determine where my training falls in the three intensity zones. How close do I come to the mold of the elite rowers studied by the German researchers? Closer than I would’ve thought possible. Not being an endurance athlete, my training volume is no match for the rowers, but my low/high ratios are surprisingly similar.

My daily walks are in zone 1, although closer to Dr. Lodge’s vision of easy exercise (up to 65% of HR max) than that of the rowers (60 to 75% HR max). I walk about 40 minutes on my four rest days and about 30 minutes on training days, for a total of 250 minutes a week.

I spend about 90 minutes on resistance training each week and the same amount of time doing aerobic exercise. I do aerobics on Saturday, weights on Sunday, and both on Wednesday. While I spend about 90 minutes a week doing aerobic exercise, only a small portion of that time is hard exercise; the rest is spent warming up, cooling down, and resting.

None of my aerobic training is in zone 2. I walk and do sprints or intervals; that’s it.

On Wednesday I do intervals on the Airdyne or the Lifecycle. I typically do six times 30s hard and 30s rest, for a total 6 minutes (not counting warm-up or cooldown). Only half of that time (3 min) is hard, so my total time in zone 3 on Wednesday is 3 minutes.

On Saturday, I do both the Concept 2 rower and the C2 Ski Erg. Not counting warm-up or cooldown, my rough calculation is that on average I spend about 6 minutes in zone 3, doing very hard exercise.

That would bring my total time in zone 3 to about 9 minutes a week.

That works out to 96.5% in zone 1 (walking), zero in zone 2, and 3.5% in zone 3.

To turn this into rowing performance, I’d have stop walking and spending a lot more time rowing at an easy pace. The specificity principle still applies. To be the best rower you can be, especially at longer distances, you must row and row and row. That’s not for me.

I get great satisfaction doing intervals or sprints on the rower (and the Ski Erg), but I’m not into long, slow rowing. Walking outdoors in any location I chose, as the seasons go by, is infinitely more pleasant than indoor rowing. The key to long-term success in exercise (any kind) is enjoyment. Do what you enjoy and do well and you’re likely to be doing it for a very long time.   

Train low, train high works. How you put it into practice is up to you.

*  *  *

Winett Concurs--and Goes a Step Further

Clarence: Barbell Aerobics is a very good piece. I would go one step further. Given what is now known about how interval training positively effects so many functions and systems, some presumably before thought best affected by moderate intensity training, all the hours spent by endurance athletes in the moderate intensity zone is a complete waste of time and effort. For example, interval training and resistance training positively affect mitochondrial and vascular function. Further, biomechanically, form in easy, moderate endurance training  is different from the form that will be used in competition or for the recreational athlete trying to improve speed. All that moderate training 'stuff' instead of making recovery easier, makes it harder. Muscles are damaged from hard training so the idea of, for example, 'recovery runs', using the same damaged muscles is an oxymoron. Even for long endurance athletes, why not train at the same long distance as the race, at close to race pace, and then take a day or two off?
 
Here is another point to consider. If the not well defined idea of developing a 'base' is to improve the 'machinery', then why not start 'base' training with something that actually does improve the machinery? If interval training, improves mitochondrial and vascular function, aerobic capacity and stroke volume, and also improves other health related measures, wouldn't that be good preparation for better performance?

About 30 years ago, when George Sheehan came to Virginia Tech, he said the same thing. That all the slow running was basically ritual and seemingly people not having anything better to do. 

It's interesting when you put this in another context. If we were teaching an advanced calculus class with extremely bright students and had a number of challenging in-class exercises on M, W, F, I don't think we would recommend that the students 'recover' on T, TH, Sat, Sun, by going back and practicing addition and subtraction.

I think you have had it right all along. The one thing I would add is simply when we are working a lot and mostly sitting, it is a good idea to get up every hour or so and just stand or walk around for 5 minutes. Plus about 30-40 minutes of some other easy activity per day, i.e., walking.

Richard A. Winett, Ph.D.
Heilig Meyers Professor of Psychology
Virginia Tech

Ageless Athletes, Master Trainer (owner)

Wade Smith Replies

First, its a pleasure to correspond in any way with Dr. Winett, whose work and ideas I have enjoyed via your own work.

Second: I thought about this for some time as the answer is in my opinion a bit more complicated than: Everyone should do this or that.

The answer to what is best depends on goals. Exercisers have different goals which necessarily inform the type of training we do. For sake of discussion lets divide goals into 1) Performance based such as competing in an event, sport and 2) Health and fitness based: not competing in specific event or sport, but training to optimize health, well being and lifestyle.

1) Performance training has some realities that are simply facts and can't be avoided.  One is specificity, the other is skill.  All competition sports require some skill.  Obvious in some things, but rowers, speed skaters, runners, cyclists: All have technique that once improved, improves performance.......a lot of slower training is not
done for recovery but rather to cement in technique and form at lower paces so they can be gradually adapted to higher paces and  stressful conditions such as races.  As a short track speed skater, about 50% of our training is pretty slow, to perfect technique.  Even track sprinters spend a lot of time working slow on technique.  Also, a lot of sports are not always all out:  In short track and hockey which I did, you have to be able to go different paces and then suddenly
accelerate, decelerate etc, to be good at this you have to practice this.

Another reality is that if you are trying to perform the best you can in an event, whether timed or a head-to-head race, then the difference between achieving your goal and not doing so, is usually just a few seconds.  As an example:  If you train to break 7 minutes in the 2000m row and your best time is 7:20, with  some training, you have to recognize that each few seconds you gain by training different energy systems will improve your time. In other words, if you do some progressive interval training at race paces and above, that will help a lot, but all the data suggest if you also "build a base" by enlarging/increasing mitochondrial density and improving aerobic capacity a few more percent, that you will gain a little more time.

This is just a reality.  Does it mean that adding all this training makes you healthier, live longer, look better?:  Absolutely not- but done correctly (avoiding overtraining) the data indicates it will make you a little bit faster. Is that necessary?  Not for health and fitness but it is if part of your approach is to train for personal
bests, races etc. Many people use the sport framework to stay motivated and enjoy their training.  I do on and off, though due to my history of competitive sports, I find that too much leads to taking it a bit too seriously which leads to over training and injuries.

Recovery "distance":  Recovery work to clear lactic acid works and is well documented in muscle biopsy studies from a variety of athletes including speed skaters.  But, recovery work of 30 min of easy non-stressful work is enough.  For speed skaters this means 25-30 min spinning on a bike.  Sprint and middle distance athletes benefit more. Endurance athletes generally wear themselves out with this approach as doing longer or harder runs and rides just depletes resources without added training effect.  But there is often tremendous psychological value to being able to taking an easy day, move and yet not feel stressed, especially if you are training hard the other days. Otherwise, athletes start to get a Pavlovian aversion effect where every time they touch their sport, there is pain and not much fun. I
cannot tell you how much the easy spin days mean to a cyclist mentally. [Wade is a former world record holder in speed skating.]

In sum:  Performance based training requires some different approaches than purely fitness based.  A lot of the things that are added help us go faster, win games etc, but they do not necessarily increase health or well being.  As a  speed skater, cyclist and hockey player  at national and international competitions I can tell you clearly that the best I felt each each year was in the first 3rd of the season and the worst was at the end of the season due to fatigue and stress.

2) Fitness based training probably mirrors the more natural rhythms of human activity.  Performance based training is pretty unnatural when you think about it.  I agree with all the comments regarding avoidance of long training bouts, avoidance of fatigue and exhaustion. However, there is a real difference between the exerciser who likes to add on a 90m bike ride, 2m hike, 45m run etc on Sunday for fun and as an adjunct to some intense weight of interval sessions and the obsessive compulsive 70mile per week runner.

Lastly, walking 30-60 m builds a base.  Without something like that, a diet of only HIT weights and intervals would be difficult for most to sustain mentally and physically. There is probably a reasonable aerobic effect,  good lactic acid  dissipation and an overall sense of well being without fight or flight mode (i.e. HIT).  Same could be achieved with an easy bike or row or elliptical etc, depending upon the individual.  That being said, increase the walk to a brisk 90m and most will find themselves tired and start to accumulate fatigue as they add on HIT......which proves your points.

For either category, my personal observation is that avoiding exhaustion is the single most important principle, whether young or old.  The feeling of exhaustion reflects a huge and deep metabolic burden that can take months to correct.  The term exhaustion is a better descriptor than overtraining. The fitter and stronger athletes get, the more capable they are of training when tired and postponing "metabolic collapse."  Perhaps the greatest virtue of the balanced training that Clarence has described over the years, in my opinion as a physician, is the avoidance of exhaustion.  The great trap of steady state training is the difficulty in of feeling whether one is doing too much or doing too little.

I tend to bounce between these 2 categories and as I age I find myself tired, injured and less happy when doing performance based training and yet racing etc stimulates me to try new things, push myself.

Sorry for the verbosity but its a big topic and so many people are exercising now for different reasons, at all ages.  Today, in my clinic almost every pt received an exercise recommendation to add stationary cycling, brief intervals and some weights to their post injury training.  A number were in their 60s and 70s with hip
fractures.

(They all get a reference to Clarence's website.)

Wade Smith, MD
Professor of orthopedic surgery, University of Colorado School of Medicine

Clarence Comments

Thanks for the terrific exchange. It will give our visitors a lot to chew on. Almost everyone will relate in one way or another.
 
One thing that really hit home with me is the motivational and emotional value of performance based training. In my case, competing for ranking on Concept 2 site on the rower and the Ski Erg. The later has invigorated my training substantially, by giving me a new way where I can realistically expect to improve. Importantly, you don't have to be the best at anything--although that would be nice.
 
The key is using the rankings as a rabbit to chase. Improving a second or two often moves you up in ranks--and provides immense satisfaction. Having a guidepost of some kind makes all the difference in the world. No fun training just to be training; you need a meaning goal to measure success. That has kept me training at a very high level for many decades.
 
Competing with yourself is very satisfying and the C2 Rankings make it more so.
 
I did a killer workout this morning on the rower and the Ski Erg--about 5 minutes of all-out effort. That put me on Cloud nine. A PR on Ski Erg and an improvement on rower. So satisfying.  
 
Thanks again for your comments. Out visitors should love it--and relate in many cases. 
 
Clarence

Wade Responds

I totally agree.  I really enjoy training for performance goals.  Much more fun for me to train as "an athlete" with some goals.  Getting involved in rowing has been great and your writing started that for me.  Depending upon one's background, performance based training can become "competitive."  For me, given a very intense competitive sports life in earlier years:  That can be a bit negative if I get carried away....finding the balance is a sign of maturity that I hope to experience sometime soon!

Congrats again on "finishing" the book, though in my experience that work does not really end until publication.

tx Wade

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