Rethinking Core Training: Is it a fad?

Rethinking Core Training: Is it a fad?

Core training is all the buzz in almost every field of fitness. Search the internet and there have been massive amounts of literature written on the subject. As is a theme in my training, any time a ‘new’ thing becomes a fad, it is at first overemphasized until it naturally falls into its place of worth. That seems to be the case with core training. Is it useful for a distance runner or any athlete? Absolutely. Is it something that demands hours of time spent specifically training it? Probably not.

The problem arises in how best to train the core. Is it best to do hours of countless situps or wobble around on a bosu ball? Let’s look at some of the current research to see if we can discern what needs to be trained and how to train it.

A recent article was published comparing the degree of muscle activation of the “core” muscles (Behm, Cappa, & Power, 2009). They measured muscle activation for the external obliques, lower abdominals, and the eractor spinae. The interesting finding was that the level of activation of the eractor spinae was higher during running than during a back extension exercise designed to train that muscle. What this means is that running trains the core, specifically the trunk. One has to question if doing a ton of back extension work is a good exercise to train the trunk portion of the core, if you are getting more muscle activation just by running.

Similarly, if we look at muscle activation of the entire set of core muscles, what exercises provide the most muscle activation? Is it old school ab work like crunches, crazy yoga style poses, or new school stuff like doing ab work on Bosu balls. Again looking at muscle activation of several different core muscles during different exercises we can get an idea of what might be effective. In looking at two core muscles on the backside, the longissimus and the multifidus, their activation levels were much higher during a squat and deadlift at heavier weights than in several core exercises (bird dog, pelvic thrusts, planks, dead lift, pushups, bosu ball work). In looking at the external obliques, the level of activation was higher in the lifts than the majority of the core exercises and equal to the other two. The takeaway message is that for most of the core muscles, the level of activation is higher doing traditional lifting than specific core work.

Lastly, let’s look at training on unstable surfaces, which seems to be a new trend in athletics. Training on unstable surfaces like balance discs, BoSu balls, etc. creates a lot of problems. First off, training on an unstable surface increases the activation of the antagonist muscle. This isn’t a good thing. What this means is that the muscle working directly opposite of the muscle that is doing the work is activated. This obviously isn’t a desired outcome as it is in effect working against what you are trying to do. Essentially, this co-contraction is like driving with the parking break on. Training on an unstable surface doesn’t have a lot of research to back it up in terms of performance benefits.

The take away message isn’t that you shouldn’t do core training, it’s just that you should think about what you are doing as core training. As a distance runner, why would you try and replicate the same thing that gets done while running. Instead, focus on the benefits that you can’t get from running. . In this regard, it’s similar to weight lifting. Why spend time doing the same kind of training in the weight room as you do out running or on the track? That means forget the really high rep low weight exercises that do pretty much the same thing as going out and running. Instead focus on the things that you can’t get out running, in this example power/neural changes/economy changes. The same thing applies to core training.
Tieing this back to the original study which prompted this post, do we really need to spend an hour on doing a bunch of core work when running is core training? Will doing 15 back extension exercises do much when we just spent an hour doing an exercise which activates the back muscles to a greater degree? Instead, maybe we should do exercises which better strengthen those muscles if that’s the goal. Lastly, one has to look at how important the core is to your sport. Does a strong core really do all that people claim it too? Does our form really fall apart because our core does? That’s a common belief, but I’m betting that it isn’t true. Generally the core doesn’t fatigue first when racing. Form falling apart is a result of fatigue elsewhere and the runner trying to compensate or fight this fatigue by changing something. For instance, if stride length starts to decrease, you often see overswinging of the arm stroke. Are the arms fatigued? Not really, the runner’s just compensating. This can also be seen with the forward or backward lean during heavy fatigue. Is the runners back fatiguing so much that he can’t keep upright? Probably not, he’s just trying to compensate for reduced stride length/frequency.

A lot of the research in the above post was taken from a presentation from fellow grad student Matt Andre, so thank you Matt.

Practical Implications of Fallacy of VO2max paper:

Thank you for the great/enormous response to my last posting. I wrote that paper for a class and glad that some have found it entertaining and useful. I welcome any critiques, especially training related, as it forces me to evaluate my views on training runners and my understanding of the science of it all. Below I've quickly written some of the practical implications of the items discussed in my last paper, The Fallacy of Vo2max. Enjoy.

Practical Implications of VO2max paper:

Following my paper on the “Fallacy of VO2max” I’d like to point out some of the practical implications of some of the topics discussed in the paper and address some criticisms. I’ll separate the implications into what it means for training and what it means for research.

From a research standpoint, Vo2max as a parameter is deeply ingrained in the discipline of Exercise Science. Almost all training studies use VO2max as a basis of separating out training intensities. In addition, basically every study that looks at a particular training method uses VO2max as a way to see if it’s effective or not. Some studies just measure changes in VO2max or other parameters instead of seeing if it effects the one thing that people are interested in, performance.

There needs to be a shift in focus on how training methods affect actual performance and once this is established figuring out how this training improved performance. Performance is king. An athlete does not care if his or her VO2max increases/decreases as long as performance is increased.

The model also needs to be changed. The model to explain most performance in endurance sport consists of 3 variables, VO2max, Running Economy, and Lactate Threshold. In my opinion, this is a far too simplistic model that is flawed. I’ve already discussed the flaws in VO2max. Running Economy is a measurement that doesn’t really measure efficiency like we think it does either; it simply reflects oxygen utilization efficiency. Which is great, but there are a whole lot of other things going on in terms of efficiency. Efficiency should be separated into mechanical, metabolic, and neural efficiency, in my opinion. Using Running economy overemphasizes the aerobic metabolic part of the equation.
There also needs to be a shift in how we classify exercise intensities. This could be the biggest thing. As mentioned in the paper, there is wide variation in the individualized response to training at fixed % of VO2max. %VO2max is the most used way of classifying training intensities for endurance athletes in research. The initital premise in some of these studies is that all the subjects are training at the same work load. Well, this is probably not the case if using %VO2max. That means the subsequent conclusions based on the research could be flawed.

Lastly, there needs to be a bridge between the research and the real world. Currently, there is very little communication or mixture between the groups. Read the research and you’ll see a world of researchers convinced that high intensity training is the cure for everything. Look in the real world and you’ll see that elite endurance coaches are heavy on aerobic development and a mixture of intensities with relatively high mileage. Yet, there is this attitude expressed in many research articles that the real world coaches have it wrong because the research points otherwise. The problem is that if they looked at the history of distance running training, they’d see that almost every type of training paradigm has been tried and what we are now using and tweaking is a result of that. The very low mileage/high intensity route failed to produce the results that we currently are producing… This gap between the research and what coaches do is enormous in distance running.

And one last note. Can we please move away from this infatuation with time spent at VO2max during interval training. There's a ton of studies trying to figure out the intervals that allow for most time spent at VO2max. WHY?! Nothing has ever shown that it matters.
I’m not saying I have all of or any solutions to the above. I think recognizing the shortcomings are the first step. Solving them is something else entirely.

Training Implication:
Some have criticized that I lumped %VO2max and %vVO2 (velocity at VO2max) together. That may be valid but I did that for a reason. The point of the paper was partly to show that training based on certain zones is not sound because of the individual response of the athlete. Even if we use %vVO2 as a training basis, its still making the assumption that if you can run 5min pace for vVO2, and the zone calculated for training at some certain zone(Tempo/LT zone for example) is at 90%vVO2 plus or minus a few percent, then EVERYONE who runs 5min pace for vVO2 should train at 5:30 pace to elicit a certain training response, LT for example. The point is that you will get a wide variation of training response even if everyone trains at 90%vVO2.

The second implication is that we shouldn’t train to improve a parameter that rarely changes from year to year. In Daniels Running Formula, he states that training in his VO2max zone is done to improve VO2max and vVO2max, and that what matters is accumulating time spent at VO2max during the workout. My contention is that none of this matters. You’re not going to change VO2max much at all and time at VO2max doesn’t matter for the adaptation.

A lot of people get caught up in change the vVO2max. Why not just concern yourself with how fast you can race a 3k or how long you can last at goal 3k pace instead, if you are training for a 3k? Is there something special about the vVO2max? No. I always get a kick out of the research that says that vVO2max is the best predictor for how fast you can run a 3k/5k. Really? We needed a test to tell us that. That’s like using a test that on how far can you run in 10 minutes and then saying that that velocity corresponds highly to a 3k race (that lasts 8-10minutes…).

That brings me to my conclusion that we need a paradigm shift away from focusing on certain variables to classify and train for and shift to one based on performance. The main reason we train at VO2max or LT or any other variable is because it is an easily measured point. Because it is an easily measured point, that means a ton of research has focused on training at those intensities. Does that mean it is necessarily better or worse than an intensity that is 15sec/mile faster or slower? No. You see this in the literature. For a while, all the rage was training at a point halfway between VO2max and LT. What’s special about this point? Well, researchers came to the conclusion that some training needs to be done between these two intensity zones, but there wasn’t a nice physiological mechanism that went on in that “zone”. So what do you do, you say it’s halfway between VO2max and LT. Is that any better than 1/3 of the way or ¾ of the way or how about 5/8? No. If we had two athletes doing the exact same interval session, who have the exact same 5k best, they will have a different reaction to the training based on their individual characteristics (ranging from muscle fiber type, stride type, degree of reactivity, mentality, etc.). I’ve talked numerous times of how training differs for a fast twitch vs. a slow twitch type athlete and that’s what I’m talking about right now.

The point is that there is going to be an individual response at all of the different intensities from a pure sprint to a slow jog. Science is never going to be able to explain what exactly is best because science works in the world of averages. It is thus the coaches job to figure out what intensity each athlete needs, when, and how much. And if you don't get anything else out of this, understand this, there are NO magic training zones or magical interval workouts. You need a wide range of workouts.

I like Renato Canova’s method of seeing a blend of training paces where everything impacts each other. In a thread on letsrun, he put down all of the different intensities his athletes train at, saying that each one is connected (

A simple way to think of this is, if we have an athlete whose goal is to run 4min for a mile then he needs plenty of work under and over that pace and we blend it together.

Faster: Pure sprint work, working slower to specific speed
60m full sprints
6x100m in 11.5-12.0
4x200 in 24.0-25.5
4x300m in 37-39
4x400m in 54-56
4x600m at 56-58 pace
3x800m at 60sec pace

Slower: Longer repeats at slower paces working towards specific pace
6-8mi at 75-78 pace
4mi tempos at 72-74 pace
3x1.5mi at 70-72 pace
4x1600m at 68-70 pace
5x1200m at 66-68 pace
5x1000m at 64-65 pace
4x800 at 62-64sec pace
3x800 at 60sec pace
Specific pace: Increase specific endurance by lengthening repeats/ shortening rest while keeping speed the same.
Example progression:
3 sets of 16x100m in 15 w/ 15sec rest, 3min b/t sets
2 sets of 8x200 in 30 w/ 45sec rest, 3 b/t sets
2 sets of 5x300 in 45 w/ 45sec rest
2 sets of 4x400 in 60 w/ 45sec rest
2 sets of 4x400 w/ 25sec rest
600,600,400 w/ 30sec rest

Surround all of this with support from both faster and slower paces and you are good to go. Remembering that we add to training, not take things away. Support can range from specific support (paces are close to the specific pace) to general support (paces far away from specific pace) and all paces in between, on both the aerobic and anaerobic side of the equation. For this mile example, you’d support it with various intensities from 3k pace to high end aerobic for aerobic support. For anaerobic support, from 58pace down to a pure sprint.

The Fallacy of Vo2max and %VO2max

I'm finishing up with finals, so I thought I'd post a long paper on the fallacy of VO2max. In it I briefly touch on a lot of stuff that's going to be in my master's thesis. Briefly, the legitimacy of the measurement, training to improve it, and basing training off of it (think Daniels VDOT or Vigil's %VO2max).

There has been a lot of good research coming out lately that shows that there is huge variation between individual when training at a fixed %VO2, which should not surprise anyone who reads this blog.

Lastly, in the future, I'll do a similar paper/post on the measurement of Running Economy. Once again, it does not measure what we think it does. This has been dabled in for years in cycling (Which is an interesting story...They found that cyclists preferred pedaling at high revolutions per minute, while the research showed that pedalling at a low RPM was more 'efficient' when measured via economy (VO2)...They were baffled. Then some guys got the bright idea of measuring efficiency in a different way (energetic cost- basically in joules/per kg/per meter, or thought of as how much energy does it take to cover a distance) and they found that in terms of this efficiency, cyclist were more efficient at high RPMs...just like the elites preferred...Similar research is starting to happen in running).

I've been holding off on posting this, but was inspired by a good post by Jay Johnson talking about how their are no magical intensity zones, which as readers of this blog would know, is my biggest pet peeve in the world.

Anyways, enjoy, let me know what you think: (It's LONG):

The fallacy of VO2max based training.

In a comprehensive review on training, Midgley and McNaughton’s first sentence state’s “The maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) has been suggested to be the single most important physiological capacity in determining endurance running performance” (2006). Based on this notion, training for distance runners has become fixated on the concept of VO2max. Training to enhance VO2max is the subject of numerous review articles and popular coaching material. A whole theory of training has evolved based on the idea of training at the speed that corresponds with VO2max, and at certain percentages of VO2max (Daniels, 2005). Given the emphasis on this particular parameter one would assume that it must be very closely tied with performance and fatigue. It’s not.
In the following paper the limitations of VO2max will be discussed. Including the legitimacy of the variable itself, why it arose to such prominence, the efficacy of basing training paces off of it, should we even train to improve it, and how closely it ties to performance.

How the VO2max concept developed:
The ability to measure oxygen consumption first arose in the early 1920’s. It was in 1923, when A.V. Hill and his partner H. Lupton came up with the idea there being an upper limit on oxygen consumption. In an experiment which consisted of Hill running at various speeds around a grass track while measuring VO2, it was found that Hill reached a VO2max of 4.080 L/min at a speed 243m/min (Bassett, 2000). Despite increases in speed, his VO2 did not increase, leading Hill to conclude that there is a maximum limit to oxygen consumption, or in his words:
“In running the oxygen requirement increases continuously as the speed increases attaining enormous values at the highest speeds: the actual oxygen intake, however, reaches a maximum beyond which no effort can drive it… The oxygen intake may attain its maximum and remain constant merely because it cannot go any higher owing to the limitations of the circulatory and respiratory system” (Noakes, 2008, pg. 575).

These findings led to two lasting conclusions. First, that VO2max is limited by the circulatory and respiratory system. The second conclusion was the result of trying to device a laboratory test for determining VO2max, in which thirty years later, Taylor et al. decided that during a graded exercise test, a VO2max was obtained when a plateau occurred in VO2 (Noakes, 2008). However, in Taylor’s original definition, a plateau was not a true plateau but it rather consisted of a VO2 increase of less than 150ml/min from one workload to the next. These findings led to the idea that in order for a true VO2max to be reached, a plateau of the VO2 should occur.
Understanding how the VO2max test came about is important as it impacts the way we currently view and use the parameter. The fact that VO2max was first measured during exercise by one of the pioneers of Exercise Science in the 1920’s goes a long way in explaining the level of importance ascribed to it. Whenever a new parameter is discovered or introduced, a large degree of emphasis is put on that parameter in the research. The initial reaction by many scientists is to ascribe a great deal of significance to the newly discovered parameter, as if it will answer all of the questions that we have. It is almost as if it is human nature to go through this process of discovery and then exaggeration of the importance of the new finding. This can be seen in many instances in a wide degree of scientific fields. In Exercise Science, this may best be demonstrated by the rise of the anaerobic or lactate threshold during the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s. With the ability to portably test lactate, research was centered on ways to improve lactate threshold and the various methods to test for it. Coaches also devised ways of using lactate testing as a way of manipulating the training of their athletes. Whenever something is new, it is overemphasized, before it usually settles into its rightful place of importance over time.
Due to the very early development of the VO2max concept, a large amount of early research and study was focused on it, escalating the importance given to the parameter. In addition, theories were developed utilizing the VO2max concept very early on. The problem is that early development of the VO2max concept created a situation where there was enormous amount of data and research surrounding it, in essence creating a concept that is too large to break down. It is almost as if the field of Exercise Science was built upon the VO2max concept.
Recently, the legitimacy of VO2max both as a measurement and the acceptance of VO2max as a practical measurement of cardio-respiratory endurance has been called into question. Their contention is that VO2max is not actually a representative measure of the maximum ability to transport oxygen, but is rather controlled by a central governor. In Tim Noakes’ Central Governor Model (CGM), the CGM predicts that the body regulates exercise to prevent myocardial ischemia during exercise. This is accomplished by limiting the blood flow to the periphery which the brain accomplishes by regulating muscle recruitment (Noakes & Marino, 2009). Therefore, VO2max reflects this regulation of muscles recruitment. In essence, a central governor acts as a regulator for exercise instead of exercise being limited by some parameter.
There are several theoretical arguments for this model. Noakes and other CGM proponents point to the fact that fatigue is seldom catastrophic like would be predicted in traditional models. Instead, the body uses various feedback information and past experiences to modulate power output or in the case of running, pace. The idea of pacing being prevalent in endurance events and the fact that a finishing kick, or endspurt, occurs are given as further evidence to support this model (Noakes, 2003). Interestingly, evidence of alterations in pacing strategy and EMG, which measures muscle activation can be seen from the very beginning of performance, such as that seen when racing in warm versus cool weather, which leads credence to the anticipation model of fatigue (Noakes, 2008).
An increase in muscle activation is also seen during the last segments of races, which should not be able to occur if the muscle is “failing” due to fatigue. Noakes’ hypothesis is that at the end of a race, the body’s feedback says that it is near completion so that is can push slightly more into its capacity (Noakes, 2008). Evidence for this hypothesis can be seen in a study by Tucker et al. that found that when completing a 20-km cycling trial in normoxia versus hyperoxia, the improvement in power output in hyperoxia was proportional to the increase in iEMG that also occurred, which the authors cited as evidence that control of muscle activation was one way in which performance was regulated (2007).

Another interesting point raised in the CGM debate is the effect hypoxia has on Cardiac Output. Exercise in hypoxic conditions show a reduction in peak Cardiac Output, due to both a decrease in HR and SV (Calbet et al., 2003). According to the conventional model Cardiac Output, since it is regulated by muscle oxygen demands, should not be reduced. However in the CGM, Cardiac Output is reduced as a regulatory mechanism and is determined by the work done by the muscles (Noakes, 2004). Thus, a reduction in Cardiac Output in hypoxia is due to a decrease in muscle activation, which when supplementary oxygen is taken, Cardiac Output immediately increases to normal levels (Noakes, 2004). This immediate increase in Cardiac Output demonstrates that there is a regulatory mechanism in control and one has to question why Cardiac Output is reduced at altitude when oxygen demand by the muscles should be higher.

In regards to VO2max and how it is tested, Noakes has pointed out that in most cases the original requirement of seeing a plateau in VO2max during an incremental exercise test does not occur (Noakes, 2008). Demonstrating this lack of plateau, in a study on world class cyclists only 47% reached a plateau, prompting the authors of the study to state that their limitations might not be oxygen dependent (Noakes, 2008). It is amusing that some authors have commented that motivation may be the reason some athletes do not reach a plateau (Shephard, 2009). This could be a valid statement if the subjects were sedentary, however since the above study was with world class cyclists, it seems a bit ludicrous to suggest that motivation during a maximum test would be a problem in such athletes. In addition, in other studies, one by Hawkins et al., there have been individual variations in VO2max levels between the traditional incremental test and a supramaximal test (Noakes, 2008). While in the average of the whole group there were no differences between the tests, the fact that certain individuals showed different VO2max is interesting and shows that the traditional test does not always give the highest VO2.

Combining the fact that a plateau does not occur in many subjects and the fact that some individuals reached higher VO2max values during a supramaximal test than the standard incremental one, the use of the standard incremental VO2max should be called into question. Other studies show that knowing or not knowing when a test or trial will end significantly effects physiological parameters, which lends credence to the aforementioned idea. In a study by Baden et al. they demonstrated that Running Economy significantly changed, along with RPE, during a submaximal run based on whether the group knew they were running 20 minutes or whether they did not know, even if they ended up running 20 minutes (2005). The VO2max test is one in which participants do not have an exact finish distance or time, so it is possible that this degree of uncertainty could affect the physiological parameters measured. The study also points to the importance of feedback and anticipation and that it can affect physiological variables.

One final point on VO2max testing is why variation exists based on exercise testing mode (Basset & Boulay, 2000). A runner tested running versus another modality such as cycling will have different VO2max values. There is great individual variation too, between 0 and 13% in the aforementioned study. If we recognize that regardless of exercise the oxygen cascade from the air through delivery via Cardiac Output are central adaptations and should not be different between the exercise modes, then the change in VO2max must either happen on the muscular level or it is regulated via muscle recruitment. This would explain why elite cyclists reach higher percentages of treadmill VO2max when testing cycling VO2max compared to lower level cyclists (Basset & Boulay, 2000). Lastly, the fact that muscle mass activation seems to be the major reason for variations in VO2max among a whole variety of testing methods, shows that muscle activation may play a significant role in determining VO2max, at least to a certain point (Dalleck et al., 2004).

Considering this new theory of fatigue, and the fact that the requirement used for reaching VO2max does not occur in many subjects, the use of VO2max as a testing parameter is called into question. In addition, if VO2max is regulated, then the question arises if it accurately reflects cardio-respiratory endurance. If we accept this to be true, then using VO2max and percentages of VO2max for training might not give the training response that we think it does.

Efficacy of basing training paces off of VO2max

With the rise of VO2max research, training is based on the parameter in two ways. First, training at the speeds that elicit VO2max has become the magic training intensity which supposedly elicits the most improvements. Secondly, training at percentages of VO2max has become en vogue as a way to quantify training intensity.
In regards to training at VO2max, this arose because of a review of research that showed that the largest improvements in VO2max occurred when training at an intensity that corresponded with the parameter, irregardless of duration of the exercise (Wenger & Bell, 1986). This finding was subsequently used to demonstrate that training at VO2max was the best intensity for improving endurance in all groups of people. There are two problems with this conclusion. First, the studies findings are generalized to all groups, even though, as we will talk about later, VO2max does not improve in well trained individuals. Secondly, VO2max and endurance performance are used almost synonymously, which is not true, as discussed earlier VO2max may not even measure cardio-respiratory endurance and is certainly not the only factor in endurance performance.

Despite these concerns, training at VO2max has risen to prominence. In looking at the research, there are countless studies and reviews that focus on training at this intensity (Midgley et al., 2006). It has gone so far, that maximizing the time spent at VO2max has garnered much attention (Midgley et al., 2006). Researchers have studied the various interval training programs with the sole goal in seeing how much time at VO2max each subject spent during the training, which in itself is interesting because it shows the emphasis on the parameter instead of performance. The thought is that time spent at VO2max is the stimulus needed to improve VO2max. However, this theory has not been substantiated by research. For instance, in a study by Billat et al. after 4 weeks of training using an interval program designed to elicit time at VO2max, VO2max and, more importantly, performance did not improve (1999). In addition, even in untrained people, the original review by Wenger and Bell stated that improvements in VO2max at high intensities were not dependent on the volume of training (1986). Despite these facts, researchers continue to press on with the idea that time spent at VO2max is the key ingredient for improved endurance, even though no research backs up this theory.

Using %Vo2max to quantify intensity is an accepted practice in research and is used in many training programs, such as those prescribed by Jack Daniels and Joe Vigil (Vigil, Daniels, 2005). The problem with this approach is that each individual will have a wide range of adaptation, even if training at the same percentage of VO2max. This occurs due to differences in the individuals physiology. For instance, lactate threshold can occur at wide range of %VO2max, even in trained individuals (Brooks and Fahey, 2004). As an example, if two trained runners both performed at a fixed intensity at 80% VO2max, one can be below lactate threshold and one above. This would substantially impact the energetics of the workout, as can be seen in a study that showed there was a 40-fold range for increases in lactate levels at 70% VO2max among individuals (Vollaard et al., 2009). In a recent study by Scharhag-Rosenberger et al. they tested whether exercising at the same %VO2max resulted in similar metabolic strain. They found large individual variance in the lactate response at the fixed intensity, even if groups were matched for similar VO2max values. This led them to conclude that the use of percent VO2max values for training or research should not be used if the goal is to have similar metabolic strain by the exercisers.

In addition to lactate differences, other factors such as the individuals substrate use, fiber type, and other physiological variables will all vary considerably at a fixed percent of VO2max. This was demonstrated in a recent study by Vollaard et al. (2009). The study showed that while on average improvements were seen in a variety of endurance parameters after six weeks of endurance training, the individuality of the response was widespread with some showing even negative responses to the training, even though the training was at the same 70%VO2max intensity for all subjects (Vollaard et al., 2009). The study showed that there was a wide range of adaptation in maximal and submaximal tests including VO2 parameters, muscle enzyme activity, and metabolite levels. An interesting finding in the study is that low responders for an increased VO2max were not low responders in other parameters. The change in VO2max did not correlate with the change in performance on a time trial, which is a significant finding demonstrating that perhaps more attention should be paid to changing in performance instead of manipulating physiological parameters such as VO2max. One has to question the training recommendations based on training designed at improving parameters such as VO2max, with the assumption being that performance will improve because of it, when studies show that change in VO2max are often not linked with a change in performance. This phenomenon of varied response is not new and can be seen in a wide array of training situations, such as altitude training for example (Chapman et al., 1998).

Knowing the wide variance in adaptation that can occur when training at a fixed percent of VO2max, its use has to be called into question. In fact, the author’s of the study questioned the use of %VO2max as a way to standardize intensity and suggested standardization on parameters that more directly effect power output. These findings combined with those by Scharhag-Rosenberger et al. suggest that the use of %VO2max should be eliminated if the goal is to standardize an intensity. One has to really wonder about training programs that use %VO2 to prescribe training as what adaptations will take place are almost a crapshoot. This does not seem like a scientific way to train, as it is portrayed. In practical terms for trained distance runners, it probably makes more sense to standardize paces in relation to their recent race performances or based on percentages of goal race pace in well trained runners.

Should we train to improve VO2max?

As mentioned previously, studies have shown that training at VO2max elicits the most improvement in VO2max. This has been used as reasoning for training at VO2max because, as previously discussed, VO2max is the traditional measurement for endurance. The logic is that if VO2max is increased, endurance performance increases. This may not necessarily be the case. In addition, the question arises if VO2max actually improves in well trained runners? It doesn’t.

Showing the separation of VO2max and performance, the Vollaard et al. study found that the change in VO2max was not related to the change in time trial performance (2009). Studies demonstrate improved performances without changes in VO2max (Daniels et al. 1978). Also, studies show that VO2max can improve without changes in performance, which is seen in a study by Smith et al. that showed improvements in VO2max by 5.0% without an improvement in performance over either 3,000m or 5,000m (2003). In addition, in looking at long term changes in performance in elite athletes, changes in performance occur without subsequent changes in VO2max.

In highly trained athletes, many studies have shown that VO2max does not change, even with performance improvements. In one of the only studies done on a large group (33) of elite runners, Arrese et al. tracked changes in Vo2max across three years. Performance improved by an average of 1.77% in men, and .69% in women, with VO2max remaining essentially unchanged (~76.56 vs. ~76.42 in men, and ~70.31 vs. ~70.05 in women) (Legaz Arrese et al., 2005). Similarly to the case study by Jones, this points to improved performance in elite runners without changes in VO2max. Furthermore, it has been shown that among homogenous groups, such as well trained runners, VO2max does not correlate well with performance and can not be used to distinguish what runners are faster (Legaz-Arrese et al., 2007).

Further evidence can be seen in two case studies on elite runners. In a study on a female Olympic level runner, Jones showed that while the athlete’s 3,000m time improved by 46 seconds, there VO2max decreased from 72 ml/kg/min down to 66 ml/kg/min (Jones, 1998). Another study by Jones, this one on the current women’s marathon world record holder, found that while VO2max varied some based on the time of testing, it was essentially stable at 70 mL • kg–1 • min–1 from 1992 to 2003 (Jones, 2006). The fact that Radcliffe’s Vo2max was essentially stable despite her training volume and intensity increasing substantially is intriguing. Her training increased from a modest 25-30 miles per week (and her VO2max was already 72 at the time) to 120-160 miles per week. The fact that VO2max did not change despite this massive increase in volume and intensity points to the short time course of changes in VO2max.

The rapid change in VO2max can even be seen in untrained individuals. In a study by Smith and Donnell, they evaluated the changes in VO2max over a 36 week training period (1984). VO2max substantially increased by 13.6%, but all of those gains were seen in the first 24 weeks of the study with no further increases during the final 12 weeks. Similarly in a study by Daniels et al. in untrained subjects VO2max increased during the first 4 weeks of training, but did not increase after that even with a further increase of training, despite continued improvements in performance (1978). Given the evidence that VO2max does not change in elite runners and does not correlate with performance, training focused on improving VO2max does not seem like a logical idea for well trained runners.

Vollaard et al. may have put it best when they came to the conclusion that “Moreover, we demonstrate that VO2max and aerobic performance associate with distinct and separate physiological and biochemical endpoints, suggesting that proposed models for the determinants of endurance performance may need to be revisited (2009, pg. 1483)”. There recognition that aerobic performance and VO2max are not direct equals or even well linked is a step in the right direction and needs to be acknowledged to a much greater degree. Combining these findings with Noakes’ CGM creates a situation where VO2max may not be measuring what we think it is. Adding the facts that using %VO2 to classify training results in a wide range of adaptations and changes in VO2max do not occur in trained athletes, one has to question basing entire training programs on VO2max.

The bottom line question that needs to be asked is why is so much of training focused on a variable that does not change in well trained athletes, barely changes in moderately trained, levels off after a short period of time, and does not even correlate well with performance? Does this sound like a variable that we should be basing all of our training off of?


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Can we get some common sense somewhere?

A brief intermission between my HS training review for a rant.

Rant time:

You want the secret to success in the training world? Use big words, preferably big combination of words. And if you really want to be a master of training, use a big combination of scientific sounding words.

It AMAZES me of some of the crap i'm reading and the claims being made. Basically, as long as you use big scientific words, you can make any claim you want, even if it makes no sense practically or scientifically. No one will know the difference.

And finally, the key- Learn just enough of biomechanics, physiology, motor control to be dangerous. Don't try and understand them, just learn enough to be dangerous. Once this is done, then you can throw together cool phrases like "optimal motor program patterning" and "enhanced proprioceptive control." Even if it makes no sense, don't worry, it sounds fancy, no one will know.

Lastly, ignore this thing called common sense.

Really, you can come up with a terrific training program just using common sense. Step back, look at what you do and see if it makes sense. I have a friend I run most of the training I give by who has zero experience in exercise science or coaching. Why? Because he's excellent at evaluating things from a common sense standpoint. Sometimes, we forget about that.

The reason for this rant, is I was reading a training booklet on warm-up/core/strength work that is heavily used/emphasized by some good runners. In it were billions of body weight exercises for strength/core with all kinds of seemingly complex sounding explanations. The one thing that is a pet peeve that they used, is that frequent mention was made of exercises/programs designed to elicit some complex physiological goal, such as motor programming or some of the other things mentioned above. The problem is, this doesn't pass the BS meter. Why would doing lunges or some sort of leg swings initiate motor programming of the running stride? Would running not do this? If you think you can get motor programming from doing some exercise that isn't really even close to running, you underestimate the complexity of our brain. THe problem is you can make statements making claims like this and it doesn't matter if it makes sense or there's proof or if there's theory that shows it might occur. It doesn't matter, as long as it sounds good.

On a somewhat related note, there's a good coaches clinic audio thing where George Gandy talks about the strength training his athletes do. Note that Gandy was the guy who came up with Seb Coe's strength and circuit training.

He said: "What I want out of the weight room is exactly what the shot putters, throwers, sprinters want." He then went on to talk about how he tries to get athletes to progress to doing 2 sets of 6 reps at 1.5x body weight of Front full squats, then cut the reps to 5 and 4 with heavier weight.

Basically, don't go to the weight room to do what you do out running. Train for what you can't get from running.

I couldn't agree more with his statement.

HS national Championships-Ryan gets 12th.

The HS season has concluded and as promised I'm posting the workouts done by the HS kids. Below you'll find a link to the workouts done from July to December. Easy runs/long runs and mileage aren't included, just the main workouts. Enjoy. Feel free to ask questions, leave a critique, whatever. Over the next couple weeks I'll probably do some sort of review of how the season went and what to change for track.

High School CC training 2009

The season ended well for Ryan. He ended up 12th at nationals which was a solid race. I went into the race thinking that if he had a good race, top 10 was possible and if he had a great race top 5 was within reach. Well, he was right there in contention. The gap between the top few and him was not that large and a few seconds here or there was the difference between his 12th and a top 10 finish. Throw in the fact that it was about 30 degrees, a little cold for a TX kid, and it was a great effort. The woop de do hill thingies seemed to affect him more than we thought they would. Each time they went over those things he'd lose ground on the pack and have to surge to get back up there. No idea on what we could have done differently to prepare for those though, as we don't have anything like that in houston.

I'll post more on the experience later but Nike does a first class job in taking care of the kids. It was a great experience for the HSers. I had the priveledge of staying in the altitude house with Alan while I was up there, which was pretty cool. And I got to analyze Paula Radcliffe's form while they took high speed video of her. I'll keep my opinions on her form to myself though so you'll have to ask me in private if you want my analysis, haha.

Lastly, congrats to all of the Texas teams and individuals. They performed great and showed the quality of runners TX has. Boerne and The Woodlands in particularly ran great. I wish our team would have had a chance to compete their as I have no doubt they would have finished top 15 and if they put it together top 10, as they were only 12pts from the #3 team in the nation at state...but what can you do when you leave it to the at large selectors. Maybe next year they'll take 4 TX teams instead of the 4 CA teams.

Aerobic Training is NOT the devil and the fallacy of muscle fiber type conversions

It's time for another rant:

watch this guy's (Mike Boyle) video in which he says Aerobic base training is useless:

The problem with this guy’s view:

VO2max is NOT the measure for aerobic performance or capacity. I'll post later on why his reasoning for intervals improving VO2max is faulty. I've got a whole paper on that coming up, so we'll leave that for next week...

Studies demonstrate that his so called “interval training” produces better results when preceded by a period of aerobic training. Or in regular terms, having a base of general aerobic work enhances the benefits from interval training.

He also underestimates/ignores the aerobic component of most sports. Even intermittent sports like basketball or hockey have a large aerobic component. Yes, doing interval training is necessary for these sports because it is going to be pretty specific. The problem is that there is this infatuation with specificity. As track coaches, we know it's important, but it has to be supported. You wouldn't have a miler run a mile as fast as he could most days or even do only intervals at mile pace. The same thing applies in intermittent sports. You need some general aerobic conditioning to support the interval training. Research clearly shows that performance in intermittent tests/sports is significantly related to aerobic capacity and something that is basically the velocity at VO2max.

Also, consider what impacts the ability to repeadetly go hard for let's say 60seconds and then rest for a couple minutes? Well if you've ever done miler type training, you know the ability to recover between bouts is crucial. The ability to drop the heart rate, clear lactate and H+, use lactate as a fuel source, restore Creatine Phosphate, etc. all significantly impact the ability to do the next interval fast. What impacts all of these mechanisms? the aerobic system. Research has shown that Creatine Phosphate replenishment is strongly tied to the aerobic system.

Similarly, if we look at recovery in terms of Excess post oxygen consumption. The larger EPOC, the longer it takes to "pay it back" or recover. What minimizes EPOC, a quicker VO2 response, which happens due to aerobic training.

You could go on and on with how endurance training increases lactate removal, or how aerobic capacity has been shown to be significantly related to a decrease in speed during all out interval training.

We know that interval training and longer training can impact the same endurance adaptations (i.e. mitochondrial oxidative capacity, improved fat oxidation and glucose transport). However, what is largely ignored is they do it through different signalling pathways. Laursen wrote a wonderful paper on this that has yet to be published, which I'll hopefully discuss later when it is.

The problem with Boyle's stance is that he takes an absolute stance. And his central premise is that VO2max=aerobic performance which it does not. Read one of my blogs below for a brief glimpse into that reasoning. There is a trend in strength/sprint training people to think that interval training is equal to endurance training in terms of aerobic performance. THe problem is that this is largely based on VO2max only. Which is complete crap. As I said earlier, more on this later in the week, so you'll have to trust me till then.

(Note: There aren't really FT-b fibers in humans, but since everyone uses it, for this rant I'll use it)
The guy doesn’t understand muscle fiber changes. Even if all you did was sprint training, you would still get a shift in fiber type towards more intermediate FT-a fibers. That’s right, FT-b fibers would shift to more “aerobic” FT-a fibers. Does that mean force decreases? Not necessarily because other factors change along with that.

The conversion of Ft-a fibers or intermediate fibers to ST fibers is EXTREMELY hard. It takes a long freaking time. In animal models the only way this change occurs, even with chronic all day stimulation for months, is if damage the muscle fibers. The change from FT-a to ST is extremely tough and takes years of consistent aerobic work. It’s one of the reasons why endurance athletes (marathoners in particular) are able to hold on to peak fitness in later ages than power athletes.

This fear of conversion also is rooted in the idea that fiber changes are everything. They are not. There are many different ways to classify fibers and the characteristics of each fiber are not as defined as some people make them out to be. Certain aspects of the muscle fiber are going to change before other do. Fiber type percentage is but one variable out of many that affect the power of that muscle.

The problem is that because it has been measured so often, we focus a ton on it. So it has created this whole fear of conversion. Is too much aerobic training good for a sprint/power athlete? No. If all they did was run 30min a day, I'd say, yes you might be concerned with some changes that might decrease power. However, that's not how any sprint/power athlete trains, ever.

Let me ask you track guys to use your brain. Do you get scared of fiber type conversions when you have your distance runners do hill sprints once or twice per week? No, because it's surrounded by enough endurance work that it doesn't matter. Now, if all you did was sprints every day, then yes, that might be of concern. But who actually trains like that?

And on that subject he quotes Charlie Francis who he says is the greatest sprint coach in history….except that all his athletes took drugs. That should be your warning sign right there. How did his athletes become world class? They took more drugs than anyone else and it showed in how crappy they performed off them (ala Ben Johnson). Maybe Charlie Francis should have done some easy 20-30min runs or aerobic 800’s like Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell and that group then they could have progressed cleanly.

And lastly, he hates on Cross Country. Now is cross country something that should be done for sprint athletes? No, it’s too much of one stimulus. But it didn’t seem to hurt Kerron Clement or Bershawn Jackson too much running CC in HS…

Be very wary of coaches who take absolute stances. You see this with many sprint coaches and strength coaches now a days. They are terrified of fiber type conversions, when in reality it is just a gross simplification of the process. Fiber changes are very complex.
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