Sports training: choosing the right exercise workout

The True Effects of Various Workouts - and How to Answer that Key Question: What Do I Do on Monday?

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As an athlete, you are constantly confronted with a basic problem: there are literally dozens of different workouts to choose from, which differ dramatically from each other in nature, intensity, and duration. How is it possible to know which workout is the optimal one for a particular day?

Take tomorrow, for example: are you really sure that your planned workout is the absolute-best option? Might it not be preferable to carry out a more prolonged session at a lower average intensity? Would your fitness profit to a greater extent from a shorter, more intense effort? Should you add a bit of strength training to your day’s effort? Spend the day cross-training instead of engaging exclusively in your preferred sport?

The answers to these questions depend, of course, on what has gone before in your training schedule – and what you have planned for the future. Although single workouts can produce dramatic effects on fitness, they cannot be considered in isolation; they can synergise with other workouts in unique and positive ways, or they can subvert the progression to higher fitness because of the inappropriate way in which they are blended with their companion efforts. This unavoidable interdependence of training sessions means that it is seldom easy to answer the basic question about what to do on a given day.

Finding the answer is a bit less difficult, however, if you bear in mind a few principles about what workouts actually do and how they react to each other. The first principle is that variety is incredibly good for athletes. If you do fairly similar things in training over extended periods of time, your body will adapt to the challenge you are giving it in a way which is specific to the challenge – and then will adapt no further. Once your body can respond to a particular workout with relative physiological ease, it will stop changing and improving; it will cease its efforts to make your heart bigger or your stockpiles of intramuscular aerobic enzymes greater, and it will stop the process of fine-tuning your nervous system so that your nerves do a better job of controlling movement patterns at the intensities you have selected for your workouts.

Of course, you might say that all this is obvious – that everyone knows that training must be varied. If such awareness truly is universal, the gap between knowledge and action is a breathtaking chasm. In my years as a coach and consultant, I have noticed that the majority of athletes complete the same basic workouts month after month, year after year, and yet expect to achieve major breakthroughs in performance. When the breakthroughs do not occur (because the athletes’ bodies have adapted completely to the basic workout plan and have not been properly stimulated to tack on additional improvements), a typical response is to attempt to complete even more work, but of the same basic type. Unfortunately, this pursuit of volume at the expense of variety can often lead to overtraining and injury.

Prod your body into improvement

This is what we mean by variety: just when your body is getting pretty smug about how fit it is getting, you pull the rug out from under it and give it something uniquely challenging. Instead of swimming your intervals at your best 400-metre pace, for example, you turn on the heat with 100m-intensity repetitions. Instead of focusing completely on the repetitive movements associated with your sport, you embark on an intense six-week programme of whole-body proprioceptive work to improve your overall coordination and efficiency. Or, instead of relying on ‘tempo’ workouts to lift your lactate threshold, you substitute much shorter – but more intense – intervals to give your lactate-processing abilities a boost. Overall, you prod your body into continuing the improvement process instead of resting on its laurels.

Note, however, that using variety in your training does not always mean making your workouts tougher; in fact, sometimes you should make them easier. Instead of your usual 90-minute bike ride, you might go out for just 30 minutes; and instead of training for nine hours per week, you might cut back to four. Again, you are prodding your body into continuing its improvement, but this time you are doing so by letting it recover from the hard work you have done. In effect, the training stimulus is drastically reduced, but the stimulus to synthesise new things within your neuromuscular and cardiovascular systems is accentuated. A period of 5-7 days of very light training often does a great job of augmenting fitness; and you can add these periods of lightness to your training every 3-5 weeks, or whenever sluggishness and fatigue hang around for more than a day or so.

If you are satisfied with our variety canon, we can move on to our second key principle: always skew your training toward the elements which are critically important for high performance in the key competitive task which you are going to face.

Runners rarely train at race pace

Stated in such a direct manner, our second principle also seems obvious. After all, how many athletes would spend significant periods of time working on aspects of training that are not especially conducive to good performance in a chosen event? Based on my years of experience working with endurance athletes, I would have to say that a reasonable answer to this question would be ‘a large number’! For example, marathon runners often bias their training towards prolonged runs but complete few (or even none) of their runs at the pace they hope to sustain in their actual races. For another example, runners and swimmers whose competitive events are of relatively short duration and revolve around the attainment of high speeds frequently build training programmes which contain heavy doses of low-to-moderate intensity work without systematic plans for optimising maximum movement velocity. Failing to match the demands of training to the demands of competition can be viewed as ‘magical training’, since the athlete involved is evidently hoping that competitive fitness will be magically bestowed on him simply because he is working so hard.

Our second principle can sometimes make the decision-making process (regarding which workout to perform) very easy. For example, if a runner is preparing for a marathon in eight weeks-or-so and has not been able to complete any runs longer than about 12 miles, she will recognise the critical importance of completing some training which mimics the real demands of the marathon. She would want to perform a long run of 15-18 miles (a good number of them at marathon pace) as soon as possible. In addition, a second run of about 20 miles (with half the miles at marathon tempo) should be completed roughly four weeks before the big race. The workouts for these two days are then set: they stand like ‘pillars of a training bridge’, with appropriate rest days and workouts arranged around them. There is still uncertainty about which workouts to mix with the long efforts, but at least the range of possibilities has been narrowed; the other sessions will be of considerably shorter duration, to enhance recovery, and will alternate between low intensity to further foster recovery and high intensity to boost overall fitness.

Often, though, an athlete’s training appears to be fairly balanced and adequate; long efforts have been blended with short, intense sessions and periods of rest and recovery stirred into the mix. When a training schedule has been varied in this way, the answer about what to do becomes much less obvious, and the athlete often simply carries out workouts with which he is comfortable and familiar. Unfortunately, this might be the very worst thing to do, especially if the athlete has completed such sessions fairly frequently (remember the variety principle).

If you find yourself in that kind of situation, when your training has been varied to some extent but you find yourself repeating ‘key workouts’ which have worked for you in the past, it is time to remember that an endurance athlete should have seven key training goals, each of which should be attained if you want to perform at your highest level.

‘Great’, you might say, ‘just identify those goals for me and I’ll start working on them straightaway.’ If so, your enthusiasm is admirable, but don’t forget that you must not only identify the goals but have some way of assessing how far you have travelled towards the attainment of each, thus highlighting the areas in which you remain weak. Obviously, if you have attained three of your goals, you will do far better to work on the remaining four rather than spending time trying to improve on near-perfection.

Thus, we need not just to identify the septet of goals for you but also give you the information you need to figure out how close you are to achieving each one. Let’s start with identifying the seven key goals of endurance athletes, as follows:

  1. The best-possible improvement of vVO2max. vVO2max, the minimal velocity at which maximal aerobic capacity is attained, reveals both the magnitude of your aerobic capability and the efficiency with which you move during your endurance activity; it is one of the most powerful predictors of endurance performance;
  2. The maximal lifting of lactate-threshold velocity, the movement speed at which lactate levels begin to pile up in the blood. Since lactate is a great muscular fuel, lactate-threshold velocity is like a ‘barometer’ of muscle function during exercise; if lactate spills into the blood at a low speed, it means that your muscles are ill-prepared for the rigours of high-quality effort – i.e. not able to use the lactate needed to fuel such exertion. High-lactate threshold speeds are a sign that muscles are not ‘coughing up’ lactate but rather using it to fuel top-end speeds;
  3. The greatest-possible enhancement of economy of movement, so that competition-specific speeds are attained at the lowest fraction of maximal energy cost or max aerobic capacity. The further away you are from max, the easier an effort feels and the more scope you have for improving your competitive velocity. Thus, economy (efficiency) is a great thing, allowing you to move up to higher speeds in both training and racing;
  4. The best-possible augmentation of sport-specific strength, so that injury risk is as low as possible, fatigue resistance as high as it can be, and the foundation for speed improvement is unshakeable;
  5. The highest-possible increase in sport-specific neuromuscular power, so that movement speed can be upgraded dramatically. The greater your maximal velocity, the greater will be your performance speed in endurance events – providing the rest of your physiology is sound and allows for decent endurance at intense velocities;
  6. Attainment of the absolute-best psychological status, so that negative thoughts do not limit performance and your body is freed from mental restraints and allowed to push as far as possible towards breakthrough performances;
  7. Completion of the necessary specific preparations for a particular competition. For example, if you are a marathon runner and you have optimised goals 1-6 but have not done long runs with significant fractions of the runs at marathon pace, you are not specifically ready to handle the marathon distance.

With this knowledge in mind, you can ‘weight’ workouts according to how well they accomplish the seven basic objectives. In theory, the sessions which produce the biggest improvements in the greatest number of our septet of variables should form the backbone of your training.

But how do you know what effects a specific type of workout will have on these variables? To help this process, we have listed the most-common workouts below, along with their main effects. Further, we have ranked these workouts for you in terms of the magnitude of their impact on fitness. We believe you’ll find the list enlightening – and just a little surprising. You will probably notice that two very popular workouts which are widely believed to accomplish many things get a fairly low rating in our system.

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