Speed: what really works? (Preview)

With so many speedwork options, how can you get the best return for your effort? (Non-subscriber preview)


Posted: 30 May 2006

We all have a surpassing faith in the ability of training programmes to help us become fitter and faster. In our endless search for the best regime, we scour the internet, buy books and magazines, and attend clinics staffed by Olympic medallists and their coaches. The goal: to find programmes that provide the greatest return for the effort we are putting in.

If the following three programmes were all guaranteed to improve your marathon time by 20 minutes, which one would you choose?

(A) Run 100 miles a week and spend six hours in an ice bath;

(B) Run 100 miles a week and accompany it with six hours of sports massage at £50 an hour; or

(C) Run 50 miles a week and have plenty of time for The Apprentice.

Here's the twist: scientists don't know for sure whether A, B, or C is the "right" answer – the path to greatest improvement. That's why, two years ago, New Zealand-based researchers Carl Paton and Will Hopkins, began digging through 20 years of research on sessions that boost endurance performance. They wanted to see if they could gain some clarity on the subject.

In their investigation, Paton and Hopkins looked only at studies with veteran endurance athletes. That's important. "If you look at non-exercisers, it's too easy to find training programmes that produce big results, because it doesn't take much to make the first fitness gains," says Paton who works at the University of Waikato, in Hamilton, New Zealand.

Paton is a former international cyclist who gave up his dream of the pro tour when he realised he'd starve to death before breaking away from the peloton. Today he enters triathlons and manages a 1:25 half-marathon. Paton was surprised by the relative lack of high-quality papers he and Hopkins found. "Given the many stories we've all heard about great training programmes, you'd think there'd be lots of good research," he says. "But there isn't."

Quick thinking

Eventually the investigators settled on the 22 best studies, which were then analysed and compared by Hopkins, a statistics whiz. Their findings were published in 2004 in a paper titled "Effects of High-Intensity Training on Performance and Physiology of Endurance Athletes."

The clear winner among workouts: "maximal" interval training. It produced the most and biggest performance improvements, often four to six per cent. No surprise there. Interval training has been a favourite of top coaches and runners since the end of World War II. This type of training involves fast intervals of two minutes to 10 minutes at about your two-mile race pace – precisely what many runners do when they run intervals of 800-2,400m. Interval training should be the first weapon in your speed arsenal.

Paton and Hopkins found that "supramaximal intervals" (fast intervals that last 30 seconds or less) also led to good improvements, two to four per cent. They could find only one study of what we would call tempo training, and it produced improvements of about three per cent. So both very-fast running and controlled tempo sessions should also be part of your training regimen.

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