DON’T FEEL THE BURN Increasing the overall amount of ‘easy’ running improves running performance just as well as pushing the intensity – and without the risks.
Social media feeds. Text messages. WhatsApp voice notes. Smart speakers. In today’s cash-rich, time-poor world, everyone wants to do everything as quickly as possible. That same attitude extends to health and fitness as well.
How often have you seen in your social media feed an ad or headline that claims to have the latest, greatest quick fix? It doesn’t matter if you want to gain muscle, lose weight, get a brighter smile or thicker hair; someone, somewhere has a five-step plan for you with guaranteed results.
As physiotherapists, we get asked versions of the ‘What’s the quickest way?’ question all the time. Frustratingly for clients, the answer is often ‘Gradually’. When it comes to sport and training, there is still the over-arching question as to how to get the biggest improvement as quickly as possible. But that question comes with another layer: how to keep injury risk as low as possible at the same time.
Regardless of who is asking, the question usually comes down to a choice between increasing the overall load at a lower intensity or increasing the intensity at a lower load.
A new study published in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise journal might just give some direction to both the rehab and performance aspects.
Typically studies that look at improving fitness and performance are long-term propositions taking place over months, or even years. This new study, from a group in Finland looks at the effects of a two-week training change. Thirty runners were split into an intensity group and a volume group. Both groups did the same two-week preparation programme followed by a recovery week. The intensity group then concentrated on high -intensity intervals, while the volume group increased their easy running by 70 percent. Both groups then did another recovery week.
All participants did a 3km time trial before the training block, after the two-week training block and again after the final recovery week. Along with this, researchers measured heart-rate variability (a measure of nervous system stress), perception of fatigue and took blood and urine samples.
The results? From pre-training to post-recovery, the intensity group improved their time trials by an average of 19 seconds, the volume group by 17 seconds. In terms of research, the difference between these results is statistically insignificant. So, it’s equally possible to improve your running times within a fortnight by either increasing intensity or increasing volume. But that’s not the whole story.
When questioned, the intensity group reported more soreness and felt less ready to train. The volume group, on the other hand, felt more ready to train, even though their weekly mileage had increased by around 60 percent.
Stress, as measured by heart rate variability, increased in the intensity group, but decreased in the volume group. Given the short time frame of the study, it’s not clear whether the intensity group would have adapted to the stress over time or gotten worse. What we can see though, is that it wasn’t a problem for the volume group.
So how does this translate to plain English for athletes and non-athletes? Firstly, for athletes it shows that it is possible to get an improvement in race times in a relatively short time frame without concentrating on high-intensity training, and without excessive fatigue. That in itself is a pretty useful finding. But there are also pointers for non-athletes or those returning from injury.
Everyone wants to get better as quickly as possible, and we’ve long worked on the assumption that pushing the intensity was the fastest way to do that. But this research would suggest that increasing the overall amount of low-intensity running improves performance equally as well, with less signs of fatigue or stress.
For an injured runner, less stress, less fatigue, and the lower forces of easier running should translate to a lower injury risk. It stands to reason that the same should be true for someone who is new to exercise and therefore not conditioned to the bigger stressors of high intensity exercise.
An important point in all of this is that the easy running needs to be genuinely easy. These results are somewhat counter-intuitive, and many people find it hard to feel the benefit of exercise without feeling the burn. But it’s there in black and white. To increase the speed, you gotta turn up the volume.
Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.