When Less Is More

When training for a physical competition or event, many motivated indivduals believe that a maximum performance can only result from maximum practice. Indeed, the training literature (internet especially) is bombarded with “high-intensity workouts”, and training plans filled with such high-stress sessions several times a week. What is missing is the concept of context.

My observation is that these plans, when taken at face value, overdo a good thing. The average amateur athlete embracing this type of training as a regular thing, tends to suffer the inevitable consequences: burnout and injury. The result is a failure to achieve the desired performance on “game day”. In an era when patience as an element of character is lacking, and results are desired in the shortest time possible, the quick-fix of constant high-intensity training is taken as religion. In many cases, giving people what they want to hear, is simply a way to make a buck.

Many moons ago while training for a personal best half marathon, I looked at several sample plans and was struck by the massive disparity in mileage and amount of quality (hard) running between the various plans. Researching the authors, it was apparent that they were using a framework based on their own experiences. If you look at a plan from someone that coaches elite athletes, the average amateur athlete will struggle to keep up. If you read a plan from someone that has successfully self-coached, you get what worked for that person alone. The ubiquitous “Training For Your Best (fill in the blank) Plan”, often is written for persons with a low level of starting fitness, and the results will be accordingly.

“High Intensity Training… should not consist of the majority of training volume”

While high-intensity training is an essential part of improvement, it should not consist of the majority of training voluime. While it may be intuituve that working at 100%+ all the time is unsustainable, many people lack intuition. The old and misunderstood adage “no pain, no gain”, has unfortunately morphed – in the minds of those wanting quick results – into “all pain, all gain”. The resulting gain is the pain of injury and reduced performance.

Informed and educated coaches are well aware of the need for recovery – rest and recuperation – to improve results. Potential performance improves during the period of rest, as the body makes adaptations to the higher level of work indicated by a hard workout. All hard work and no rest causes the body to sprial into an endless loop of lack of recovery. Eventually, overtraining syndrome is the result, or overuse injury.

Nearly every athlete, myself included, has gone through periods of overtraining and injury. Sometimes these are unfortunate accidents, other times the result of misreading training efforts and unknowingly overreaching. And of course, occasionally due to simply wanting to progress faster for some personal vain glory. In nearly every case, they are a result of too much high-intensity work or competition.

Law enforcement (LE) fitness tests skew towards endurance, as opposed to peak strength.

Most law enforcement (LE) physical fitness tests are based on the Cooper Standards, and traditionally consist of pushups, sit-ups and one or two running events. These fitness tests skew towards endurance, as opposed to peak strength. While a baseline of strength is required, even in the “strength” events of pushups and short distance running, the scoring and nature of the events, tips the balance towards endurance over peak strength or speed.

Some LE agencies use the curiously-named Job Task Simulation Test (JTST), which feature physical activities that only remotely resemble LE work. The actual tests differ greatly from each other, as each agency decides what tasks to include in this stew of ridiculousness. The resulting JTST is poor measure of physical fitness, especially at the level of fitness needed for the extreme, but realistic, margins of LE work. Remembering what tasks, in what order, and the number of repetitions required, is the most difficult aspect of the typical JTST. Nonetheless, they are largely endurance-based, requiring a series of low to moderate effort physical tasks be performed over the course of several minutes.

Endurance as an element of physical fitness is based on the concept of increasing volume, at low to moderate levels of intensity. High intensity workouts are interspersed within the training period and micro-cycles, as the athlete demonstrates the ability to handle it without injury. As fitness increases, the intensity of the low to moderate level endurance work will naturally increase.

How much recovery do you need from this type of stress?

I’ve tested hundreds of applicants and in-service law enforcement officers. After every case of failure, I’ve asked about their training regimen. While many did not train in sufficient quantity and/or quality, I encountered some who faithfully trained in the “hard work all the time” philosophy. The latter were perplexed that instead of improving their scores, they were worsening at each attempt.

Training “context” begins with an evaluation the person’s starting condition. Time-tested methods of improvement are based on concepts of periodization, beginning with a base to increase endurance, and progressing through measured amounts of high intensity training. While generalizations are fraught with caution, high-intensity work within a training cycle are generally limited to 5% of volume initially, and up to 35% nearing the event being trained for.

“Recovery – an essential for improved performance – takes many forms”

Physical adaptations – improved performance – take place during the recovery period following a hard effort. Recovery within this framework takes many forms. One is simply resting – laying off all workout for a period of time. Another form is doing a related but not exact form of exercise. For example, swimming or biking instead of running, or planks instead of situps, or free weights instead of pushups. Another form of recovery is doing an easier session of the same activity.

This traditional measured program is far from the “all hard, all the time” philosophy of many programs. Yet, in my experience it has worked successfully in all cases. It may not be sexy and new, but it is smart and effective. The training must be focused on the individual athlete, and the personal response to the work. The plan is subject to modification based on the individual.

Less can definitely be More.