An elite cycling coach, an international swimming coach, a top-notch rowing coach, and a national running coach were recently discussing training theory over whiskies at a bar in London.
Before they became too inebriated to make much sense, they had a very penetrating conversation about the effects of long workouts on fitness - and about how athletes should train their 'fast twitch' muscle fibers. We thought you might benefit from their interchange.
Rowing coach: While we're ordering another round of Glenmorangie, I thought I would share some interesting training ideas with you. We've only had one round so far, so you all remember Peter Snell, don't you?
Cycling coach: Yes, yes, fabulous lad - one of Arthur Lydiard's acolytes. Middle-distance runner, as I recall; strong as a bull - won three Olympic gold medals in all.
Rowing coach: Quite right. But, you may not be aware that Snell was a bit of an academic too: went on to get his PhD and became a fine exercise physiologist at Texas Southwestern University, in Dallas.
Others: You don't say! Here, here - let's drink to that!
Rowing coach: Quite so, and Peter still gives talks about training, you know. Of course, he's always asked by audiences why Lydiard's high-volume program, with its apparent de-emphasis on speed training, would be optimal for athletes competing in speed events lasting less than four minutes, and his answer is very intriguing.
Basically, he says that prolonged workouts, even carried out at modest intensities, are quite good for an athlete's fast twitch muscle fibers - and thus do one hell of a job of improving his speed.
Swimming coach: Would his theory apply to swimming, too?
Rowing coach: Absolutely: Snell would argue that the overall mechanism would work for any endurance activity.
Swimming coach: OK, what's the punch line? I just don't get it - how can moving slowly for long periods make you faster?
Rowing coach: Here's Snell's basic argument: you go out at a modest pace, whether you are swimming, rowing, running, cycling or cross-country skiing, and you are basically using your slow twitch muscle fibers - the ones with nice oxygen-utilization capacities - to produce your movement.
Since the pace is slow, your fast twitch fibers just laze around, waiting for their moment to come.
Running coach: And does their moment ever come?
Rowing coach: You bet! After 40-60 minutes or so, depending on the athlete and his/her fitness level, the poor slow twitchers begin to get a little tired. None the less, you keep moving along, and your neuromuscular system begins to wonder how you are going to keep going, since your slow twitch cells are running out of fuel.
According to Snell, such neuromuscular musings don't last long and fast twitch muscle cells are readily 'recruited' to take over the work of the fading slow twitchers.
As the workout proceeds, more and more fast twitch sinews are brought into play until finally you are working all of your fast twitchers, even though you are moving at a slow pace. Your fast twitchers get a great workout, despite the fact that the intensity and perceived effort of the session are quite moderate.
Slow & Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers.
In this article you will learn that the higher the reps, the more slow twitch fibers you work and the lower the amount of reps, the more fast twitch fibers you work and much more...
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Being Slow Makes You Fast
Running coach: By Jove, I think he is on to something! Long workouts, even though carried out slowly, improve the fitness of an athlete's fast twitch muscle cells. Being slow makes you fast!
Cycling coach: Now hold on here - I see a few potential problems.
Running coach: Such as?
Cycling coach: Well, first of all, there are many good endurance athletes with fine competitive times who have a very, very low percentage of fast twitch cells in their muscles. During long workouts these athletes can't call up their fast twitch fibers - because there is nobody at home!
Running coach: Good point.
Cycling coach: Bear in mind, too, that there is no guarantee the fast twitch cells would be the ones called upon to carry an athlete through an especially long workout. It could be that once the major slow twitch players begin to fatigue, other - perhaps less efficient - slow-twitch cells will be recruited to complete the workout.
Running coach: Also a good point!
Cycling coach: Above and beyond those two factors is something even more important. We have known for years that gains in muscular strength are activity-specific: that is, if you attempt to improve the strength of your quadriceps muscles by doing leg extensions in a seated, non weight-bearing position on an exercise machine at the gym.
You should not expect your squatting, vertical jumping, or running strength to improve dramatically, since these activities are so very different from the seated leg extension moves, which isolate the quads from everything else in the legs.
Running coach: Fair enough, but how does it apply to what Snell is talking about? For example, the long workout athletes he mentions are actually running - and are expecting the gains in strength to manifest themselves during running. What's wrong with that?
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Muscles are stupid, you know.
Cycling coach: Nothing, except that gains in strength are not just movement-specific, but also speed-specific. In other words, you can strengthen a muscle tremendously using decent resistance and slow speeds, but you cannot expect that muscle also to be stronger at high speeds.
If you want the muscles to be stronger at high speed, you have to give them resistance at high speed during training. In Snell's case, those athletes who actually have decent collections of fast twitch cells and who do indeed activate them toward the ends of their prolonged workouts are teaching their fast twitch fibers to be stronger during slow movements.
The trouble is that when you ask them to be stronger during fast actions, they won't have a clue what to do. Admittedly, this concept is rather new in the athletic world, but it is absolutely valid. Muscles are stupid, you know: you can't expect them to say, 'Hey, I'm stronger during this very slow movement, so I can be stronger during rapid movements, too'.
The nervous system controls the muscles, and if the nervous system doesn't actually learn how to control fast activity, then the fast activity will simply not occur - or will occur with low efficiency and rapid onset of fatigue.
Running coach: You're on a roll with this one!
Cycling coach: I have to admit I'm really interested in this stuff. If you don't buy into what I am saying, take a look at a really fascinating paper published by researchers at McMaster University in Canada a few years ago(1).
They pile up considerable evidence to show that the greatest gains in strength attained by athletes occur at the movement speeds used during training.
It's fruitless to work slowly against resistance, even when that resistance is supplied by body weight and gravity, and then expect to achieve major gains in strength at high speed.
I'd also like to cite another recent study, in which researchers at the renowned Karolinska Institute in Stockholm tested the specific effects of eccentric and concentric training on muscular strength in a group of 10 Swedish athletes.
The athletes were randomly assigned to either eccentric or concentric exercise of the quadriceps muscles and were tested and trained on an isokinetic dynamometer while seated, restrained by straps over the upper thigh, pelvis, and trunk(2).
The concentric group athletes exercised by extending one leg at the knee, pushing maximally on the resisting lever arm of the dynamometer as the leg straightened (the lever arm was attached to the lower part of the leg with a pad). These were concentric contractions - the quads shortened as they flexed the leg at the knee.
By contrast, the eccentric group athletes maximally resisted the movement of the lever arm as it relentlessly flexed the leg at the knee; thus, the quads were engaged in eccentric activity, lengthening even as they exerted maximal tension against the relentless lever.
During both the concentric and eccentric actions, actual angular velocity of movement was kept constant (isokinetic) by the dynamometer. One velocity of movement (90¡ per second) was used during training, and three velocities (30, 90, and 270¡ per second) were used to test for gains in strength at the ends of the training periods.
Total range of motion per eccentric or concentric action was always 85¡ (between knee angles of 90¡ and 5¡, with 0¡ representing a straight leg).
All subjects trained three times a week for a total of 20 weeks. For the first half of the study, only their left legs were trained, with their right legs trained during the second half. Each workout consisted of four sets of 10 consecutive maximal actions (either concentric or eccentric), with a two-minute rest between sets.
As mentioned, training velocity was set at 90¡ per second, which meant that every action (eccentric or concentric) lasted about one second, with one second of rest during the passive return of the dynamometer arm to the starting position.
During training, the non-active leg hung passively from the dynamometer seat. Before the training period began, the two groups were identical in terms of concentric and eccentric strength.
After 10 weeks, the eccentric training had a dramatic impact on maximal power during eccentric activity, with peak torque increasing by up to 43% at 90¡ per second and 17% at 30¡ per second.
(Note the specificity-of-training principle at work here: the subjects trained at 90¡ per second, and therefore the increase in strength was greater at 90¡ per second than at the slower speed of 30¡ per second.)
In the concentric group, peak torque during concentric activity improved to a lesser extent, with concentric athletes boosting concentric peak torque by just 20% at 90¡ per second and 13% per cent at 30¡ per second.
These smaller gains in strength were to be expected, since actual force production during concentric training was considerably less than during eccentric training.
Interestingly enough, in no case (either concentric or eccentric) did strength improve at the fast speed of 270¡ per second.
In other words, the training velocity used (90¡ per second) produced the greatest gains in strength, for both the eccentric and concentric groups, when the test velocity was set at 90¡ per second.
Both groups also improved - although to a lesser extent - at the slower velocities, but neither group was able to boost strength at high speed. If you want to be strong at high speed, you've got to train at high speed - and that goes for running, cycling, swimming, rowing, and cross-country skiing, as well as strength training.
Swimming coach: Whew! That took some following, but it's very convincing. Is anything else wrong with Snell's ideas?
Cycling coach: Well, there are some things that sports people who are well-endowed with fast twitch fibers might want to consider.
For example, researchers have been able to show that strenuous, prolonged aerobic training can roughly double the number of slow twitch muscle fibers in the leg muscles of laboratory animals, while causing proportionate losses in fast twitch cells.
True, we can't say with certainty that human leg muscles would respond in exactly the same way, but a Swedish scientist named Peter Schantz has been able to show that, in response to sustained aerobic training, fast twitch cells can 'disappear' from the muscles of cross-country skiers.
Running coach: Those skiers are an odd bunch. Do we have to worry about them, too?
Becoming A Fast Twitch Machine.
Having warned you ahead of time that muscle typing is often overrated and less important then other factors, I still believe it is of significance. For more information about changing to a fast twitch muscle machine read on below.
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A New Kind Of Muscle Cell Appeared
Cycling coach: Certainly - cross-country skiing is an endurance sport, and basic physiological principles apply. In Schantz's work, four female and three male cross-country skiers covered a total of 500 miles over 36 days (at an average of about 14 miles per day or 100 miles a week).
After the 36-day trek, the average percentage of fast twitch fibers dipped from 69 to 56% in the skiers' muscles. New slow twitch fibers didn't crop up, however; a new kind of muscle cell - which Schantz called the 'intermediate fiber' - did and seemed to make up about 15% of the skiers' muscle cells.
These new cells had characteristics of both fast and slow twitch fibers, and Schantz presumed they were actually transformed fast twitchers. While this trend would seem a bit worrying for athletes with good fast twitch compositions who engage in high-volume training, it's possible that those intermediate cells might revert back to their previous fast twitch habits.
Schantz's colleague, the world-famous Bengt Saltin, postulated that it might take five to six years for the intermediate cells to become true slow twitch fibers (Of course, most exercise physiologists agree that once they become real slow twitchers a reversal to fastness is impossible).
None the less, athletes with a good crop of fast twitch cells might want to be careful about this potential conversion.
Rowing coach: Well, let's sum up. Do we agree that prolonged workouts are probably not particularly beneficial for fast twitch muscle fibers - or speed development?
Cycling coach: I think that we have to agree on that one, and of course it's easier to agree on things now that we've all had our second Glenmorangie! Basically, though, that's what the scientific evidence indicates.
Running coach: All right then, this brings us to a key point: what is the value of a very prolonged workout - one that goes well beyond an athlete's usual boundaries?
Cycling coach: To answer that question properly, we need to realize that there are two quite different possibilities here.
For example, a cyclist who is doing six hour-long workouts per week may ask me: 'Instead of my usual routine, should I perhaps do four of my usual one-hour workouts but then add in something really long - perhaps a two-hour session?
Is there something about particularly long workouts which has a special fitness-enhancing effect? Will I be a better athlete if I include the long session?' On the other hand, the same athlete might ask me whether there would be a performance advantage in taking on an extra-long workout in addition to his current six one-hour workouts.'
Running coach: So what would you say to him?
Cycling coach: In the first case, the answer is quite easy. If an athlete keeps training volume constant and merely rearranges the hours spent training to produce one extremely long effort each week (or each key training cycle), the general effect on fitness would be minimal.
In fact, we could argue - using the hypothetical athlete I mentioned - that since a two-hour effort will usually be conducted at a lower intensity than two separate one-hour workouts, the overall result of adding in the longer workout might actually be a small reduction in physiological fitness.
Swimming coach: Too right!
Cycling coach: In athletics, as in life, there are exceptions, however. If this athlete is preparing for a competitive event lasting two hours-or-so, then he will need the prolonged workouts.
These longer training periods will give him the physical endurance he needs to get through the competition, as well as mental confidence that he can go the distance. However, the athlete doesn't need to repeat the prolonged effort over and over again.
I get really amused by marathon runners who force themselves through 18-22-mile runs week after week during training - almost as if they think their bodies will forget how to run that far.
What they should be doing instead is jazzing up their programs with the kind of higher-intensity workouts which will make them physiologically fitter, adding a sprinkling of long runs to maintain endurance and confidence.
Running coach: Cyclists make exactly the same mistake.
Cycling coach: So do swimmers and rowers. I should add that athletes benefit most from long workouts if they make the training specific to what they want to do. In other words, don't just go long, but go long with a significant segment of the long workout carried out at the intensity you hope to achieve during competition.
Rowing coach: OK, but what about the other example - the athlete who is doing pretty well in training but wants to add a long workout on top of everything else he is doing?
Training To Maximize Your Muscle Fiber Types!
Your muscles are made of 2 different types of fibers. Find out what they are, what your personal fiber make-up is and how to train for maximum results.
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Playing The Mileage Game
Cycling coach: In that case, the athlete is simply playing the mileage game. He hopes the additional training volume will magically confer fitness - and in some cases it will.
For example, a cyclist who is training for only two hours per week is likely to benefit from an additional two-hour session, which could, of course be labeled a 'long workout'.
But if the cyclist is preparing for, say, a 40k race and is already cycling about 10-12 hours per week at a reasonable intensity, would adding on a three-to-four-hour session on Sunday really be helpful? Unless he is incredibly obese and needs to shed mega-poundage, I doubt it; in fact, the strenuously long session might lead to overtraining syndrome.
Running coach: Didn't Dave Costill have something to say about this?
Cycling coach: Yes, you probably know that the effects of high training volume on fitness have been inadequately studied, but the famous American exercise physiologist was certainly able to show that beyond certain limits adding on more work produces no benefits and can indeed cause harm.
For runners, the limit appears to be around 70 miles per week. Cyclists, swimmers, and rowers have their limits, too, although they have not been quantified. Training does not automatically build upon itself, and doing more work may produce positive or ill effects, depending on the athlete and the existing training volume.
Running coach: Still, we see athletes who step up their volume of training and do get faster, even though the amount of quality work they do is marginal. What is happening there?
Cycling coach: In such cases, they had simply not reached their physiological limits - the point beyond which additional training produces no gain.
What happens is that the additional volume improves physiological variables to some degree - VO2max or lactate threshold speed or economy of movement, or even all three; the athlete is then able to perform at a specific good-quality speed at a lower percentage of VO2max or at a smaller step above lactate threshold, which makes the speed easier to sustain, both mentally and physically.
The athlete can then take what used to be his 5k racing speed, for example, and extend it out to 8k or even 10k. That's great, but it is only part of the speed improvement picture; athletes who do this haven't improved their top speed - they have just enhanced their ability to sustain speeds of which they are already capable.
If they also worked on improving their sport-specific strength and then power, they would improve max speed and, in effect, create new 'speed terrain' into which they could move as their physiological 'base' improved. They could potentially cycle, run, swim, row, or ski much, much faster than before and use their improved physiology to use the new speeds in competition.
Swimming coach: We've really covered a lot of ground tonight. Is there anything else?
Cycling coach: I'm afraid I must sup up and then use whatever fast twitch cells I have to catch the last train to Oxford. Speed can be useful in everyday life, too! Cheers!
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