Great Video & Presentation: Optimizing endurance training adaptation – Stephen Seiler

Link to the video on the Oxford Brooks Video Portal

One of the articles that has had the biggest effect on how I train is a survey article by Stephen Seiler.  Published in 2009, I found it in 2012 and it was the first peer reviewed article that I had seen which laid out the case for polarized training, and even included some findings for recreational athletes.

I had seen research that showed that polarized training, with split of 80% low intensity (LIT) and 20% high intensity (HIT) was optimal for elite athletes who train >10 hours a week.  But what about schmucks like me, who train for fun and have jobs and lives.  The key question for me was whether the ratio between LIT and HIT should change if the amount of training is lower?  The article directly addresses that question…

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This was hugely influential for me and I took the advice to heart.  I tried to keep the intensity of my endurance workouts low, and the duration as long as I had time for.

The next bit of Seiler wisdom that I found helpful was a study about individualization of training.  I have previously written about it here.  The great thing about this study was reinforcing just how big the differences in response was between different athletes for the same training stimulus.  He cited a study that was comparing different approaches to block periodization.  There was a slight, statistical advantage to one approach, but the variation of response between athletes in each training group was much larger.  His conclusion was that the same approach will not work for everyone.  This is a pretty important lesson to learn since there are a lot of people who will cite their own results (or a national team’s results) as “proof” that a certain approach works.

So much of what works and doesn’t work has to do with how well a training approach matches your basic physiology and current training state.  If you have tons of slow twitch muscles and do better at long distances, then you are likely to have different training needs than if you a fast twitch sprinter.  In my own training, it has become apparent over time that I need a LOT of low intensity rowing to make improvements in my endurance.  Others can by with a lot less.

So, it is with that background that I watched the video linked at the beginning of this post.  I am inclined to pay attention to stuff that he presents because it seems to be well researched, and because it has resulted in good results for me.

This video reviews a fair amount of stuff that he has done before, but introduces a couple of useful conceptual frameworks to understand training.

The first is Seiler’s Hierarchy.  Here is a link to an article explaining it.  This set’s up a pyramid to illustrate the priority of different elements of training on race day performance.

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At the base of the pyramid is training volume.  As he puts it, there is a lot of peer reviewed research that shows a strong correlation between training volume and race performance.  Miles do make champions.

The next level of the pyramid is High Intensity Training.  The point here is that you need more than just the long slow stuff to actually improve.  In addition, you need training that is hard enough to push your heart rate to 90% of your max, or higher to deliver adaptation.   So, within that framework, I guess it is safe to safe that “No Pain / No Gain”.  He discusses potential ways to do High Intensity Training and cites a study comparing 4 minute, 8 minute, and 16 minute intervals.  He didn’t show this in the video, but it summarizes the finding of that study.

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He made the point that there might be a sweet spot around the 90% HR level and that workouts that maximized the time at or around the 90% level might be more effective than shorter workouts that achieve higher heart rates, but for shorter durations.

The third level of the Pyramid is Training intensity distribution.  This is where polarization comes in.  He presented findings from rowing, skiing and running that showed that elite athletes generally spend their time training at much slower or faster paces than the actual race pace.  This is where 80/20 comes from.

These three tiers represent the solid base of a training plan.  Beyond that, you get into areas that are likely to have an impact, but the effect is less and the research is less solid.  In the linked presentation, but not the video, he goes into detail about the study on block periodization studies.  This research compared three block periodization strategies.


Then they looked at the results for the athletes that participated.

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So, basically, all three worked great for some athletes and didn’t work at all for some athletes.  This is the basis of his talk about individualization.  You need to track what you’re doing and if you aren’t making progress, you should try something different with regard to periodization.  There is good evidence that doing the same thing for longer than 8-10 weeks will result in diminished improvement, but it doesn’t matter as much what change you make.

The remaining levels of the pyramid are essentially the icing on the cake.  They have been shown to have some benefit on race performance, but can’t be used to substitute for having a good base.

The other useful concept in the video was a discussion of dose/response curves.  He described the similarity between training and medication.  Basically, you have two effects as you increase the dosage of something on the subject.  There is a desired effect, and there are side effects. The desired effects of training are increases in maximum power, VO2Max, Lactate Threshold, and aerobic endurance.  The side effects of too much training are injury, illness and in my case an angry spouse.


Each curve is basically s-shaped.  You need to get to some minimum dose before you start to see the desired effect, then that effect increases with increasing dose.  At some level, the desired effect levels off, even with higher doses.  The key to finding the right dose is figure out a level where the desired effect is maximized, but the side effect is still low.  This is a good concept to keep in mind to ward off the “more is better” mindset.  It is also useful to keep in mind around polarized training.  The intent of long slow training is different than that of intense HIT.  Each has it’s own dose / response curve, but they can effect each other.  A way to think of this is that the desired effect curve is specific to the exercise intensity, but the side effect curve is driven by sum of all the training.

The challenge is that it’s pretty tough to know where the knees of the desired response and side effect curves are in practice.  That’s where we end up relying on rules of thumb.  Examples of these rules:

  • You need to accumulate time above 90% HRMax to get a good response to HIT
  • That the side effects of LIT volume are driven mostly by the specific type of sport being trained.  They are lower for running and higher for non-impact sports like rowing
  • That decreased Heart Rate Variability is a sign of over training

These are all pretty squishy and that’s where training planning gets tougher.






Tuesday: Strength

30 minute warmup on the stationary bike (manual, level 13)

Then into a strength session

(limited depth to protect my knee, put a Bench behind me and stopped when my butt hit it, it was about 3/4 depth)
45 x 10
95 x 10
145 x 10
165 x 8 x 3 sets

Chin ups
Unassisted x6 (yes! I’m making progress)
assisted x6 x6 x4

Good Mornings
45 x 10
95 x 10
145 x 10 x 3 sets

Push ups
(with rotating handle pads)
10 x 4 sets

Pretty happy with how that went, especially the squats.  I really want to work on leg strength and preserve range of motion.  I felt safe doing the squats this way.

Not by coincidence, I saw a tweet from Yann La Meur reviewing a paper by Rhea.  This was talking about the specificity of squat training.  In the experiment they took 28 collegiate athletes and only varied the type of squat exercise that they did within an otherwise identical strength training program.  They found that quarter squats translated into bigger improvements in vertical leap and sprint speed than either full squats or half squats.

Now, of course the range of knee motion for rowing is a lot larger than running or jumping, so I am not sure that quarter or half squats are good for specific rowing training, but I found the article very interesting nonetheless.  Mainly though, I want to avoid having my knee lock up while I have 200 pounds on my shoulders.

Tomorrow:  Stationary Bike endurance session, ~ 60 minutes.




What the hell? Sets don’t matter?

Just saw this paper.

Journal of Applied Physiology

Seems to indicate that similar gains in strength as measured by increases in 1 rep max were acheieved with 2 groups, one of which did a single set at 80% 1RM to failure and a group that did 3 sets to failure.  I need to spend more time reading the paper, but I wanted to share it with others to see if others wanted to read it as well.

Here’s the money plot:

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Article Review: Optimizing Fat Oxidation Through Exercise and Diet

One of the primary tenets of a polarized training program is to separately train the different energy systems by tailoring the intensity of the specific session.  If you are trying to training the Anaerobic Alactic system, then short sprints with long rests allow the athlete to produce more power in each rep and thereby increase the focus on that energy pathway.  Similarly, when doing low intensity endurance training, the idea is to keep the intensity high enough to elicit a training response, but low enough so that the metabolism of fat predominates.

The most direct way to determine the proper training intensity is to measure blood lactate levels.  This is because the metabolism of fat does not produce pyruvate, which is transformed into lactate, whereas the metabolism of carbohydrate (CHO) does end up producing lactate.  The body can use lactate as a fuel, so at a certain exercise intensity, the amount of lactate produce and consumed is at equilibrium and will stay stable over relatively long exercise sessions (60 to 80 minutes at least).

The problem is that routine measurement lactate is expensive, inconvenient and not continuous.  So it becomes desirable to find other measures that can be roughly correlated with lactate that are easier to measure, and more importantly to continuously monitor during an exercise session.

That brings us to this review paper:

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The key findings are:

  • Fat metabolism is maximized at a higher percentage of VO2Max for fit people than non fit people.
    • 59% to 64% of VO2Max for trained subjects
    • 47% to 64% of VO2Max for untrained subjects

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  • That the fat metabolism is maximized at different VO2Max percentages for different modes of exercise
    • 58% of VO2Max for walking
    • 64% of VO2Max for bicycling
    • No data about rowing 😦

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  • That ingesting Carbohydrates immediately before exercise reduces the amount of fat metabolism.
    • At the same percentage of V02Max, fasted subjects nearly doubles the fat metabolism of subjects that consumed CHO before exercise.

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  • Men maximize fat metabolism at a higher percentage of VO2Max than women

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So, one thing that always trips me up is calibrating myself to VO2Max.  The best rule of thumb that I have read is that VO2Max power on an erg is roughly 2K pace or power.  So, if you can row a 7:00 2K (302W).  If maximizing fat oxidation occurs between 59% and 64% of VO@Max power, then the power range for endurance training would be 179W (2:05.0) to 194W (2:01.7).

Lactate curve thoughts 

From Jan Olbrecht’s book. 

And this quote:

The swimmers with the best competition results over 400 m achieve the fastest times at low concentrations of lactate (2-Speed test, see Standard Lactate Test). Exceptions to this principle are possible if the swimmer can compensate for his lack of endurance by reaching higher levels of lactate (fig. 24). This compensation, however, is limited.

GPS Distance Errors

Prolific posting day for me.  I saw this on Twitter,  An academic paper about system over estimate of distance by GPS devices.


There is a lot of heavy duty math in the paper and if I manage to understand it, it will take a while.  But the basic gist is that the larger the error in the estimated positions along the route trajectory, the more cumulative distance errors occurs.

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In the pedestrian example they provided, the error peaked at 2.5 meters of over estimation at 45 minutes into the experiment.

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Not all that much error, but it gives you something to think about.

Another taper plan – From Rowing Faster (Ed McNeely)

Based on the a comment from Tom (Stelph), I went and looked at Chapter 19 of the second edition of Rowing Faster.  This chapter is written by Ed McNeely and in principle is quite similar to the taper I wrote up from the Shepley Paper.

Basically, the idea is to maintain the intensity of the training, but reduce the volume.  In the Shepley paper, the protocol was to warmup, do a small number of ~75sec intervals then cool down.

The chapter defines 3 types of what it calls “minor tapers”.  I doubt anyone who isn’t competing at a collegiate or elite level would consider the moderate or major tapers, unless perhaps you are planning to race against blood thirsty cannibals in a set number of months and your life depends on the extra second of pace.

But back to minor tapers.  Here is a table of the three that were defined.

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The primary difference is that instead of doing the same type of interval and just reducing the number as you approach race day, you change the number, length and intensity of the intervals.

The type of taper is driven by your training load.  A 1 day taper for athletes training 6 to 10 hours a week.  3 days for athletes training 10-15 hours.  5 day taper is for those hardy souls training more than 15 hours a week.  I checked my log and I am training about 7 to 10 hours a week, so I guess in Ed’s world, I don’t need or deserve a taper.  I actually think this is an elite versus masters kind of difference.  The amount of taper you need is probably driven by how much recovery you need from whatever training load you are carrying.

The 1 day taper is a misnomer.  It just means that you take a complete rest day the day before the race.  I don’t like that idea much.

The 3 day taper seems simple enough.  It seems like 5 x 2′ at faster than race pace might be a bit harrowing.  I did 4 x 2′ at 2k pace on the erg and I don’t think I could have done them 2% faster (1:38 vs 1:40 pace).  Maybe an elite athlete could.  The 3 x 1′ at 3% faster than race pace looks pretty cool, and I think the 20 minutes of steady state is probably about the same as the warmup and cooldown from the Shepley paper.

I have to admit some confusion about the 5 day taper.  This is a taper for a 2000m race, which will probably take somewhere between 6 and 8 minutes.  So how is it possible to do 3 x 10 minute intervals at race pace.  I have to assume that is a typo.  If you can do 10 minutes at race pace, it isn’t race pace. After that there is a steady state session, then 7 x 3′ at faster than race pace, which I would not be capable of doing on my best day.  Then the 5×2′ and then the 3×1′ sessions from the 3 day taper.

How would I apply this to my world?  I honestly don’t know.  I think that I would probably look at the 3 day taper and ignore the other ones.  For the 3 day taper, I would need to adapt it by adjusting the pace targets.  I would target about race pace for both the 2′ and 1′ intervals.

Unlike the Shepley paper, there is no real evidence presented about the effectiveness of the taper versus other approaches, so it is hard to judge how well it works, but Ed McNeely certainly has impressive credentials so you could do worse than to trust his advice (other than the 3×10′ at race pace thing).

By the way, Rowing Faster is a great book.  I have the kindle version of the 2nd edition.

What the best way to taper for a race?

I’m sure that there are an infinite variety of ways to taper and just as many principles and theories about what works best to delivery peak performance on race day.  In the Wolverine Plan, Mike Caviston writes the following…

Tapering is the practice of reducing training volume & intensity prior to competition to ensure peak performance. While it is a common perception among athletes that a taper is necessary to allow maximal performance, this is not clearly supported by scientific research. The benefits of tapering are most evident in situations where athletes were clearly overtraining in the first place. In other words, the benefit is not so much the taper per se, but removing the negative effects of overtraining. In situations where training volume and intensity are properly controlled, the effects of tapering are less substantial. Now, this is not to say we won’t taper before important tests and competitions. We will. Rest assured that we have your best interests at heart. But some athletes expect a vacation and are disappointed when all they get is a modest reduction in a pretty demanding schedule. The fact is the only noticeable reduction in training will occur during the week prior to NCAAs. And the benefits are probably far more psychological than physical.

Needless to say, there are different view points, and in fact some research that contradicts this point of view.  For example this paper:

This paper is from 1992, and it is an interesting experiment.  It was a study of collegiate middle distance runners.  There were 9 participants that went through a 8 week training period where all of them followed the same training plan.  They were then divided into three groups of 3 and each group followed a different taper plan.  Then after four weeks they did another taper, and after 4 more weeks a final taper.  So each athlete used each taper once.  At the end of each taper, there was a series of performance and physiological tests including:

  • VO2Max
  • time to exhaustion at 1500m running pace
  • Strength
  • Blood lactate
  • Blood volume
  • Red Cell Volume

The three tapers were all 7 days long, day 1 and day 6 were both rest days.  The Low Intensity and High Intensity tapers both included warm ups in addition to the details below.

  • rest only
  • Low Intensity: 10km run at 57 to 60% VO2Max on day 1, 8km on day 2, and so on.
  • High Intensity: 5 x 500m interval at 115% VO2Max with 6 to 7 minutes rest between.  This is roughly 75 seconds of running in each interval, at roughly 1500m pace.  On day 2, 4×500, and so on.

The results are interesting.  Here is the money plot.

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The rest only taper resulted in a 3 percent decline in performance relative to tests right before the taper. A low intensity taper resulted in a 6% improvement. The high intensity taper resulted in a 22% improvement in time to exhaustion at 1500m pace.

This performance measure is backed up with the blood tests.

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Both blood volume and red cell volume were increased the most in the HIT group.

Based on this paper, I plan out tapers simply by counting back from race day as follows

  • Race day
  • rest day
  • 2 x 500 (or 1:30) with 5 min rests
  • 3 x 500 (or 1:30) with 5 min rests
  • 4 x 500 (or 1:30) with 5 min rests
  • 5 x 500 (or 1:30) with 5 min rests
  • rest day

I would do this for the most important race of a season.  For less important races, I would shorten the taper by 2 days and start with the 3 x 500.

I’d like to thank Ben Redman for pointing me to this paper.

From Polarized to Optimized. New Lecture from Prof. Steven Seiler

I am trying to get a handle on periodizing my training.  The book The Science of Winning by Jan Olbrecht makes a big point that an athlete will plateau after 8 to 10 weeks of consistent training and the training durations and intensities must be modulated to maintain progress.  This lecture takes a different view.  That periodization is highly variable from athlete to athlete and must be evaluated with a view toward individual progress.  Changes have to be made if the desired training effect is not seen.

He describes an experiment conducted with well trained cyclists.  The 69 cyclists were divided up into 3 groups.  Each group followed an 80/20 polarized training plan, but the higher intensity training was varied between the groups.  Here is the plot showing the average training hours per athlete per week in the study.

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All three groups had 4 week mesocycles with varying workloads and you can see the difference in how well rested the athletes felt in those week.

Each of these three groups were given different a training plan.

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Pretty neat experiment, huh?  In the traditional group, the intensity build in each mesocycle.

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In the hybrid group, each mesocycle had a mix of each type of training.  This is very much like the Pete Plan or Wolverine plan.

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In the Reverse group, it all started with hell week with 3 high intensity sessions, then moved to intermediate and longer intervals.

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The results were interesting.  In the traditional group 60% of the athletes made significant gains in VO2max power.  The other groups significantly lower part of the group made big gains.

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The main point that Seiler made though, was that significant portions of each group did not make progress with the plan that they were on.

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As a scientist, the reaction is “Huh?”.  As a coach, the reaction needs to be “Change the plan!”.

For me, the big take away is that the lowest level of success was with the hybrid plan and that is basically what I have been using for the past 4 years with very little variation.  I think I will start to plan out training loads and intensities following the “Traditional model” for my winter training plan and track progress.  Of course all of this is in the context that 80% of the training will be low intensity steady state, but the type and amount of high intensity work will change by mesocycle.  The other take away is to monitor progress and make changes when things are not progressing as I expect.