The Importance of Low Intensity Training

author : gsmacleod
comments : 6

A comparison between two athletes and their results based on a high intensity vs a low intensity program.

As a high school running coach, one of the biggest hurdles that I face is trying to convince athletes that in order to perform their best, they need to finish the majority of their training sessions feeling as though they could have done more. Coming from a culture of “no pain, no gain,” and “to race fast you need to train fast,” it can take a season or more (and usually an injury or two) before the athletes will buy into this system. For novice runners and triathletes, it is even more important to pay attention to these lessons, as athletes tend to come to triathlon later in life and are often more prone to injury.

When I first meet with my runners, I will relate the story of two runners I coached in my first few years of coaching distance runners. The first athlete, “John,” started running with the team in grade 8 and his favorite two distances were the 800m and 1500m. He showed the most promise in the 1500m, easily running a 5:02 in his first year. The second athlete, “Bill,” was always a member of the track team but did not run until his grade 12 year. Like John, he showed promise in the 1500m and decided to train for that race starting in January of that year.

John fell in love with running; after his 5:02 he spent the summer running four to six times a week and would consistently log more miles than any other athlete on the team. However, it was impossible to coach John as he had only one speed – every time he laced up his running shoes, he was heading out for a new PB. More often than not, he was successful and he could consistently run his 5k training route in under twenty minutes. Countless times, I met with John, discussed slowing down, running easy runs easy and hard runs hard, but he would have none of it – if he was running and wanted to get better he had to run hard every time out.

As he went through his years on the team, he was constantly battling injury, mainly knee issues, and would go through two to three month stretches where he would not be able to run much, if at all. By the time he was back out running, he was so frustrated with how slow he had become that he would push himself even harder to get back where he was prior to the injury. Through all this, his 1500m time got slower – by the time he was in grade 11, the last year I coached him, he ran a 5:23 1500m; despite all his training (about 800-1000km a year), his breakthrough performance was as a fourteen year old and he was never able to take his running to the next level.

Bill on the other hand, a life-long athlete but non-runner prior to grade 12, only had five months of training until race day. As he was new to running, I gave him a novice program that started with only three days of running a week, all at a conversational level. He consistently went out and ran the workout that was prescribed in the plan and by race day, he had built up to running five days a week and the extent of his speed-work was eight thirty second strides during one of his weekly runs. With basically no speed-work and only five months of running, he was able to run each of his races faster than the last and advance to the provincial championship. At his final high school race, he was able to run a 4:51 1500m.

This is the most extreme example of the dichotomy between two athletes I have coached but it underscores the importance of following your plan and not “racing” every time you train. Enjoy your training and trust your plan – it is highly unlikely that you are doing too little fast training, especially if you are in your first or second year as a runner.


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date: March 6, 2007