Big Picture & Observations On A High Intensity Block

My Annual Training Plan (ATP) is a broad overview of the plan for the year with a focus on the Bear 100 mile endurance run on September 23rd-24th, 2016. The overall approach to the ATP follows a two-fold philosophy. First, the race will require mental and physical capacity at all intensities and levels of effort. Second, training should mimic the race requirements as closely as possible in the final phases leading up to the event. Together, these dictate an overall progression of training that begins with high intensity workouts furthest from the race, maximal steady state workouts next, and longer endurance workouts closest to the race. The terrain and elevation gains of the workouts will also mimic the race demands as closely as possible in the latter stages of training.

This necessarily creates a block-like training plan. However, the type of periodization is not the focus, rather it is a consequence of the overall approach to focusing on the most race specific training closest to the race, while appreciating the need to maximize capacity at all effort levels. It is also a consequence of understanding the physiology of training adaptations for performance, which requires that the capacity for high intensity work be raised before relatively lower intensities can be raised - because the highest capacities will always place a physiologic ceiling on how much lower intensities can be improved.

So, my ATP starts with a focus on the goal race and training at three general intensities that we’ll call high intensity, maximal steady state, and endurance. During the final 21 weeks building up to the race, training progresses from 5 weeks training high intensity to 7 weeks training maximal steady state to 9 weeks training endurance, becoming more and more race specific in intensity and terrain. Prior to that focused progression, which begins at the end of April, I am spending training time in two blocks of endurance, two blocks of maximal steady state, and one block of high intensity.

Currently, at the start of February, I’m in the last two weeks of the high intensity block.

The intention of the high intensity block is three-fold. First, to raise VO2max as much as possible in the allowable time for the block. Second, to build mental toughness. And, third, to build power and entrain good form. The most effective and efficient methods for realizing those intentions is through high intensity interval training. While lower intensity training can increase VO2max, the scientific basis for high intensity interval training as the effective and efficient means for increasing VO2max is well established. And, only high intensity interval training is effective at fulfilling the other two intentions of this phase of training. Building time at very high intensity requires intervals because one can only sustain such high effort for a short period of time before fatigue. By performing intervals of 3-5 minute duration with 2-4 minutes of rest one can build ‘time at effort’ for a solid training stimulus. 

There is ample research to support this approach, which was complied in a recent meta-analysis. In research, a meta-analysis is a comprehensive review of the peer-reviewed studies on a topic followed by a rigorous overall analysis. In essence a meta-analysis is used to come to overall conclusions by leveraging the collective findings of a field on a particular question. An excellent 2013 meta-analysis by Drs. Bacon, Carter, Ogle, and Joyner, carefully determined that the most effective protocols include alternating days of intervals with maximum runs, often referred to as Hickson protocols after the author of the first study to implement such a program. A Hickson protocol might look like training 6 days per week with 6 intervals of 5 min each at a pace approaching VO2max on odd days (possibly on a cycle ergometer) with 2-3 minutes of rest between intervals and 30-40 minute maximum pace (or fastest possible) runs on even days. However, it was noted in the original studies that subjects refused to continue beyond 10 weeks due to the extreme difficulty and arduous nature of the program. The next best, and perhaps more palatable approach is high intensity interval training, with intervals of 3-5 min duration, several days per week.

On average, HIIT programs can increase VO2max by approximately 5-7 ml O2 /kg/min. This is a substantial amount and will equate to roughly 10-15% for most fit individuals. If maximum sustainable endurance paces can be raised in subsequent phases of training, the athlete will have a significant performance improvement if everything else remains the same. 

I’m now beginning the last two weeks of my six week block of HIIT, though one was a rest week. I have one more of these blocks on my annual training plan. I quickly learned that there is a headspace or mindset that goes along with this block. I am no stranger to HIIT as there was plenty of this in my sports background. I rather enjoy the feeling of pushing myself to those limits. Still, it’s a challenge to start the workout. You just have to come to terms with the fact that this is the training for now and get the first interval done. I’ve wondered whether doing more interval days with less endurance running would be beneficial. The literature would tend to indicate that is the case if the sole goal is raising VO2max. However, the endurance base is most important for performance in an ultra marathon and we continue to include long runs and shorter endurance runs. I’ve spoken with John about this on a recent previous episode of Journey to 100 and he explained that adding more HIIT each week, in his experience, might risk injury, which we obviously do not want. It surely is better to be a bit under stressed than injured. The fact that I enjoy these workouts may be another reason I think I could or even should do more.

At the end of last week, I was prescribed to run 8X3 min hill intervals. I did these on the treadmill so I could compare them with earlier hill intervals that I did on the treadmill due to poor weather and road/trail conditions. Last week, John told me to try pushing a little harder in the first few intervals. I decided to begin the 8% grade run at 9 mph and see how it felt. I realized that I couldn’t keep that up very long and dropped to 8 mph after 30 sec hoping that I could then stay at 8 mph for the remaining 2.5 minutes. After a minute, I realized that I wasn’t recovering from the 30 sec at 9 mph well enough and began to decrease speed by 0.1 mph. But, my treadmill has a set of press-pad buttons that are fairly unresponsive. So, I often have to push them several times before they respond. While fatiguing at 8% incline and 8 mph, trying to run unbalanced to push the button repeatedly quickly became a big challenge. So, I pressed the 7 mph button. My legs felt heavier than I would have hoped after a week of recovery runs. I kept the 9-8-7 protocol for the next several intervals and felt the same after each - not worse. So, I continued and actually did 9 intervals (one more than prescribed because I forgot to start my watch with the first and chose to pretend the first didn’t count). During the cool down period I suddenly wanted to have another hard push. My overall weighted average during the intervals had been 7.66 mph and I thought that 8 mph might have been a good speed if I had set it and left it. So, I started this extra interval at 8 mph and decided to run 3 minutes or until the end of the song I had just started. The song finished at 3:20 and I chose to give it my all and push to 4 minutes. Well, six minutes later into the next cool down, I felt the urge again and did the same - 4 minutes at 8 mph, 8% incline.

Critical speed (running) or critical power (cycling) is the workrate below which a person can continue for ‘a long time’, which is about 20 minutes or so. We know there is a finite amount of work each person can perform above critical speed regardless of the intensity over that workrate - higher for less time or barely over for more time, the total work a person is capable of is the same. So, by starting at 9 mph, I ate up a lot of my capacity for work above critical speed at the 8% incline. In retrospect, I should have started the first interval at 8.0 - 8.3 mph if I had wanted a more consistent pace throughout the intervals.

Comparing what I accomplished in that interval set with my first intervals a few weeks earlier, I have made big gains. I performed about 90% more work in that workout than in my first interval sets. So, while I’m not getting VO2max tests before and after these blocks, my capacity for high intensity work has increased appreciably.