When the Goldilocks Zone Isn’t “Just Right”

Are you spending too much time in the middle and not nearly enough on either end?….

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Goldilocks first tried Baby Bear’s training programme, but it was far too easy and Goldilocks was easily bored. So next she tried Papa Bear’s training programme and ‘oof’… it was way too hard. Finally she settled on Mama Bear’s programme and BOOM, she eventually blew herself to bits because she spent too much time training in ‘no man’s land’.

Punch line first…

Performance in intense exercise events, such as Olympic rowing, swimming, kayak, track running and track cycling events, involves energy contribution from aerobic and anaerobic sources. As aerobic energy supply dominates the total energy requirements after ∼75 seconds of near maximal effort, and has the greatest potential for improvement with training, the majority of training for these events is generally aimed at increasing aerobic metabolic capacity. A short-term period (six to eight sessions over 2-4 weeks) of high-intensity interval training (consisting of repeated exercise bouts performed close to or well above the maximal oxygen uptake intensity, interspersed with low-intensity exercise or complete rest) can elicit increases in intense exercise performance of 2-4% in well-trained athletes.

The influence of high-volume training is less discussed, but its importance should not be downplayed, as high-volume training also induces important metabolic adaptations. While the metabolic adaptations that occur with high-volume training and high-intensity training show considerable overlap, the molecular events that signal for these adaptations may be different. A polarised approach to training, whereby ∼75% of total training volume is performed at low intensities, and 10-15% is performed at very high intensities, has been suggested as an optimal training intensity distribution for elite athletes who perform intense exercise events.

– “Training for intense exercise performance: high-intensity or high-volume training?” (Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010 Oct; 20 Suppl 2:1-10.)

For many of the weekend warriors aiming to do well in races, they turn toward their elite athlete heroes and attempt to emulate their training. More often than not, this sees these people engaging in “chronic cardio” training. In my sport of cycling, this means trying to base the majority of your rides around longer distance riding at a high aerobic pace. These people take the mantra “every ride’s a race” a bit too seriously. The thing is, however, the evidence suggests that elite athletes very rarely train this way.

There is published data looking at world champion rowers, runners, cyclists, and skiers, all suggesting that the athletes in these sports are engaging in what is referred to as polarised training – training at relatively easy aerobic intensities at one end of the spectrum [train slow/low – most of the time], and at high intensities at the other end [train high/fast – some of the time], but spending very little in the anaerobic threshold zone where the two extremes overlap. The evidence suggests that, for elite athletes at least, undertaking Goldilocks training (not too hard, not too easy), is not the best way to train for optimum performance.

Does this hold true for weekend warriors as well?

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Three Zones

For simplicity’s sake, we can divide training into three distinct zones:

  • A low lactate zone (low intensity endurance training – where very little lactate is produced [lactate <2 mmol/L]);
  • A lactate accommodation zone (moderate intensity ‘chronic cardio’ training – significant lactate is produced but is rapidly removed [lactate 2-4 mmol/L]);
  • A lactate accumulation zone (high intensity interval training – lactate is produced more quickly than it can be removed [lactate >4mmol/L]).

Zone 1 can be considered your ridiculously easy zone; your heart rate is at the lower end of the spectrum (60-75% of HRmax). At the other end of the scale, zone 3 is the zone that you should be undertaking your high intensity intervals in; you are on your limit and within seconds, a little voice in your head is begging for mercy. Zone 2, in the middle, is that point at which you are at or near your anaerobic threshold; you have a bit of a burn in the legs and you know if you push it any harder, it is going to be game over. But as long as you stay steady at your anaerobic threshold level, you can sit there for extended periods of time. A workout at this level feels very rewarding for those who enjoy hammering themselves for 2-3 hours at a time. These people often (mistakenly) perceive this intensity to be ‘race pace’.

Across a range of sports that have been studied, elite athletes are actually performing 80-90% of their training volume in a low lactate zone and barely 10-15% of their time training in zone 3. There seems, amongst elite athletes, little dedication to spending time in the training zone that many sub-elite/non-elite athletes coalesce to (zone 2). Keep in mind however, that elite athletes are often (but not always) training full-time and perhaps have the time up their sleeves to ‘just cruise.’ For those of us who ‘a real job’ and perhaps have only a fraction of the time available to train, might we be better served investing our time at intensities that are going to better approximate what we might experience when we do race?

NML (no man’s land) workouts provide a kinaesthetic sense of working hard but expose the rider to too much stress per unit gain. Instead most base training should be guilt-producingly easy, and the top end, high-intensity-training (HIT) should be very mentally hard, not sort of hard.

– Fred Matheny, cycling journalist and coach. (Bicycling Magazine, 1995, p90)

I’m a big fan of high intensity interval training as the optimum mode with which to simultaneously build both aerobic and anaerobic engines. But I also know there is a limit to just how much of that type of training can be undertaken before it really starts to cripple you. I have made the mistake of over-doing this mode of training, and just as logging too many junk miles can leave you tired, going backwards in performance, and with a body composition that doesn’t match your training investment, too much time at your top-end can do exactly the same. Everything can be overdone. I think it is the same mindset that drives people to simply log more time/distance when they think performance has stalled, as it is that drives people to push for more intensity and a higher frequency of those types of sessions per week.

I have a sneaking suspicion (especially amongst the likes of CrossFitters), that the high-intensity interval training [HIIT] approach is getting overdone by many people. And I can certainly relate to the mindset that might be driving that. When one is faced with going Harry Hard-Nuts for 20 minutes in a workout or with doing an easy walk for 1-2 hours, despite the pain, the hard metabolic workout often wins. And it wins because, despite the pain, that feeling of exhilaration that one gets after is a better reward (particularly at a neurological level) than the easy walk.

However, doing nearly every session as a HIIT without also doing sufficient low intensity volume, is possibly at the root of why many weekend warrior athletes feel like their progress stalls, often seeing them take to the forums for answers. A typical question to these forums might be from someone suggesting that they have their diet dialed in (read as: probably not eating enough), and who wears their ability to bury themselves, training 5-6 days per week, as a badge of honour – but they can’t quite figure out why they can’t shed their weight and get race lean. These people, whilst perhaps reaping some early benefits, are likely to have fried their nervous systems and are simply seeing the downstream consequences of this.

I have argued, previously, that, given at least equal benefit to aerobic power and capacity development from either HIIT or steady state modes of training, then why wouldn’t you just do sprint work as you gain equal (if not better) and more real-world performance for a fraction of the time investment (though a substantially increased investment in the head game is required)? But then the reverse also has to hold true… that if you constantly train at your top end, you won’t be losing anything by winding your 0-10 dial down from 11 to a 4 and just taking it easy for a bit. In fact, if one is tired, you might have everything to gain.

oylmpic cycling

The ‘How-To’ Bit

Doing easy training sounds easy to do – on paper at least. But, in the real world, it is actually very difficult. The problem stems from the fact that there is little in the way of a buzz from doing an easy workout and there are no bragging rights that go with winning the Sunday World Cup group ride when you are riding ‘guilt-producingly easy.’ At the point that you saddle up and head out the gate, one needs to be able to leave their ego behind.

Here is the common scenario; you head out with all the best intentions of doing an ‘easy’ ride for a couple of hours. It starts well, but as you warm up, and particularly if you have been doing some higher power work, you will feel the urge to put the hammer down – just for a bit to see what you can do. Or there maybe the lycra-lad (or ladess) that comes steaming past you, ‘goading you’ into chasing them. Or it could be a strong tail wind, a super flat and fast piece of tarmac, a short sharp climb, or whatever. Either way, the result is your easy ride turns into one where you spent a significant period of time at or near your anaerobic threshold.

At the time, it might not feel like you have overdone it, but if you are scheduled to do a sprint session within a couple of days, you might feel like you are riding with the handbrake on. The end result? Your easy session wasn’t overly easy, and your hard session wasn’t hard enough = Epic NO MAN’S LAND fail.

Change Your Mindset

Before you start, you have to change your mind set. You aren’t setting out to ride slower than everyone else, nor should you focus on how fast some random person comes past you. What you are doing is simply relaxing in one part of your training, not having to keep up with anyone, and actually taking some time to enjoy being on the bike (or whatever mode you are training in), and enjoying being out amongst it. I also find focusing on the state of some of these MAMIL’s (middle-aged men in Lycra), who often think hammering themselves on every ride is the only way to train, to be a helpful reinforcement of what it is you are trying to achieve. Whilst these riders are trying to mimic their pro heroes, they are often oblivious to the research showing the state of these people after riding some of the pro tours.

Generally speaking, one needs to figure out how many hours they have up their sleeve each week/training block to dedicate to training (2-3 week training blocks can be asymmetrical – no need to get trapped into a 7 day cycle). Once you have done this, allocate ~80% of your volume to easy training. So if I have 10 hours per week to dedicate to your mode of training, you might spend 8 of this to undertaking easy training, with the remaining 1-2 hours being allocated to your HITT efforts.

Of that 8 hours, a good proportion of that might be best performed in one solid block, e.g. a good 3-4 hour low intensity effort so as to maximise changes to your fat burning cellular machinery. I would argue too, particularly for those [cyclists] lacking the discipline to keep the intensity down, you might be better served undertaking some of your low intensity allocation outside of the mode you feel most competitive in.

For example, I have increasingly become a fan of getting cyclists, including myself, off the bike and doing some hill walking in the trails. It keeps the intensity (mostly) low, and strengthens a lot of muscles that are just not actively involved in cycling but which are important to maintain for overall health. Likewise, a runner might want to jump on a town cruiser bike, complete with baggy shorts and a t-shirt. Just unplug from the competitive elements of a particular mode as much as possible.

Of course, for most of us, even 10 hours per week is a struggle. I’d be lucky if I get 4-5 hours per week on the bike. The research supporting this polarised training is on elite athletes, who are presumably training full-time, and as a result are able to log a lot more volume per week (>10-12 hours per week). An elite athlete whose full time job of training allows them 20 hours per week of training can, in theory, polarise their training to 16 hours of easy volume and 2-4 hours of HIIT. If one hasn’t the ability to undertake this sort of volume on a weekly basis, you might have to get a bit smarter with how you periodise your training.

For example, if I have 5 hours per week available to me, then this adds up to 20 hours per month, over which I schedule 16 hours of low intensity endurance, and 2-4 hours of HIIT training. I might achieve this by undertaking a 3 week block where interval training dominates (but I still ensure I am training at the easy end too), followed by a 4th week where I drop all the hard work and increase my volume of easy training. After all, unlike elite athletes, I can take a longer time frame toward my training goals and I am not required to peak for multiple competitions across the year.

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There may also be scope, for non-elite athletes, to dedicate a few weeks over the winter months, to actually doing the opposite of everything I have just written about. Doing well-planned training at threshold pace (e.g. 20 minute anaerobic threshold intervals), and strength training, with plenty of resiliency, recovery, and restitution, may end up being a good compromise for those who do not have a lot of time or the inclination to undertake a lot of weekly volume in the cold and dark. Come the warmer, more sunlit months, one can switch over to the more polarised training schemes, having built a good winter base and (hopefully) having looked after themselves doing it.

…a body of evidence – from molecular biology to whole-body measures – suggests that training adaptations are enhanced when the stimulus closely resembles the activity pattern of human ancestors.

…we propose that modern humans are physiologically better adapted to training modes and nutritional strategies similar to the ones that their hominid ancestors evolved on, rather than those supported by modern societies…

Such an ancestral pattern was mainly characterized by the prevalence of daily bouts of prolonged, low-intensity, aerobic-based activities interspersed with periodic, short-duration, high-intensity bursts of activity.”

– “An Evolutionary Biology Perspective” (Sports Med. 2013 Oct;43(10):909-17)

Overall, my view is that Goldilocks training is dead. I can see the benefits for those without a large amount of time up their sleeve to focus on a well-planned HIIT-based training schedule. I can also see the benefits, where time permits, of not defaulting to just adding more HIIT work, or spending any extensive amount of time in ‘no man’s land’ training zones, but rather in actually moving to the other extreme of performing more work at ‘guilt-producingly easy’ intensities. Just don’t under-estimate how hard it is to go easy!

*Article from the Whole9 Blog by Jamie Scott of Re-Evolutionary

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