Friday, September 21, 2012
Thoughts on quality VS quantity
Question: Quality vs quantity? Or said another way, since most obsessive compulsive endurance athletes seem to have (need) races and stay semi-fit all year round. When should one base build versus work on speedwork? Some follow the rule of base build and then 8 weeks or whatever our from race sharpen their race skills and start speedwork. Others preach speedwork and then focus on building in the volume closer to the race with just a wee bit of race/speed focus.
Question: What I can't wrap my head around yet is how guys like you and Jay Aldous can achieve such amazing times in 100s without a ton of volume. I'd love to see you explain the quality vs. quantity issue on the your blog.
First, I'm not a writer and I won't pretend to be. I'm only a marginally educated college dropout hillbilly. My thoughts ramble... and I tend to let them.
The very first thing, to point out the obvious, is that the type of quality and when to do it depends on a few things. When and how far is your race? How fit are you? What type of fit are you? An out of shape, first time runner starting training for a marathon that's in 24 weeks should not be doing quality, the focus needs to be on quantity to start. A runner that is marathon fit with a 5k in 12 weeks needs to ditch quantity and focus on quality. These examples are at the extreme ends of the spectrum and we all fit in between somewhere.
We are all different and every scenario is different. Start with basic concepts, evaluate the situation, then work off those basic concepts to formulate a plan of attack.
Brad Hudson said to never sacrifice quality for quantity and visa versa. I do feel however that you can flub volume in favor of quality at times, and depending on your race focus it generally doesn't work the other way around meaning that if you want to get truly fast volume alone will not replace quality. In terms of training stress a 16 mile tempo run may be worth more than a 25 mile easy run. And training stress is what it's all about. We stress our body, then rest, then get stronger. How you stress your body to elicit a response has wiggle room as long as you keep it somewhat specific to your event. Of course stressing your body with 10:00 of Vo2 max intervals will not replace a 20 mile long run, they both have a completely different focus on the type of fitness you're trying to build. With out any doubt though, if you're an old guy like me you will benefit greatly from some non-specific training like Vo2 max intervals or weights.
My Leadman training showed this approach does work for some. I stressed my body with completely non-specific stress and was able to run far less than most of the runners at Leadville. I averaged 58 miles a week in the 20 weeks before Leadville this year and just 40 miles a week for the entire year. But what I did with that 58 miles matters. There weren't many weeks that I didn't do some form of quality session ranging from 10 X 1:00 Vo2 hill reps (critical for any older runner) to 10 mile/ 2000ft vertical tempo runs to 25 mile flat tempo runs to 30 mile hard runs with 8000ft vertical. What I didn't do was try to fill in my week with short easy runs in an attempt to reach a high weekly total, instead I biked and allowed my body to adapt and recover. I balanced training stress so that my quality days were truly quality. I wasn't fried and this is at the heart of Brad Hudson's advice. If an athlete is pushing to run 100 miles a week then their quality sessions might be compromised, even the value of their mileage, meaning they don't reap the full rewards. They sacrifice quality for a number at the end of the week. This is wrong. Now, that's not to say that pushing 100 mile weeks doesn't have it's place! Refer back to the first paragraph.
Speaking of stress, another form comes from the environment. 20 miles with 60ft of vertical is not the same as 20 miles with 6000ft of vertical. Same with altitude. I happen to live at 8200ft altitude and a majority of my running (and 100% of my recovery) is done between 8000 and 10500ft on terrain that is extremely hilly. So because of these factors I was able to get away with only doing 58 miles a week because it absolutely is "worth" more than 58 miles at sea-level, there's a conversion and although you can't actually put it on paper it is there. By time alone I looked back and compared data to when I was running at low altitude and flat terrain and where I live and train now. Looking only at weekly time, an 80 mile week is equal to 110 miles. Vague and not scientific but something to consider.
And yet another form of stress is emotional or 'life stress'. A full time professional athlete who doesn't work, has no job or kids will have a bazillion times less stress than a guy like Nick Clark (I use him as the example only because Chuck Norris has a poster of Nick over his bed) who has two kids, a job, a house and is training a bazillion miles with weekly Mt Everest vertical. This matters. Nick often times crushes the former guy. Stress of any kind can add (or subtract) to the value of your training.
Another aspect that links in to all of this is the athletic age and background of an athlete. Someone who has been training for 2 years will not be able to train like an athlete who has been training for 2 decades. 15 years ago I was running 100 mile weeks. This matters both physically and mentally. I have the confidence to step back and rest and not chase numbers that may diminish my training or my race results. Conversely I also feel that this has limited my training and prevented me from truly racing well. I'm tired, not the 'I just ran now I'm tired' type but more of a big picture fatigue from training week in and week out for over 15 years. But I digress.
Sort of. The OCD type athletes generally do not have a ton of experience nor do they ever reach the top of their sport. Either that or they are insecure. If you look at top athletes at Ironman or the marathon you rarely see these guys and girls racing every week or even every month and very often you hear them say that rest is critical. Yes they are OCD but they also know what the right thing to do is and they're disciplined enough to do the right thing. You may see them do a short period of racing during peak season but they usually target 1-2 races per year and then do everything to make those the highest quality that they can.
I told you I ramble...
Periodization is what all of this ultimately boils down to. The application or planning of periodization is specific to each athlete's strengths and weaknesses and if an athlete truly wants to get strong and fast then there is a method to the madness. Training blocks with zero intensity are part of it. But I also see athletes who don't have the time (their race is only 12 weeks out), attitude or the patience to allow this concept to work effectively. Maybe they enjoy the group track sessions, fine. Have fun, that's why we do this and I mean that. Or maybe they don't feel like wearing a HRM all the time and they go out and run too hard, fine. I have zero problem with an athlete wanting to have fun and just go run, but that athlete also needs to understand that the end result may not be the same. Another thing to consider is that we are all unique so what worked for one most likely won't work the same for another and this is where the 'art' of training comes in, or at least the ability to read an athlete and see how they are responding.
So back on track... Intensity is the king of all training. But only if your body is able to handle and absorb it. Very often athletes over estimate their ability in this aspect. The same goes for volume really. I fell completely in to this trap of thinking I needed to run 120 mile weeks for the marathon and it totally ruined my chance to run a fast marathon. Adaptation is about the application of appropriate stress. An athlete that has never run a step will not reach a high level of fitness (and this is all about long distance racing. Not crossfit or the 100m dash) by hammering intervals immediately. The foundation for endurance events is metabolic economy and using fat as fuel. You work this first, then get fast. Also the ability to absorb hard training is based on the concept of a base. A runner that runs 20 miles a week will not absorb hard training as well as a runner who hits 80 miles a week. So, in terms of periodization we must prepare our body for the training to come. In a well planned periodized plan you have 12-16 weeks of training that is ONLY preparing you to train effectively in the last 8-10 weeks. There must be a period of time where we focus solely on training that strengthens our tendons and muscles and metabolic economy. I think we should get as fast as possible at 20 beats below threshold first. Once you do this then start thinking about getting truly fast. For most of us the distance we are trying to race is part of the challenge! So build your body to be able to handle this aspect first. How can you consider the speed for 26.2 miles when simply finishing is still the major challenge? Don't put the cart before the horse.
Once you have reached a solid level of fitness then start to think about quality. Once you have built an adequate base then quality is king! But also keep this in perspective. Your body has an ideal level of stress needed for ideal adaptation. More or harder is not better. Consider the impact of a given session on the week. When I'm doing my long runs or intervals, at a certain point of fatigue, I ask myself questions. Is going further better? Is doing one more hill repeat better? Will I be able to train again tomorrow? If you're falling off the goal pace or wattage then this is a telling sign that you have stressed your body adequately because it is failing. Intensity is not only king but by default it is also the riskiest form of training. Even more so than volume, quality work is the overriding factor in over-training and injury. But this makes sense, the higher the risk the higher the pay out AND the bigger the loss. This is the same in almost everything we do in life. This is why it is so important to prepare properly for this work because an error can cost you dearly with a loss of training due to a strained hamstring or tendonitis or extreme fatigue.
When do you know when it's time to start quality work? I think a base period should be a minimum of 8 weeks for most people, myself included. Some people should do a year. Hopefully you have an idea as to what peak mileage you can handle, if you don't then go find it. You need to have adapted to this peak mileage. Meaning that it isn't a huge push to hit it. If you're still struggling to hit peak mileage then consider spending more time adapting or reevaluating your expectations on your body. Maffetone's method is great for this. With frequent testing you can see definitively when you should start quality training with a plateau in your MAF development. But I will warn you, even after 17 years of dedicated MAF training I have only ever truly plateaued a handful of times. This is partly because our bodies adapt extraordinarily well to stress. It's simply amazing what we can do to ourselves and how our body will adapt if the mind is willing (key aspect there). It's important to also use PE for this. Once I hit a MAF pace that felt like tempo (or Zone 3) then I started quality work. I've taken my MAF down to ~5:50 pace and it was hard, and that was a mistake. I took this too far and my failure to run fast for the marathon was a result of this. I neglected other, equally important aspects of fitness like muscular strength and threshold. Threshold, at a certain point in an athletes development is more citical to performance than anything. I also pushed too hard to reach an arbitrary weekly mileage as I said before. I ignored my body and wasn't disciplined or confident enough to listen to what my body was saying. That alone is another blog post.
Not sure I answered the questions completely but there's some fine rambling.