Large amounts of low-intensity training can develop base conditioning and aid recovery

How a train low, train high approach can lead to increased performance


In recent years, the ‘middle way’ has been a popular mantra of politicians. However, as Joe Beer explains, when it comes to training intensity in endurance sports such as cycling and triathlon, the middle way is most definitely not the most effective route to elite performance.

Professional elite athletes know how to train because they have access to the best coaches and a because of the Darwinian process that ‘kills off’ bad methods and keeps good ones thriving! However, until very recently, the amateurs have never had access to the facilities and coaching backup of elite performers, so more often than not they have tended to source information from the best athletes they know locally and/or the group ethos prevailing in their particular training group or environment. The problem with this approach is that the ‘sheep mentality’ of merely doing what everyone else does is not especially effective. And let’s be honest, sheep don’t win many athletic medals!

Peaks in the clouds

Athletes used to look to the top of the sports mountain, shrouded in the clouds of greatness, and wonder what went on up there. Take, for example, the secret regimes of the 1980s ‘doctors’ behind the Iron Curtain, possessed of the ability to increase team performances in track, field and cycling. Nowadays, we have greatly increased transparency with more and more data from individuals, teams and countries, and from journals and interviews. From 4km cycling powerhouses (1) to elite junior rowers (2), as well as many others, data is published for all to see. Thankfully, we can now see that the gains are less about pharmacology and more about the analysis of training, outcomes and lessons learned.

For example, the prologue ride of cyclist Bradley Wiggins in this year’s Tour De France was online within days so that cycling fans could swoon over the his super-human effort – an average power output of 442 watts. Wiggins also published blood test data to counter any suspicion that he must have been on ‘something special’ to get fourth place overall. However, that’s a separate article entirely about champion genetics, weight loss and superb equipment choices.

Fortunately, this new openness gives sports scientists, coaches and amateur athletes the chance to see how the best actually train, and most importantly for you, it allows a trickle down of certain ‘golden nuggets’ of information from upon high. Think of it in the same way that steering wheel control paddles trickled down from rallying and F1 racing to your family car.

So it was fascinating when recent data were presented in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance on 36 elite junior rowers’ actual training data(2). These data will rock the training methods of some and give the thumbs up to what others are already doing. What they suggest in a nutshell is that the ‘Goldilocks’ approach to training (not too hard, not too easy) is detrimental for optimum performance, resulting in a no man’s land of not much progress.


Standing on the shoulders of giants

Researchers in Germany have looked at the training and competition data of elite rowers with national, world and Olympic rowing performance capabilities. Over a 37-week period, training was quantified methodically using heart rate monitoring, assessment of lactate threshold points (the point at which fatiguing lactate begins to accumulate rapidly in the blood) and performance outcomes. The rowers (14 of whom went onto Olympic finals), were lab tested to find critical points of blood lactate concentration in order to define certain training zones. These have been discussed previously in PP (see issue 239) and are shown below:

While you probably won’t have a blood lactate tester to hand, it’s quite easy to get a feel for the 2 and 4mmol/L levels. Below 2mmol/L of lactate, there’s no burning sensation and heart rates are around 60-75% of maximum. Between 2 and 4mmol/L, blood lactate builds and declines, never quite bringing you to your knees but you definitely get a sense of a ‘workout’. Above 4mmol/L, (sometimes referred to as the ‘lactate or anaerobic threshold’), exercise feels very hard, and in fact rowing data suggests that 6-8mmol/L is often reached in training by elite rowers. This high-intensity effort is such that once under way, you hope it ends very quickly! Typically, it involves from around 40 seconds to 8 minutes of maximal effort (2).

When the researchers analysed the 37-week data, their findings were very interesting. One of the most important of these was that internationally successful junior rowers performed 95% of all specific rowing training at a heart rate corresponding to a blood lactate concentration under 2mmol/L (see figure 1).

Percentage of training time performed in Zone 1 for elite rowers

Within the average 12-14 hours of training per week the athletes logged over the scrutinised period, this meant six hours of actual rowing in Zone 1 (Z1). Two to three hours were spent resistance training, two hours doing alternative steady state aerobic training, and one hour doing warm-up/flexibility work. Given that this data covered the competition period, it is very, very important to note that the athletes did just 30 minutes a week of very high intensity work.

The real world

Many endurance athletes do events that, in the real world, typically last from 15 to 20 minutes and upward. These include 5K road races, 10-mile time trials and sprint triathlons. Few actually compete in events as short as the rowers tested, though anyone in an event lasting over 40 seconds is really an endurance athlete. Many people are now entering ultra-endurance triathlons such as the Ironman where finish times are 9 to 17 hours. Similarly, sportive cycle events lasting 4 to 10 hours are attracting record numbers. How should these athletes train?

From earlier work on rowers (3), the importance of training below the anaerobic threshold has been steadily gaining attention; and anaerobic thresholds are increasingly being used as a diagnostic tool rather than a training method. In short, the anaerobic threshold is not the Mecca of training effort; it’s merely one of the many ways used to measure an improvement or decline in fitness capability. Trying to train at threshold is not the way to train: you are working too hard to be easy and too easy to be properly hard!

As respected cycling journalist and coach Fred Matheny put it almost 15 years ago in an article in Bicycling: ‘NML (no man’s land) workouts provide a kinaesthetic sense of working hard but expose the rider to too much stress per unit gain. Instead most base training should be guilt-producingly easy, and the top end, high-intensity-training (HIT) should be very mentally hard, not sort of hard’ (4).

Rowing quality sessions

Lets look at what the rowers in this study did for quality (3). Over the study period, they averaged just 2-3% of their time performing very high intensity efforts. In distance terms they did 73km in the tempo zone (Z2) but just over 3200km in Z1. Although 2000m rowing requires just 6-7 minutes of maximal effort, they still focused on ‘very easy’ or ‘very hard’.

Examples of these high-intensity sessions included:
  • 2-3 x 3-10 mins @ 90% HRmax – 10-20 mins recovery between;
  • 2-8 x 40-120 sec @ maximal effort – 5-15 mins recovery between.

In order to be ready for this very high level of effort, you need to ensure you’ve done your base sessions in a controlled manner. The priority is being ready to do the hard work, not making endurance sessions harder than they need to be. Far too many athletes try to push the base and then fail to go really hard for their HIT training.

Why does train low, train high work?

How is it that large amounts of low-intensity work can develop base conditioning, aid recovery from HIT sessions yet not turn an athlete into a ‘plodder’, churning out ‘junk miles’? Well, first off if you do your base work in the 60-80% HRmax zone, you will get as fit and efficient as your genetics will allow for that particular training mode.

However, you can’t turn base work into quality – it can be good quality technical work and it can be good quality tempo of movement, but it can’t be harder than the Z1 upper threshold. If you train in Z1 consistently, allow recovery and have no major health issues, your body will reach around 90% of its potential – no tempo work, no HIT and relatively little effort. Although you may feel guilty, easy training can get you 9/10ths of the way to your peak potential!
You can train excessively in the tempo ‘no man’s land’ zone for years. But while it gives you a buzz from your workouts and gets reasonable performances, the inputs verses the outputs never match up. For example, if you train over 15 hours per week but include more than 25% of your training in Z2 ‘no man’s land’, you’ll fail to get better despite logging more time than others who do mostly Z1 and are improving. Remember the phrase ‘guilt-producingly easy’ for more than 90% of your week, especially if you’ve been someone who has always trained too hard up until now. Figure 2 shows how elite athletes across a range of sports spend most of their time in zone 1.


For many athletes, the ‘train low, train high’ mantra requires a mindset change, forcing them to think about things differently. Perceptions such as ‘base is easy now’, ‘I can relax knowing I don’t have to keep up with other people’ or ‘It’s now more enjoyable but also more effective’, are typical when people finally get what the elites already know.


Whatever endurance athlete type you are, train low, train high can work for you. This does not mean ‘go easy, we don’t want to push ourselves do we?’ Inclusion of the very high intensity (Z3) work is absolutely critical. However, for long-term success, you need to construct your training so that the body can evolve in a very patient way. Many athletes, even with the best coaching, only see on average a 2 to 8% improvement in a given year, especially those who’ve got several racing seasons under their belts already. If you’ve been struggling in no man’s land and not making much progress, try using train low, train high approach and set realistic improvements of say 5% (not 10 or 15%) faster for 2010. And if you remember the valuable three golden nuggets above, better times are ahead.

  1. Med. Sci Sports Exerc. (2002) 34, 6, 1029-1036
  2. IJSPP (2009), (in press)
  3. Int. J Sports Med. (1993) 14, S3-S10
  4. Bicycling Oct (1995) p.90
  5. J Strength Cond Res. (2007) 21, 3, 943-949
  6. Scand J Med Sci Sports (2004) 16, 49-56
  7. Scand J Med Sci Sports (2004) 14, 303-310
  8. Med. Sci Sports Exerc. (2005) 37, 3, 496-504
  9. Scand J Med Sci Sports (2003) 13, 185-193
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