Is There a Balance to Sports Training?

There has been a lot of talk about balance on this site over the past few weeks. Initially, Martin wrote about Peak Performance, ther new book from Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg. In his review, Martin discussed his own search for work-life balance, and how it may well be crucial in order to be successful. This article was followed up by “Balance and The Barbell Strategy”, which examines how a true balanced approach lies not in the middle, but at the two extremes.

This is also true for sport. Athletes typically think that the harder they train, the better they will get. This erroneous thought process, combined with high levels of motivation, pushess athletes to one end of the spectrum and a focus on high intensity work every day. The result is an accumulation of fatigue, which has the perverse effect of reducing your training performance. Athletes think they are training hard, but because they are fatigued they are actually back in the middle ground. And so begins the downward spiral of the athlete trying to push harder than ever in order to raise their training game, but being thwarted by residual fatigue and performing worse and worse. It’s a tough place to be, and has the potential to lead to overtraining.

The 80/20 Rule

But there is another way. Just over 10 years ago, Stephen Seiler, an American sports scientist based in Norway, published a highly cited paper looking at the training zone distribution in endurance athletes. What Seiler and his co-author Kjerland found was that, instead of always training hard and ultimately falling into a middle ground – a grey zone where intensity is too low for sprint based adaptations, but too high for more typical endurance adaptations – the best athletes trained either very easily, or very hard. The amount of time they spent with a low training intensity wasn’t trivial either; it represented 75% of their total training time. When examining the training trends of Norwegian rowers over a thirty-year period, it was found that their VO2max increased by 12%, whilst the time spent training at or above race pace was reduced from 23 hours a month to just seven. Instead, the rowers were spending more time doing the low intensity training, increasing from 30 to 50 hours per month. The end result is that most elite endurance athletes follow an 80/20 rule: 80% low intensity work, and 20% high intensity work. These athletes, some of the best in the world, understand that in order to truly go hard in their key sessions, when it comes to intensity they have to back off the rest of time.

Research shows that athletes in many sports rely on the 80/20 rule for training: 80% easy, 20% hard. Click To Tweet

This could easily be applied to sprint training. In the UK, historically sprint training has followed an intensive program: sprint – lift – sprint – lift – sprint – lift. It may seem that alternating from sprinting to lifting would provide the needed balance, but both sprint training and weight training are high intensity exercises and require large input from the central nervous system. Over time this approach leads to diminished output from athletes. To work around this, a number of modern sprint coaches (likely inspired by Charlie Francis) have adopted high and low training days, whereby athletes may sprint and undertake high force lifting (such as Olympic lifts) on the same day (a high day), followed by tempo running or similar activities on the next day (a low day). This type of set up can be demanding on time (and relies on the athlete having access to a track and lifting facilities in close proximity), but appears to be the preferred method of many of the world’s best sprinters these days.

Implementing “Low” Days for Sprinters

Now, there is of course a big difference between training for endurance and training for sprints. When it comes to endurance, low intensity training is likely beneficial because it increases enzyme content, improves metabolic efficiency, and movement economy. These aspects are less important when it comes to sprint training, although they will still play a role. In their excellent paper examining the role of tempo running training for sprinters, DeWeese, Wagle and Bingham cover some of the research that suggests tempo running can have many benefits to sprinters. This includes enhancing speed reserve, improving buffering capacity, enhancing enzyme efficiency, improving tissue compliance, and reinforcing technical skills. Very low intensity tempo running can have a restorative effect, increasing muscular temperature and blood flow. The jury is still out as to whether tempo training improves technical sprint ability; there really isn’t much research on this. However, many coaches, who know more than me, utilize tempo running in their program from a technical perspective, and it may well be that tempo running improves running rhythm and flow, as well as eliciting specific structural changes (such as improved tendon compliance, or strength endurance in specific positions) that may improve sprint technique.

Related content: We discuss polarized training methods in various events with Derek Evely on Episode 3 of the HMMR Podcast.

Although tempo training is the most well established way for sprinters to get their dose of low intensity training, it need not be the only way. Depending on your coaching philosophy, low intensity training could also be comprised of general strength circuits, technical drills, injury prevention and rehabilitation exercises, and many more. The only requirement is that the intensity is low enough so that the athlete can recover sufficiently in time for the subsequent sprint session.

The Peripheral Benefits of “Low” Days

There’s also a potential psychological benefit to low intensity training days. Because the volume can often be quite high, athletes often believe that they have trained “hard” even though the intensity has been low. This can satisfy their craving for hard work, because as previously discussed many athletes equate hard work with success – plus they get to post about it on social media. In effect, this low intensity work can serve to “force” athletes to have easier days, partitioning their efforts so that they can approach the key sessions – sprinting – in a state primed for optimal adaptation.

Polarized training can partition efforts to ensure athletes are primed for key sessions. @craig100m Click To Tweet

An obvious question to ask at this point would be whether low intensity training is better than no training? That is, instead of undertaking these low intensity days, would the athletes be better doing nothing? Again, there is no research I’ve seen that examines this directly in the form of a randomized controlled trial, but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that suggests low intensity exercise is better than complete rest. From a science perspective, a lot of the recent acute:chronic workload research from Tim Gabbett suggests higher workloads are more protective against injuries than lower workloads. Obviously, this needs to be seen in context, and what is termed “high” is relative to fitness and experience, but nevertheless this research supports the conclusion that some training is better than none. The physical demands on athletes are also very varied, such that multiple training sessions per week are likely required to adequately prepare an athlete for high-level performance; as such, low intensity training represents a way for athletes to tick the boxes and complete the required workloads, whilst simultaneously enhancing recovery for the next high intensity training session.

Finding Balance Through Polarization

In practical terms, the outcome is that it is definitely a good idea to have easier training days as part of the program, ideally utilizing physical training that doesn’t compete with or stress the systems trained during the high intensity days. These days serve to allow the athlete to recover, allowing them to produce maximum intensities when required. This is a far better training distribution than the old school model of hard work (i.e. high intensity) every day, and should improve overall performance. The same process could be utilized in team sports, whereby training days with high physiological loads and intensities can be offset by lower level conditioning, tactical, and technical training days. The end result is that hopefully athletes will be primed to perform better in their key training session, and also reduce the risk of fatigue related training injuries.

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