I hate zone training.  It’s a pet peeve of mine.  I hate the idea and the concept behind it.  But so many coaches out there use it, and in actuality we all tend to classify workouts into different zones.  I’ve wrestled with trying to explain my hatred for zone training and what I’d call the alternative method for a while, but it’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around.  I knew I hated it, but I couldn’t effectively explain why to outsiders.  I’d dance around the why’s but never had a satisfactory answer.  Part of the reason was I didn’t have a simple way to explain the alternative.  I could throw a bunch of information and examples to describe it, but there was no easy descriptor. Before getting into what the alternative is, lets look at what exactly the physiological model is and how we got there.

Defining a model:

The physiological model of training is one that relies on the premise that there are a few big physiological parameters that govern performance.  The big ones mentioned in research and the literature are VO2max, Running Economy (RE), Lactate Threshold (LT), andsometimes lactate tolerance or anaerobic capacity/tolerance depending on  publication.  The idea is that these four things combine to create performance.

The central premise of the physiological model is that IF we improve one of these parameters, then performance improves.

But how does this relate to training?  The model takes another step and says that there are certain intensities or zones that will improve X parameter.

So the full model really states that IF we do X training, Y parameter will improve and thus performance improves.

If this was a logic class it would look something like this:  X –>Y=↑ P

Sounds reasonable right?  Well, hold your horses…

Strict adherence:

Before fully diving into what’s wrong with this model, it’s important to fully understand it so that it doesn’t look like I’m creating a straw man argument.  As with anything, there isn’t one strict concept of the physiological model, but instead many slight variations covering the spectrum.  I’d like to give an example of that and show the limits of a normal physiological model.

Not meaning to pick on Dr. Jack Daniels, but his updates between his 1st and 2nd edition of the book Daniels’ Running Formula perfectly illustrate this.  In his first edition, he outlined what have now become the classic zones used in many programs.  What’s interesting, and what is typical of a strict physiological model system, is that in between these zones are what’s referred to as “no man’s land” training.

(Thanks to the blog http://sisyphusrunning.blogspot.com/2011/08/no-mans-land.html for this)

In his book, he defines this no man’s land zones as:

“No man’s land of training. Training intensities that fall into ‘No man’s land,’ are either too easy or too hard to reap the benefits you want. You are not, as may sometimes be assumed, achieving the purpose of training the two systems on either side of the chosen intensity. What you are doing might be termed, “Quality-junk” training. At the least, it is training aimed at accomplishing an unidentifiable purpose. Always have a purpose for every training session; ask yourself the following questions: ‘What system do I hope to improve by doing this workout ‘and ‘What am I really trying to accomplish?”

This is what I’d call a strict adherence.  If you train too fast or too slow of the zone it’s “junk” because it isn’t targeting the special zone which should target some parameter.  This sounds good, but the issue is that training doesn’t occur in isolation and as we will soon find out those training zones don’t even attack those parameters terribly well.  It’s missing the central point of training, that it is a stimulus.  Yes different stimuli will result in different results, but everything is a stimulus to a degree.  If you are too fast or too slow, it doesn’t negate the adaptations, it just changes them slightly.  Secondly, you have to remember that this thinking is with the model behind it.  There is no purpose for the “no man’s land” zone training IN THIS MODEL.  How accurate that is depends on how well the model reflects what is actually going on.  Because every model has holes and doesn’t perfectly reflect what is going on.  In this case, the model fails to accurately reflect what’s going on as we shall soon see.

What is interesting (and very astute of Daniels) is that in his 2nd edition of the book he takes what I’d call a more loose interpretation of the model.  Why?  Because he expands his LT/tempo section of the book to say that unlike in the first edition, tempos can be slower and longer than the LT zone and still get great benefits.

Now that we get what the model is, what’s wrong with it?

(The above section might come across as harsh to Daniels but that isn’t my intention.  Instead I think it’s cool that Daniels realized the potential of other zones of training andamended his thoughts.  A smart coach!)

What’s wrong with the model?

As a quick reminder the physiological model relies on the following logic:

  1. There are certain parameters that define
  2. Training each one of these parameters improve
  3. To train these parameters you work at X

Hopefully you’ve noticed a few holes in this logic.  Let’s go through them.

First, those big parameters don’t really do a wonderful job correlating with individual performance.  Yes, some studies show a strong correlation to a mixture of them, but you can’t really separate out good runners from great runners. Research shows that combining the big 3 of RE, VO2max, and LT explains around 70% of the variation in performance (Di Prampero, 1986). So, good, but not great? Vo2max, in particular, does a relatively poor job. You can check my fallacy of VO2max article if you want more details.  For now I’ll briefly quote one relevant section:

“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.”

As far as the other parameters, yes they all correlate to performance to a degree when looking at groups.  So that is valid.  The question is do changes in these parameters correlate with improvements in performance?  The answer is it depends.  In several studies, you’ll see an increase in LT, RE, or VO2max as well as an increase in performance.  In others,  like those mentioned above with VO2max you’ll find no change despite an improved parameter.  Another quick example is a study by Vollaard et al (2009) that found that RE and VO2 changes didn’t explain performance improvements or in their words: “This study demonstrates that improvements in high-intensity aerobic performance in humans are not related to altered maximal oxygen transport capacity”

Similarly, with lactate threshold.  An increase in threshold is sometimes tied to a decrease in performance as demonstrated in the world by Jan Olbrecht.  This is usually a result of the lactate threshold increasing while anaerobic ability is decreasing.  For more on this concept see Jan’s work.

Which brings us to the point of training not occuring in isolation.  We can’t independently try and improve these parameters in all runners and expect performance to increase.  There’s an interaction between the training types.  For instance, there’s a strong back and forth tug of war battle between LT work and the so called lactate tolerance work. This interaction effect is somewhat addressed by periodization, but when training is thought of in isolation such as do X and improve Y parameter, it’s often lost.

So, not surprisingly, we start with a somewhat decent premise and get a bit shakier as we move away from it.  But where things really fall apart is in the next step, which is the most important because it translates lab work to the real world, which is what we are all concerned with anyways.

Training zones don’t really work?

Perhaps most importantly then, the training zones don’t really correspond with improving the parameters.  And even if they do to a degree, there are multiple ways to improve the parameter.  Let ’s look at these zones individually to get an idea.


In this new quest to improve VO2max, it was first ASSUMED that training at VO2max was the best way to improve it.  The logic was simple.  Spend as much time at maximal oxygen consumption as possible and it has to increase right?  Sounds logical enough…So the next step was figuring out what paces would elicit VO2max.

Why do we train at roughly 3k pace to improve VO2max?  Well, we got to that point because a bunch of researchers took on the challenge to see what was the slowest speed which would maintain VO2max for a relatively prolonged time.  Depending on what research article you look at, it generally came out to be something that lasts roughly 7-10 minutes.  Or about the time it takes to run a 3k.  Therefore, 3k pace became VO2max pace.  Yes, running faster than that elicits VO2max too, but it’s not the slowest speed.  We had the intensity.  Onto the next step.

A bunch of researchers did more studies seeing different intervals that would allow you to spend the most time at VO2max during the workout.  That’s where we get Billat’s famous 30-30 workout and a slew of others. After this we had our optimal interval speeds, lengths, and recovery.

So it was all set.  Do these workouts at X speed with this recovery and you are set.  The problem?

Well the research didn’t exactly back up the idea that to improve VO2max (even if it mattered much…) we should do that.  I could go on and on but a nice little review of training to improve VO2max by Midgley (2006) sums it up nicely:

“Training intensities of 40–50% V˙ O2max can increase V˙ O2max substantially in untrained individuals. The minimum training intensity that elicits the enhancement of V˙ O2max is highly dependent on the initial V˙ O2max, however, and well trained distance runners probably need to train at relatively high percentages of VO2max to elicit further increments. Some authors have suggested that training at 70–80% V˙ O2max is optimal. Many studies have investigated the maximum amount of time runners can maintain 95–100% V˙ O2max with the assertion that this intensity is optimal in enhancing V˙ O2max. Presently, there have been no well controlled training studies to support this premise.”

So there we go.  We don’t know if that is the best intensity or not to increase VO2max.  Tons of research, but no clue.

I also like one of their other statements:

“Synergistic and interference effects between optimised training protocols designed to target specific physiological performance determinants and the influence of individuality then need to be established before sports scientists can make recommendations to runners and running coaches, with a high level of confidence, on components of  an effective training programme.”

Individuality.  Interaction.  IMPORTANT.

So what we’re left with is a magical zone that we’re not sure if it even attacks what it’s supposed to attack (and if that even matters?)

What does this kind of thinking get us? Well, a quick example is certain studies came out a long time ago that said after 50-60mpw amount of mileage, VO2max doesn’t improve, so why would we run more mileage if that’s true since VO2max is the be all end all (Berg, 2003). This isolationist approach neglected the complexity of performance so we ended up with a bunch of coaches thinking you don’t need to run much mileage…whoops.

Lactate Threshold:

The lactate threshold is one of my favorite topics as I like to do lactate testing, but in the Jan Olbrecht inspired way, not the traditional way.  I’ve covered that in my blog elsewhere, but there are some important lessons from that distinction.  For instance, the actual threshold itself is influenced by factors besides “aerobic” ability.  So the anaerobic side or lactate production side influence it too.  So it’s entirely possible to get an improved LT curve while actually decreasing in aerobic capabilities (if the anaerobic capacity is decreased…).  So once again interaction is key, but what about training at LT to improve LT, and thus performance.

Well if we look at the research, training at LT CAN improve LT. That’s good to know. But so does training at various other paces.  Once again there is no magic training zone.  In fact if we look at the one study on well trained runners, if they increased their training volume at near LT by 103%, it didn’t do anything to the actual threshold (Lehmann et al. 1991).

In other studies, with recreational runners, you saw big increases in LT after 2-3 months of training at threshold and then no further improvement in LT afterwards with continued training.  What this tells me is if they wanted to keep improving the threshold, the stimulus had to change.  They had to do some work above LT,  some mixed intervals, aerobic intervals, or alternations. Whatever they chose, the stimulus had to change

In a review on training to improve threshold, Midgley et al. (2007) stated:

“In summary, we found only one study that investigated the effects of an increase in the volume of  vLT or vLT training on the lactate threshold of distance runners.[25] This study reported no significant increase in the lactate threshold. Several training studies have reported a significant increase in the lactate threshold of distance runners in response to the inclusion of supra-vLT training velocities,[15,29,39] althoughthese findings have not been consistent.[34,36]”

Once again, we’re looking at, ya training at LT improves it, but so does a lot of other stuff. And it depends on the type of athlete on how best it’s done.

Running Economy
But what about Running economy? Run fast and you get more economical? That’s the magic zone to improve RE, right?  Well, sorta.  If you look at research, again depending on the group studied, running fast, at VO2max, and at LT have all improved economy in various studies.  Wait, so has weight lifting, plyometrics, whole body vibration, altitude, training in the heat and on and on (Berg 2003,Foster 2007). Obviously some improve it more than others, but the point is that like with all the other parameters, there are numerous ways to improve them.  It’s not some magical zone that best targets it.

Ignoring whether or not RE is actually a good measure (that’s a topic for another time), it seems silly to assign one zone to improve this, when truthfully people are still arguing over what the heck improves it.

The point of this little tirade is to not say that training at these intensities is bad.  It’s good.  The point is that by sticking to this strict zoning concept we ignore both the individuality of the athlete and of the training response.  In this system it assumes that an LT run does the same thing regardless of whether the athlete is a fast twitch runner or Slow twitch.  While, we know that the effect can be vastly different because there physiology is different.  Same goes with VO2max training or any of the other zones.

Nail in the coffin:

For my final nail in the coffin for why the model needs revamped, let’s look at a training study on sedentary people that had them all train at 70%VO2max.  So they all trained at the same exact “zone”.  What happened? Let’s check out the data (from Vollaard et al. 2009):

What happened was simple.  A ton of different individual reactions to the same exact training load and training zone.  All the way from big picture changes like performance , VO2max, and VE all the way down to enzymatic changes.  There was a whole lot going on and a wide variety of responses.  What this tells me is that stimulus matters.  For some people the same training “zone” will give a different stimulus.

The same was found in a more recent study of untrained individuals. They followed them for a prolonged period and had them do all exercise at 60% HR reserve.  What happened? Well a big variation in improvements in the big variables even though they were all training at the same intensity and volume (see full study here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01139.x/full)

While you might say this was with untrained individuals so what’s the point, I’d counter that with untrained individuals you’d expect almost anything to work! I mean you’re going from nothing to something, so the fact that there’s a huge variation is interesting.

And finally, if we want to go all the way down to the genetic level, here’s what happens to people again all training at the same intensity.  Look at the variation in high responders versus low responders for a whole slew of different genes: http://jap.physiology.org/content/110/1/46/T2.expansion.html

Why do we do this?

The answer is simple.  In Daniel Kahnemann’s book Thinking Fast and Slow he discusses the concept of how when we get a difficult question, we often times replace it with an easier question and answer that.  It’s subconscious so we don’t know we are doing that.  But that’s essentially what we’ve done here.

We have a difficult question: How to improve the complex notion of performance?

And we’ve replaced it with “How do we improve these parameters?”

The second question is much easier to grasp our heads around then the first.  It’s fine to simplify and reduce, but in this case we have to ask if the second question really answers the first.  My contention is that it doesn’t.

How’d we get here? The story version:

Back in the day, coaching was almost purely trial and error.  You learned from those who had come before you and tried your own manipulations.  If something worked, it stuck for a while.  The great coaches quickly were emulated until the next new idea or phase took over.  The classic example is Arthur Lydiard experimenting on himself in terms of mileage before assigning training to his illustrious crew.  Trial and error works.  It just takes some time and occasionally a lot of error.

That got us most of the way towards modern training concepts, but something happened starting in the late 70’s, early 1980s and continued through the 1990’s.  Exercise Science actually became a more defined field with actual research on performance.  We began to be able to readily measure parameters like VO2max, lactate, etc. on well trained runners.  Furthermore, we began to conceptualize what may effect performance.  This was the rise of the VO2max paradigm.  All those cool results that showed our best had really high VO2max started coming out and for those athletes who didn’t have crazy high VO2max values, the concept of RE was developed and explained the rest.  Soon portable lactate analyzers came about and we could measure that evil fatigue component called lactate.

More testing, more variables.

Fast forward a little bit and we have the big 3 of VO2max, LT, and RE and then a few other variables that were occasionally thrown in to determine performance. This got translated to the intrepid coaches looking for an edge.  It was the beginning of the age of Science.  It was cool to make things sciency, and it offered a world of possibilities.  Everyone was looking for the next edge, so science became that.

That’s when it got translated into the coaching world.  With Coe and Martin’s book in the 1980’s, Daniels’ Oxygen power following, and many others it became the thing to do.  The promise of explaining performance in a neat formula AND being able to make training almost a mathematical model was too tempting to pass up.

The model is thus part of our human notion to want to compartmentalize, our need for structure, and our seeing Science as the next ultimate step to sole all of our problems.
The models basic foundation and premise are broken though.

Done rambling, so what?

It’s not that the workouts are bad. It’s not that we shouldn’t run at threshold or 3k pace or faster.  It’s that the model is bad.  The model is broken.  And if you strictly follow the model, you miss out on a bunch of sweet stimuli that need to be touched on.  You also loose the ones thing that is essential to coaching, creativity.  Instead, it becomes a plug and play system that discourages creativity and innovation.

Hopefully through this rambling mess you get a few things. If all fails, I hope it gets you to step back, think, and question.

But what the heck do we do about it, if I make this claim that the model is broken? After all I can’t just sit here and tear something down without suggesting an alternative.

Get My New Guide on: The Science of Creating Workouts


    1. Anonymous on June 15, 2012 at 8:25 pm

      I'm ready for Part 2!! Thanks for your insights!

      • Anonymous on June 21, 2012 at 10:29 pm

        Yes, bring on part 2!!!

        I think the exercise science world was searching for the ONE great workout in the 1978-1995 era. This search was in both "cardio" and "strength" training. Who remembers the Jones one set to failure strength routine? Did it work? Yes…but try to follow it for more than 6 months (I made 18 months once…..).

        This search lead to the "zone" method of training for reasons well presented above.

    2. Jon G on June 15, 2012 at 10:42 pm

      Excellent article.

    3. Boris Hornbei on June 15, 2012 at 11:38 pm

      This is lovely and wonderful. Ahhh! I worked at Runner's World in the early 1970s, when publisher Bob Anderson was looking for PhDs to write articles that would give the magazine some added heft and authority. Unlike the other staff members who'd found their best training over many years by trial and error, I believed the science (which science? this one over here, or that one?). Boy, did I get confused.

      It took 20 years to catch on to the fact that my body changed daily – my best "zone" for the day was always different. And how could I know the single best way to train on a given day? Whoa, guess what, when I began to listen to what my body was trying to tell me, by INNER FEELING, my training started to go much, much better.

      It was a very demanding discipline. But it freed me from the continual inaccuracy of fixed numbers – bleh, on 9 out of 10 days the numbers don't work; what's that all about? Well, I happened to cross the axis on that one day…

      I did find that for me, individually, my body actually did tend to settle on certain numbers, all things being equal (read: I was fully recovered). This Old Bod wanted to run at just under 80% of Max HR on most days, maybe 70% on short recovery runs; just under 85% on "sub-tempo" days (per Lydiard, as laid out in Keith Livingstone's wonderful book Health Intelligent Training).

      But ultimately, inner feeling was king. If I did what it told me (and listening was NOT always easy), I got the max out of my training and felt best.

      Thanks for driving another nail in the numbers. Add a stake and burning cross.

    4. Anonymous on June 16, 2012 at 2:10 am

      Great article and thanks for helping so many.

    5. Amby Burfoot on June 16, 2012 at 11:42 am

      Thanks Steve. I'm holding my breath … for Part 2. Hope it won't be long. Also hope Part 2 will include some acknowledgment of those who don't have Nike-supported one-on-one coach-athlete relationships with lab tests, altitude, biomechanics analysis, etc. I think the genius of some Daniels-like systems is that they tend to work, in a conservative manner, for many athletes. IE, get the biggest return for the smallest investment. I don't even coach anyone directly, but if I did, one of my principles might be: Do no harm; improve progressively without going over the top. Zones can be helpful in this case. Lastly, I'm not sure "zones" per se are the problem–we probably need some measures, whether we call them zones, paces, lactates, heart rates, or RPEs–so much as misapplication of zones. Proper application of zones might be like the kind of periodization you refer to.

    6. Richard Ayotte on June 16, 2012 at 3:57 pm

      Great post! I really enjoyed the supporting studies. It's all about optimal stimulation. My approach now is to stimulate exactly the same amount each week until my performance stops improving and then I increase volume. I evaluate my progress strictly by efficiency during easy runs. If over time my speed increases in that easy HR zone, I know that I'm getting fitter.

    7. Anonymous on June 16, 2012 at 9:07 pm

      Cool, keep it up Steve, also looking for Part 2! Agree with Boris generally & also that Lydiard & Livingstone have something to say still. I ran with the Manurewa club boys (which included John Walker) on long Sunday runs in the winter & short sharp stuff for summer racing, etc!

    8. Anonymous on June 17, 2012 at 9:42 pm

      Thanks Steve. Could you please hurry it up with Part 2? I've got a race in 13 days… 😉

    9. Mladen Jovanović on June 17, 2012 at 10:32 pm

      Great article – can't wait for part two. I am just wondering are you going to touch Critical Power concept since it is more 'performance' oriented.

      Keep up the great work

    10. OPT on June 18, 2012 at 2:15 am

      good thoughts, very provoking
      as someone who studies this intensely for various modals of work for fitness i enjoy it
      the reason why i developed a "model" was to teach, to at least make a stab at some form of structure and to help those who are (for the lack of a better word) less intelligent athletes who lack awareness
      the higher end athlete that has awareness does the gun shot approach and it works b/c they know themselves well, the less aware athlete needs some structure and can and emperically does have some success with the "planned model"
      i.e. teaching someone to go easy is one thing, naming it Z1 and FORCING an active recovery is another way to do it..
      each athlete responds differently and so you are right about individuality, it is THE KEY…but none the less i am on the side of mixing both as we apply strict data and testing to a varied, non-periodized model for fitness improvement…and one has to know exactly what you did sometimes when improvements are made and then learn about those over riding principles over time…
      the key with zones for a cyclical sport such as running is key in some cases as shot gun and "feel" gets peeps out of the zones and they have "haphazard training" to quote Lydiard – and i have applied this and made these mistakes in endurance sport as well as the sport of fitness which we are currently investigating
      thx for sharing!

    11. Anonymous on June 18, 2012 at 5:22 pm


      Love your posts and the detail you provide. You do a great job of saying all the scientific stuff in ways most people can understand.

      I am interested in knowing how balance can positively effect running performance (if it can?). The thought in my mind is that if a runner improves his balance, his form/running economy can improve (and we all know the importance of that) or overall just become a smoother runner. I would love to see either a post concerning this or a point in the right direction of where I could find research concerning this.


    12. Anonymous on June 19, 2012 at 12:40 am

      I liked the article although it's inenvitable that people will start to go against what is commonly held in place. That happens in most any profession. Human beings grow tired of always agreeing so I was just waiting for someone to start bashing training zones. Anyway, as much as I've schooled myself on training zones, I often disregard them when I go out and do threshold runs or intervals. I always seem to want to run more by feel. Nevertheless, I've been a high school coach for 8 years and I've found training zones to be helpful with high school runners. For many high school runners, if you don't give them specific paces and explanations for those paces, they will run threshold, VO2 max, and speed workouts as hard as they can. All their paces will start to blend and it can become a big mess. So, I'm not ready to totally dismiss training zones, but I also like the idea of not being too hung up on them. Thanks for the article!

    13. Anonymous on June 20, 2012 at 12:11 am

      It's not that because the zones are gone you no longer have any guidelines about how fast to run. You don't just send kids out and say "run by feel" and nothing else. Pace is still important for obtaining different stimuli and certainly runners will have to be educated about how fast they should be running different runs. I don't think Steve is arguing against that.

    14. Robert Pickels on June 21, 2012 at 4:07 pm

      "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function" F. Scott. Fitzgerald

      Often, in an attempt to make complex concepts simple, an "all or nothing" or "either / or" attitude is developed. Unfortunately there is rarely an "and". Research has indicated that HIIT gives great "bang for your buck", so entire training methodologies have been created around that one principle. This logic is potentially how many may perceive your post: "Don't plan your workout intensity! Just go run based on how you feel!" I'll go out on a limb and suggest that is not the best way to train!

      As someone who uses "zone training"(personally and professionally) I began reading your article with a sour taste; assuming we disagreed. I realized, however, that we are similar (hence the reason I read your blog, I suppose). Be sure to not alienate with broad generalizations.

      One other thought: Velocity at threshold (depending on definition) has correlated highly (.91-.98) with running TT performances ranging from 3.2 to 42.2km. Previous race performance, in the same study, correlated .92-.98 across the same distances. VO2, %Vo2, Economy, etc. correlated lower.
      Farrell, Wilmore, Coyle, Billing, and Costill. Plasma Lactate accumulation and distance runnning peformance. MSSE. 11(4) 338-44. 1979

      Rob Pickels
      Boulder Center for Sports Medicine

    15. johan on June 26, 2012 at 9:43 am

      nice article, you showed that the science is not supporting the model. But still i think we need the zone's to give the training structure. Elite runners will need 'n individual program but most of us can do with general recommendations. Otherwise most recreational runners will run their easy runs to fast and there fast runs to easy.
      because we create a no-mans land, or a black hole (Seiler)
      they will accept to run more easy. on most days. and harder on their hard days. This will give the best results.
      as shown by http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17685689

    16. Anonymous on July 4, 2012 at 3:11 am

      Great article – can’t wait for Part 2. Steve, you have an angle that is cutting edge. I refer to your blog regularly and my running has improved as a result. I’m a weekend warrior runner and not very fast (but a decent competitive swimmer in my younger days) but I bet you have a huge following of elite athletes and coaches from all sports.

      That said, in my view the physiological model of training has another gaping hole: The “X” Factor. The “X” factor is that psychological/sociological magic that some coaches possess and turns athletes of all abilities into believers and winners (often on race day but in other areas as well.) Swimming coach Dr. James Counsilman coined ”the ‘X’ factor” phrase in the early 1970’s and it probably did more to influence his colleagues than all of his other scientific physiological/stroke mechanics research combined. (http://www.swimmingcoach.org/articles/JL05142002.asp)

      My daughter just peaked in on what I was writing and said, “This is an article discussing a physiological model, not a psychological model!” But it’s all interrelated isn’t it? Isn’t that kind of the point of this article? Steve, you wrote, “… those big parameters don’t really do a wonderful job correlating with individual performance.” There is more to the story. I know that if Doc told his swimmers a pace to hit in training, they believed it would make them faster and it usually did because he had clout, cachet or the “X” factor, and that moves athletes, in addition to that fact that it’s a valid training pace. When your coach is someone you trust and believe in, that training plan he/she lays out has power. If you don’t trust them or don’t believe in them, it falls flat regardless of whether you actually hit the times/paces laid out or not. I’m simplifying here and I don’t mean to trivialize a complex subject with a nifty anecdote but when you ask, “How to improve the complex notion of performance?” I think the model has to address the “X” factor. I don’t know, Steve – maybe we have a unified theory of physiology and psychology/sociology already. Like I said, I’m just a weekend warrior now. I look forward to your writings to find out.

    17. John Davis on July 5, 2012 at 1:59 am


      Could you talk more about the "tug of war" around LT and lactate tolerance work? Do these two variables work against each other? How do you balance that out?


    18. Nick F. on July 9, 2012 at 3:00 am

      I don't understand how the Vollaard 2009 graph proves your point. First, it's a poor graph, and it's seems like all of the useful correlative data has been "flattened" into something which only shows the rough trends. That said, even the data as presented seem to indicate trends for improvement, albeit with a fairly wide standard deviation. If there is a statistically significant improvement, it would seem to invalidate your argument.

      Granted, I'm a chemist, but I like to think of myself as having a fairly solid grounding in statistical data analysis. I'm not trying to disagree with you, it's mostly that I don't have a good feeling for what those data are actually saying and how it lines up with your argument.

      To me, a better presentation would be to look at how each of those statistics correlate with one another. One could even imagine a matrix where correlation coefficients are presented for all of the presented metrics. It looks like you can get some of that from the colors, but like I said, the data as presented are pretty unintuitive. Vollaard way want to consider taking a look at some of Edward Tufte's books.

    19. Kole on July 30, 2012 at 7:08 pm

      It's nice to see a thorough analysis of this. I've come across too many people that will believe whatever they are told. Magazines need to stop promoting this woo.

    20. Alessandro Santuz on August 10, 2012 at 4:38 pm

      Research always lets space to interpretation, that's one of its most interesting aspects. Thanks for sharing!

    21. Anonymous on August 28, 2012 at 11:59 pm

      I don't understand how some coaches say train at this precise pace for this exact amount of time and your LT will improve and therefore your race performances will also improve. If there is an LT Zone it exists somewhere between about marathon pace and maybe 10km pace. That's a lot of "gray area". So training at any pace in this huge zone for some amount of time (until you feel like you've had a pretty decent workout) will theoretically make you faster.

      Back in the day we did "tempo runs" of between 10km and 15km just as hard efforts over a specific loop, one that was scenic and had a couplf of long, gentle hills in it. Some days we felt tired and dogged it at marathon effort. Other days we flew, almost race effort for the distance we were running. They were fun and invigorating and at the same time tiring. I suppose they worked because everyone in our group got faster over a variety of race distances.

      We also did crazy things like 3 x 1000m @ about 95% effort, close to 1500m pace with 5min recovery. They hurt like hell. Am not sure what training zone they were designed to target but they sure made every race between 1500m and 5km feel a lot easier. Ditto for hill repeats: loads of not-so-fast repeats on a decent hill of 400m in length. By rep #5 of 10 we were hurtin and the last 100m of those last 5 reps were knee grabbers. A coach today would dismiss this kind of training as not so scientific and therefore irrelevant. But… it worked!

      I'm dying to go back and train more like we did in the 80s but this zone thing is both a security blanket and a safety net and until someone has the confidence to say "here is a better way to do it" then it is what we have.

      So I am waiting impatiently for part 2. Please hurry it up!

    22. Paul on September 14, 2012 at 7:56 am

      Really Interesting Post,

      One of the things i learn (in business school of all placees) was that the point of a model or metaphor was to make it easier to understand a complex system. It should allways be assumes that the model is flawed, that it doesnt work all the time, or in all circumstances. But the fact that it (over) simplifies the complexity is exactly what makes it so usefull.

      They also taught us that one model is seldom inherantly better than another, although in a specific situatuion one model may be better suited than another.

      The point of the model is to help you make decisions, to guide your actions, in the case of sport to guide what training you do.

      That the Physiological Model is flawed, is beyond doubt, it must be by the mere fact that it is a model. But so too will the Connection Model.

      Id suggest that both have their place in a good coaches tool kit.

      As others have said, im also eagerly awaiting the next part

    23. Laurent Therond on October 29, 2012 at 5:12 pm

      I like the Tabula Rasa approach, but I don't find it very practical. If we are going to challenge or throw well-accepted training principles, what are we going to replace them with?
      Is there a need for a method to our madness?

      Secondly, before we come to defining methods of training, I think we should investigate reliable protocols to measure the effects of training. Something that could answer: Am I getting the improvements I seek?
      There are many training programs out there, but there are few protocols dedicated to monitoring or proving their efficacy.

    24. Anonymous on September 13, 2013 at 4:07 am

      OK, I have to admit that I did not really read the article thoroughly, because I didn't really have time – this is just something I stumbled across. I just wanted to throw in my two cents.

      And that is, you seem to be saying something along the lines of, everyone is different and so physiological models don't work, and that is why we can't use RE, VO2Max, and LT to improve performance. OK, maybe that isn't what you're saying, but that's what I'm getting from my very brief read-through. Well, what about all the people (many I personally know) who definitely do train according to "the Big 3?" I guess that just reinforces your statement that running is very individual, since it will work for some people and not for others. And I remember reading something about those "big 3" accounting for 70% of your performance. And if that's true, well, then yeah, of course performance isn't all about the big 3.

      I don't even know what my point is…I'm probably just babbling. But mainly, I disagree with your assertion that Jeff Daniels' model "sucks". True, I mostly definitely don't have the experience and all that you do. Maybe my next comment won't apply because this is an article geared toward performance – but another comment I have is, due to that 30% of "other" in racing, sometimes one will not see the benefits of training by the Big 3. That is what I would respond to this article. And I think if people research (no, I haven't done it, so if I'm wrong, that's probably why), you'll find research that supports both views – that is, both for "big 3" and against it. My final assertion is that, training according to the "big 3" is definitely beneficial, and if you don't see improvements in racing, it is not necessarily because that training doesn't work – it probably has more to do with your racing strategy and the whole mental aspect of running – namely, the "other 30%" of race performance factors.

      I applaud you if anyone understood what I'm saying. Anyway, I just felt like responding because not very many people seem to be disagreeing.

    25. Anonymous on November 19, 2013 at 8:00 pm

      A very thought-provoking blog, thank you. I am looking at this issue not just from a running or biking perspective, but also from the perspective of some motion sports, such as surfing and alpine ski racing, and even motorcycle racing, where Wlt and Wobla seem useful metrics in predicting performance. (Interestingly, VO2max seems a poor predictor of performance for those sports, just as for running.) Guenther Neumayr et. al. have some of the published research for alpine skiing, and Camara et. al. for surfing. Both for training, and for the somewhat related task of assessing talent, it is very tempting to fall into looking at just one or two parameters as a cause of success, rather than simply one correlate.

      For our current culture, to echo some earlier comments, I do believe it is still helpful to focus athletes on the benefits of spending the bulk of their time training at relatively easy intensities, whether their sport is running or a motion sport with a higher specialized technique emphasis. The current broad cultural emphasis on short periods of all hard, 110% effort is otherwise too strong, which can lead to overtraining and injury and also, for technique sports, can make the acquisition of higher levels of skill very difficult.

    26. Coach Al on December 10, 2013 at 4:33 pm

      Good article. Thanks for your work in putting it together. I had to laugh while I was reading; I've drawn similar conclusions, albeit some years ago, and probably, at least in part, for different reasons. In effect, what the model so many have embraced is lacking, is taking into consideration MOVEMENT and movement quality. That is, individual variations in mobility/flexibility, stability, and functional strength, as well as other less obvious but similar factors. Yes, we are all unique, not just in our "V02max," but also in terms of how we MOVE, where we compensate, our lifestyle and background, and our own joint laxity or lack there of. ALL of these (other) factors contribute to, and are in some respects largely responsible for, our individual ability to "adapt" to training stimulus! Its time the "physiologists" (and those that think like them) got their heads a bit out of the sand :), and accepted that how we MOVE is as much, or even MORE, responsible for both our performance as well as our adaptation to training.

      Coach Al Lyman, CSCS

    27. Lyes on April 9, 2019 at 8:10 am

      Good morning,

      How can we train then in order to maximize our improvement for a better performance? (no benefit to improve Vo2Max or RE if there is no improvement in performance)

      Thank you in advance for your answer.

      Best regards,

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