High-intensity training

High-intensity training: one size doesn’t fit all

In recent years, there’s been a torrent of research showing that
adding some high-intensity training (for example high-intensity
intervals) to an endurance-based training programme produces
big gains in performance. What’s less clear, however, is the best
way to structure this high-intensity training. For example, how
hard should each interval be, how long, how many repetitions
and how many sessions per week should be performed? Do too
little or do it too gently and you’ll not get the maximum benefit.
Do too much/too hard/too often and you risk a drop in
performance, overtraining and burnout. The answer, of course,
is that it will depend on your current fitness, training workload
and experience and your recovery ability, but that still leaves a lot
of unanswered questions. However, a new study by South
African scientists seems to provide a better approach to this
conundrum, which could be particularly useful for cycling
coaches as well as cyclists with a good understanding of basic
exercise physiology.

In the study, the researchers wanted to find out whether a
sub-maximal cycling test could be used to monitor and prescribe
better, more individualised high-intensity interval training in
cyclists with a good baseline level of fitness. To do this, two
groups of male cyclists (15 in all) completed four high-intensity
interval sessions over a 2-week period. The ‘conventional’
training group followed a predetermined and standardised
training programme while in the ‘flexible’ training group, each
cyclist had the timing and structure of their interval sessions
prescribed based on the results they obtained in the submaximal
cycling test (known as the ‘Lamberts and Lambert Submaximal
Cycle Test’ or LSCT for short). The scientists then
looked to see if the interval sessions based on the results from
the LSCT were more effective at improving 40km time trial times
than the ‘pre-prescribed intervals’.
The LSCT is a three-stage test, which involves riding at three
different power outputs – at 60%, 80% and 90% of maximum
heart rate – during which perceived exertion, power output and
speed/pedalling cadence are measured. The rate at which the
heart rate recovers after each of these three stages is also
measured. The important points to note are that a) even though
it’s a sub-maximal test, the LSCT is very effective at predicting
peak power and sustained endurance performance in cyclists
and this means that the results from the test should be useful to
help structure high-intensity training sessions for maximum
training effect.
When all the data was analysed, it was clear that the intervals
prescribed on the basis of the LSCT results were much more
effective in improving 40km time-trial times.

Although both groups improved their times, the cyclists in the pre-prescribed
interval group improved by only 8 seconds whereas those in the
flexible group improved by 48 seconds. The researchers also
found that heart-rate recovery (a useful indicator of fitness) after
hard efforts was quicker in the flexible group but remained
unchanged in the pre-prescribed group.
What this study shows is that while there are a wide variety of
high-intensity interval workouts that cyclists can perform to
improve their cycling performance, choosing a session at
random is likely to be far less effective than creating one based
on the results from the LSCT. And maybe that’s not surprising
because using the results from the LSCT allows an individual to
tailor any high-intensity work precisely to his or her current
fitness level. If you want to try this approach, a full description of
the LSCT and how to apply it can be found in the British Journal
of Sports Medicine (Br J Sports Med 2010;44:i21-i22) and
details are also available widely online. Moreover, although the
LSCT is designed using cycling as a model, it’s likely that the
same principles are applicable in other endurance sports where
better tailored high-intensity sessions are the goal.

Int J Sports Physiol Perform.

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