Every once in a while a scientific studies simple concept crosses over the main stream and explodes in the exercise world.  A decade ago it was Billat’s famous 30/30 which consisted of 30sec at supramaximal speeds with 30sec jogging.  It was supposed to be the secret workout that improved VO2max and lactate threshold at the same time.  A fewyears ago it was the famed Tabata exercise protocol which consisted of a series of short sprints with short recovery that was the new magic workout that was supposed to improve aerobic and anaerobic abilities at the same time.

There is about to be a new secret workout.  It’s called the 10-20-30.  It’s short, has a catchy name, and showed up in a recent research article in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

The magic workout showed an increase in VO2max, 5k performance, and 1500m performance while reducing training by half!  What more could you ask for in America?  Quicker results with half as much training time and volume.

So what’s the problem?

The Actual workout:

Let’s read what the participants actually did first:

“For a 7-week intervention period the 10-20-30 replaced all training sessions with 10-20-30 training consisting of low, moderate and high speed running [<30%, <60% and >90% of maximal intensity] for 30, 20 and 10 s, respectively, in 3-4 5-min intervals interspersed by 2 min of recovery, reducing training volume by 54% (14±0.9 vs. 30.4±2.3 km(.)week(-1)) while CON continued the normal training.”

So, participants who had been training at an average of 24km per week , cut the mileage in half and just did this simple interval/fartlek workout a couple times per week instead for 7 weeks.  They improved from 23:06 to 22:16 for 5k and 6:09 to 5:49 in 7 weeks.  There were also no significant enzymatic changes between the intervention and the control. So a few things to keep in mind are the low training volumes, the low performance, and the protocol itself…

What researchers probably missed:

I hate harping on researchers because it’s a hard thing to do, but a consistent theme in scientific research on training programs (and why it makes it so difficult to do them) is that there’s almost an ignorance of anything that happened previously before the study. It’s one of my major pet peeves in pure training research on runners and why I prefer to look at research that looks at the effects of the workout regimes, or looks at the totality of the training.

Let me pose a question to you coaches out there.  What does this look like? Normal training- 24km of jogging…then switch to 7 weeks- 3 intervals workouts a week with cut back mileage

If you answered a pure base phase followed by an intense speed phase,  you’d be right.  Or if you answered a low volume version of the original Lydiard schedules, or the way that the Finns trained in the 20s-30s with a winter of jogging and walking followed by almost only intervals, you’d also be correct.

So the results in this study should not be surprising.  It took a bunch of people used to running easy mileage, and added some intensity.  You would expect massive improvements.  Yes, they dropped the volume, but with runners running so little that’s not going to matter a whole lot over 7 weeks.  Yes, they replaced normal distance runs with intervals but that won’t matter much in pretty untrained people either with the intensity increase.

They essentially performed a base to speed/peaking protocol.  One that was the norm 80+ years ago essentially in the distance running world.  The workout itself is just the black swan, or the elephant in the room that grabs attention and distracts us from what is really important.  Don’t base your conclusions off of the obvious thing.  It’s the surrounding noise and details that aren’t fun to look at that probably explain the outcome.

The bottom line:

For recreational jogger who trots around, adding intensity is good!  This isn’t an either or situation, do some easy runs, do some intense runs.  It’s not rocket science.

For well trained athletes, this is just another variation of a faster speed workout.  It’s not magical.  It’s another tool in the shed.  You’d probably get the same results with a number of other workouts.  There is no magic workout that you need to do every week.  Variety of stimuli is the key and figuring out what stimuli to hit and when is the key to training and coaching.
Don’t fall into the trap of searching for some magic workout.  It doesn’t exist.  Even if research might initially point in that direction, if you take a deeper look it’s not there.  In the upcoming months, you’ll be sure to see this workout explode and take off as the next cure all.  It’s not.  Be forewarned and don’t fall into the trap.

This study and the subsequent increase in popularity should be seen as a demonstration of how to critically look at research.  Don’t just look at the conclusions, but look at how they got there.

Get My New Guide on: The Science of Creating Workouts


    1. Pete Larson on May 8, 2012 at 6:41 pm

      Thanks for posting this Steve, I was just getting ready to switch all of my training to 10-20-30's 🙂

    2. runbei on May 8, 2012 at 8:18 pm

      Amen, "more for less" is the thinking that led U.S. distance running into the doldrums for 15-20 years. And yet, the lab gnomes will persist…

    3. Ryan on May 8, 2012 at 8:28 pm

      You missed the "Newbie Runner" in your bottom line – the one who will either not likely do 2 days in a row because they hurt so bad, or who will have stress fractures, PF, ITB syndrome, or some other injury normally associated with not building a base of running before starting non-stop fartlek workouts.
      Thanks for dispelling the myths.

    4. Curb Ivanic on May 8, 2012 at 9:05 pm

      If they ate a Paleo diet they would probably have gotten better results.

    5. Richard Ayotte on May 8, 2012 at 9:09 pm

      I looks like a well designed workout. My latest opinion is that a good workout is one that puts more stress on bio mechanical than the cardio system and I think, when done properly, intervals do that.

    6. Scott Douglas on May 9, 2012 at 9:55 am

      The "they cut their mileage in half!!!" aspect is also misleading. They were doing 25K week before the study. At such low mileage, is there really that much difference if you go down to 9 miles/week?

    7. Jeff Gaudette on May 9, 2012 at 12:18 pm

      Nice analysis, Steve. Reminds me of the famous quote in Once a Runner: "What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes. The Trial of Miles, Miles of Trials. How could they be expected to understand that?”

    8. Anonymous on May 15, 2012 at 8:42 pm

      Steve I have a question for you.

      Are you aware of any research that has tackled the idea of what I call super high mileage? (Greater than 100 or 120 miles a week)
      If you don't know of any research what is your opinion on really high mileage for 5k 10k training?
      Other considerations will be to break this down by age groups.
      What should max base training weekly mileage be from freshman to senior in High School as well as in College?

      A specific Example of someone who is provoking these thoughts is Runner Cam Levins who boasts 150-160miles a week. There was Josh McDougal a couple years ago who had super high mileage.

      I am aware that many people do just fine off of 70-90 Miles a week and have successful college careers and that seems to be the standard across america.

      When should an athlete make it a goal to get that high?
      I know that most people would get that high over the course of 5-8 years including a progression from college to pro.

      The stigma seems to be don't go too high too early or you will burn out. (Any research to back up this claim)
      What would you consider too high too early?

      I look at Levins mileage and think where does he go from there?

      Sorry the questions are kinda scattered and hopefully you can make sense of what I am getting at?

      Also I am aware of the idea of individualization, so before that general principle is cited let me ask, what type individuals would you consider building up to that workload?

      Is it the single ray of light for the less talented runners?

    9. Nicky on May 22, 2012 at 10:29 am

      Thanks for sharing your experiences here on your blog.

    10. Crazy Dave on May 22, 2012 at 4:36 pm

      Nice assessment Steve. I don't know why everyone is always looking for some silver bullet to instantly put them in better shape than everyone else. I like the "run" workout. It consists of…running consistently. If I could only get it to catch on…

    11. Pyrad on May 31, 2012 at 3:42 pm

      I always appreciate when you analyze these research projects and reveal the junk science behind them.

      Quality post as always!

    12. Anonymous on July 25, 2012 at 3:50 pm

      Ok and valid comments and opinions I guess, but… I wouldn't call it an analysis: In my opinion you simply have too "probably's" yourself.

      This research doesn't claim to be a "miracle workout", but to be an effective way of training for people who are moderately trained. We are not talking about "the recrational jogger" or "well trained athletes". We are probably talking about the big middle group all over most of the world. A group that probably for a big part "just" run without varying their training. This is a simple offer to vary your workout with significant benefits.

      Speculating in "flaws and why" doesn't make anyone wiser.

      Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences at University of Copenhagen hardly makes "junk science", but then again… what do I know: I'm from Copenhagen 😉

      If you want to read just a little more about the project or even follow it: http://www.ifi.ku.dk/english/research/section/integrated_physiology/10-20-30/

      By the way: I'm not involved in the study in any way, but I find it very interesting – and I trust the methods of this Department, which by the way is internationally recognized (the Department).

    13. Dianne dy on December 7, 2012 at 10:01 pm

      I want to try the new secret workout or the 10-20-30. Since my friends from college admissions counseling advised me to try something new to divert my stress at school.

    14. Albina N muro on April 25, 2013 at 3:01 pm

      Nice assessment Steve. I don't know why everyone is always looking for some silver bullet to instantly put them in better shape than everyone else. I like the "run" workout. It consists of…running consistently. If I could only get it to catch. studentresearchjournal.com

    15. Chris Colwill on December 22, 2013 at 4:50 am

      I am aware of three State middle distance runners here in Aust that did this program twice a week for the last six weeks and one Olympic athlete that does the 800m/1500m. They did it for 20min non stop with no rest after a 10min jog warm up and 5 min jog warm down. Two of the State athletes have improved their 600m TT records by about 3.5-4%, the other State athlete and the Olympic athlete by 2.5%. This is in the starting phase to the competition season here in Australia. I do not know if they will continue with the workout per se. I cannot say if they have improved solely from this workout or other training, however I am told no other runners in the squad are doing this workout. Other squad members have improved slightly, others had stayed the same and a few have declined in performance based on last years results.

    16. underbelly on August 25, 2014 at 9:35 pm

      What we really need is a study comparing 10-20-30 to other interval routines.

      I can offer an anecdotal one, for what it's worth. Intervals are the foundation of my training (previously for cycling, now for alpine mountaineering and hiking). I could never find solid research on how to structure an interval workout, so I arrived at mine by trial and error. My typical 1 minute on / 2 minutes off routine yielded solid improvements over many seasons.

      This year I hit a plateau early in the season and couldn't break it. Old age? I revisited the internet for help and found 10-20-30. The evidence was thin, but the approach was enough different from what I was doing to seem worth a try. I applied to incline treadmill workouts, and broke out of my plateau almost immediately. When I got to the mountains, I achieved my second best time ever (within a few percent of my best) on a training climb I do annually (my record is from four years ago, when I'd been able to dedicate a lot more time to training).

      So what? Nothing scientific, but I can vouch that this approach gives results, and is a solid alternative to other interval routines. It may be especially beneficial if another routine stops yielding results.

    17. BklynGem on August 21, 2015 at 3:52 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts but this analysis seems unnecessarily harsh. Why bash something that has positive results? I also think you missed the point that participants stuck with this interval workout longer than other intervals like tabata or 30/30 which they quit after a couple weeks. That seems noteworthy.

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