This is my one negative post of the year. It’s regarding this article (“Why Running Harder Won’t Help Get You Faster”) over at RunnersConnect.net.
The article makes the following claims:
- Patience pays off.
- Consistent, moderate workouts will trump a few weeks of hard, gut-busting workouts every time.
- More importantly, after 42 weeks, the high intensity runner is at a point that they can no longer make up the difference in fitness simply by training hard for a few weeks.
They say this conclusion is justified because of “recent research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology” (Astorino et al. 2013, reference below). They say the study gives them “the scientific data to prove what good coaches have known for so many years. Patience pays off.”
The Astorino et al. study
The study involved 30 healthy, sedentary women aged 18-40 years, free of known disease or musculoskeletal problems. They were split into three groups: high (HI), low (LO), and a control group that received no treatment.
The HI and LO treatment groups performed 3-a-week supervised interval training on a bicycle ergometer. The HI group’s workload was kept at 80-90% of the individual’s max. The LO group’s workload was kept at 60-80% of the individual’s max. Each session involved: 4 minute warm-up at 40W, 6-10 60s bouts at the target workload with 60-75s active recovery at 40W between each bout, followed by a 2-4 minutes cool-down at 40W. Every week, two additional bouts were added to the regimen and the target workload increased 5%. Every three weeks, the number of bouts were reduced to 6 and workloads were reset based on the VO2Max test done at the end of the preceding week.
Astorino et al. discuss (emphasis mine):
Results revealed similar improvements in VO2max across training groups and a greater increase in VO2max early on in training in HI versus LO.
HI (+12.4 %) revealed a greater percent change in VO2max after 3 weeks versus LO (+5.4 %), although LO revealed an additional significant change in VO2max from weeks 3–6 that was not seen in HI. Furthermore, VO2max was higher at 12 weeks in LO compared to 6 weeks, which was not seen in the women performing HI. These data illustrate a potential advantage of more intense interval training versus moderate exercise early on in training, in that it may elicit marked changes in VO2max which would augment subject tolerance to exercise soon after initiation of physical activity. Moreover, because of its relatively low time commitment and the fact that it may be more enjoyable than aerobic exercise (Bartlett et al. 2011), interval training may be a suitable exercise modality for novice exercisers to initiate before transitioning into more traditional exercise regimens.
In conclusion, 18–30 min / week of interval cycling performed for 12 weeks led to signiﬁcant improvements in VO2max in sedentary young women whether intensities were moderate or more rigorous. Consequently, more tolerable regimens of interval training seem to elicit similar alterations in cardiorespiratory ﬁtness as more intense regimes. The magnitude of improvement in VO2max was greater early on in HI compared to LO, which suggests that more intense interval training may be desirable to induce large, rapid changes in VO2max in untrained individuals soon after initiation of exercise training.
Here’s what I want to emphasize from this study:
- It studied two different interval training regimes, each of which is considered high intensity training (Astorino et al. describe the study: “Women completed 3 day / week of supervised HIT”). The LO group is not what would be considered low intensity. The LO group still did repeated 1-minute bouts of 60-80% of max. It is more “tolerable”, but this is not a slow and steady, “patience pays off” type of training.
- Both types of interval training ended up at the same level of improvement after 12 weeks.
- The HI group got to that point faster than the LO group.
The RunnersConnect article
What did RunnersConnect take from this article?
Clearly, this research shows that while you’ll see rapid improvements from running workouts as hard as you can in the first few weeks, this improvement curve will level off and running at moderate intensity levels will produce equal, if not better, long-term results.
This is a false analogy: RunnersConnect leaps from a study about interval training to a statement about running workouts in general. The study did not compare HIT against prolonged bouts of “patience pays off” levels of training. It is possible that interval training would have out-performed simply running at “patience pays off” intensity levels. Oh, guess what? That study has been done (Nybo et al. 2010). An interval training program produced almost a two-fold improvement in VO2Max compared to prolonged running.
Next, RunnersConnect says:
Mainly, both groups performed the same workouts for twelve weeks, which means the same stimulus was being applied with each session.
This is false. The stimulus was continually increased by adding bouts and intensity every workout, and rescaling to the new maximum every three weeks.
Consistent, moderate workouts will trump a few weeks of hard, gut-busting workouts every time.
That statement is not supported by the study. There was no significant difference in the LO group’s 12 week improvement compared to the HI group.
Then, they present this gem of a graphic (I almost don’t want to repeat it):
“While the data is not factual, it represents my experience with runner progression as a coach.” Does the data represent his/her experience with runner progression? Or is the data not factual? They can’t have it both ways. Even if it did represent his/her experience with runner progression, this is at best anecdotal evidence: a casual observation — one that is not done under any scientific protocol. Anecdotes are subject to cherry-picking. People remember instances that support what they wish to believe. This leads to confirmation bias and hasty generalization. There is no way to know if anecdotal experiences are typical. Quoting Barry Beyerstein, “Anecdotal evidence leads us to conclusions that we wish to be true. Not conclusions that actually are true.”
Why trot out the study of Astorino et al. if in the end, RunnersConnect was going to support their conclusion with anecdotal evidence?
They finish with:
More importantly, after 42 weeks, the high intensity runner is at a point that they can no longer make up the difference in fitness simply by training hard for a few weeks.
By “high intensity runner”, they mean the hypothetical runner that may or may not exist because the data in the chart is not factual.
I agree with RunnersConnect on only one point. Certainly, if you’re training so hard or wrong that you’re getting injured, not getting injured will be a better route to success.
Astorino, Todd A., Matthew M. Schubert, Elyse Palumbo, Douglas Stirling, David W. McMillan, Christina Cooper, Jackie Godinez, Donovan Martinez, and Rachael Gallant. “Magnitude and time course of changes in maximal oxygen uptake in response to distinct regimens of chronic interval training in sedentary women.” European journal of applied physiology (2013): 1-9.
Nybo, Lars, Emil Sundstrup, Markus D. Jakobsen, Magni Mohr, Therese Hornstrup, Lene Simonsen, Jens Bulow et al. “High-intensity training versus traditional exercise interventions for promoting health.” Med Sci Sports Exerc42, no. 10 (2010): 1951-8.