Training for a sporting competition or event tends to bring out our inquisitorial nature as we search for the ‘Holy Grail’ of training programmes to make sure that we arrive at the start line in the best possible condition. Here, Dr Mark Faghy, Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology at the University of Derby, discusses the pros and cons of new and old methods of training, and gives an insight into how he has helped cyclist Leigh Timmis prepare for his World Record attempt to cycle across mainland Europe in June.
This search sends us trawling through endless pages and online blogs on the internet as we search for the perfect strategy to optimise our training programme. In respect of endurance events (e.g. cycling a stage of the Tour de France, or running the London Marathon), historically, the approach taken to these events is to start by covering shorted distances and then over a period of weeks and often months gradually increase the distance covered during training sessions.
From a physiological basis, this traditional approach to endurance training is explained by a frequent and incremental rise in training intensity (the distance covered during training sessions), which makes your body work a little harder each time and stresses a number of the body’s key systems (mostly the muscular and cardio-respiratory and nervous systems).
The body prefers a state of homeostasis (a state of stable equilibrium) so when we stress the body regularly via a structured training plan, it begins to adapt to the constant stress stimuli and makes changes so that the body can cope with demands of exercise. This approach to increased physical performance has been used as far back as the history books go and has the support of scientific literature, demonstrating the positive implications for performance.
But it’s not the only way…
In a world where busy lives and schedules dictate the time we have available for training, we have found ourselves searching for alternative ways to obtain performance benefits. In recent years, research studies have demonstrated the use of high-intensity interval training sessions provide the same positive benefits to endurance events when compared with longer, lower intensity sessions.
During these sessions, the premise is to complete a prescribed number of high intensity bursts in between periods of rest or active recovery. You have to work harder during sessions but these short sharp bursts of activity (lasting no longer than 60 seconds) are dispersed with periods of rest or active recovery which occur at a much lower intensity. The reduced time needed for training and the positive implications for performance have seen this approach soar in popularity within both recreational groups and the elite sporting environment, as the total time needed for a training sessions is much longer than its traditional counterpart.
How does it look in practice?
The literature shows positive benefits to performance but the key to unlocking success from training programmes is to make sure there is variation in the programme. We are all guilty at times of conducting the same routines, following the same routes, and going at the same speed because we are familiar with these sessions and, importantly, know we can do it. This will lead to a positive change in performance, but training in this way will likely mean that we do not reach our full potential because your body knows what is coming when you follow the same routine.
Developments in literature tell us that variation within training sessions is important to ensure the stimuli from training sessions is varied, which, ultimately, keeps the body guessing. So incorporating shorter, more intense sessions blended within a training week with some longer, lower intensity sessions will give the body more to think about.
A sneak peek at Leigh Timmis
The approach described above is exactly what we have been doing with cyclist Leigh Timmis who, this June, will attempt to become the fastest man to cycle across Europe with the support of the Human Performance Unit at the University of Derby.
Coordinating a six-month training programme as part of a multi-disciplinary team is a relatively complex process, especially when the first two high months are hindered by the British weather not being able to make its mind up. Even with these challenges, it is always important to incorporate both traditional and contemporary training methods to make sure we give Leigh every opportunity to be successful in his quest.
The training programme started with an intense period of training which saw Leigh completing three high-intensity sessions per week and also included some longer endurance rides at the weekend. As the programme has developed, we have moved towards more frequent, longer rides and increased the specificity of his training. The aim is to prepare Leigh for the potential 14-hour days on the road this summer, but we still maintain the need to include high intensity blasts to ensure we continue to maximise his adaptation prior to leaving for the record attempt.