Grant Muller

An Experiment in Fitness

Poor Bastard Let me start by saying that this article shouldn’t be considered an endorsement of a training methodology. First of all I don’t have the expertise to endorse or recommend anything. Also there is a reason that the word ‘personal’ often appears before training, it’s different for everyone and you need to make your own decisions about what is right for you. These are just the records of my observations and experiences over the course of the last few years and more specifically, last few months. I’ll periodically update this record as I guinea-pig different training methods on myself, and document any successes or failures.

 

In other words, this is what is working for me at the moment; your mileage may vary.

Introduction

During the winter of 2008 I began training for marathon season the way I always had. Run a lot. My typical schedule included something like 10-12 hours of running a week, around 1/4 to 1/3 of that volume occurring on one day. When you pass other marathoners on the trail on these days, you nod and acknowledge that you’re both on your “long day”. These are almost invariably Sundays. On these days you put in 14-20 miles at a snail’s pace to make sure you are physiologically capable of running a full marathon. On other days you mix in interval sets, 10K’s, 5Ks, but nothing too hard…wouldn’t want to weaken your long day performance. These long runs are great if you have a stockpile of audio books to listen to, but they weren’t helping me get any faster or stronger, and they were eating up lots of my time.

This was my predicament: after spending years training like this for every event (including triathlons), I wasn’t any faster than I had been in the first year. A glance at my 5k, 10k and marathon times from 2004 to 2008 will show almost no progress. Four years without progress in areas you dedicate a lot of your spare time to is enough to frustrate anyone. I was weaker than I had been before starting any endurance training. Compound this with a knee injury at the start of 2009, and I was pretty unmotivated to run any marathons. I pushed through the Sedona Marathon (which was worth it) and took a break until I could figure out what to do next.

A little history

I wasn’t much of an athlete growing up. I played some team sports, baseball mostly, but by High School had pretty much settled on playing the drums and video games. I got out of shape, and didn’t really care much. College was much the same; working and going to school fulltime didn’t really lend itself to staying in shape (though I know better now).

After graduating college and entering the workforce, I discovered something magical: leisure time. What do I do with all this leisure time? I decided to try out a triathlon. That turned out to be a lot of fun so I did a few more. After a while it became clear that running was my favorite of the tri sports, so I took it to the next level and gave the marathon a shot. At no point was I ever a competitor in these events, in most cases I was just racing to finish. On a good day I finished middle of the pack. It didn’t matter though, I was in better shape than I had been my entire life, and I felt good most of the time (barring any long runs).

Fast forward 4 years.

Low Volume High Intensity

I credit my brother with turning me on to low volume high-intensity training. Somewhere toward the end of 2008 we both found ourselves at a loss with our typical training methods, so he started suggesting something new. Here is an example:

  • Run a punching bag up a set of bleachers 5 sets at a time, as fast as you can now.
  • Pull another punching bag 20 yards, run to the other end of the rope, do it again.
  • Throw 10lb medicine ball as far as you can. Run to it. Throw it back.
  • Do all that again 8-10 times
  • Roll up in fetal position

Since I was fine with giving up on the marathoning, this training was a welcome reprieve. I had my workouts wrapped up in the span of a half an hour, and only felt terrible as long as it took me to recuperate (which at first was a lot). I began to equate it this way:

My heart beats the same number of times as it would on a long run, I just compacted it all into 20 minutes.

Not very scientific.

We continued to train this way a few days a week, usually getting together on Sundays and the occasional weekdays, all the while I kept up my normal training with long slow distance runs, rides, and swims (here after referred to as LSD training). At some point my brother mentioned his friends were doing something called Crossfit. I had never heard of it, so I checked it out online.

The Crossfit “prescription” is “constantly varied, high-intensity functional movement”. This is the first time a training methodology has ever “clicked” with me. I am not a specialist in life. At some point I will go into a lengthy article about how I learned not to be a specialist, but for now suffice it to say that finding a training methodology that gave me the freedom to synergize and NOT specialize was exactly what I had been looking for. For a detailed account of their methodology and general physical preparedness, I suggest checking out the site linked above, FAQs, and the “What is Fitness” article.

I began doing the workouts of the day on a semi regular basis in the Spring of 2009 as an experiment while still performing my typical LSD training in the triathlon sports. Having done this on my own now, I would suggest anyone moving to a program of this sort build up a moderate fitness base before jumping in (though you can scale any workout). From dabbling I discovered the following:

  • The increase in strength was having a significant positive impact on an existing knee injury (Runner’s knee). This may also be attributed to running barefoot or in Vibram Five Fingers almost entirely (that’s a topic for a different post).
  • The anaerobic output during the short high-intensity workouts was translating to an increased aerobic base.
  • My energy levels were off the charts.

The latter was enough to make me do a significant amount of research, and dedicate the Summer of 2009 to:

The Experiment

In June of 2009 I threw out my training log and started over intending to answer the following question:

Can I supplant my LSD training regiment with high-intensity, low volume, constantly varied training while still participating in endurance sports at the same level?

The criteria for success is very simple. Measure times for swim, bike, and run sports at a designated level at periodic intervals, while training with high-intensity, low volume (hereafter HILV) workouts. I chose the following test distances:

  • Run – 5k, 10K
  • Swim – 3 x 300m (to get 100m average)
  • Bike – 12 Mile

These distances were intentionally kept somewhat short. For one, testing each once a month at “marathon” levels would not be feasible. Secondly, each is a representation of the leg length of a Sprint Triathlon. Last, Each of these times can usually be translated into longer distances. I’m not suggesting that the act of running a 5k is physiologically the same as running a marathon, I’m just suggesting that as a unit of measure for my experiment, it seemed the most appropriate. A different experiment will test even longer distances (Winter 2010).

If my times for these tests do increase, than the experiment is technically a success. If they get better than its a huge success.

Execution

Workout 8-12 times per week.

Select 5-6 workouts from one of the sources listed below:

Perform 1-3 workouts each on the bike, swim, or run using the the same HILV methodology (Crossfit Endurance was my main source for these latter workouts, sometimes substituting old sprint and time trial workouts).

This sounds like a lot of training time, but its really not bad. Consider that these workouts usually take no more than a half-hour, doing one in the morning  and another in the afternoon on days where there are two scheduled is not as bad as it sounds. This typically totals out to a MAXIMUM of 8-10 training hours per week, but is usually more like 5 to 7.

In practice I ended up spending more time on the run (3 times a week) than the bike and swim portions (usually once maybe twice a week). I followed another “unspoken” rule of going hard for 2-3 weeks, than going soft for 1 week. I would do this regardless of my training platform.

I didn’t modify my diet or sleeping patterns in anyway in an attempt to control the experiment to some minimal degree.

 

The Results

On the Run
  5K time 10K Time
Pre 5/14/09 24:28 49:40
Post 10/10/09 21:01 44:03

This is massive overhaul of my 5K and 10K times. In the past I almost always ran an 8 minute per mile, 24 minute 5K without fail. To see this time reduced this drastically is a huge success. Over the 5 month period in the experiment, I tested 3 times, each time shaving almost a minute from my previous personal record.

In the Water
  300m AVG 100m
Pre 5/14/09 5:26 1:48
Post 10/10/09 4:48 1:36

I tested 3 times over the period, and most of my cuts were made early in the experiment (July). Some periodization may be necessary to get much faster than this, but I’m questioning the need. I’m happy with these times, and if I can eke out a few more seconds I’ll be thrilled.

On the Bike

I have yet to perform the final 12 mile test on the bike, and it’s already getting chilly out there. Look for an update on this later. As far as my training rides go, I know for certain I am moving much faster.

Other Indicators

I always dabbled with weight lifting, even during my long slow distance days. I concentrated on a few core lifts (deadlift, squat, bench press) and very rarely made strength gains. Using HILV training I made the following modifications to my lift maxes:

  Old Max Current Max
Deadlift 265 lbs 335 lbs
Bench Press 175 lbs 205 lbs
Squat 165 lbs 215 lbs

These are by no means impressive numbers, but they do show an significant increase in strength over the 5 month period, which isn’t bad for someone with an endurance focus. It goes without saying that in any area where I lifted frequently I improved.

Conclusion

These are preliminary results in what will be a long experiment. If I were to call this phase one then I would call this phase a success. I was able to adopt a training program that’s flexible, not overly time consuming, and that doesn’t bore the hell out of me while bettering my times in core endurance sports and increasing my strength. Will training like this make me a world-class runner, rider, swimmer or lifter? Probably not, but let’s face it, I wasn’t any of those things to begin with not did I have any intention of being.

What would I do differently?

I would change my diet slightly. I would increase my protein intake significantly. I like to get all of my nutrition from actual food, and avoid taking vitamins, supplements, or anything in “scoop” form, but have since broken down and starting incorporating a whey protein shake after workouts in an effort to recover more quickly.

I would scale the workouts more effectively to my size. At the beginning of this experiment I would do whatever the recommended weight for the workout was, and my results would always be to slog through it. About halfway through I realized that I needed to reduce the weights for timed workouts to something appropriate for my frame. I only weight 165 lbs, so a 225 lbs deadlift 21, 15, and 9 times would not be an appropriate value for a beginner/intermediate lifter.

Next Phase

I had thought about giving up marathoning early this year. I simply didn’t have the time or motivation to train like a marathoner anymore. Given that there are several people who have already applied the training methods I’m using to long distance running (up to and exceeding 100 miles), the next phase in this experiment will be an attempt to run a marathon with the training methods I’ve adopted. Stay tuned for the results.

I started using Evernote as my training log in the middle of the Summer. If you want to see what my typical schedule was, and my ongoing progress, look here:

Training Log

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