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Training Intensity - What Counts As A Great Workout?

Over the last 10 years I've noticed an ever increasing focus on training intensities and the process of monitoring and evaluating. I think in the last 10 years, a lot of the focus for athletes has switched to 'training' rather than 'racing'. People are more concerned about power measurements and other training data than they are about race performances. It appears in some cases than the 'end goal' is in fact progressing training stats rather than race day performances. However, that's another blog for another day, the purpose of this blog is to ask, with the ever increasing focus on data... what counts as a great workout?

Monitor your progress

If you read page 1 of most 'coaching books' it will start with monitoring progress. If you keep a training diary, you will see your power output or speed progressing on a weekly basis, throughout the training plan.

I've got to be honest... I've never started a training program and watched my power output increase week on week in a progressive, linear fashion. Generally I have good days and bad days, some weeks I feel like I'm going backwards and some weeks I feel like I nailed it. Many of my sessions are based on 'just get it done' as I fail to hit yet another specified power output on an interval session or slog my way home on another long ride, trying to hold someones back wheel whilst suffering like a dog. Sometimes I can go through a full 16 week block and feel like I've made no progress at all, the only time I truly find out whether I've made progress is when I actually race.

Intensity V Output

So most coaches might look at the comments above and immediately say "if you're tired all the time you're over-training and your workouts are clearly poor quality so you need more rest". I'd agree with the rest bit, but my 2 & 4 year old daughters kind of get in the way, as does work, so for the foreseeable future, my 'just get it done' strategy is most likely to continue. Don't get me wrong, I love training, it's not a chore, but I'm certainly not smashing out PBs in every workout.

The first thing to point out is the difference between 'intensity' and 'output' as this is a critical thing for athletes and coaches to understand.

Intensity refers to how hard you are physically and mentally working in a session, output is what you produce as a consequence. So, for example, you might complete a bike session and your heart rate is 165 beats per minute and you rate the session (perceived effort) as an 8 out of 10. Heart rate and perceived effort are measurements of intensity (how hard the session is) and they can be influenced by lots of things. If you've had a stressful day (even if you've been sitting down) your perceived effort may well be higher and the session just feels harder, so intensity isn't just 'physical'. The power output produced during that session is the 'output measurement'. Power doesn't tell you how hard you are physically working, it's simply what you're producing, the same can be said for 'run pace' or lap times on the track.

Let me give you an example to explain the difference

I did a study 6 years ago with 12 cyclists in a 'hypoxic chamber' completing a 10 mile cycle time trial at sea level and again (on a different day) at an altitude of 12,000ft. Heart rate, blood lactate and perceived effort were all higher when riding at altitude, but the power was lower when riding at altitude, compared to sea level. To put it simple, they were working harder at altitude (higher intensity), but their output was lower (power / speed).

So... the question is, which of those 2 workouts was the best quality? There's an obvious argument to say that at altitude, the riders were working much harder, at a higher intensity and therefore that was the better quality workout. However, if we look at the power output, it was lower at altitude... so was the quality reduced because the power was lower?

The power fans will say it's all about the power, that's where the quality lies. After all, it's the power ultimately which decides how fast you go. Irrelevant of heart rate, or any other physical measurement, your speed on race day is simply determined by how much power you produce. For me, there lies perhaps a key point... yes power does ultimately decide how fast you go on race day, but race day isn't training and how fast I go in 'training' isn't the most important thing or indeed the only thing to consider.

The thing to understand here, is that on those days when the power output or run speed seems lower than normal, it doesn't mean you're not working as hard and there's an argument that the 'quality' is not necessarily poor.

How are we defining quality?

So is quality based on intensity or output? If you're working really hard at the correct intensity but the power or speed is low, is the quality compromised? Let's take this a step further and look at race performances. Coaches will tell you time and time again that in training you should be rested for key workouts so you can hit the correct numbers or the quality is reduced. However, look at your key races and where it goes wrong. Races are generally defined by those points when you were exhausted physically and mentally and decided you could no longer maintain your current pace. Hitting key power outputs early in the event are generally never an issue, it goes wrong in the latter stages, when you are no longer able to produce power outputs or run speeds anywhere near those you can achieve it training. At those points in races, you are simply 'grinding it out' and fighting both physical and mental fatigue, both of which are telling you that you need to stop right now and take a rest. So... how are we defining quality workouts? Which are the workouts which will prepare you for those dark and race defining moments?

What about over-training?

Over-training is a word which gets used far too frequently and in the wrong context. Reading my comments above, you may think that I'm encouraging people to train to the point of over-training and that's not the case. We do however live in a world where the modern endurance athlete is encouraged to rest more than they train... if you feel tired in the morning... then don't train. It's a delicate balance to avoid burnout, but if you think elite marathon runners, who run 100+ miles per week 'don't run' when they wake up tired, you'd be wrong. If you avoid running every time you're tired, then good luck at the 20 mile point in that next marathon. I'm not saying that rest is bad, because rest is an absolute necessity for any athlete. What I'm saying is that you need to know when to train and critically when to rest.

Anyhow... if you're like me, I just want to assure you that it's ok. Not every session will hit your targets and sometimes you just need to go and get it done. Some of those 'dark' sessions have prepared me for racing more than those where I reached personal best power output figures. It's important to understand that the word 'QUALITY' takes on many forms and it's not just a simple number.

If you found this useful, please do the decent thing and share. I need to go now, the kids are in bed and I've got a turbo session to complete. Between me and you... I really can't be bothered, but as a wise man once said to me "There's been thousands of times I've not wanted to start a training session... but I can't think of any times where I've finished a training session and wished I hadn't started".

It's true, you always feel better afterwards.

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